At this point, with nine published works of poetry and two poet laureate titles, Billy Collins is a kind of American poetic staple. I recently had the pleasure of reading Horoscopes of the Dead, and it definitely didn't disappoint.
As always, Collins is both witty and accessible, drawing substantial conclusions from common observations, like a bee nosing its way into a flower and the presence of a family pet. At one point, he imagines hell is comparable to mattress shopping.
The titular poem features the narrator musing that the dead will never experience the joys and failures promised to them by their horoscopes. It is both tragic and oddly soothing, as though the lack of these things is a relief to the dead, and maybe also to Collins as the narrator. Yet it also drags up the question of what still belongs to the dead once they've passed—is the date of birth still his or her birthday? I came away from that poem with the perfect amount of melancholy.
I really do love the simple depth of Collins' work, if that makes sense. He finds beauty in everyday life, in things that sit quietly in corners and on dusty attic shelves. Collins is proof that poetry doesn't have to be closed off and stiff to be meaningful—it can be open and accessible and even funny.
An addendum from Lorin:
Collins is a favorite of mine too, for all the reasons Kelsey noted. He’s a master at making something sacred from the seemingly mundane.
To wrap up National Poetry Month, I offer you his poem, JAPAN. This one gives me chills every time I read it.
Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.
It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.
I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.
I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.
I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.
And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.
It's the one about the one-ton temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,
and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.
When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.
When I say it at the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.
And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,
and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.
-- Billy Collins