Selected by Edward Hirsch for the National Poetry Series, Questions About Angels, Billy Collins's fourth book of poems, is available again. Remarkable for their wry, inquisitive voice and their sheer imaginative range, these poems are probing explorations, journeys into the unexpected. Questions About Angels reinforces Collins's place among the most talented poets of this generation. "Billy Collins can be downright funny; he's a parodist, a feigning trickster, an ironic, entertaining magician-as-hero. . . . Without question, Collins writes with verve, gumption and deep intelligence. Not many poets can infuse humor with such serious knowledge; not many can range so far throughout history and look so freshly into the future. Not many can please so thoroughly and still manage to chide, prod, urge, criticize, and teach." - David Baker, Poetry
Billy Collins has a knack for making the familiar exotic and the arcane instantly accessible. His 1991 collection, Questions About Angels
, is a loving and often amused search for "the infinite / permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters." This phrase comes from an ode to his first literary experience--and needless to say, Collins is more honest than most of us might be. Though he would later discover "frightening Heathcliff" and "frightened Pip," and even Adam and Eve, fiction for him began with another famous pair: Dick and Jane. Throughout this witty volume, he explores other heroes who have expanded his vistas--including Goya, Kafka, ancient mapmakers, Constable, and more than one lexicographer in hot pursuit of le mot juste
Somewhere in the rolling hills and farm country
that lie beyond speech
Noah Webster and his assistants are moving
across the landscape tracking down a new word.
Collins makes you remember your initial delight in metaphor and simile. In "The First Geniuses," for instance, he imagines an era before "the orchestra of history / has had time to warm up," before inventors and artists could quite suss out how to use their gifts:
They have yet to discover fire, much less invent the wheel,
so they wander a world mostly dark and motionless
wondering what to do with their wisdom
like young girls wonder what to do with their hair.
Though his world is heavily populated by painting and literature, several melancholy, cigarette-packed love poems make it clear that people have equal sway. Yet Collins is always intent on proving that art, too, is experience. In "Metamorphosis" he dreams of waking up as the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. "I would feel the pages of books turning inside me like butterflies. / I would stare over Fifth Avenue with a perfectly straight face." No one should be surprised to discover that his wish was partly granted. In 1992, that institution named Collins--with a perfectly straight face?--a "Literary Lion." --Kerry Fried