America’s interest in poetry seemed to soar in the 1980’s and 1990’s as poetry readings and festivals multiplied like coffee houses. In the great welter of poetic voices and styles that emerged during the period, Billy Collins especially seemed to capture public attention. Sailing Alone Around the Room arrives after a very public conflict between two of Collins’s publishers delayed the volume’s publication for over a year. The book selects poems from Collins’s last four books—The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988), Questions About Angels (1991), The Art of Drowning (1995), and Picnic, Lightning (1998); the collection also contains twenty new poems. Named Poet Laureate of the United States for 2001-2002, Collins offers in Sailing Alone many poems which readers will recognize from his previous volumes, as well as from his appearances on National Public Radio shows such as Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion. The collection documents Collins’s thoroughly American voice in his choice of subjects as well as in his approach to them, surely a major reason for his popularity.
Collins’s fondness for homely subjects and settings accounts in part for his accessibility. Those settings are well represented in this volume, beginning with the first poem, “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.” Here the hapless speaker is victim of a neighbor’s dog; its relentless barking has driven him nearly mad. At last he closes the windows and puts a Beethoven symphony on, “full blast,” but the dog continues to bark and in fact acts as if Beethoven had written “a part for barking dog” including a solo, “that endless coda that first established/ Beethoven as an innovative genius.” This poem illustrates a technique which Collins uses often— the poem which starts in the mundane and spins out into fantasy.
Barking dogs aside, Collins’s poems frequently celebrate the joys of the mundane—the pleasures of the garden, a cup of tea, sun falling across a familiar desk. That is the theme of “Tuesday, June 4, 1991” in which Collins imagines himself to be “the secretary to the morning whose only/ responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation . . . .” He compares himself to a court stenographer or to Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth century English diarist who faithfully recorded all the events of his life, from quarrels with his wife to the great fire which leveled central London. Here Collins notes the arrival of the painter, the antics of the kitten, the state of the garden’s flowers; he concludes that this record will be even better if it begins at dawn tomorrow, when the dawn goddess Aurora will greet him with “a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.” This is the basic material of our lives, Collins implies, and it is worth recording. Like the good dinner which makes the subject of “Osso Buco,” the pleasures of ordinary life are “something you don’t hear about much in poetry,” which more usually deals with suffering. The final image of “Osso Buco” pictures the speaker slipping in sleep down into the very marrow of the earth, the only world we know. In the fantasy “Shoveling Snow With Buddha,” the speaker shovels the driveway and chatters about the delights of the experience while Buddha, his helper, maintains a contemplative silence until near the end, when he requests a game of cards when the job is done, and the speaker imagines them drinking hot chocolate and playing cards while their snowy boots drip on the mat.
An important part of Collins’s celebration focuses on music and especially on jazz and its performers. “Questions About Angels” opens with a series of whimsical questions which Collins suggests never get asked about angels—their diet, what they think about, the fabric of their clothes. Instead, he says, people insist on asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; the answer, he says, is one—a single female angel whom he pictures as a “dancing alone in her stocking feet ” to the music of a jazz combo.
As heavenly music, jazz naturally has the power to move its human listeners. In “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of Three Blind Mice,’” the speaker begins with some questions about the likelihood of three mice burdened with the same disability; “was it a common accident?” he wonders, and how did they happen to find each other, let alone the farmer’s wife? The picture of the three hapless mice, sightless and tailless, may bring tears to the speaker’s eyes, although the onion he is now chopping may have caused the tears or—and now the reader recognizes the poem’s serious theme—the tears may rise from Blakey’s music, or perhaps from Frankie Hubbard’s mournful trumpet on the next cut.
(The entire section is 1978 words.)