This is going to sound bad, but my favorite thing about this book is the way I can unfold the flaps on the sturdy paper covers, tuck them into each other, and stand the book spine-up in the shape of an A-frame. That’s the kind of sturdiness I expect from a book published in Newfoundland, as part of a Newfoundland Poetry Series, the last volume of a major Newfoundland poet and playwright published before his death by the press he helped found in Newfoundland. My faith was soon tested by the book’s contents, though, which I found to be riddled with typos, making it seem rather ramshackle by the time I got through.
The poems are narrative, autobiographical, and apparently designed for an audience that laughs easily, which is of course an admirable trait in audiences. A poem called “Gnomes” describes the blossoms of an unnamed tree at night:
They have red or purple
hair and green beards. And terribly
twisted faces. They have no bodies.
They are grotesque, gargoyled heads
hanging and swinging in the mild, wild
south-west summer wind.
As much as I like things floral and full
of leaves, I’d not go near those blossoms
without a weapon to combat their threats
now or any night like this.
Whoever strolls, staggers, or stumbles by
will be devoured before they know they
are gone or what it was that ended them.
And so on. This is the kind of poetry that gives the lie to the prevalent notion that Billy Collins’ work is unsophisticated.
For all its simplicity and grating slyness, though, the book did have images that appealed to me. For example, in the otherwise unremarkable “Wanderlust,” I liked:
Coming away from love is a difficult
descent from the summit of yourself
back to base camp and the basics
that await you there.
I liked the whole of “A River Runs Through Her,” in which the protagonist spies on his 83-year-old mother out fishing on a boat as darkness comes on. It ends:
Though she is my mother
I know nothing of this woman.
I know only that a river runs through her.
And I splash in her blood like a fish.
That last example shows one way to make simplicity and apparent artlessness really work in a poem: by introducing an unexpectedly bizarre or surrealist image and catching the reader off-guard. “The Joy of Cooking” was the stand-out poem in this regard. It starts off with the protagonist lamenting that he can’t always procure cinnamon in Newfoundland, and so can’t rival the seductive powers of Michael Ondaatje’s cinnamon peeler. Then it takes a sudden lurch into stranger seas:
For this uncertain occasion
I’ve prepared an adequate meal.
John the Baptist’s head has been marinating
in the fridge for three days.
Now it’s on the table and Salome Smith
and I are ready to dine.
It promises not to be another wasted weekend.
Tentatively she takes the tiniest taste.
Then the lovely Ms. Smith looks at me
(seduction written all over) and says
“This is delicious”.
Needless to say, if the whole book were like this, I’d be a much bigger fan.