(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Fans of Billy Collins will be glad to see Nine Horses, his seventh collection of poems. As he did in the previous volume Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001), Collins includes here many examples of the kinds of poems which have established his enormous popularity with American readers—quiet, humorous examinations of the world of the mundane. Just as in the earlier volume, he also includes a few poems that seem to move into a more personal territory.

A recurrent theme of Collins’s work is his celebration of the sensual pleasures of the ordinary world: the appearance of the sunlight on a particular day, the joys of settling to work with a cup of tea nearby, even the commuter’s wait on the station platform. Always the poet seems to exhort the reader to pay homage to the sacred elements of daily life. People can learn from the ordinary, Collins suggests, as in “The Only Day in Existence,” where he compares an overcast Tuesday morning to the first act in a five-act play or the start of a lecture which he must attend for what it has to teach him “here in the spacious classroom of the world.”

Even bad weather can be treated attentively. In “Rooms,” Collins spends the third rainy day in a row wandering gloomily from room to room in his house, considering which room would be most appropriate to die in. Study, kitchen, dining room, bedroom—they all have possibilities and literary precedents. At last, the speaker of the poem decides that the best response to the day will be a drive in the country, “into the larger rooms of the world.” From that vantage point, he will be able to see clearly the beauties even of a drizzly November day. The poem’s final image is of mice which, curled in their nest, seem to be thinking of the very things the poet would have his readers learn—“the sweetness of grass/ and the startling brevity of life.” In “Ave Atque Vale,” even a dead groundhog receives Collins’s attention. The speaker has swerved to miss its lifeless corpse in the road but now it travels with him in memory, looking like a small, potbellied Roman saluting Caesar (and reminding the reader of Gerald Stern’s more complex poem, “Behaving Like a Jew,” in which he identifies with a dead possum on the roadside). Failure to respond to the everyday beauties of the world, Collins suggests in “Roadside Flowers,” leaves the heedless one with “a big medicine ball of neglect and disregard,” a ball which he must carry around all day until he expresses his regret in a poem (and turns the medicine ball into the ball tossed by a child at the poem’s end).

Two of the collection’s poems celebrate gifts. In “Air Piano,” Collins blends the joys of imaginary performance with what seems to be the real piano “you gave me one Christmas,” a splendid black grand with a red bow tied to one leg. Although the speaker now knows how to play a little, he still relishes the air performances of his imagination. Even more evocative is the birthday gift from the poet’s wife described in “Nine Horses.” It is a panel composed of nine marble tiles, each with a version of the same ghostly photo of a horse’s head applied to it. (The tiles are represented on the book’s dust jacket.) As the poem notes, the horses seem emblematic of sorrow and as they look down from the wall on the day’s activities in the poet’s home, he suggests that they suggest the mutability that lies behind all human pleasures and he asks of them:

Let your suffering eyes
and your anonymous deaths
be the bridle that keeps us from straying from each other

be the cinch that fastens us to the belly of each day as it gallops away, hooves sparking into the night.

The gifts are rather personal territory for a poet who usually keeps a greater distance between the reader and the details of his emotional life, but in this volume, as in the last, he includes two poems which refer to his parents, both of whom have recently died. In “The Stare,” he records the experience of a man shaving his elderly father in what seems to be a hospital or nursing home. The act is one of great intimacy, but the father’s gaze wanders in a way that leaves the son unsure whether the father is truly aware of the moment. In “No Time,” he imagines his parents’ response to his driving as he honks a greeting and speeds past the cemetery in which they lie.


(The entire section is 1808 words.)