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Whale Day: And Other Poems


Whale Day: And Other Poems

There is no more appropriate way to begin a review of WHALE DAY, a new poetry collection from Billy Collins, than with the words of my favorite poem of his, “Introduction to Poetry.”  On the first day of teaching law school classes, I would read it to my students hoping they might appreciate the philosophy of learning that we would follow in class.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, and many of his previous collections have appeared on bestseller lists. A few years ago, I attended a reading of his at the Tucson Festival of Books. The room was packed, the audience was enthralled, and the atmosphere was as if a rock star was performing. These days, many have turned to the soothing words of a Collins poem to help them cope with the pandemic, believing that "[t]he virus is slowing us down to the speed of poetry." Collins appears on Facebook for a half-hour poetry reading six evenings a week at 5:30pm. There is often a theme to these sessions, and the joy is spread through comments from listeners around the world.

"[T]here is a variety in [Collins'] work that mixes humor, solace and ruminations on life in a manner that brings comfort to the common experiences we share."

Collins is 79 years old, and the pandemic has somewhat sobered his outlook on life. In a recent New York Times interview, he expressed concern that should he become infected with the disease, it probably would be fatal. Perhaps that is why several of the poems in WHALE DAY discuss death and dying. But just as in past collections, there is a variety in his work that mixes humor, solace and ruminations on life in a manner that brings comfort to the common experiences we share.

The title poem contemplates nothing more than the spotting of a whale on the ocean by a group of tourists who “point and shout and wonder how to tell their friends about the day they saw a whale.” For some, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but as Collins reminds us, “[T]he earth is busy with whales even though we can’t see any.”

“The Card Player” is quintessential Collins, beginning with the description of a friendly evening poker game and then meandering to a discussion of the artist Cézanne and his work. It all comes together at the completion of the poem with these words:

But at least now I have found the answer
to the old question of who would you invite
to your ideal dinner party:
Paul Cézanne, Bugs Bunny, Beatrix Potter,
and okay, maybe at the last minute, Gore Vidal.

While some of these poems touch on death, Collins retains his unique perspective on life. Read “Life Expectancy,” “Cremation,” “My Funeral” and “Me First,”and recognize that even in that somber subject, there is warmth and wit. He has a remarkable human voice in his poetry.

It is fitting to end this review with a poem discussed by Collins in his recent New York Times interview. “When” by Irish poet John O’Donnell reminds us that someday this pandemic will be over, but the memory will linger in our hearts and minds.

And when this ends we will emerge, shyly
and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace
loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those
it gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture, this longed-for
laying on of hands, high cries as we nuzzle, leaning in
to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,
although a time will come when we’ll forget
the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh
of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;
a time when we may even miss the old-world
arm’s-length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,
the drifting, idle days, and nights when we flung open
all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices
reaching out, holding each other till this passes.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on October 2, 2020

Whale Day: And Other Poems
by Billy Collins

  • Publication Date: October 5, 2021
  • Genres: Poetry, Poetry Collection
  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0399589775
  • ISBN-13: 9780399589775