By Michelle Mairesse
Billy Collins, America's former Poet Laureate, with his startling images and an antic disposition, wows audiences wherever he recites his quirky, funny, touching, contemplative poems. He cites Wordsworth as a major influence, but his approach to Wordsworth and other poetic icons of the past is rarely reverential. His impulse is to conflate or deflate. "Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey," for example, parodies Wordsworth's nostalgia on revisiting old haunts and concludes:
Nothing will be as it was
a few hours ago, back in the glorious past
before our naps, back in the Golden Age
that drew to a close sometime shortly after lunch.
In "Monday Morning" he steals the imagery of Wallace Stevens's magisterial "Sunday Morning" to describe a vacuous student, and in "Musée des Beaux Arts Revisited" he recasts Auden's stoic "Musée des Beaux Arts" as a surreal study in mental anguish.
In the racily titled "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" Collins ends his poem by assimilating Dickinson's sigh on being relieved of her confining nineteenth century undergarments with the sigh of readers who have been jolted by Emily's mind-expanding metaphors.
So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset
and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.
On reaching the end of this poem, some readers also sigh when they realize that Collins has once again jolted them with his own mind-expanding metaphors. He moves through the body of the poem, undressing Dicksinson with hands "like a swimmer's dividing water," proceeds "like a polar explorer" and "like riding a swan into the night," imagery shifting between flowing and frozen water and the stunning metamorphoses of the swan in "Lohengrin," and, finally, bundles up the entire poem as a metaphor for a reader's experience of Dickinson's compressed intensity.
As a metaphorist, Collins is a quick-change artist moving rapidly across a changing landscape, a prestidigitator in multi-dimensions, a serious entertainer who laughs on the outside and cries on the inside while suggesting that the outside may be the inside after all, that the relation between Word and World is a mystery.
In "Thesaurus," he declares that though the word thesaurus could be the name of a prehistoric beast or a lover in a myth, it is a place, a park where "hundreds of family reunions are always being held." After visually taking us through the family gatherings, he leads us inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.
To our astonishment, the whole of the playful "Thesaurus" is actually a metaphor, a theory of semantics.
Probably W. J. T. Mitchell's Picture Theory inspired several poems in the Collins poetry collection entitled Picnic, Lightning. Mitchell traces the first appearance of the composite Duck-Rabbit picture to a nineteenth century German humor magazine.
"The Duck-Rabbit," Mitchell says, "is about difference and similitude, the shifting of names and identities--that is metaphoricity--in the field of vision: it solicits the self-knowledge of the human eye by aligning it with the eye of the animal, depicted as a still center across which waves of shifting identity may be seen to flow."
Collins's "Duck/Rabbit" opines
How strange and symbiotic the binds
That make one disappear
Whenever the other is spied.
I could look at you forever
And never see the two of us together.
This brief, simple poem embodies another meditation on language, perception, and metaphor.
Picture Theory also includes an Alain cartoon called "Egyptian Life Class," a seated group of ancient Egyptian artists who are, Mitchell says, "rendering the figure of a nude model who stands in a stiff, flat pose remarkably similar to those flat, stiff figures we find in Egyptian painting." According to Mitchell, Ernst Gombrich interprets the cartoon to mean that Egyptians did not see nature but merely copied what they already knew. Mitchell presents an alternate view of the cartoon--"the stereotypical 'sameness' that we project on the Egyptians is actually a reflection of our own conventions."
Since Alain has shown the artists in perspective and the model in the stiff, flat, fish-eyed pose, we seem to have yet another layer of ambiguity.
In Egypt, Collins produced a literary version of Alain's cartoon in which the narrator unambiguously describes his life
reading some hieroglyphics
or practicing frontality in front of a mirror,
aiming my hands backwards and forwards.
This Egyptian viewing himself through Western eyes, concludes that even though women ignore him, after his body has lain in the desert a thousand years,
I will wait there until a young archeologist
comes to dig for me,
unwraps the leathery ball of my head
and sweeps the sand from my face with her delicate brush.
Take that, Egyptologists.
When you are ready to undress Billy Collins, he gives you a hook to hang his clothes on--his titles. For example, take a poem called "I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of 'Three Blind Mice.'" Collins is touched by the pathos of the tailless mice, "in their tiny darkness." But the thought of them
has the cynic who always lounges within me
up off his couch and at the window
trying to hide the softness he feels.
The cynic is ready to rationalize his tears as the result of dicing onions, but concludes that Freddie Hubbard's
mournful trumpet on "Blue Moon,"
which happens to be the next cut,
cannot be said to be making matters any better.
Do Collins's tears come from the lyrics or the music? Is it a duck or a rabbit?
Both, because Collins possesses the rare ability to hold two opposing ideas in a single thought.
Readers who want to strip the poet down to his bare bones will be encouraged by the poem called "Purity." Collins describes his preferred writing routine: late Wednesday afternoons after removing his clothing and flesh, he sits at his desk, sometimes leaving his penis on and composing extraordinary love poems.
I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.
Re-fleshed and re-clothed, he drives over country roads,
His excursions with words always bring him back to his senses, where, like Rilke, he experiences the mystery of things--at times as Word, at times as World, often simultaneously.
It is here, in this Word-World fusion, that Collins achieves his most original effects. In his unique, confidential voice, he shifts between pathos, humor, and epiphany without slipping into bathos or triviality. Let anyone who doubts Collins's power and profundity read
Some Final Words
I cannot leave you without saying this:
the past is nothing,
a nonmemory, a phantom,
a soundproof closet in which Johann Strauss
is composing another waltz no one can hear.
It is a fabrication, best forgotten,
a wellspring of sorrow
that waters a field of bitter vegetation.
Leave it behind.
Take your head out of your hands
and arise from the couch of melancholy
where the window-light falls against your face
and the sun rides across the autumn sky,
steely behind the bare trees,
glorious as the high strains of violins.
But forget Strauss.
And forget his younger brother,
the poor bastard who was killed in a fall
from a podium while conducting a symphony.
Forget the past,
forget the stunned audience on its feet,
the absurdity of their formal clothes
in the face of sudden death,
forget their collective gasp,
the murmur and huddle over the body,
the creaking of the lowered curtain.
with that encore look in his eye
and his tiresome industry:
more than five hundred finished compositions!
He even wrote a polka for his mother.
That alone is enough to make me flee the past,
evacuate its temples,
and walk alone under the stars
down these dark paths strewn with acorns,
feeling nothing but the crisp October air,
the swing of my arms
and the rhythms of my stepping--
a man of the present who has forgotten
every composer, every great battle,
a thin reed blowing in the night.