book Sailing Alone Around the Room

reviewed by John Hammond

Published in Issue No. 54 ~ November, 2001

The publication of Billy Collins’ new and selected poems comes only about
a month after his appointment as Poet Laureate of the U.S. for 2001-2002
and a little more than a decade since the publication of The Apple
That Astonished Paris
, the first of four books represented here along
with 20 new and uncollected poems. It is easy to see some of the reasons
for Collins’ wide appeal: his self-deprecating charm, playful wit,
inventive images, and his imaginative leaps — or wanderings, gracefully
pivoting from the here-and-now to an alternate universe of the

There is the sense that the comfortable, knowable world of Dick and Jane,
new-fallen snow, and a barking dog will soon transpose into something
both unexpected and perfectly natural, reminding us that a poet is a
visionary for whom reality vibrates with possibility.


The first poem in Sailing, with the wonderful title “Another Reason Why I
Don’t Keep a Gun in the House,” illustrates this strategy.

The neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking whenever they leave the house:
“They must switch him on on their way out.” Putting on a Beethoven
symphony at full blast, he still cannot muffle the dog’s constant
barking. Then mid-way through the poem, Collins makes a turn:

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

his head raised confidently as if Beethoven

had included a part for barking dog.

Innocently, merely transcribing the reality around him, Collins follows
where this may lead.

In “First Reader,” he takes us back to a common cultural source for
reading experiences, Dick and Jane, and considers the implications. Dick
and Jane, who stand “politely on the wide pages,” are potent with the
changes that await their readers:

Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,

playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos

of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,

the boy and girl who begin fiction.

He foresees all the other protagonists waiting beyond this neighborhood
(Heathcliff, Pip, Nick Adams, Emma Bovary) while Dick and Jane appear
frozen in time, always pointing and saying, “Look!”

But the alphabet’s small and capital letters are waiting to be learned
and the school children waiting to be transformed, just as the world grew
out of the innocence of its first story of Eden: “Alphabetical ourselves
in the rows of classroom desks,/ we were forgetting how to look, learning
how to read.”

The social criticism that our education leads to the loss of a child’s
ability to truly, innocently see is a familiar idea that, having
those other busy neighborhoods over the years, still surprises. We have
forgotten how to simply “Look!” without the words that bring layers of
context and obscure pure sensation.

Sometimes Collins is just playing out the many figurative possibilities
of a subject, as in “Piano Lessons,” which begins with his piano
teacher’s notion that “every key/ is like a different room/ and I am a
blind man who must learn/ to walk through all twelve of them/ without
hitting the furniture.”

The scales have shapes, he is instructed: “C is an open book./ D is a
vase with two handles.” Because his teacher dubs the scale the “mother of
the chords,” he of course imagines her “pacing the bedroom floor” while
her children the chords are staying out late in nightclubs:

This is the way it must be. After all,

just the right chord can bring you to tears

but no one listens to the scales,

no one listens to their mother.

All this while his errant left hand has to be dragged into the music,
“like a difficult and neglected child./ This is the revenge of the one
who never gets/ to hold the pen or wave good-bye,/ and now, who never
gets to play the melody.”

Each numbered stanza takes us on a different tour, a thematic exhibition,
of learning to play the piano, something he comes to as an adult doing
the scales, “the familiar anthems of childhood,” any passerby might
overhear as the work of a young girl with perfect posture, “not me,
slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,/ like a white Horace

Meanwhile, the piano looms in his imagination, “the largest, heaviest,/
and most beautiful object in this house,” which he pictures late at
night, “this hallucination standing on three legs,/ this curious beast
with its enormous moonlit smile.”


His poetry frequently reads like the happy discovery of the right
metaphor or image, which he takes for a ride through the rest of the
poem. For a literal example, in “Scotland” he thinks of his life as going
nowhere, nothing really changing since childhood, like spinning his

This naturally launches the image of his life as a bicycle ride, begun in
1941, through Scotland, pedalling in silence except for intersections: “a
birthday, a wedding, a death —/ and then I would ring the bell on the
handlebar,” until one day coming to a stop, dismounting, the bike falling
over “with me under it,’ all the traffic whizzing by/ and a woman in a
drab raincoat walking over to see.”

In “Snow Day,” the poem feels like an excuse to enumerate the school
closings, and he is “as glad as anyone to hear the news//That the Kiddie
Corner School is closed,/
The Ding-Dong School, closed… along with — some will be delighted to
hear —//The Toadstool School… and — clap your hands — the Peanuts
Play School.”

But that is parenthetical to the development of his initial image: “Today
we woke up to a revolution of snow,/ its white flag waving over
everything,” closing government buildings, schools, and libraries.

The children dart and climb and slide, except for a “few girls whispering
by the fence:

And now I am listening hard

in the grandiose silence of the snow,

trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,

what riot is afoot,

which small queen is about to be brought down.

Playful and funny, yet elegant and poised, Collins seems to say: I can be
serious, as anyone else can be, but even life’s seriousness doesn’t mean
we can’t also stick our heads out the window to catch the breeze and
marvel at the passing landscape.

Such issues arise in the final poem “The Flight of the Reader,” which
imagines the poet lounging about his house, wondering how long readers
will stay interested in his limited world, readers he compares (all
connotations in play) with a “cricket or bluebird,/ wild parrot digging
your claws into my loud shirt.”

He knows we could easily tire of him, and he would miss us like a
teenager being dumped at school and pretending not to care. He wonders
why we still read him:

Is it because I do not pester you

with the invisible gnats of meaning,

never release the whippets of anxiety from their crates,

or hold up my monstrous mirror,

a thing the size of a playing field?

The ever-ironically self-deprecating Collins calls himself a lightweight
— no bothersome meaning here, no angst, no ego, no reason for us to hang
around, while he invites us to see his own way with the Serious,
describing almost as an afterthought his life’s bicycle ride, explaining
Beethoven’s new symphony, or revealing a nursery school coup.

If Collins can sustain his performance at this irresistible level, he
won’t have to worry about his readers taking flight, though all those
claw marks on his shoulder could become a nuisance.

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John Hammond is Director of Public Relations and teaches English at San Antonio College, where he organizes an annual Book Fair. He won the Writers Digest First Place Award for Poetry and has published his poetry in Southern Poetry Review, Journal of Popular Film, Wind, Epos, and elsewhere. He has written personal articles for various publications and published many book reviews for the San Antonio Express-News.