Our Town Books: The Magician

By Andy Mitchell

Recently I wrote about the poetry of Jim Harrison and Mary Oliver, the latter of which is arguably the most popular living poet in America. In fact, if pressed to think of a challenger for this title, I can only think of one who compares, and that’s Billy Collins. Whereas Oliver clearly marks her territory in the country, among her beloved flora and fauna, Collins is an urban poet attuned to hustle and bustle.

And yet his voice, in the literary sense, is calm and quiet, just like his speaking voice. Calm and quiet, but crystal-clear. While the rest of the city is shouting for cabs, shouting to be heard above the human roar, he is seated cross-legged on a park bench, peering out over the top of a newspaper, or more likely, perched by a window sill, pen in hand, on the lookout for a poem, a simple song for the day, one that will render it anew.

For that is precisely what he does. In simple language he describes simple scenes, however, he does so in his own peculiar, indeed remarkable way. It’s as if he freezes the scene, moves everything around, and then says, ‘look, look at it now.’ By taking an otherwise ordinary circumstance and turning it into something fresh, even startling at times, he alters his reader’s view, much the same way an expressionist painter alters the viewer’s perspective. Simply put, he shows you how to see something differently.

But Collins is no surrealist. He doesn’t overtly contort an image. Nor does he mess around with syntax. He never breaks a rule, never misses a beat. That’s all going on between the lines. His poems are magic tricks without the rabbit or the hat. He doesn’t even need a sleeve. All he needs is for you to go up on stage with him. He will ask you to choose one of his 52 cards. It won’t matter which one you pick. All of them are right, each one perfectly wrought. Each a page-or-two-long spell cast with lines of abracadabra, right before your very eyes.

The following is an excerpt from Collins’ poem, Monday:

The birds are in their trees,

the toast is in the toaster,

and the poets are at their windows…

The clerks are at their desks,

the miners are down in their mines,

and the poets are looking out their windows…

…the chefs are dicing celery and potatoes,

and the poets are at their windows

because it is their job for which

they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.

Which window it hardly seems to matter

though many have a favorite,

for there is always something to see-

a bird grasping a thin branch,

the headlight of a taxi rounding a corner,

those two boys in wool caps angling across the street.

By now, it should go without saying

that what the oven is to the baker

and the berry-stained blouse to the dry cleaner,

so the window is to the poet.

Windows figure prominently in the works of poets. I’m thinking in particular of Philip Larkin’s High Windows. In Collins’ case it’s neither the windows nor what he sees through them that really matters. It’s how he sees what’s beyond the pane, and what he has to say about it.

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