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Book Review – Billy Collins “Ballistics”

Book Review – Billy Collins “Ballistics”

Ballistics

 

 

Ballistics

by Billy Collins

Random House 2008

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6491-5

 

An interesting book of poetry from former poet laureate Billy Collins (2001-2003) is titled “Ballistics”, perhaps as a warning to the reader that a careful analysis is in order. Wikipedia defines ballistics as “the science of mechanics that deals with the motion, behavior, and effects of projectiles”. Collins throws a lot at the reader in terms of history, poetics, and profound ideas disguised under subtle word play, continuing the precedent he set in a previous volume, The Trouble With Poetry. The poems in Ballistics are deeper, more introspective, and in need of repeat readings to grab all the nuances not obvious at a first read through.

The sly humor of previous volumes is still present, just not as ‘in your face’. It’s a testament to Collins’ growth as a poet that he feels free to engage the reader with a more intellectual style of humor, one that counts on background and experience to carry the twists. Collins’ work, is as always, readily accessible -which makes those that believe good poetry should be pretentious – uncomfortable, to say the least. How dare this guy recount experiences that we all can understand and share in? Isn’t good poetry supposed to be as dense as Aunt Mary’s Christmas fruitcake?

An interesting undertone permeates the poems in Ballistics. Although many run over 40 lines, there is a very ‘haiku’ like quality to the work. After carefully setting the scene and leading the reader in one direction, Collins takes pleasure in offering up an ‘aha’ moment that is startling in its clarity.

In ‘Aubade’, the reader wonders along with Collins why he is up at 5:00am, sitting on the edge of the bed. The reason, in the last stanza, is profound in its simplicity, and makes perfect sense in the grand scheme of things.

In the poem ‘Ballistics’, the underlying tone of dark humor is helped along by Collins’ self-deprecating style. When he twists the knife into the hapless hero of the poem, you can’t help but feel a guilty rush of glee.

In ‘New Year’s Day’, it’s Collins’ wonderful touch with description that carries the day.

“as I lowered a tin diving bell of tea leaves into a little body of roiling water’

and

‘an X in a square on some kitchen calendar of the future’.

In ‘On The Death Of A Next-Door Neighbor’, we get yet another take on Collins’ personification of death. Just like all Collins’ poems where Death is a character, we find out Death is not someone to be feared, but a regular Joe with a job to do. It might not be the type of employment Death wanted, but if he’s going to do a job, he’s going to do it well.

It’s no big secret – I’m a fan of Billy Collins, even more so now that I watch how his poetry evolves. It’s a risk to move beyond what you know people like and will buy, to something that embraces growth, not only for yourself, but for your readers as well. Ballistics is recommended, not just for fans of Billy Collins, but for those who want to carry a poem around in their head for days after and wonder, “Why have I never seen things this way before?”.

This is what we are looking for in submissions to Gyroscope Review. We want to see poems that go beyond the ordinary, that dig deep and serve up an offering that’s different, unique, or just plain out there. Surprise us, delight us, disgust us, but move us somehow. Study Collins, study other poets you admire and see how they deftly handle language, imagery, and imagination. Be subtle, be outrageous, but above all, be you. We want to hear your voice, shouting down a thunderstorm.

A Gyroscope Review Review: Becoming a Tree: Poems 2007-2015 by James Graham

One of the ongoing discussions in poetry is whether poems are accessible, a word that has become despised. But Billy Collins put it well in his introduction to 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day (New York: Random House, 2005) when he wrote about how he chose poems for that anthology:

….a preference for…poems that are hospitable toward their readers, poems in which a human voice is clearly sounded—poems with the front door left open.

As the anthologizer, I tended to choose “accessible” poems, as defined above, not because I wanted to gather into this bouquet only poems that are easy to consume…my preference has more to do with the pleasure that is to be derived from a poem’s power to convey a reader from one place to another, its capacity for imaginative travel. (p. xvi)

Scottish poet James Graham’s work presents the reader with these kinds of poems. In his own introduction to Becoming a Tree: Poems 2007-2015 (Leicestershire: Matador, 2016), he opens with a quote from Carol Ann Duffy:

You can find poetry in your everyday life, your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news, or just what’s in your heart.

Those two poetic philosophies come together beautifully in Graham’s work. Becoming a Tree, which is dedicated to Graham’s late wife Jean, begins in deeply personal territory. Graham plumbs his earliest memories, dissects them to reveal the nuggets that are carried forward through his life.

James Graham was born in Ayrshire in 1939. This collection reaches back before that, in the taut thread of, “Autobiography,” which introduces his mother, father, and Scotland, along with the realization that, “We are accidental,” that there is, “Almost time enough.” It pulls the reader into the collection without wasting a moment. The invitation is unmistakeable: Be here now.

Graham was a teacher for 30 years. He admits to having wished to be a journalist. He actively campaigns against war and injustice. His poems demonstrate these skills and interests in their breadth, their depth, and the research that lurks behind the words. The reader is forewarned in the second poem, “Inheritance,” when they read the last two stanzas:

 

But I wish I could tell you, Mother:

somewhere along the dangerous years

I have come to know this too:

 

you gave me one kind of poet’s gift,

an ear for the world’s disharmony,

even the will to go out and meet it.

 

And meet it he does. Graham’s ear misses very little. Whether the topic is something as close to him as receiving his late wife’s ashes in, “Ash,” or one on the other side of the earth in, “The Miners of San José de Copiapó,” Graham teases apart the emotions while looking deeper at how we are changed, whether we look at mining gold or mining a beloved wife’s very being.

 

I try to find a metaphor

that is more than a mere trinket:

She was a mile-deep mine.

Seam below seam of priceless ore.

from “Ash”

 

While the rescue engines worked, I fired

search engines, gouged through strata

of inflated pieteies – Another healthy year, growth

better than expected, strength to strength – 

and finally unearthed, six hundred metres deep

in the mine of petty information, two names:

Alejandro Bohn, Marcelo Kemeny.

from “The Miners of San José de Copiapó

 

Why do we value what we value? Who profits and who makes those profits possible? What is laid to waste in our efforts to gather gold and gather love?

Graham has a remarkable ability to become the other in his work. The collection’s title poem, “Becoming a Tree,” with its nod to Walt Whitman, reminds us that it is not just the poet’s ear that must be attentive. It is also necessary to retain a child-like ability to imagine: what if I were a tree? What if I were one of those miners in Chile who was trapped? What if the earth spoke directly to us? What if we believed in ghosts?

In spite of the seriousness of topics offered here – not just the Chilean miners, but garbage cities in Cairo, factory workers in El Salvador, the end of the Russian Tsars, loss of faith – there is also a breath of whimsey near the end. It is as if we are allowed to return to childhood for a moment, recover from the stresses of the world and allow a glimmer of happiness to sparkle on our foreheads. There is the possibility of a thousand elves in, “Isle,” the humor of, “Can’t Count,” and the fairy-tale that is, “The Saga of Torvald Longtooth.” Torvald is an otter who makes a pact with a bunch of Canadian beavers to make things better for the otters. It’s a long poem and a surprising inclusion; just when the reader thinks they might have a handle on James Graham, they realize they don’t.

Becoming a Tree is a collection worth your time. Be here now, remember what it is to really pay attention, relish this time you’ve been given. Allow yourself to become the other.

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson, Gyroscope Review Co-editor


Becoming a Tree and Graham’s previous collection, Clairvoyance, are both available from Matador, an imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd., www.troubador.co.uk.

The poems, The Hurt Beech, and, A Poem About Maria Teresa, were published in the inaugural issue of Gyroscope Review.