Monday, 31 July 2017

Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Reading this book was an object lesson how much of the experience is not only the words on the page, but all that the reader to them. How much can be changed when the reader has been changed, when experience puts things into new, starker relief.

I have always enjoyed Billy Collins' poetry a whole hell of a lot. I absolutely fell in love with Sailing Alone Around the Room, and have very much enjoyed the other two collections of his that I've picked up over the last few years. I bought Aimless Love in the early months of this year, and dipped into it, finding a couple of poems that hit me, at the time, like a ton of bricks. I was going to love this, I was sure, just as much.

One of the things I always liked best about Collins' poetry is the sense of the present woven with delicate intimations of mortality in the future. Hypothetical ones, brought to mind by the mundane. The poems haven't changed since then, but I have. Since then, I've lost my mother. And melancholic considerations aren't what I want anymore.

I found myself irritated by the distance and delicacy. What I wanted wasn't to think wistfully of my own eventual death. I wanted poetry that approached death with emotion and grief. I wanted some reflection of what death is when you get a horrible phone call. When you try desperately to find a rental car before all the branches close. When you sit vigil in a hospital. When breathing changes and you watch one of the most important and beloved people in your life die right in front of you. There is no distance. There is no delicacy. And right now, I can't take poetry that wants to consider death as something ephemeral and weightless, disembodied.

I want poetry that tackles the body, its strength and fragility. I want loss. I want pain. I want to see something of what I feel reflected in words on a page. To find someone who understands, who captures far better than I can, how much this hurts, how long the pain persists, the dimensions of that howling void that lies in wait around unexpected corners, and when an errant thought leads me to the edge, swallows me whole in gut wrenching grief.

And if I can't see my exact experience, I want something that is more visceral right now. So this book came to me at exactly the wrong time. It's not that the poetry is bad. It isn't that I wouldn't love it again in maybe a year or two, or hadn't loved the poems I read back in the months when I still had a mother.  It is that where I am right now can't handle what this book is bringing to me.

It feels so odd, to be frustrated at a book for being good at what it is, because it is not what I want it to be. There were still moments I liked. The cheeky poems about writing still made me smile. The moments of finding oneself just precisely where one is, and rooting the self in a singular moment, were still poems I enjoyed. But there were so many that touched on mortality, and they did so in a way that is far more abstract and distant that I can stomach at the moment.

So I brought myself to this book, and found frustration, when I know that other mes to come may reread and find something quite different, when death has receded from the tides of my daily life.

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