Review of Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

Horoscopes for the Dead  by Billy Collins

Random House (2011) $24  (hardback)

Reviewed by James Crews

Billy Collins’ ninth collection of poetry pokes and prods the idea of mortality—the author’s as well as our own—more than in any of his previous books. This one opens with a watchful speaker standing, “before the joined grave of my parents,” he tells us, and—wait for it—asking them what they think of his new glasses. With this loaded image of spectacles and the pseudo-serious author photo in which Collins pensively chews on what we presume are those new glasses, he’s telling us he still sees the world in his characteristic playful way, but these days it’s with a greater sense of life’s transience that he sees the world. Indeed, Horoscopes brims with the wry humor and colloquial language that have won Collins such a wide readership—something that seldom happens for poets (unless you’re a rock-star-turned-poet like Jewel or Billy Corgan).

One of the best poems in Horoscopes for the Dead—an apt and catchy title if ever there was one—is “Memento Mori,” which begins,

It doesn’t take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.

Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon.

In this book, we see a speaker having fun with the realization that he too has become the dinosaur, an old man wandering among “the fans of palmettos, or the bright pink hibiscus” of the Florida he often mentions, musing in “The Flaneur,” “Who needs Europe?” and then watching “. . . as a boy flew by on a skateboard/ and I fell into a reverie on the folly of youth/ and the tender, distressing estrangement of my life.” But the poem, “Hangover,” is about as close as Collins gets to distress or anger as he decrees cantankerously that “every child who is playing Marco Polo/ in the swimming pool of this motel” should be required to read a thick biography of Marco Polo as well as several fine-printed histories of Venice and China. After that, he goes on,

each child would be quizzed
by me then executed by drowning
regardless how much they managed
to retain . . .

It’s not hard to see why Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, is America’s bestselling, most popular poet; he writes poems just about anyone can read and appreciate. Though he weathers some criticism for employing many of the same strategies over and over in his poems, we can begrudge him a bit of redundancy if the formula is working—and of course, it still is. He looks out at the mutilated world with childlike fascination and clarity and makes music out of the quotidian, capturing universal experiences we perhaps didn’t realize someone else was also having. More often than not, the pieces in Horoscopes for the Dead are occasioned by a man sitting alone on a rock, or on a dock, and staring out at a calm lake. And there are the usual poems about his dog, as well as a poem in which he predictably likens himself to a mouse, “ducking like a culprit/ into an opening in a stone wall,” and there’s one poem—one can scarcely call it a poem—“Feedback,” which is all punch line and cutesiness:

The woman who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there

to tell me they were all still talking about it

just wrote again
to tell me that they had stopped.

But Collins shows us time and again in poems like “Arithmetic” that he knows exactly what he’s up to, and he’s not afraid to repeat himself, letting his lines unfold slowly and tenderly for his readers so we too can see just where he’s headed:

I spend a little time nearly every day
on a gray wooden dock
on the edge of a wide lake, thinly curtained by reeds.

And if there is nothing on my mind
but the motion of the wavelets
and the high shape-shifting of clouds,

I look out at the whole picture
and divide the scene into what was here
five hundred years ago and what was not.

It becomes apparent once more in this book that Collins is not just writing for the appreciation of other poets (as writers often do these days); his project is a poetics for the guy in the pickup, the grand-dad in the La-Z-Boy, the mother reading on the plane. He said once in a lecture that he believes there are two kinds of poets—those like cats, who slink around corners and seem to need the attention of no one, and those like dogs, always staring up plaintively from the page, ever needful of the love and attention of their readers. It’s a pleasure to be in the gentle but capable hands of a master of the latter camp, as so many of these poems signal us right from the beginning to follow them for a walk out in the surprisingly fresh air. Consider the opening lines of “Riverside, California”:

I would have to say that the crown
resting on the head of my first acid trip
was the moment I went down on one knee
backstage at the Top Hat Lounge
and proposed marriage to all three Ikettes.

Even while cycling through a Florida cemetery, “wheeling past the headstones,” this poet finds ample reason for joy as he imagines the people buried there whose carved names are their only earthly remnants. “I wish I could take you all for a ride,” he says to them, letting us know in his not-so-sly way, he probably means the rest of us too. “Ride with me along these halls of the dead,” he says, “ . . . as some crows flap in the blue overhead/ and the spokes of my wheels catch the dazzling sun.”

Collins, like Ted Kooser and Stephen Dunn, captures those private, unhurried moments we so seldom take for ourselves in these technology-drenched, social networked times. In “Vocation,” he tells us his job will always have been

keeping an eye on things
whether they existed or not,
recumbent under the random stars.

In conjuring such a generous world on the page, Collins also creates a kind of comforting order and sense of play, which readers can use to resist the chaos otherwise pressing in around us. His critics will squawk that he’s too accessible, that the poems in Horoscopes for the Dead unfurl a bit too neatly and easily. But for this poet, that’s the point.