Originally published in 1991 and newly-released last spring, this excellent collection features some of Billy Collins' best work.
Collins, a popular reader at colleges across the country, is professor of English at Lehman College, City University of New York, and a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers. For several years, he has conducted summer poetry workshops in Ireland at University College Galway and has served on the summer faculty at the Poets' House in Donegal, Ireland. He is the author of five other books and is the recipient of numerous awards. His work has appeared in a variety of periodicals from The New Yorker to Crazyhorse, and has been featured on National Public Radio on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion public-radio broadcast.
Reading Questions About Angels is like taking a long, unhurried walk into unexplored territory. Collins takes his readers places they wouldn't ordinarily think to go.
In the title poem, he uses his gift of invention and some zany insight to take a closer look at that "little dance floor on the head of a pin/ where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly."
Collins has been called a jazz man, a wise man and a poet with a funny bone. When Edward Hirsch selected Questions About Angels for the 1990 national Poetry Series, he called Collins "an American original." He was right. Collins writes about everything from tornadoes of the Middle Ages to dogs and saxophones.
In "The First Geniuses," he writes:
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.
Collins' heroes include jazz musicians, ancient mapmakers, Goya, Kafka, history teachers, Adam and Eve, and another famous pair: Dick and Jane ("... the first characters,/ the boy and girl who begin fiction")
He mixes the strange with the wonderful in "Memento Mori," "Pie Man" and "Forgetfulness," an unforgettable poem about "literary amnesia." 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.
These poems are playful, full of surprises and, like much of Collins' work, will make you laugh out loud. They are also beautiful and eminently sensible. Poems like "The History of Weather," "Night Sand" and "Nostalgia" are so well-made that their craftsmanship is invisible.
Questions About Angels is accessible to both scholars and general readers. You don't need to like poetry to like this book. You merely need 13 bucks and a sense of adventure.