October 2, 2008

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Ballistics, by Billy Collins, Random House, 2008, 110 pages
By Dan Szczesny dszczesny@hippopress.com
Billy Collins proves that popularity need not diminish quality. The two-time U.S. Poet Laureate has released the best poetry collection of the year. Accessible without losing its edge, Ballistics rejects the sentimentality of Collins’ past work and finds ironic inspiration in moments of everyday life.

Collins has always been interested in simple pleasures and simple words. Some of his work has fallen into a sort of meandering blissfulness that diminishes the strength of his writing and undercuts the poems themselves. Sunsets and puppies might get people to buy your books, but that doesn’t make the poems any good.

Here, though, Collins has found a way to walk the line, to present charming poetry without the everyman populism that tends to befall popular poets. In Ballistics, Collins is more Robert Frost and less Mary Oliver, and he does it through droll self-mocking that winks at the reader even in the most touching moments. In “The Four-Moon Planet” Collins comes right at Frost, who wrote that he envied Jupiter for its four large moons. Collins imagines four moons might be too many, a distraction for lovers walking along a beach, “his arm around her bare shoulder / thrilled at how close they were feeling tonight / while he gazed at one moon and she another.”

Collins breaks down the wall between reader and poet, like in the very funny title poem where he speaks to the reader about seeing a photo of a bullet tearing through a book. He decides it’s the book of a rival poet he dislikes and imagines the bullet passing “through the author’s photograph / through the beard, the round glasses, / and that special poet’s hat he loves to wear.”

Playful and imaginative, Ballistics is Collins’ best book, and a cheery tongue-in-cheek attack against the pretentiousness of poetry itself. ADan Szczesny