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Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins, published in 2011 by Random House, is broken into four sections and includes a quote at the beginning from Alan Bennett‘s The Uncommon Reader, “It was the kind of library he had only read about in books.”

Collins’ mater-of-fact tone in these poems treats death and loss as an inevitability, which it is, but at the same time there is a reverence for the dead, dying, and living.  In terms of Bennett’s quote at the beginning, Collins’ phenomenal library is the library of life — the spinning of the dog as it lays down and its movement from one spot to another or the moments in marriage or shopping for a mattress.

From Thieves (page 16-7), “for I was a fellow thief/having stolen for myself this hour, lifting the wedge of it from my daily clock/so I could walk up a wooded hillside/and sit for a while on a rock the size of a car.//” or from Simple Arithmetic (page 32-3), “and gone are my notebook and my pencil/and there I go, too,/erased by my own eraser and blown like shavings off the page.//”, Collins demonstrates the fleeting nature of our time here, how it is borrowed, and how we must make the best of it before it is gone.

Collins’ poetry is accessible as he creates stories and narrations to engage the reader and teach them what he sees.  Like a horoscope, each poem sketches a future, but like horoscopes, the power to make them true or to change them lies in the person meant to live them.  In The Chairs That No One Sits In (page 49-50), “You see them on porches and on lawns/down by the lakeside/usually arranged in pairs implying a couple// . . . It may not be any of my business,/but let us suppose one day/that everyone who placed those vacant chairs//on a veranda or a dock sat down in them/if only for the sake of remembering/what it was they thought deserved//to be viewed from two chairs,/side by side with a table in between./The clouds are high and massive on that day.//”.

The Straightener (page 5-6)

Even as a boy I was a straightener.
On a long table near my window
I kept a lantern, a spyglass, and my tomahawk.

Never tomahawk, lantern, and spyglass.
Always lantern, spyglass, tomahawk.

You could never tell when you would need them,
but that was the order you would need them in.

On my desk: pencils at attention in a cup,
foreign coins stacked by size,

a photograph of my parents,
and under the heavy green blotter,
a note from a girl I was fond of.

These days I like to stack in pyramids
the cans of soup in the pantry
and I keep the white candles in rows like logs of wax.

And if I can avoid doing my taxes
or phoning my talkative aunt
on her eighty-something birthday,

I will use a ruler to measure the space
between the comb and brush on the dresser,
the distance between shakers of salt and pepper.

Today, for example, I will devote my time
to lining up my shoes in the closet,
pair by pair in chronological order

and lining up my shirts on the rack by color
to put off having to tell you, dear,
what I really think and what I now am bound to do.

There are quite a few references to Dante’s The Divine Comedy in these poems, reflecting the journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise.  There are slivers of light from paradise and there are moments of fiery hell, but most of these poems live in the present or the past, examining with understanding, reverence, and sometimes regret that the actions we take in this life cannot be undone.  But Collins also touches upon the tightrope we must walk in relationships with our loved ones.

Overall, Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins is a collection of reflections and predictions for the future, but beyond the attention paid to larger concerns of life, Collins reflects on the smaller moments in time and the joys, frustration, and satisfaction they bring.  A fascinating look at everyday life that makes each moment extraordinary, and a collection that should be added to every library.

 

This is my 14th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

 

This is my 13th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.  I’ve wanted to read this since I learned Collins would have a new book this year.

  • You know I’m a big Collins fan so this is on my list. I’ve read some reviews which weren’t too glowing but I still want to read it and add it to my collection.
    iliana´s last blog post ..Book Sale

    • I enjoyed this collection more than some others in the past. I think there was one poem that when I read it aloud it sounded awkward, but it wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of the entire collection.
      Serena´s last blog post ..Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

  • Oh, wow — I loved the bits you’ve shared. ‘Straightener’ especially resonates — not only can I relate but I love the imagery and examples! I too am curious about the cover — it’s striking!
    Audra´s last blog post ..Queen by Right by Anne Easter Smith

    • I’m glad that you found something to resonate with you. I like the cover, just not sure how it relates to the collection, though I have my theories.

  • I’m looking forward to reading it at some point. Not sure about the cover though. Is it related to the book in some way?
    Anna´s last blog post ..Indie Lit Awards Update

    • I’m not really sure how the cover relates to the poetry collection…maybe the essence of life’s journey and its unpredictability and the precariousness of our decisions.

  • Beth Hoffman

    I’m so taken by this poem that I simply MUST add this to my list. Thanks for introducing me to Billy Collins!

    • LOL I keep adding to that list, don’t i?

  • Collins is a poet that I know I must try one of these days.

    • Kathy: Collins is one of the most popular.