Friday, August 20, 2021

Horoscopes for the Dead

Billy Collins is such a relaxing poet. His poems are deft and wise, sometimes sweet, often funny, and I love his meandering imagination. Sometimes they are very deep; he just eases you into those depths, and then you find yourself dug in. In the title poem of Horoscopes for the Dead (Random House, 2012, paperback), the dead is a Pisces (like me), and the poem leaves the superficiality of the newspaper horoscope in an upward thrust at the end.

Ah, that connects somehow (the blue, the upper atmosphere) with the lovely cover image by Eric Sloane, A Republic Seabee (ca. 1940). And I see that even major, bestselling poets revise their work. The opening line in the Pen America version is, "Every morning since you fell down on the face of the earth." In the book, it is, "Every morning since you disappeared for good," adding some mystery and evasion.

But that isn't what I started out to tell you. I was looking for August, for evidence of my own recent, comic theory that August will appear in any poet's book if you look for it. Nope. It's April, not August, but at least a named month (and one starting with "A"!) in "Cemetery Ride," and a copper bicycle appears again (suggesting autobiography), and cows (a coincidence in my reading/writing), and dogs (a coincidence with the Dog Days of August*, so we got there in a meandering way, after all.) "Grave," the very first poem in the book, is about a sweet visit to his parents' "joined grave," and "Cemetery Ride" brings us round to a general appreciation of cemeteries and the dead.

Speaking of revision (digression above), there is actually a poem called "Revision," and it has cows in it! It's about how revision might not be as wise as leaving things as they are, even if its a "swaybacked" cow.

     I was too young then to see
     that she was staring into the great mystery

     just as intently as her sisters,
     her gorgeous, brown and white, philosophic sisters.

(I hope this poem is about exactly what it seems to be: cows, revision, as of poems. Not some reconsideration of a woman poet of the past...meaning we've all been compared to cows again. I am choosing to take it at face value!) (And I should mention that "Drawing You from Memory" is very good but not relaxing, turning sharply at the end and smashing into the hard reality of a troubled relationship. It's not all easy, fun, pleasant poems in Billy Collins's kitchen.)

"My Hero," though, is a fine revision of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Ah, but it, too, is about letting things be as they are, not having to win the race. "Bread and Butter"--with dogs again, plus the idea of thank-you notes from an earlier poem ("Thank-You Notes")--seems to affirm this in the last two stanzas:

     And now something tells me I should make
     more out of all that, moving down
     and inward where a poem is meant to go.

     But this time I want to leave it be,
     the sea, the stars, the dogs, and the clouds--
     just written down, folded in fours, and handed to my host.

Don't revise too much, don't go too deep. And now I take you to my favorite couplet, a serious question with a funny pun in it:

     Who said I had to always play
     the secretary of the interior?

Yes! That's the perfect phrase for a poet, "secretary of the interior." It's from the poem "Returning the Pencil to Its Tray," and it's like Prospero laying his magic aside at the end of The Tempest to resume his real life before he dies.

*And lest that sound too sad, here are some sweet dogs in Dog Days, with art by Yun Gee Bradley, at Escape Into Life, and some poems with dogs in them, and more dog art, also at EIL.

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