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Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems [Unabridged] [Paperback]

Billy Collins
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This collection hit the front page of the New York Times its first time out of the blocks in 1999, as the University of Pittsburgh Press, Collins's longtime publisher, denied Random the rights to the poems as the poet tried to jump ship. The two houses and Collins's agent, Chris Calhoun (Dan Menaker is Collins's editor at Random), later worked out a deal that gave Pitt a few more months to ride Picnic, Lightning (1998) and Collins's other books without this culling treading on its sales. As it now appears, the book includes 23 poems from Picnic, more than from any of Collins's previous three books included here. (Work from the early Video Poems and Pokerface is absent.) Collins's poems are generally conveyed by a speaker whose genial, highly literate analogue of earnestness perfectly produces inchoate quotidian restlessness matched by fear-based appreciation of the mundane. A typical Collins poem begins with "How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer," "The way the dog trots out the front door" or the observation that "It is possible to be struck by a meteor/ or a single-engine plane/ while reading in a chair at home" and continues by juxtaposing, say, close descriptions of "the instant hand of Death" and "the rasp of the steel edge/ against a round stone,/ the small plants singing/ with lifted faces." It's a formula that has worked well for Collins, and he does not abandon it in the 20 new poems here. (On-sale date: Sept. 11) Forecast: A reading on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion was the beginning of serious sales for Picnic, Lightning (40,000 copies and counting), while The Art of Drowning has sold 26,000 since 1995, and Questions About Angels clocks in at 21,000 since 1991. Collins's reading tours for this book should help reach even more readers, and some browsers may remember the Times story.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This new volume from the newly appointed poet laureate of the United States has survived the publishing rights war between Random House and the University of Pittsburgh Press. The wait has been well worth it. The surface structure of these poems appears simplistic, but subtle changes in tone or gesture move the reader from the mundane to the sublime. In an attempt to sleep, the speaker in "Insomnia" moves from counting sheep to envisioning Noah's arc to picturing "all the fish in creation/ leaping a fence in a field of water,/ one colorful species after another." Collins will tackle any topic: his subject matter varies from snow days to Aristotle to forgetfulness. The results are accessible but not trite, comical but not laughable, and well crafted but not overly flamboyant. Collins relies heavily on imagery, which becomes the cornerstone of the entire volume, and his range of diction brings such a polish to these poems that the reader is left feeling that this book "once opened, can never be closed." This volume belongs in everyone's library; highly recommended. Tim Gavin, Episcopa Acad., Merion, PA
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Collins, that rarest of creatures, a truly popular living poet, is currently poet laureate, an appointment well celebrated with this fertile gathering of nearly 100 poems--20 newly minted, the others selected from four earlier volumes, including Picnic, Lightning (1998). On every delectable page, Collins performs nimble feats of the imagination and gives voice to an emotion we foolishly trivialize and condemn: pure pleasure. Nurturing a childlike love and talent for make-believe, he enters the landscape of a Hudson River painting; offers funny takes on history; writes lovingly of dogs, music, cups of tea, and books; and sees everything as a living entity, from a piano to a calendar pinup to the dawn. But what appears to be whimsy is, in fact, a graceful and ongoing inquiry into the nature of being. Mischievous and deeply attentive, inventive and grateful, Collins moves stealthily toward the essentials, quietly celebrating the simple and reflective life and gently reminding readers to respect and treasure our species' tenuous place on the great thrumming web of life. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“What Collins does best is turn an apparently simple phrase into a numinous moment.”
The New Yorker

“It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins, and that in itself is a remarkable literary accomplishment.”
The New York Review of Books

“A brilliant comic sally...a wonderful, sly, and moving collection.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“[Collins] takes the mundane thing and shows you its mystery. And he takes the mysterious and strips it naked.”
The Washington Post

From the Inside Flap

Sailing Alone Around the Room, by America?s Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, contains both new poems and a generous gathering from his earlier collections The Apple That Astonished Paris, Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. These poems show Collins at his best, performing the kinds of distinctive poetic maneuvers that have delighted and fascinated so many readers. They may begin in curiosity and end in grief; they may start with irony and end with lyric transformation; they may, and often do, begin with the everyday and end in the infinite. Possessed of a unique voice that is at once plain and melodic, Billy Collins has managed to enrich American poetry while greatly widening the circle of its audience.

From the Back Cover

“What Collins does best is turn an apparently simple phrase into a numinous moment.”
The New Yorker

“It is difficult not to be charmed by Collins, and that in itself is a remarkable literary accomplishment.”
The New York Review of Books

“A brilliant comic sally...a wonderful, sly, and moving collection.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“[Collins] takes the mundane thing and shows you its mystery. And he takes the mysterious and strips it naked.”
The Washington Post

About the Author

Billy Collins has published six collections of poetry, including Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, and Picnic, Lightning. He teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York and at Sarah Lawrence College and was recently appointed named the U.S. Poet Laureate.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


The Apple That Astonished Paris


Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark

that he barks every time they leave the house.

They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

I close all the windows in the house

and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast

but I can still hear him muffled under the music,

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,

sitting there in the oboe section barking,

his eyes fixed on the conductor who is

entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful

silence to the famous barking dog solo,

that endless coda that first established

Beethoven as an innovative genius. Walking Across the Atlantic

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach

before stepping onto the first wave.

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic

thinking about Spain,

checking for whales, waterspouts.

I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I try to imagine what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing. Plight of the Troubadour

For a good hour I have been singing lays

in langue d’oc to a woman who knows

only langue d’oïl, an odd Picard dialect

at that.

The European love lyric is flourishing

with every tremor of my voice,

yet a friend has had to tap my shoulder

to tell me she has not caught a word.

My sentiments are tangled like kites

in the branches of her incomprehension,

and soon I will be lost in an anthology

and poets will no longer wear hats like mine.

Provence will be nothing more

than a pink hue on a map or an answer on a test.

And still the woman smiles over at me

feigning this look of sisterly understanding. The Lesson

In the morning when I found History

snoring heavily on the couch,

I took down his overcoat from the rack

and placed its weight over my shoulder blades.

It would protect me on the cold walk

into the village for milk and the paper

and I figured he would not mind,

not after our long conversation the night before.

How unexpected his blustering anger

when I returned covered with icicles,

the way he rummaged through the huge pockets

making sure no major battle or English queen

had fallen out and become lost in the deep snow. Winter Syntax

A sentence starts out like a lone traveler

heading into a blizzard at midnight,

tilting into the wind, one arm shielding his face,

the tails of his thin coat flapping behind him.

There are easier ways of making sense,

the connoisseurship of gesture, for example.

You hold a girl’s face in your hands like a vase.

You lift a gun from the glove compartment

and toss it out the window into the desert heat.

These cool moments are blazing with silence.

The full moon makes sense. When a cloud crosses it

it becomes as eloquent as a bicycle leaning

outside a drugstore or a dog who sleeps all afternoon

in a corner of the couch.

Bare branches in winter are a form of writing.

The unclothed body is autobiography.

Every lake is a vowel, every island a noun.

But the traveler persists in his misery,

struggling all night through the deepening snow,

leaving a faint alphabet of bootprints

on the white hills and the white floors of valleys,

a message for field mice and passing crows.

At dawn he will spot the vine of smoke

rising from your chimney, and when he stands

before you shivering, draped in sparkling frost,

a smile will appear in the beard of icicles,

and the man will express a complete thought. Advice to Writers

Even if it keeps you up all night,

wash down the walls and scrub the floor

of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.

Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant

your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take

to the open fields to scour the undersides

of rocks or swab in the dark forest

upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home

and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,

you will behold in the light of dawn

the immaculate altar of your desk,

a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift

a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,

and cover pages with tiny sentences

like long rows of devoted ants

that followed you in from the woods. The Rival Poet

The column of your book titles,

always introducing your latest one,

looms over me like Roman architecture.

It is longer than the name

of an Italian countess, longer

than this poem will probably be.

Etched on the head of a pin,

my own production would leave room for

The Lord’s Prayer and many dancing angels.

No matter.

In my revenge daydream I am the one

poised on the marble staircase

high above the crowded ballroom.

A retainer in livery announces me

and the Contessa Maria Teresa Isabella

Veronica Multalire Eleganza de Bella Ferrari.

You are the one below

fidgeting in your rented tux

with some local Cindy hanging all over you. Insomnia

After counting all the sheep in the world

I enumerate the wildebeests, snails,

camels, skylarks, etc.,

then I add up all the zoos and aquariums,

country by country.

By early light I am asleep

in a nightmare about drowning in the Flood,

yelling across the rising water

at preoccupied Noah as his wondrous

ark sails by and begins to grow smaller.

Now a silhouette on the horizon,

the only boat on earth is disappearing.

As I rise and fall on the rocking waves,

I concentrate on the giraffe couple,

their necks craning over the roof,

to keep my life from flashing before me.

After all the animals wink out of sight

I float on my back, eyes closed.

I picture all the fish in creation

leaping a fence in a field of water,

one colorful species after another. Earthling

You have probably come across

those scales in planetariums

that tell you how much you

would weigh on other planets.

You have noticed the fat ones

lingering on the Mars scale

and the emaciated slowing up

the line for Neptune.

As a creature of average weight,

I fail to see the attraction.

Imagine squatting in the wasteland

of Pluto, all five tons of you,

or wandering around Mercury

wondering what to do next with your ounce.

How much better to step onto

the simple bathroom scale,

a happy earthling feeling

the familiar ropes of gravity,

157 pounds standing soaking wet

a respectful distance from the sun. Books

From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus

I can hear the library humming in the night,

a choir of authors murmuring inside their books

along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,

Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,

each one stitched into his own private coat,

together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.

I picture a figure in the act of reading,

shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,

a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie

as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,

or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.

He moves from paragraph to paragraph

as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.

I hear the voice of my mother reading to me

from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,

and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,

the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,

a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.

I watch myself building bookshelves in college,

walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,

or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.

I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,

straining in circles of light to find more light

until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs

that we follow across a page of fresh snow; when evening is shadowing the forest

and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,

we have to listen hard to hear the voices

of the boy and his sister receding into the woods. Bar Time

In keeping with universal saloon practice,

the clock here is set fifteen minutes ahead

of all the clocks in the outside world.

This makes us a rather advanced group,

doing our drinking in the unknown future,

immune from the cares of the present,

safely harbored a quarter of an hour

beyond the woes of the contemporary scene.

No wonder such thoughtless pleasure derives

from tending the small fire of a cigarette,

from observing this glass of whiskey and ice,

the cold rust I am sipping,

or from having an eye on the street outside

when Ordinary Time slouches past in a topcoat,

rain running off the brim of his hat,

the late edition like a flag in his pocket. My Number

Is Death miles away from this house,

reaching for a widow in Cincinnati

or breathing down the neck of a lost hiker

in British Columbia?

Is he too busy making arrangements,

tampering with air brakes,

scattering cancer cells like seeds,

loosening the wooden beams of roller coasters

to bother with my hidden cottage

that visitors find so hard to find?

Or is he stepping from a black car

parked at the dark end of the lane,

shaking open the familiar cloak,

its hood raised like the head of a crow,

and removing the scythe from the trunk?

Did you have any trouble with the directions?

I will ask, as I start talking my way out of this. Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means. The Brooklyn Museum of Art

I will now step over the soft velvet rope

and walk directly into this massive Hudson River

painting and pick my way along the Palisades

with this stick I snapped off a dead tree.

I will skirt the smoky, nestled towns

and seek the path that leads always outward

until I become lost, without a hope

of ever finding the way back to the museum.

I will stand on the bluffs in nineteenth-century clothes,

a dwarf among rock, hills, and flowing water,

and I will fish from the banks in a straw hat

which will feel like a brush stroke on my head.

And I will hide in the green covers of forests

so no appreciator of Frederick Edwin Church,

leaning over the soft velvet rope,

will spot my tiny figure moving in the stillness

and cry out, pointing for the others to see,

and be thought mad and led away to a cell

where there is no vaulting landscape to explore,

none of this birdsong that halts me in my tracks,

and no wide curving of this river that draws

my steps toward the misty vanishing point. Schoolsville

Glancing over my shoulder at the past,

I realize the number of students I have taught

is enough to populate a small town.

I can see it nestled in a paper landscape,

chalk dust flurrying down in winter,

nights dark as a blackboard.

The population ages but never graduates.

On hot afternoons they sweat the final in the park

and when it’s cold they shiver around stoves

reading disorganized essays out loud.

A bell rings on the hour and everybody zigzags

into the streets with their books.

I forgot all their last names first and their

first names last in alphabetical order.

But the boy who always had his hand up

is an alderman and owns the haberdashery.

The girl who signed her papers in lipstick

leans against the drugstore, smoking,

brushing her hair like a machine.

Their grades are sewn into their clothes

like references to Hawthorne.

The A’s stroll along with other A’s.

The D’s honk whenever they pass another D.

All the creative-writing students recline

on the courthouse lawn and play the lute.

Wherever they go, they form a big circle.

Needless to say, I am the mayor.

I live in the white colonial at Maple and Main.

I rarely leave the house. The car deflates

in the driveway. Vines twirl around the porch swing.

Once in a while a student knocks on the door

with a term paper fifteen years late

or a question about Yeats or double-spacing.

And sometimes one will appear in a windowpane

to watch me lecturing the wallpaper,

quizzing the chandelier, reprimanding the air.

From the Hardcover edition.
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