Books as Refuge and The Rain in Portugal

IMG_4318In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (highly recommended), a theater troupe makes its way through a post-apocalyptic world, performing Shakespeare for tiny communities that have escaped the plague. The company’s motto, taken from Star Trek Voyager, is “Survival is insufficient.”

Which is, essentially, the raison d’etre for this site in the post-election landscape.

I believe in making calls, making donations, making the decision every day to stand up for our fellow human beings.

And I believe that when we are weary and heartsore from the work of the world, books are a refuge. They give our minds rest; they let us escape; they encourage us to love harder; they call us back to action.

We must have light in the darkness. We must have all kinds of books.

I’m going to do my best for the world beyond the page, but I’m going to keep reading omnivorously too (even if I’m not writing as much as usual).

I hope you’ll find some comfort, and some light, here.


And on that note, today I’ll recommend Billy Collins’s new collection, The Rain in Portugal.*

Like Mary Oliver, Mr. Collins is one of the most popular poets in the United States; read “The Lanyard” if you want to know why. As I wrote in my review of Aimless Love a few years ago,

His poems are cozy but not uncomfortably intimate, clever but not arrogant. Their subjects are work and rest, reading and writing, eating, looking out of windows; in short, the everyday business of being alive in America. As I’ve written elsewhere, his poetry is perfect for picking up on a whim, while you wait for a friend who’s late to dinner, say. You’ll be entertained, you’ll think, and you might even laugh, but you won’t be trying to unknot a metaphor half an hour later while you chew your escarole.

The Rain in Portugal is a collection that deploys Mr. Collins’s signature humor, which is often self-deprecating (“Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal”). The book’s title comes from a poem called “On Rhyme,” which pokes fun at his lack of facility for rhyming. And in “Early Morning,” the speaker begins:

I don’t know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them on
the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I’m at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

After delivering this admonishment, he ruefully notes that he once told an interviewer that “early morning was my favorite time to write / I was not thinking of this particular morning.”

img_2357More fanciful are poems like “Cosmology,” in which the world is imagined to rest of Keith Richards’s head (literally) or  “The Bard in Flight” (you can read a slightly different version here), in which the speaker imagines sitting next to Shakespeare in an airline cabin; particularly clever is the way he imagines the Bard trying to catch the nuances in the flight attendants’ speech (for later use, of course).

Still, despite the humor and the flights of fancy (couldn’t resist), I found this collection more somber than I expected; maybe wistful is the right word. The poems about travel seem a lonely, for one thing. There’s a brief elegy for Seamus Heaney that sneaks up on the reader, like a silent rabbit in a yard. And I loved “December 1,” a tribute to the poet’s mother on what would have been her 114th birthday.

If you’re looking for respite, a quiet hour or two to spend in someone else’s everyday life, with thought experiments and gently put questions, you won’t go wrong with The Rain in Portugal.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.


Blogger friends, if you’ve read this far, thank you, and thank you for all your kind comments over the last few weeks. I’m sorry to have fallen behind with your posts, and I hope to get back up to speed in December, though I probably won’t be around as much as I used to be.

“the rueful admission”: Billy Collins’s “The Lanyard”

Collins_The LanyardA couple of years ago, in a post about my mother, I obliquely mentioned “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. “The Lanyard” was the eulogy my uncle read at my grandmother’s funeral recently, and so I’m featuring it this week. It’s one of my favorite poems about parents and children, and I hope you’ll like it too.

Here’s a link to Mr. Collins reading the poem. 

Early Review: Aimless Love*, by Billy Collins

Billy Collins writes one particular kind of poem, and he writes it well. A Collins poem is recognizable by its shape on the page (stanzas of three or four lines, of medium length), by its tendency to flutter from its point of origin for a just a moment, and then alight again a few yards away, like a sparrow on a sidewalk.

Aimless Love, Billy Collins

His poems are cozy but not uncomfortably intimate, clever but not arrogant. Their subjects are work and rest, reading and writing, eating, looking out of windows; in short, the everyday business of being alive in America. As I’ve written elsewhere, his poetry is perfect for picking up on a whim, while you wait for a friend who’s late to dinner, say. You’ll be entertained, you’ll think, and you might even laugh, but you won’t be trying to unknot a metaphor half an hour later while you chew your escarole.

Aimless Love, a collection of new and selected poems due out in October, is no different. Here you’ll find a generous armful of poems from four earlier collections (Nine HorsesThe Trouble With PoetryBallistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead), and about fifty new poems.  In the selection of new poems, I found a misstep or two: “Looking for a Friend in a Crowd of Arriving Passengers: A Sonnet” was fourteen lines long (thirteen lines of four syllables, and one of three), but not interesting or funny enough to pull off the joke about not being a sonnet. “Unholy Sonnet #1” is painful in its riff on “Death Be Not Proud” (one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, hence the title); Mr. Collins’s lack of technical acumen can’t be avoided; he even reaches into Donne’s oeuvre to find Donne’s once-used words, and these so eclipse Mr. Collins’s own efforts that I was rather embarrassed for the poem, and for him.

Still, these are aberrations. For the most part, these new poems, like their predecessors, are pleasant, undemanding morsels, with a few gems tossed in (“Rome in June”). I’m all for accessibility in poetry, especially if it draws in new readers, and that, certainly, Mr. Collins can claim as an achievement.

If you have the earlier books, you may want to check this one out of the library to see if you think the fifty new additions are worth the price of admission.

You can find Aimless Love on the shelves on October 22nd.

*A disclaimer: I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I was not compensated for this review, nor was the content of the review dictated or approved by any party.