I went to Powell’s to get Malcolm Gladwell’s new book (Powell’s is selling signed editions) and nearly dropped it when I saw Billy Collins had released another selection of poems. I kept the Gladwell book and am looking forward to reading it, but the new Collins book jumped off the shelf and wagged around my feet like a dog. I bought it and went outside and tried to read and walk but nearly ran into a pole so I sat outside a coffee shop and read slowly. It’s hard to read Collins slowly, though. It’s hard to enjoy him when you enjoy him so much. Ten poems in I had ink on my hands and on my chin and I wiped the ink on my sleeves and by the end of it I was holding the book open with my elbows and the top, round pink of my ears were black.
The new book is called Ballistics and I’ll share some of my favorite lines, then give you the title poem. For the rest you’ll have to spring for the hardcover.
I went to grammar school for Jesus
and to graduate school for Wallace Stevens
from The Poems of Others
Is there no end to it
the way they keep popping up in magazines
then congregate in the drafty orphanage of a book?
Just this morning, one approached me like a possum,
snout twitching, impossible to ignore.
Another looked out of the water at me like an otter.
How can anyone dismiss them
when they dangle from the eaves of houses
and throw themselves in our paths?
from January in Paris
That winter I had nothing to do
but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,
but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city streets
down a narrow side street
bearing the name of an obscure patriot.
I followed a few private rules,
never crossing a bridge without stopping
mid-point to lean my bike on the railing
and observe the flow of the river below
as I tried to better understand the French.
In my pale coat and my Basque cap
I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.
I would see beggars and street cleaners in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
I would see the poems of Valery,
the ones he never finished but abandoned,
wandering the streets of the city half-clothed.
Most of them needed only a final line
or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
but whenever I approached,
they would retreat from tehir makeshift fires
into the shadow-thin specters of incompletion,
forsaken for so many long decades
how could they ever trust another man with a pen?
and finally, Ballistics
When I came across the hig-speed photograph
of a bullet that had just pierced a book-
the pages exploding with the velocity-
I forgot all about the marvels of photography
and began to wonder which book
the photographer had selected for the shot.
Many novels sparing to mind
including those of Raymond Chandler
where an extra bullet would hardly be noticed.
Nonfiction offered too many choices-
a history of Scottish lighthouses,
a biograhy of Joan of Arc and so forth.
Or it could be an anthology of medieval literature,
the bullet having just beheaded Sir Gawain
and scattered the band of assorted pilgrims.
but later, as I was drifting off to sleep,
I realized that the executed book
was a recent collection of poems written
by someone of whom I was not fond
and that the bullet must have passed through
his writing with little resistance
at twenty-eight hundred feet per second,
through the poems about his childhood
and the ones about the dreary state of the world,
and then through the author’s photograph,
through the beard, the round glasses,
and that special poet’s hat he loves to wear.
So that’s it. If you’re looking for a good book of poems, Billy Collins delivers more consistently than anybody I can think of. I hear the new Gladwell book is good too, so I’ll let you know.
*Only portions of the poems were printed, except for Ballistics, and as such the lines should only be considered out of context.