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Nine Horses: Poems Hardcover – September 17, 2002
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In Nine Horses, Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate and author of the bestselling collection Sailing Alone Around the Room, attempts to find beauty in simplicity, but ends up achieving the simply banal. Some poems, such as "Rooms" and "Obituaries," in which readers are given freedom to draw their own conclusions, are memorable, but the language in Nine Horses has little music and thoughts are plainly stated. Animals (mostly mice and little birds) populate this sentimental journey, and they are nearly always personified, resulting in poems that sometimes read like the verse equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade print. Collins's use of the vernacular can be burdensome ("and you are certainly not the pine-scented air. / There is no way you are the pine-scented air"), but some readers may find comfort (a haven perhaps) in the author's warm, safe world. Billy Collins has become an immensely popular poet, and though Nine Horses may remain less than inspiring, its poems are certain not to offend. --Michael Ferch
Poet laureate Collins is a connoisseur of muted moments and a coiner of whimsical yet philosophical revelations. In the opening poem of his first all-new collection since Picnic, Lightning (1998), the insomniac poet rises and wanders outside where he is "simply conscious, / an animal in pajamas." Elsewhere he gazes "with affection" out a train window, or continues his "lifelong study / of the ceiling and its river-like crack." Collins loves to write about the stillness and meditative richness that is his home, but there are also many traveling poems here, wistful, blissful, and funny. Charm has always been essential to his work, and it now blossoms into sweet benevolence as readers board Collins' buoyant poems as though each were a small boat, carrying them gently into the dazzle of sun or the caress of soft rain. Calm water is, in fact, the book's ruling element as Collins watches a river from a bridge, or offers cascading gratitude for a genuine Turkish bath in clear, reflective, and serenely flowing praise songs. Donna Seaman
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I've never read a poet who keeps me enthralled on every page and Collins is no exception; however, there is a lot of good stuff here. "Night Letter to the Reader," "The Country," "Velocity," "Istanbul," "Love," "Creatures," "Birthday," "Albany," "Litany," "Bermuda" and "The Only Day in Existence" are among my favorites.
I particularly like a poem called "Tipping Point" where Collins brings out the arbitrariness of measuring time and the subtlety of our sensations of time: "...the sensation you might feel/as you passed through the moment//at the exact center of your life/or as you crossed the equator at night in a boat." Would we want to be able to sense the midpoint of our lives? Could we? Any more than we could sense passing over the equator?--another arbitrary way to measure our world. And yet, we do sense things deeply, if only in the deep dark night or while walking in the rain.
But Collins never dips to far into pretentiousness. In fact, in "Study in Orange and White" he illuminates the pretentiousness of titles. How many of us know that the painting generally referred to as "Whistler's mother" is in fact entitled "Arrangement in Gray and Black"? Then why not, Collins asks, Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" as "Composition is Blue, Ocher, Green, and Pink" or, best of all: "...a chef being roasted on a blazing spit/before an audience of ducks/and calling it ¡¥Study in Orange and White.'" I always enjoy a poet who can bring in some humor because I find this to be a weakness in my own poetry.
Ultimately, as you read this poetry, you begin to realize that Collins is never far from you. This is not confessional poetry and yet the pronoun "I" appears in every single poem. But Collins is more of a friendly guide through his poetry than someone who is trying to beat you over the head with his themes. Collins has been compared to Frost and I think there is some truth in this. In this collection, Collins shows his Frost-like skill at presenting poems that are relatively short and very accessible in a surface reading but yield more if you want to put in some effort to dig a little deeper. This is an uncommon skill.
Modern poetry is too often neglected in this country today. That is too bad. Here is a collection of poetry that deserves to be read. In these rather short poems, Collins uses his personality and experiences to give his readers a share of those experiences--experiences that are worthwhile.