Nine Horses Billy Collins

Published by Picador
Price £7.99

Cover of Nine Horses: grid of nine horse heads

I first read a poem by Billy Collins about five years ago in an old back-issue of Poetry London. Since then, his rise up the poetry ladder has been nothing short of meteoric. His previous collection, Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes confirmed his status as one of the worlds most popular contemporary poets. His second term in office as the American Poet Laureate seemed justified despite a great wealth of writers emerging from 'that side' of the pond.

With all this in mind, I sought Nine Horses as soon as I heard it was due out in March? this year. I was intrigued to see if Collins had forged a new exhilaration of pitch, or simply added another crisp chapter to his previous successes. Book in hand, the first thing I noticed was that the man had been busy. No flimsy collection was this, moreover epical, a beautifully presented book, consisting of 120 pages.

Inside, I am glad to see that BC still strikes the bell of recognition, often with unerring accuracy. His customary ability to transport the mundane or domestic to the odd or sublime is a credit to his powers of mind and observation. Indeed, Collins appears able to breathe new life onto the fire of inanimate objects seemingly at will.

A fine example of this is found in the title poem, whereby Collins is describing a picture of nine horse heads that his wife gave him as a birthday gift. As the heads stare down from the wall, Collins marks their sadness as a measure of warning and fellowship. Let your suffering eyes / and your anonymous deaths / be the bridle that keeps us from straying….

Though here is a book, sharp in wit, what strikes me is that Nine Horses frequently displays a more compassionate tone, made possible because of the authors brave sentimentality to its somewhat darker subject criteria.

Nevertheless, this book in its entirety is not Collins' best work. There are only a few poems in here that are not 'I' based, and the exclusively narrative tone does sometimes become a little tedious. Perhaps these twinned repetitions are because the book is at least 20 pages too long. The overriding use of narrative structures veer the author towards the bracket of a frustrated potential novelist, thus limiting the impact of Zen-like gravitations that have previously accentuated his work.

If you are seeking a highly readable book, with subtle variations, from an author of great standing in the world of poetry, then this is the book for you. I, on the other hand, will wait to see what is the next on the literary agenda for Collins. Perhaps it will be that novel, which I would expect to be thoroughly engaging. If it be a collection of poetry my feet will shuffle to the bookshops, rather than scamper, as they did for this collection.

James Byrne


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