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Questions About Angels: Poems (Pitt Poetry) Paperback – January 7, 1999
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Billy Collins has a knack for making the familiar exotic and the arcane instantly accessible. His 1991 collection, Questions About Angels, is a loving and often amused search for "the infinite / permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters." This phrase comes from an ode to his first literary experience--and needless to say, Collins is more honest than most of us might be. Though he would later discover "frightening Heathcliff" and "frightened Pip," and even Adam and Eve, fiction for him began with another famous pair: Dick and Jane. Throughout this witty volume, he explores other heroes who have expanded his vistas--including Goya, Kafka, ancient mapmakers, Constable, and more than one lexicographer in hot pursuit of le mot juste:
Somewhere in the rolling hills and farm countryCollins makes you remember your initial delight in metaphor and simile. In "The First Geniuses," for instance, he imagines an era before "the orchestra of history / has had time to warm up," before inventors and artists could quite suss out how to use their gifts:
that lie beyond speech
Noah Webster and his assistants are moving
across the landscape tracking down a new word.
They have yet to discover fire, much less invent the wheel,Though his world is heavily populated by painting and literature, several melancholy, cigarette-packed love poems make it clear that people have equal sway. Yet Collins is always intent on proving that art, too, is experience. In "Metamorphosis" he dreams of waking up as the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. "I would feel the pages of books turning inside me like butterflies. / I would stare over Fifth Avenue with a perfectly straight face." No one should be surprised to discover that his wish was partly granted. In 1992, that institution named Collins--with a perfectly straight face?--a "Literary Lion." --Kerry Fried
so they wander a world mostly dark and motionless
wondering what to do with their wisdom
like young girls wonder what to do with their hair.
From Publishers Weekly
Smack-dab in the middle of this collection is the delightful "Purity," a poem detailing Collins's macabre writing process. On Wednesdays, in the late afternoon, the poet goes to his study and sheds his clothes. He then removes his flesh--"so that what I write will be pure, / completely rinsed of the carnal"--and takes out each of his organs so as not "to hear their ancient rhythms / when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat." "Purity" is about ideas rather than feelings, but the poet executes his metaphors with perfect precision and a bravura wit. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about most of the other poems here. Collins's images are often strange and wonderful but too frequently his poems are constricted by the novelty of a unifying metaphor. In "Cliche," Collins ( Pok er face ) writes about his life as "an open book," and all that we eventually end up learning is that he "loves to feel the daily turning of the pages." We can admire the scope of Collins's imagination, but his poems rarely induce an emotional reaction, precluding us from any affinity with his experience. This volume was selected by Edward Hirsch for the 1990 National Poetry Series.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.