Billy Collins: horoscopes for the dead

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Visions

Having not read any poetry since school days, I’ve nevertheless had Billy Collins’ “The Trouble with Poetry” on my to-be-read list for the last few years. Never quite got around to searching it out and reading it, though. After reading the misleadingly thin “horoscopes for the dead,” I plan to correct that oversight as quickly as possible.

Collins was the Poet Laureate for the US from 2001 to 2003. It’s easy to see why.


If I were crowned emperor this morning,

every child who is playing Marco Polo

in the swimming pool of this motel,

shouting the name Marco Polo back and forth

Marco             Polo                 Marco             Polo

would be required to read a biography of Marco Polo – a long one with fine print –

as well as a history of China and of Venice,

the birthplace of the venerated explorer

Marco             Polo                 Marco             Polo

after which each child would be quizzed

by me then executed by drowning

regardless how much they managed

to retain about the glorious life and times of

Marco             Polo                 Marco             Polo

Though only a thin 102 pages, there are over 50 short poems here, just the right length to read four or five before sleeping every night, their simple yet powerful imagery an excellent precursor to an almost guaranteed night of symbol-rich dreaming.

Some funny, some touching, some simply true in an unassuming, non sky-is-falling kind of way, all of them bear the slight imprint of time taken with them, of the choosing of a specific word, a certain order, that alters the meaning of the whole just so.

Great for in-between reading, and for sipping rather than chugging, as I wanted to do after reading the first few. I exercised some discipline, though, and only read my proscribed 4 or 5 poems a night after finishing with the rest of the night’s offerings, and that felt just right.

Gotta find that “Trouble. . .” of his soon.

Since they’re short, and the book’s short, and this review is short, here are two more in closing.


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 they had stopped.

After I Heard You Were Gone

I sat for a while on a bench in the park.

It was raining lightly but this was not a movie

even though a couple hurried by,

the girl holding his jacket over her head,

and the chess players were gathering up their pieces

and fanning out into the streets.

No, this was something different.

I could have sworn the large oak trees

had just appeared there overnight.

And that pigeon looked as if

it had once been a playing card

that a magician had transformed with the flick of a scarf.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of discovery that comes with reading the titular poem – it’s long and tasty and exceedingly clever and sad – but I’m sure you can find it out in the ether somewhere if you can’t find the book. I envy you who have not read it, or him, before.


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