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Questions About Angels (2003)

Questions About Angels (2003)
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Rating
4.22 of 5 Votes: 4
ISBN
0822942119 (ISBN13: 9780822942115)
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English
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publisher
university of pittsburgh press
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Questions About Angels (2003)
Questions About Angels (2003)

About book: The cover and the title of this collection are both misleading. Very misleading. The collection is divided into four parts. Of the four parts, only one (the second part) reflects what the cover and title would suggest - that is, a poetry collection dealing with religious themes. And even in the second part, these religious themes are minimal. Poems with titles like "Questions About Angels", "A Wonder of the World", "The Afterlife", and "The Dead" are likewise misleading."Questions About Angels" is a poem that pokes fun at the question of how many angels could fit on the head of a pin, elaborating on the question and asking why we don't ask other questions about angels...What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,their diet of unfiltered divine light?What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wallthese tall presences can look over and see hell?(pg. 25)(Granted, the religious themes are evident in this passage, but this is about as religious as it gets - which is not a fair representation of the overall text.)"A Wonder of the World" is a poem that is all set-up and no pay-off. Collins builds the reader's anticipation, describing without revealing the so-called "Wonder of the World"...It looks different than it does in photographsand it is nothing like what you had imagined,but there it is, motionless, unavoidable, real.(pg. 27)"The Afterlife" does not commit to any one interpretation of the afterlife, but rather suggests that every person is sent to a personal afterlife "according to (their) own private beliefs"...Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colorsinto a zone of light, white as a January sun.Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sitswith a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.Some have already joined the celestial choirand are singing as if they have been doing this forever,while the less inventive find themselves stuckin a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.(pg. 33)Collins breaks from poems of Angels and Death and the Afterlife by ending the second part with "Going Out for Cigarettes", a poem that explores a familiar scenario...one evening a man says he is going out for cigarettes,closes the door behind him and is never heard from again,not one phone call, not even a postcard from Rio.The fourth part follows a similar continuity, with poems that sometimes lapse into parody - poems such as "Metamorphosis", "Wolf", and "Rip Van Winkle"."Metamorphosis", perhaps my favourite of the poems from the fourth part (in part because I admire Kafka), asks or the synonymous author...If Kafka could turn a man into an insect in one sentenceperhaps he could transform me into something new,a slow willful river running through a forest,or simply the German word for river, a handful of lettershidden in the dark alphabetical order of a dictionary.(pg. 70)"Wolf" is a play on the wolves of fairy tales, in which the poet describes a wolf, not the anthropomorphic wolf of cartoons but a real wold on all fours, reading a book of fairy tales. Not surprisingly, the poems ends...Later that night, lost in a town of pigs,he knocks over houses with his breath. (pg. 76)"Rip Van Winkle" is a simple rumination on the familiar story. Collins contemplates the real-life implications of Rip Van Winkle's decades-long slumber, and muses somewhat aimlessly...Here reclines the patron saint of sleep.He has sawed enough logs to heat the Land of Nod.His dreams are longer than all of homer.And the Z above his head looks anchored in the air.These aren't bad poems, but overall the second and fourth part of the collections contained my least favourite poems. The first and third part, however, compensate for any shortcoming in the second and fourth. Herein the poet had accumulated some of his best poems, including "The Death of Allegory", "The Norton Anthology of English Literature", "Purity", "Come Running", "Weighing the Dog", and "Vade Mecum" - here is the poet at his best: his humour is most potent, his wit is most striking, and his structure is more refined. "The Death of Allegory" is a poem that literalizes the allegorical figures of Renaissance paintings and asks what became of them...Truth cantering on a powerful horse,Chastity, eyes downcast, fluttering with veils.Each one was marble come to life, a thought in a coat,Courtesy bowing with one hand always extended,Villainy sharpening an instrument behind a wall,Reason with her crown and Constancy alert behind a helm.They are all retired now, consigned to a Florida for tropes.Justice is there standing by an open refrigerator.Valor lies in bed listening to the rain.Even Death has nothing to do but mend his cloak and hood,and all their props are locked away in a warehouse,hourglasses, globes, blindfolds and shackles.(pg. 13)"The Norton Anthology of English Literature" is a satirical response to the standards by which a poets is categorized within an era (be it Victorian, Elizabethan, medieval, etc...), deconstructing the apparent relevance of the poet's birth and death, and then departing completely...Did you know that it is possible if you read a poemenough times, if you read it over and over without stopping,that you can make the author begin to spin gently,even affectionately, in his grave?(pg. 17)"Purity" is a demonstration of the poet's humour, in which he claims to remove his skin and organs as part of his writing ritual (the humour is in his suggestion that sometimes he neglects to remove his penis)...I am concentration itself: I exist in a universewhere there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.(pg. 42)"Come Running" appeals to me personally for its use of abstraction. It is an abstraction the reader will recognize from other poems, in which an idea becomes an object - in this case, the poet's name becomes an object that is stolen by the neighbor's dog...Perhaps the dog was never given a nameand is not eating mine with pleasureunder a porch in the cool, lattice-shadowed dirt.Perhaps late tonight I will hear the voiceof my neighbor as she stands at her back door,hands cupped around her mouth, calling my name,and I will leap the hedge and come running.(pg. 52)"Weighing the Dog" is a narrative reminiscent of Raymond Carver, a narrative that begins with an occurrence that is simultaneously uncommon and commonplace (so uncommon that it is believably commonplace). Ultimately, this occurrence tells us something about the character's life, and the circumstances surrounding this small otherwise trivial occurrence...It is awkward for me and bewildering for himas I hold him in my arms in the small bathroom,balancing our weight on the shaky blue scale,but this is the way to weigh a dog and easierthan training him to sit obediently on one spotwith his tongue out, waiting for the cookie.With pencil and paper I subtract my weightfrom our total to find out the remainder that is his,and I start to wonder if there is an analogy here.It could not have to do with my leaving youthough I never figured out what you amounted tountil I subtracted myself from our combination.You held me in your arms more than I held youthrough all those awkward and bewildering monthsand now we are both lost in strange and distant neighborhoods.(pg. 56)"Vade Mecum" is a short poem (the shortest in the collection) but one that is disarming in its simplicity and sentimentality...I want the scissors to be sharpand the table to be perfectly levelwhen you cut me out of my lifeand paste me in that book you always carry.(pg. 61)Who doesn't want to be carried in this book? Reading this poem I feel sentimental for a person I haven't met, sentimental for a book I haven't seen.

Continuing my current obsession with Billy Collins, I picked yet another collection of his poems: Questions about Angels. Some of the poems (like: “First Reader,” “The Death of Allegory,” and the wryly, charming poem entitled “Forgetfulness”) I had come across when I read Sailing Alone Around the Room (a book that combined new poems with some of Mr. Collins’ greatest hits from past selections) but they are so good that I don’t mind reading them again. Other poems (most notably, “Reading Myself to Sleep,” “Metamorphosis,” “The Hunt,” “Candle Hat,” and “The First Geniuses”) were wonderful, new discoveries. There is so much to enjoy about Collin’s work, (his laid-back, accessible style, his humor, his insight), but as a unrepentant bibliophile, I think my favorite thing about him is just how many of his poems are love songs to literacy, to writing and to reading. I can’t tell you how many times I read a line of his and just feel a sort of sympathy between us, like we were both “of the race that knew Joseph” (if you will pardon the Anne of Green Gables reference). For example, when I read “Reading Myself to Sleep” (a poem that I am seriously tempted to frame and hang above my bed) and I came across the line: “Is there a more gentle way to go into the night than to follow an endless rope of sentences and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page into the first tentative flicker of a dream” I knew I was in the company of someone who really understands.
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Reviews
Dani
“Questions About Angels,” by Billy Collins, is a bright, funny, and thoughtful book of poetry. Most all of the poems are written in tercets or quatrains, and with an airy lightness. The book is broken into four parts, and seems to scroll across the pages. It is elegantly written—refreshingly clear, yet not lacking depth in the least. I even enjoyed the breaths of white space.He spins connections between emotion and the weather, and it’s funny that even though I read this book at night, it felt as if I read this book under a roving blue sky. Collins infuses a sweet thoughtfulness into his work—angels dance on pins, and the dead come to life without a trace of spookiness, as if we are all constantly surrounded by unknown friends. The book is filled with reflection and pondering while still having a true love of life, and enjoyment of the world. It is witty and refreshing.The DeadThe dead are always looking down on us, they say.while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heavenas they row themselves slowly through eternity.They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,they think we are looking back at them,which makes them lift their oars and fall silentand wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.Candle HatIn most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,Rembrandt looks relieved as if he were taking a breatherfrom painting The Blinding of Sampson.But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirrorand is seen posed in the clutter of his studioaddressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knewwe would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his headwhich is fitted around the brim with candle holders,a device that allowed him to work into the night.You can only wonder what it would be liketo be wearing such a chandelier on your headas if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.But once you see this hat there is no need to readany biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.To understand Goya you only have to imagine himlighting the candles one by one, then placingthe hat on his head, ready for a night of work.Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his housewith all the shadows flying across the walls.Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his doorone dark night in the hill country of Spain."Come in, " he would say, "I was just painting myself,"as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.
Erin
I decided to try out Billy Collins after I enjoyed one of his poems in Good Poems for Hard Times. I wish my poetry journey had started here, I really do. Why do teachers make young learners struggle with John Donne and George Herbert when there is something accessible and relatable right here? It's like starting kids off with The Metamorphosis instead of The Cat in the Hat and then being surprised you don't have lifelong readers. Ranting aside, I found Collins' poetry to be in very accessible language while still managing to be very moving. This is a thing that still startles me about poetry, the abrupt evocation of feelings. In just a few lines Collins can express a feeling you've struggled to pin down for years. Some of the light-hearted poems got a genuine laugh out of me (The Hunt, The Discovery of Scat), and one even squeezed some tears out of something I thought I was ok with (The Wires of the Night). Another had me eagerly googling self-portraits of dead European painters (Candle Hat). All this variety from one volume. I loved it.My other favorites:First ReaderForgetfulnessMappamundiThe AfterlifePurityMemento MoriWeighing the Dog
Jessica
Billy Collins' poems strike me as somewhere between charming and insipid. I wish he would tighten his diction up a little, but since his style has gotten him a laureateship as well as countless other awards, why should he change? Probably won't. I'm embarrassed to like him at 3 stars; I feel like if I want to take poetry seriously, I should put him at 2 stars, but I do enjoy some of what he does, while wishing he could do it more compactly. So many times I think a poem is done and I turn the page, and oops, no, there's more. Sigh.
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