Nothing in Billy Collins’s 12th book, The Rain in Portugal (Random House, $26), is exactly what readers might expect, and that’s the charm of this collection. Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate and one of the country’s most popular poets, has always known how to combine offbeat observations and dry wit. Yet here he adds so many subtle twists — beginning with the book’s title — that he and readers sidestep from the familiar into a more fanciful landscape. Sometimes the surprises arise from a mundane moment, as when the speaker describes his black cat or muses about conversations with the sister he never had. At other times, the speaker starts with an unusual premise — Shakespeare on a plane, Keith Richards holding up the world — that leads to curious conclusions.
The strongest poems — and there are several — seem to effortlessly balance those two approaches, as when the speaker encounters a brown rabbit that could be the late Seamus Heaney or watches a news story about a boy who has gone missing and then pictures “a long single-file parade of lost children/ walking through the sand toward the lowering sun/” and follows their surprising journey over the horizon and into the American West.
That kind of imaginative thinking gives this collection its richness , whether the subject is a weather vane, the importance of literature, travel, relationships or a veggie platter that suggests the impermanence of life. The work also shows a variety of styles, moving from longer meditations to short, tight poems, and from ironic, almost biting moments to descriptions that are evocative and lovely, as in the opening lines of “Many Moons”: “The thinnest of slivers can come/ as a surprise some nights./ A girl leaving a restaurant/ points up to show her friends./ And there is the full one,/ bloated with light/ a bright circle over the city/ keeping the dreamers from sleep.”
The constant shifting in these pieces provides both pleasure and a vivid example of how one’s thoughts, when unrestrained, can lead to unexpected destinations.
Robert Pinsky’s latest collection, At the Foundling Hospital (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23), also demonstrates a tremendous range of thought and the ability to weave together complex ideas into resonant poems. Here Pinsky, a three-time U.S. poet laureate, deals with grief and the notion of identity and how it can be lost or taken.
The collection is anchored by the stunning poem “The Foundling Tokens,” in which infants, slaves and immigrants all lose their names and histories. As the opening lines explain: “For each abandoned/ Baby a duly recorded token:/ Bit of lace or a pewter brooch,/ Identifying coin, button/ Or bangle. One crushed thimble,/ Noted at admissions. Or paper.” The foundlings couldn’t resist in any way, but the adults wrote names or verses into the hulls of ships or on the walls above their bunks. Many of these poems, which reference cultural losses or injustices, seem like foundlings themselves, with the speaker collecting their tokens. He also gives voice to various gods — from mythology, the Torah and other sources — forcing readers to rethink the wisdom they know.
Pinsky has always been adept at drawing from various sources and crafting sophisticated poems. That continues in these pages, which also provide glimpses of his childhood, such as his Nana warning him about certain people, and him playing a game of baseball where kids advance by reciting lines from scripture. Those vignettes bring warmth to the writing and help readers appreciate both his personal losses and his loftier thoughts elsewhere, as when he says about robots in one poem—“Their exquisite sensors will comprehend our very dust” — and uses dying bees and David Copperfield to address cunning and greed in another.
These poems, with their careful word choices and refined music, demand multiple readings and reveal more each time. The collection, like two dying friends in one piece, leave “A shape distinct and present in the mind.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.