"This is the only life I have and I never step out of itexcept to follow a character down the alleys of a novel or when love makes me want to remove my clothes and sail classical records off a cliff." from One Life to Live by Billy Collins (Questions About Angels)
Billy Collins is a New York-born, California-educated poet, and his work combines the best of both coasts. Distinctly American in their narrative style, Collins’s poems evoke wit, wonder, and whimsy from the simplistic. In his way of lyrically illuminating the magical of the everyday, Collins teaches his reader how to reach back and grasp the open-hearted experience of youth, and how to search for it in small moments of our disillusioned grown-up lives. His fourth collection, Questions About Angels, was first published in 1991, and in the twenty-plus years since it first became available, the collection has lost neither its power of observation, its relevancy, nor its ability to charm a new generation.
"It is raining so hard and the Jazz on the radio is playing so loud, you almost feel like surrendering to the wish that somebody up there actually likes you or at least was keeping an eye on your solitude." from Putti in the Night by Billy Collins (Questions About Angels)
Like his contemporary, Mary Oliver, Collins likes to skirt the rules with nary a sideglance. He cheekily embarks on his own experience of the poetic art, utilizing the form to explore themes of nature, religion, youthfulness, imagination, and life. In his efforts he creates poems like First Reader, which spins a charming image of the commonplace into something necessary and profound, while poems like Purity and Cliché energetically use writing as a theme.
Collins teaches us to look at life with this same cheerful, mischievous curiosity. As the children in First Reader we are "forgetting how to look, learning how to read" and perhaps here is Collins’s best advice, not only on reading but also on life. In poems like The Hunt Collins is at his most playful as he conjures a whimsical image of Noah Webster and cohorts scouring the countryside for a new word ("It is a small noun about the size of a mouse,/ one that will seldom be used by anyone"). Other poems, such as Reading Myself to Sleep and Forgetfulness are warm – even empathetic – odes to books, a subject Collins writes about beautifully.
The titular poem begins the second part of the collection, in which Collins shares the only poems in the book that hint at the more spiritual leanings that the title poem suggests. Questions About Angels asks the staggering question: "If an angel delivered the mail would he arrive/ in a blind rush of wings or would he just assume / the appearance of the regular mailman and / whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?" Such are the gentle reminders from Collins to always, always be curious, and to never close ourselves off from wonder.
"Then he makes three circles around himself, flattening his ancient memory of tall grass before dropping his weight with a sigh on the floor." from Dog by Billy Collins (Questions About Angels)
For all his delightful phrasing, Collins is best enjoyed for his gift as a storyteller, whether writing about the First Geniuses of the prehistoric era or the observations of the moon over winter trees on a night drive, or instructing some future painter on how to go about his portrait (it is presumed, posthumously). Collins has a true and vivacious talent for conjuring the most intricate and enchanting details with the language of the everyday.
With the last two parts of the collection – especially the final – Collins turns a little more fully inward, and his work becomes a little more vulnerable in places, piercing and revealing. Writing about love, especially, the jovial energy of his other work quietly fades and his lyricism touches the reader’s heart. This is especially true for poems like Night Sand with its imagery of the subject healing himself beneath his shell armor like an armadillo after a love's fatal blow, "ready to burrow deep or curl himself into a ball / which will shelter his soft head / soft feet / and tail from the heavy rhythmic blows." Even poems like Metamorphosis take on a particularly profound air as the narrator longs for Kafka to write him "into something new".
"Ah, to awaken as the NYPL. 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 stare over Fifth Avenue with a perfectly straight face." from Metamorphosis by Billy Collins (Questions About Angels)
Perhaps my favorite from the collection is the one simply titled Wolf, which begins with the perfectly natural lines, "A wolf is reading a book of fairy tales. / The moon hangs over the forest, a lamp." The reader is so captivated by Collins's fantastical idea that there's no room to predict that the poem will end with the revelation that we've met this particular wolf before; it's a magical example of the curiosity that's so unique to Collins: a method of weaving a few commonplace words into something that will wake us up, that will allow us to shed the layers of our years and finally be old enough to believe in magic once again. Here is a poet so steeped in the wisdom of classicism but especially powerful for his childlike awareness. His gift to readers is a collection entirely accessible to newer poetry enthusiasts and lifelong fans alike; it’s the experience we hoped as children that books and poetry and fairy tales would be.