Birds in the Trees, Toast in the Toaster: Billy Collins’ “Aimless Love”

Cat meets Dog (source: wikimedia)

Cat meets Dog (source: wikimedia)

The poem “Monday” begins like this: “The birds are in their trees, / the toast is in the toaster, / and the poets are at their windows” (47). The idea of the work of a poet, if not the poet him/herself, as both pointless and essential is a trope that weaves its way through Collins’ Aimless Love — New and Selected Poems. And Collins finds that there is much to see through the windows (though he seems to use it less / go outside more than James Schuyler, who ‘windowframes’ many of his poems.)

A good number of the poems Collins has chosen for this collection talk about writing, about being a writer, about the strange job that creative writing is. Personally, I find poems about writing not as interesting as, say, poems about dogs (dead or living), cats, language play, kids’ games, campus policemen, or contrails left behind by escaped thoughts (all of which can be found in this book), but that’s a matter of taste.

Poet Billy Collins

Poet Billy Collins


I suppose that, as a former poet laureate of not just the state of New York but the United States in general, one might feel expected to write about writing, to create poems about poetry.  I also get the impression that Collins enjoys talking about writing (in his poems at least — I’ve not had a chance to meet him in person). In any case, there’s lots more to talk about here, so let’s do that!

Best Fall” (228) is wonderfully strange — it captures the oddity of the games children play, such as a game about who can fake being shot most convincingly, “to writhe and twist / aping the contortions of death / from the movies, / clutching our bleeding hearts / / holding ourselves / as we lifted — a moment of ballet — / into the air then tumbled / into the grass behind our houses […] trying our best / to make death look good / until it got almost dark / and our mothers called us in.” I had to think of a poem by a workshop colleague of mine, Christina, which was about the strange game of “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” Other childhood oddities Collins contemplates in the book include “marco / polo” and “this little piggy,” which is different in as far as the oddity originates with the parent who performs (and thus teaches the child) the strange game, rather than the child coming up with the game.

Riding a bike "side-saddle" style. (source)

Riding a bike “side-saddle” style. (source)

Another poem I enjoyed a lot was “Cemetery Ride” (162) in which the speaker takes his copper-colored bicycle for a ride through the Palm Cemetery in Florida. I think I liked it so much because I’ve done this — not on a bike, but I do like to walk through old cemeteries and look at the names and dates and imagine the people they belonged to. And on a beautiful, blue-skied day, it would be perfectly possible to feel like him: “I wish I could take you all for a ride / in my wire basket on this glorious April day” — which, he admits, wouldn’t quite work, because there’s not enough room. “Then how about just you, Enid Parker?” he asks. “Would you like to gather up your voluminous skirts / and ride side-saddle on the crossbar / and tell me what happened between 1863 and 1931? / / I’ll even let you ring the silver bell.” This poem made me smile, and I like that.

Several times, as I was reading, I felt he was alluding to Elizabeth Bishop. Specifically, “Lost” evokes her famous “One Art” when Collins opens with the line “There was no art in losing that coin / you gave me for luck” (101). And then of course “The Fish” (115), which evokes Bishop’s poem of the same title. Both poets have a mental exchange with the creature, and who knows, it might even be the same creature by some poetic accident, since Bishop catches the fish only to release it, and Collins then (presumably later) finds it on his plate, staring up at him in commiseration. Marianne Moore (who is written about explicitly in a poem further on in the book, see below) also wrote a poem called “The Fish,” but other than the title there is little similarity.

"Steamroller Traffic Warden," street art by Banksy

“Steamroller Traffic Warden,” street art by Banksy

My favorite has to be “Lesson for the Day” (182), — it’s just a very funny poem. When I first came across Marianne Moore‘s steamroller poem, my response was likely similar to Collins’ — an amused surprise, and the instant mental image of flattened cartoon characters, “for I, too, am a serious student of cartoons.” But Collins takes it one step further. He explains that “no one wants to avoid seeing / a flattened Marianne Moore hanging out to dry / on a clothesline or propped up / as a display in a store window more than I.”

All in all, Aimless Love is a very accessible, easy-to-read collection. It’s organized chronologically, starting in 2002 and working its way toward 2013. Looking at the blue and pink post-its sticking out of my book, there’s no clear pattern as to whether I liked the earlier or later poems more — it’s pretty even, actually. Oh and finally, I should mention that the cover art for this volume is adorable. Take a look:



About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. I enjoyed this and now I have some new poets to read!

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