first read a poem by Billy Collins about five years ago in an old
back-issue of Poetry London. Since then, his rise up the poetry ladder
has been nothing short of meteoric. His previous collection,
Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes confirmed
his status as one of the worlds most popular contemporary poets.
His second term in office as the American Poet Laureate seemed
justified despite a great wealth of writers emerging from 'that
side' of the pond.
With all this in mind, I sought Nine Horses as
soon as I heard it was due out in March? this year. I was intrigued
to see if Collins had forged a new exhilaration of pitch, or simply
added another crisp chapter to his previous successes. Book in
hand, the first thing I noticed was that the man had been busy. No
flimsy collection was this, moreover epical, a beautifully
presented book, consisting of 120 pages.
Inside, I am glad to see that BC still strikes the bell of
recognition, often with unerring accuracy. His customary ability to
transport the mundane or domestic to the odd or sublime is a credit
to his powers of mind and observation. Indeed, Collins appears able
to breathe new life onto the fire of inanimate objects seemingly at
A fine example of this is found in the title poem, whereby Collins
is describing a picture of nine horse heads that his wife gave him
as a birthday gift. As the heads stare down from the wall, Collins
marks their sadness as a measure of warning and fellowship.
your suffering eyes / and your anonymous deaths / be the bridle
that keeps us from straying….
Though here is a book, sharp in wit, what strikes me is that
Nine Horses frequently displays a more
compassionate tone, made possible because of the authors brave
sentimentality to its somewhat darker subject criteria.
Nevertheless, this book in its entirety is not Collins' best
work. There are only a few poems in here that are not 'I'
based, and the exclusively narrative tone does sometimes become a
little tedious. Perhaps these twinned repetitions are because the
book is at least 20 pages too long. The overriding use of narrative
structures veer the author towards the bracket of a frustrated
potential novelist, thus limiting the impact of Zen-like
gravitations that have previously accentuated his work.
If you are seeking a highly readable book, with subtle variations,
from an author of great standing in the world of poetry, then this
is the book for you. I, on the other hand, will wait to see what is
the next on the literary agenda for Collins. Perhaps it will be
that novel, which I would expect to be thoroughly engaging. If it
be a collection of poetry my feet will shuffle to the bookshops,
rather than scamper, as they did for this collection.