How bold it would be to be critical of a man who is Poet Laureate of the United States. Fortunately, I don't have a lot of criticisms to make. I have been a Collins fan for some time, having come across a poem of his in Poetry magazine and then reading his collection Questions About Angels. I've been reading his stuff ever since.
I've never read a poet who keeps me enthralled on every page and Collins is no exception; however, there is a lot of good stuff here. "Night Letter to the Reader," "The Country," "Velocity," "Istanbul," "Love," "Creatures," "Birthday," "Albany," "Litany," "Bermuda" and "The Only Day in Existence" are among my favorites.
I particularly like a poem called "Tipping Point" where Collins brings out the arbitrariness of measuring time and the subtlety of our sensations of time: "...the sensation you might feel/as you passed through the moment//at the exact center of your life/or as you crossed the equator at night in a boat." Would we want to be able to sense the midpoint of our lives? Could we? Any more than we could sense passing over the equator?--another arbitrary way to measure our world. And yet, we do sense things deeply, if only in the deep dark night or while walking in the rain.
But Collins never dips to far into pretentiousness. In fact, in "Study in Orange and White" he illuminates the pretentiousness of titles. How many of us know that the painting generally referred to as "Whistler's mother" is in fact entitled "Arrangement in Gray and Black"? Then why not, Collins asks, Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" as "Composition is Blue, Ocher, Green, and Pink" or, best of all: "...a chef being roasted on a blazing spit/before an audience of ducks/and calling it ¡•Study in Orange and White.'" I always enjoy a poet who can bring in some humor because I find this to be a weakness in my own poetry.
Ultimately, as you read this poetry, you begin to realize that Collins is never far from you. This is not confessional poetry and yet the pronoun "I" appears in every single poem. But Collins is more of a friendly guide through his poetry than someone who is trying to beat you over the head with his themes. Collins has been compared to Frost and I think there is some truth in this. In this collection, Collins shows his Frost-like skill at presenting poems that are relatively short and very accessible in a surface reading but yield more if you want to put in some effort to dig a little deeper. This is an uncommon skill.
Modern poetry is too often neglected in this country today. That is too bad. Here is a collection of poetry that deserves to be read. In these rather short poems, Collins uses his personality and experiences to give his readers a share of those experiences--experiences that are worthwhile.