Billy Collins’ Questions About Angels

Billy Collins served two successive terms as Poet Laureate of the United States, the highest honor this country can give a poet. Born in 1942 in New York City, Collins has published numerous collections and garnered, among other recognition, fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is possibly one of the most widely exposed of living poets. Questions About Angels, originally published in 1991, was selected by Edward Hirsch for the National Poetry Series.

Collins is known for the humor in his work, which runs from a sort of droll irony to outrageous whimsy; this humor is often placed in the service of questioning our assumptions about almost everything. On first reading, in fact, I was prepared to dismiss this collection as “light reading.” I’m very glad I looked at it again: good poetry and good music, like a person of any worth, are not going to open up to you on first acquaintance, and Collins’ work is pretty deceptive in this regard.

Collins also commands a broad range. The firsts section of the book treats us to, among other gems, a droll, almost puckish fantasy about Noah Webster (“The Hunt”), in which we are treated to Noah Webster and his assistants tracking down a new word “[s]omewhere in the rolling hills and farm country/that lie beyond speech/ . . .swinging their sticks and calling out to one another/as they wade through a field of waist-high barley.” (The word, we are told, “is a small noun about the size of a mouse,/one that will seldom be used by anyone,/ like a synonym for isthmus”). Later, Collins brings us the other side of the coin in “Night Sand,” which, in the central image of an armadillo curled up for defense, looks forward to the inevitability of pain as part of letting someone come close (“Now can you see the silhouettes of ranchers’ hats/and sticks raised against the pink desert sky?”). Collins quite often gives us images that seem at first to be light and humorous but turn on us, revealing the dark side of human experience.

There is also a strong element of surreality to Collins’ work, as in “Love in the Sahara,” in which the camel leaves his place on the front of a pack of cigarettes and wanders off, looking for water, or “Purity,” in which the poet, preparing himself to write, takes a fresh pot of tea into his study and takes off his clothes, and then his flesh, and finally removes each of his organs and arranges them on a table (although sometimes he leaves his penis on, to write love poems). And perhaps that is a metaphor that is truer than most.

Collins’ way of looking at the world is unique and often quite surprising. He somehow asks the questions that, probably, other people are asking, but he does it in such a way as to completely mislead us, as often as not, as to what the question really is. When the answers come, after combinations of images that completely defy our expectations, they are astonishing. The title poem, “Questions About Angels,” illustrates this tendency remarkably well, as Collins opens with the favorite question of medieval theologians, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and then lists some questions he would like to ask – what would it be like if an angel delivered the mail? and what about their diet? – and then circles back with the answer: one.

one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

It’s hard to explain the sheer delight that comes of reading Billy Collins’ poetry, and that is really the best word I can think of to describe it. By all means check him out.

(A Note: I am not one to say, particularly about poetry, “Go out and get this book.” Happily, there are a number of websites that will give you the chance to preview a poet’s work, most notably The Academy of American Poets, which provides biographies, texts, and audio readings, as well as links to other sites.)

(University of Pittsburg Press, 1999 [orig. William Morrow and Company])

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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