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Aimless Love

December 2, 2013

When I saw Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins at the bookstore during our shopping trip this weekend, I knew I had to buy it and introduce his poetry to someone new this year. Of course, I had to leaf through it and see what might be new to me.

There’s always something new, even when I look through a familiar volume of poetry. Since I’ve lived through more, different poems will catch my attention. This time through some of the previous volumes by Collins, it occurred to me that these poems—although I am usually a fan—strike me a little like good Hallmark cards. “Oh, that’s just how that feels!” I think, or “that reminds me of so-and-so.”

Since in the last few years, I’ve become aware that I have a number of friends who are quite discriminating about popular music–especially from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s—I noticed a poem that I wouldn’t have otherwise, since I’m mostly a person who lets pop music wash over her without developing many strong feelings about it:

“More Than a Woman”

Ever since I woke up today,
a song has been playing uncontrollably
in my head—a tape looping

over the spools of the brain,
a rosary in the hands of a frenetic nun,
mad fan belt of a tune.

It must have escaped from the radio
last night on the drive home
and tunneled while I slept

from my ears to the center of my cortex.
It is a song so cloying and vapid
I won’t even bother mentioning the title,

but it plays as if I were a turntable
covered with dancing children
and their spooky pantomimes,

as if everything I had ever learned
was being slowly replaced
by its slinky chords and the puff-balls of its lyrics.

It played while I watered the plants
and continued when I brought in the mail
and fanned out the letters on a table.

It repeated itself when I took a walk
and watched from a bridge
brown leaves floating in the channels of a current.

Late in the afternoon it seemed to fade,
but I heard it again at the restaurant
when I peered in at the lobsters

lying on the bottom of an illuminated
tank which was filled to the brim
with their copious tears.

And now at this dark window
in the middle of the night
I am beginning to think

I could be listening to music of the spheres,
the sound no one ever hears
because it has been playing forever,

only the spheres are colored pool balls,
and the music is oozing from a jukebox
whose lights I can just make out through the clouds.

The poem makes me think of the 1970s, when I was a teenager, and the movie Saturday Night Fever, which I enjoyed when I was 17 because it gave me a glimpse into a world different from my own. The speaker’s reaction to the song amuses me because I think of how my friends are so affected by pop music while it usually kind of washes over me.

I had the opposite reaction to a poem about seeing faces in textures, because this is something I do all the time. Once I called an entire houseful of guests into the bathroom off of my bedroom to see that, if you sit on the toilet in there, the theatrical comedy and tragedy masks are clearly visible on adjoining bits of the flooring tiles.


Hamlet noticed them in the shapes of clouds,
but I saw them in the furniture of childhood,
creatures trapped under surfaces of wood,

one submerged in a polished sideboard,
one frowning from a chair-back,
another howling from my mother’s silent bureau,
locked in the grain of maple, frozen in oak.

I would see these presences, too,
in a swirling pattern of wallpaper
or in the various greens of a porcelain lamp,
each looking so melancholy, so damned,
some peering out at me as if they knew
all the secrets of a secretive boy.

Many times I would be daydreaming
on the carpet and one would appear next to me,
the oversize nose, the hollow look.

So you will understand my reaction
this morning at the beach
when you opened your hand to show me
a stone you had picked up from the shoreline.

“Do you see the face?” you asked
as the cold surf circled our bare ankles.
“There’s the eye and the line of the mouth,
like it’s grimacing, like it’s in pain.”

“Well, maybe that’s because it has a fissure
running down the length of its forehead
not to mention a kind of twisted beak,” I said,

taking the thing from you and flinging it out
over the sparkle of blue waves
so it could live out its freakish existence
on the dark bottom of the sea

and stop bothering innocent beach-goers like us,
stop ruining everyone’s summer.

That’s a kind of greeting card poem I could send to my friends who go to the beach with us every other summer. “Look,” I could say, “this kind of thing happens to other people, too!”

More poems in this collection are available as greetings–to people who are annoyed by children playing “Marco Polo” in public pools (“Hangover,”), by the language of “young girls” in public places (“Oh my God!”) or by the need to voice a conventional phrase (“I Love You”). Some are for people who have lost someone (“Carry” and “All Eyes”), have seen people “Divorce,“ or have ever bitten into a soft apple (“Quandary”).

But some of the new poems in the volume move past the appreciation of small moments and usual circumstances, towards making a new idea or image for the reader to contemplate. The reference to the “music of the spheres” in “More Than A Woman” becomes a title for a better, newer poem, although perhaps a less amusing one:

The Music of the Spheres

The woman on the radio
who was lodging the old complaint
that her husband never listens to her

reminded me of the music of the spheres,
that chord of seven notes,
one for each of the visible planets,

which has been sounding
since the beginning of the universe,
and which we can never hear,

according to Pythagoras
because we hear it all the time
so it sounds the same as silence.

But let’s say the needle were lifted
from the spinning grooves
of those celestial orbs—

then people would stop
on the streets and look up,
and others would stop in the fields

and hikers would stop in the woods
and look this way and that
as if they were hearing something

for the first time,
and that husband would lower
the newspaper from his face

look at his wife
who has been standing in the doorway
and ask Did you just say something, dear?

I like the idea of a sound stopping and everyone suddenly listening. It’s less of a greeting card idea, and more of a way to consider paying attention, which is one of the things I look for in poetry.

How about you? What do you look for? Does the poetry of Billy Collins give you much of it?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2013 3:48 pm

    I enjoy Billy Collins but I can’t read more than one or two of his poems at a time because I get not bored exactly but I lose focus if that makes sense!

    • December 5, 2013 11:33 am

      I find that true of poetry in general. When we lived near Washington, DC we would sometimes do one room of the (free) art museums. That way, we could actually see some of the art before that glazed-over-here’s-another-masterpiece feeling came over us.

  2. December 2, 2013 7:24 pm

    Oh! I was enjoying the music of the spheres poem so much until the last stanza! I thought he would bring it home in some better way than that. The line “it sounds the same as silence” was so wonderful.

    (I’m sure you know this already, but the phenomenon with the faces is called pareidolia. That is not apropos of anything. It was just a very pleasing day when I discovered there was a name for that thing. The word also encompasses that thing where sometimes when I am taking a shower, I imagine that I am hearing whole songs playing far away, when really it’s just the noise of the running water.)

    • December 5, 2013 11:35 am

      Perhaps a person who has been a wife for, um, thirty years or so is going to like the last stanza better.
      I didn’t know there was a word for seeing faces! Pareidolia! When I meet you in person we shall find some and point them out to others!

  3. December 4, 2013 9:21 pm

    I’m with Stefanie — too long. And yes, the absence of sound makes me startle just about as much as a sound starting up.

    • December 5, 2013 11:36 am

      When we used to have birds, I would try to make sure there was always some kind of low-level sound going on (besides their twittering) because silence makes birds nervous. When the forest gets quiet, it means there’s a predator about.

  4. Jenny permalink
    December 5, 2013 2:46 pm

    I used to like Billy Collins’s poems a lot, but now some of them are a little too red-wheelbarrowy for me. I still really like his angel dancing on the head of a pin one.

    What I’m looking for in poetry is more or less what I look for in all my reading, which is more experience of the human heart.

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