Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Review: Questions About Angels, Poems by Billy Collins

Questions About Angels
Poems by Billy Collins
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999
originally published by William Morrow and Co., 1991
91 pages

No matter how many poetry books I read (and there's been a record amount of them for me this year), I still can't quite figure out how to review poetry. My approach can be summed up by "I like what I like when I like it." 

Real intellectual of me, I know. 

But suffice it to say that Billy Collins is indeed a poet I like.  Very, very much.  If you're just beginning to explore the world of poetry, need a reintroduction, or are in love with the form, then Billy Collins is (in my opinion) one of our best.  And of his three volumes of poetry I've now read, Questions About Angels is one of my favorites.  (See my review of Nine Horses and  my review of Ballistics here.) 

This is Billy Collins's fourth book of poetry (and one which was selected by my other favorite poet, Edward Hirsch, for the National Poetry Series).  It is divided into four numbered and unnamed sections.  Among my favorites are the poems having to do with birth and death, as symbolized by reading ("First Reader" and "Reading Myself to Sleep"), aging ("Forgetfulness"), and death and the afterlife ("Questions About Angels," "The Afterlife," "The Dead"). 

Being a bit of a morbid soul who has actually planned out such things, I wouldn't mind "Reading Myself to Sleep" being read at my funeral ... and being a practical soul, I include it here for the benefit of those who might (but hopefully won't anytime soon) have occasion to plan such an event. 

Reading Myself to Sleep

The house is all in darkness except for this corner bedroom
where the lighthouse of a table lamp is guiding
my eyes through the narrow channels of print,

and the only movement in the night is the slight
swirl of curtains, the easy lift and fall of my breathing,
and the flap of pages as they turn in the wind of my hand.

Is there a more gentle way to go into the night
than to follow an endless rope of sentences
and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page

into the first tentative flicker of a dream,
passing out of the bright precincts of attention
like cigarette smoke passing through a window screen?

All late readers know this sinking feeling of falling
into the liquid drop of sleep and then rising again
to the call of a voice that you are holding in your hands,

as if pulled from the sea back into a boat
where a discussion is raging on subject or other,
on Patagonia or Thoroughbreds or the nature of war.

Is there a better method of departure by night
than this quiet bon voyage with an open book,
the sole companion who has come to see you off,

to wave you into the dark waters beyond language?
I can hear the rush and sweep of fallen leaves outside
where the world lies unconscious, and I can feel myself

dissolving, drifting into a story that will never be written,
letting the book slip to the floor where I will find it
in the morning when I surface, wet and streaked with

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