An Afternoon with Billy Collins

An Afternoon with Billy Collins

This afternoon Bella just had to go outside. She stood at the door whining, frantic, like a just-trained puppy. So I grabbed a bottle of water, my shoes and a jacket (Yes, I needed a jacket. In August. New England is so weird.) and out we went.

I slung my hammock beneath the magnolia tree; but only got to sit for maybe 15 minutes, tops, while she picked up sticks, played with grass blades and collected rocks. She’s just too busy for me to get more than that much rest. Then we had to make a big circuit around the house. On our way past the front porch I climbed up to check the mail and found a book waiting: Nine Horses by Billy Collins. (I knew you were waiting for me to get to the book; but if you’ve read Billy Collins you know how appropriate a long digression is.)

One of the best things I took from my two years MA program at Boston College was a new-found love for this former American poet laureate. Thanks to Dr. Paul Doherty, who arranged the lecture series that brought him to campus. Sadly, I actually missed the lecture. I think I had class that night or some other conflict. But the flyers around campus and the poem that Professor Doherty wrote up on the chalkboard before class were enough of an introduction. I was hit hard. It was love at first sight.

So anyway, there I was sitting on the grass at the bottom of the slide, reading poetry on a cool August afternoon, watching Bella slide, climb up and down the porch steps, dig in flower pots, throw a ball, and all the other things she does. One of the things I love about Billy Collins is that this is a perfect setting for reading his poetry.

Collins’ poems are short, accessible, often funny. His tone tends toward the conversational. And yet it isn’t all light, fluffy, marshmallow puff stuff. It has a kind of seriousness which doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The first poem in this collection,  “The Country,” is addressed to a woman who “told me never to leave / a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches / lying around the house because the mice / might get into them and start a fire.” Collins fancifully follows this Promethean mouse who has got hold of a match, tracing his journey through the walls and the fateful moment when he lights a fire. It ends delightfully:

Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what was once your house in the country?

And then there’s the poem titled simply “Love” about watching a young couple on the train. I love this concluding image:

I saw him looking up at her
and what she was doing
the way the eyes of saints are painted

when they are looking up at God
when he is doing something remarkable,
something that identifies him as God.

I suspect that much of Collins’ poetry would be very kid-friendly. Though I’m not sure whether all of his subject matter is appropriate for young readers. I vaguely recall there might be some that aren’t.

Now I’m going to shut the computer and go gulp down some more poetry.


Jen’s comment, below, reminded me of one thing I wanted to add. The one sad note in my delicious afternoon was the inscription written on the inside leaf of the book. Evidently this almost-new, looked like it had never been read book was a birthday gift from someone’s mom and dad, who hoped their 18-year-old daughter would one day be a poet laureate as well. I don’t know why she didn’t keep the book; but I’m always a little sad to acquire books with such inscriptions (unless they are really old books). Her parents seemed so certain this book was the perfect gift and within a few years it’s been passed on to a stranger’s hand, apparently unread and unappreciated by the recipient.



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  • The ottoman not only helps mommy get her feet up, it’s also a perfect place for Bella to read her books.

    Don’t forget it’s perfect for Daddy to sit on during bedtime prayers instead of kneeling on the hard floor.