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Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems by Billy…
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Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems (2011)

by Billy Collins

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I tend to prefer my poetry...loud. Shouting, ringing, echoing - that kind of thing. It's why I love Poe's assonance and onomatopoeia. It's why I love Hamby's proper nouns with their capitalization and weight. Most other poetry pales in comparison. Modern poetry, for the most part, can be too simple for my taste, like the sickly simpering cousin to the greats. And while for me Billy Collins tends to fall into that latter category most of the time, this particular collection is not wholly without merit.

Published in 2011, Horoscopes for the Dead is a personal and deeply relatable collection dedicated to remembering persons and things lost to time. The first poem, "Grave," sets the tone and establishes for the reader a somewhat sardonic humor with recurrent images of cemeteries, empty chairs and mossy shade. Combined with hyperbole, this humor acts as a mechanism to both show love, and deflect pain.

While there is no thru-line, per say, the feeling of loss and longing is evident throughout the book. The titular poem - which opens the second part of the collection - is the most resounding in terms of feeling and relatability. The idea that we mark someone's presence even after they're gone, and that, in loss, we sometimes live in parallels of what-ifs - ghosts of possibilities, as it were - is a confessional token of humanity that its oft written about, but so rarely portrayed as honestly as Collins did here. It reminded me of a Facebook page that I follow - a memorial page for a relation of mine who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago. Gone but ever-immortalized online where we all wait for her next update, regardless of her absence.

That being said, the collection falls short of great in my humble opinion. The deviances into Florida are offensive to me simply because of my feelings about Florida, but are otherwise digestible. But there are some pieces (i.e. "Table Talk," "Lakeside," and "Returning the Pencil to Its Tray") that didn't seem to fit - they're clunky and awkward and resemble poems in as much as they are structured like one, but otherwise have no internal rhythm, neither buoyancy nor gravity, and which simply do not mix well with the others, but which the author deemed appropriate for this collection despite every instinct that I personally would have otherwise. Come for the poems about death and loss, but don't get tricked into staying for the less worthy off-topic meanderings of the modern poet.

www.theliterarygothamite.com ( )
  laurscartelli | Mar 26, 2016 |
Good News and Gold are poems I think my best friend Brian would enjoy.. I adore "A Question About Birds" as I myself have often wondered the same.
  CAMMD | Aug 4, 2014 |
Love Collins, but I did prefer his SAILING ALONE AROUND THE ROOM to this one. He (at least, for me) did not come alive until part 3 of the book, which had tremendous lines and words and images. ( )
  DonnaMarieMerritt | Aug 11, 2013 |
I'm not usually much of a poetry reader but I enjoyed Horoscopes for the Dead. The poems seemed more accessable than most. ( )
  RebaRelishesReading | Sep 29, 2012 |
horoscopes for the dead by Billy Collins is a collection of his recent poetry. I've read a lot of his prior to this, and I suppose some of the "newness" of his style has worn off. So many of these poems seemed slight to me, anchored by some observation in his daily life - e.g. what to make of two chairs near a lake that no one ever sits in. Some observations were intriguing - what do birds make of another bird specie's cries, do they understand them, or is it like listening to people speaking a foreign language? A man or a woman can and sometimes will abandon a dog, but a dog will never abandon them. A sky reflected in a mirror, his daughter's drawing of a scallion.

But I kept wishing he'd dig his teeth into something meatier - social ills, poverty, war. He does take on war briefly: "There was talk of war this morning . . . but there's nothing I can do about that/except to continue my walk in the woods/conversing with my hand-" Conversing with what?! Well, he's made his hand into "the head of a duck/the kind that would cast a silhouetted/profile on a white screen . . . so benign an activity that if everyone did this/perhaps there would be no wars . . ." Hmm, a man in the woods talking to his duck head hand is a little too far out there for me.

But picking one like that from a good collection is unfair, and my longing for more "depth" could be my mistake, not his. He's like some of the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets, e.g. Wang Wei, Ryokan, Basho, Han Shan, making beautifully crafted poems based on simple observations. Centuries and centuries later, we're still reading all of those poets.

And there are times in this book when he took me somewhere new and wonderful, like "the department of dark and pouring rain." I loved matching up Zeno's paradox, that an object moving through space never reaches its destination because it's always limited to cutting the distance to its goal in half, with St. Sebastian - did the arrows ever reach him? All this while Collins is ordering a dinner in a restaurant.

He first captured my heart years ago with his humor. Yes, poetry need not always be solemn and reading it need not be like doing your chores. I'm still shakiing my head over his remarkable poem based on enthusiastic product descriptions in a Victoria's Secret catalog. Masterful. And he has some laugh out loud ones here, like his riff on overhearing a conversation, "She said like give me a break." Not, give me a break, but like give me a break. What exactly does that mean? I also got a kick out of this one, entitled, "Feedback":

The woman who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there

to tell me they were all still talking about it

just wrote again
to tell me that they had stopped.

So maybe the fairest thing to say is there are some hits and some misses in this collection. At one point he says a poet is lucky if he creates three flawless poems in a lifetime. In my view he's already exceeded that. He remains our most accessible poet, and spending time with him once again may not have been flawless, but it was a pleasure. ( )
2 vote jnwelch | Aug 19, 2012 |
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In this new collection, "America's most popular poet" covers the everlasting themes of love and loss, life and death, youth and aging, solitude and union.

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