My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Continuing my current obsession with Billy Collins, I picked up yet another collection of his poems: Questions about Angels. Some of the poems (like: “First Reader,” “The Death of Allegory,” and the wryly, charming poem entitled, “Forgetfulness”) I had come across when I read Sailing Alone Around the Room (a book that combined new poems with some of Mr. Collins’ greatest hits from past collections) but they are so good that I don’t mind reading them again. Other poems (most notably, “Reading Myself to Sleep,” “Metamorphosis,” “The Hunt,” “Candle Hat,” and “The First Geniuses”) were wonderful, new discoveries.
There is so much to enjoy about Collin’s work, (his laid-back, accessible style, his humor, his insight), but as an unrepentant bibliophile, I think my favorite thing about him is just how many of his poems are love songs to literacy, to writing and to reading. I can’t tell you how many times I read a line of his and just feel a sort of sympathy between us, like we were both “of the race that knew Joseph” (if you will pardon the Anne of Green Gables reference). For example, when I read “Reading Myself to Sleep” (a poem that I am seriously tempted to frame and hang above my bed) and I came across the line: “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” I knew I was in the company of someone who really understands.
Reading Myself to Sleep
By Billy Collins
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 life and fall of my breathing,
And the flap of the 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 of sleep and then rising again
To the call of a voice you are holding in your hands,
As if pulled from the sea back into a boat
Where a discussion is raging on some 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 daylight.
By Billy Collins
If Kafka could turn a man into an insect in one sentence
Perhaps he could transform me into something new,
A slow willful river running through a forest,
Or simply the German word for river, a handful of letters
Hidden in the dark alphabetical order of a dictionary.
Not that I am so miserable, but I could use a change
of scenery and substance, plus the weather reminds me of him.
I imagine Kafka at his desk: the nib of his pen,
Like the beak of a bird, disturbs the surface of a pool of ink,
And he writes a sentence at the top of a page
Changing me into a goldfish or a lost mitten
Or a cord of split wood or the New York Public Library.
Ah, to awaken one morning as the New York Public Library.
I would pass the days observing old men in raincoats
As they mounted the ponderous steps between the lions
Carrying wild and scribbled notes inside their pockets.
I would feel the pages of books turning inside me like butterflies
I would stare over Fifth Avenue with a perfectly straight face.
By Billy Collins
Somewhere in the rolling hills and farm country
That lie beyond speech
Noah Webster and his assistants are moving
Across the landscape tracking down a new word.
It is a small noun about the size of a mouse,
One that will be seldom used by anyone,
Like a synonym for isthmus,
But they are pursuing the creature zealously
As if it were the verb to be,
Swinging their sticks and calling out to one another
As they wade through a field of waist-high barley.