Review: Horoscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

Horoscopes for the DeadHoroscopes for the Dead by Billy Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets for a multitude of reasons, notably for me – he has such an economy with words, using them in a way that evokes a wide range of emotions for each measure he takes on. He can be humored, but at the same time depict grief and coming to terms poignantly with each line. I think I credit my discovery of his work through my college studies, even dating as far back as his release of “Nine Horses” and then backtracking through his individual books from there.

I first read “Horoscopes for the Dead” last year around the time it was released, and I recently had the pleasure of rereading it as it was featured among several other books as a part of National Poetry Month (April). I loved it just as much as the first time around. “Horoscopes for the Dead” is a short compilation of poems that evoke a theme of remembrance, of life and death and the go-betweens. The very first poem in the collection, “Grave”, I thought had a powerful touch to start the tone of the overarching book, especially with the speaker standing before the graves of his parents. For me, even to the point where the speaker was pressing his ear to his mother’s grave, and then rolling to hear the response on his father’s end and hearing nothing but imagining the measures for the silence that greeted him. “The Straightener” also appealed to me in the arrangement and significance of specific items to the speaker, even down to where they serve as a distraction for other things, an escape in orderliness.

In poems like “The Snag” – you get a sense of the speaker’s lament of the passage of time, but even in the first few stanzas, there’s a dark humor to it:

“The only time I found myself interested
in the concept of a time machine
was when I first heard that baldness in a man
was traced back to his maternal grandmother.

I pictured myself stepping into the odd craft
with a vial of poison tucked into a pocket
and, just in case, a newly sharpened kitchen knife
Of course, I had not thought this through very carefully.”

To carry that thematic, even “Thieves” has a charming depiction of stealing time upon the hour, from the speaker observing a scurrying mouse to sitting on a rock, a “Volkswagen of stone” and wondering upon its orgins in the continued spectrum of time, among other factors. “The Guest” was powerful to me in its brevity because of the speaker arriving, yet noting the dying/dead flowers by his door, and “Genesis” was beautiful in its intimacy and reversal of notations.

The namesake of the collection, “Horoscopes for the Dead” is another of my favorites for the way it reflects upon loss and how the predictions for futures – good or bad – no longer apply to the beloved that has departed and reflects the steady state, yet the speaker carries forward.

“Simple Arithmetic” struck me for its notations throughout the poem, and especially through the final lines: “and there I go, too,/erased by my own eraser and blown like shavings off the page.”

I had numerous other favorites in the collection, including “Roses”, “What She Said”, among others, but I believed the running thematic and reflections through the entire work were beautifully written, and certainly adds to my respect and future perusal of Collins’ work.

Overall score: 4/5

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Random House.

View all my reviews


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