Mary Oliver is on the verge of overtaking Billy Collins as my favorite poet. His latest collection, The Rain in Portugal disappointed me ever so slightly. While the poems are all good – with most, great – I sensed, in some of the poems -- a loss of the subtle humor that first drew me to Collins. On my second and third readings, I chalked it up to a mood change or some other event. Many authors and readers go through phases over the years. When I was young, I read almost no poetry, but all the science fiction I could find at the Kensington Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Now, I am reading more and more poetry, and I cannot remember the last science fiction novel I have read.
In one of my favorites in this collection, “Thanksgiving,” Collins writes, “The thing about the huge platter / of sliced celery, broccoli florets, / and baby tomatoes you had arranged / to look like a turkey with its tail fanned out / was that all our guests were so intimidated / by the perfection of the design / no one dared disturb the symmetry / by removing so much as the nub of a carrot. // And the other thing about all that / was that it took only a few minutes / for the outline of the turkey to disappear / once the guests were encouraged to dig in, / so that no one would have guessed / that this platter of scattered vegetables ever bore / the slightest resemblance to a turkey / or any other two- or four-legged animal. // It reminded me of the sand mandalas / so carefully designed by Tibetan monks / and then just as carefully destroyed / by lines scored across the diameter of the circle, / the variously colored sand then swept / into a pile and carried in a vessel / to the nearest moving water and poured in-- / a reminder of the impermanence of art and life. // Only, in the case of the vegetable turkey / such a reminder was never intended. / Or if it was, I was too bust slicing up / even more vivid lessons in impermanence / to notice. I mean the real turkey minus its head / and colorful feathers, and the ham / minus the pig minus its corkscrew tail / and minus the snout once happily slathered in mud.” (77-78). While we do have a touch of Buddhism in this poem, which I greatly admire, there is only the merest mote of humor.
From another poem that intrigued me, “Genuflection,” Collins muses an Irish custom of greeting “the first magpie one encounters in the course of a day” (75) a bird “out of usual clime” (75). He writes, “but why wouldn’t every bird merit a greeting? / a nod or at least a blink to clear the eyes-- / a wave to the geese overhead, / maybe an inquiry of a nervous chickadee / a salute in the dark to the hoot of an owl. / And as for the great blue heron, / as motionless in profile by the shore / as a drawing on papyrus by a Delphic priest, / will anything serve short of a genuflection? // As a boy, I worked on that move, / gliding in a black cassock and white surplice / inside the border of the altar rail / then stopped to descend, / one knee touching the cool marble floor / palms pressed together in prayer, / right thumb crossed over left, and never the other way around.” (75-76).
This brings back memories of my days as an altar boy. However, I certainly have no intention of even thinking about giving up on Billy Collins, especially on the strength of a single new collection, The Rain in Portugal. Rather, I want to follow this trail, if it is a trail, and I am sure I will learn something new from this great poet. 4-1/2 stars.