CRITIQUING BILLY COLLINS

So, I just got back from USC this past weekend after my month at the USC/LARB publishing workshop, which was an absolutely amazing experience. The people at the Los Angeles Review of Books are all extremely outgoing and kind. They clearly care about the value that every publisher brings to the table—we heard from smaller presses like Angel City Press and Tia Chucha, as well as massive corporations like Netflix and Amazon, and all the magazines, authors, and so on in between.

It was this constant dedication to diversity that made me wish to discuss the work of Billy Collins today briefly. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the poems in The Rain in Portugal, since I just finished it and it is fresh in my mind still. I should preface this with A) that I have not read all his work—in fact this is the only collection of his work that I have read, so take what I say with a grain of salt and B) that I really enjoyed his work. Like it was some of the most inspiring, thought provoking poetry I have ever read.

With that in mind, I wanted to talk about the issue I have with the collection. The issue I have found is that, in many cases, Collins provides only a male-centeric narrative to his poems. Under the Stars, Cosmology, and A Day in May (also titled “May Day”) I think illustrate this issue the best. Under the Stars portrays a person, who is most likely a man, pissing under the stars. While the overall message is to find tranquility in the most unusual of areas, the emphasis on fraternity creates a sort of in-group versus out-group mentality, where the reader may feel alienated if they lack a penis.

Similarly, Cosmology paints the image of the world resting on a variety of unusual pictures (the infinite backs of turtles, for example). Collins decides that placing the world on the back of Keith Richards, holding a bottle of Jack Daniels and smoking a Marlboro cigarettes is the ideal place to rest the world. Of course, this is meant to create humor, but the decision continues to uplift the male narratives. Which isn’t necessarily bad, until Collins begins to represent women to the contrary.

In Collins work, women often become objects. A poem is personified as a woman, for example. And truthfully, it is extremely romantic and lovely to read. But it also can be one-dimensional. One example of this is in A Day in May, in which Collins highlights a girl telling him “have a nice day.” In his brief commentary afterwards, he mentions this statement as being “an irritant” because the girl could not possibly know how good the day was already. Yet to describe her as an irritant seems unfair. She was simple a cashier doing her job, and being polite about it at that. This representation presents women as “lesser” people. Which I think is on the border of cruel.

Anyways, that’s just my opinion. I still adore his poetry—I just ordered a couple more of his collections. But I still think that we can do better—or at least should be aware of the problems that exist even at the highest branches of poetic form. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

 

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BUS RIDE TO THE THEATRE

We were on the local bus, and it was about seven-thirty. They were probably on their way to school, and I was off to start my second week as a movie theatre clerk. Unfortunately, I had to bounce from bus to bus to get there, and even leaving home at seven often resulted with me being late. My attention was turned to the video. It was rude of me to look at the screen over their shoulder, but when I heard the solemn violin music playing I had to check it out. The two kids in front of me—really young adults of about sixteen—had their iPhones out, giggling from video to video. The title of the video displayed in a bold red “This Ad Has a Powerful Message About Domestic Abuse.” It was some breakdown video about how an advertisement had tried to humanize the abuse victims.

Maybe it was the cynic in me, but it seemed to fall flat. I mean, how is it that all the victims are the hourglass figure girls? Aside from their black eyes and bruises, they all had perfect skin. Which was ironic, since the ad was for swimsuits, and the women all didn’t want to be seen for their bruises. Of all moments to talk a realistic body issue, a self-conscious swimsuit girl wasn’t a good moment?

I was spurned from my thoughts as my second change of buses came. I left the two kids to their laughter. The second bus was busier and I had to stand. The soles of my feet would ache from the swaying and speeding by the end of the trip, but aching was something I had grown used to. The freeway flew by as we sped down the road to our destination, and eventually I was lost in my own thoughts. I felt my eyes glaze over, as I looked around at a room full of mothers, daughters; sons, and fathers. How many of them were abused?

My mind turned back to the video. What had been that “powerful” message? Oh yes, that women shouldn’t stand for domestic abuse. Duh. More specifically pretty women. But how else does a company sell bikinis if it can’t use perfectly rounded butts and a body devoid of stretch marks?

Still, my mother was battered and beaten by her father, and then again by mine. I remember the welts, the lumps, the black eyes, and the shuddering tears. I remember the cold embrace of her arms as she told me it would be alright. I remember the night it became too much for her; the night she hung herself from the rafters. Her body was limp, listing about slowly. She had bitten through her tongue when the rope had snapped her neck, and it had left a dribble of blood from the side of her tired mouth.

The beam she had tied the rope to had sagged beneath her weight, and looked as though it may break. Her well-worn face looked tired, yet calm, in the way that a child looks fatigued as it naps after a long bout of crying. But the only tears shed that night were from me. My father was out doing…whatever it was he did after his night of drinking.

But we never talked about the middle-aged woman, with her wide torso and blotchy face. The judge never questioned her suicide when my dad came through the doors crying. No one listened to the five year-old child’s wails about the evil man her father was. They just saw a pathetic woman, a noose, and a broken family; who were just like the thousand they had seen before.

It stung to get off the bus that day, and see the glorified posters of happy families and perfect couples as I walked into the theatre, but life is never without its stings. I was lucky to be on time today. Mine vices—past, present, and future—were just another mark on the list of what people experienced every day.

——

 

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LOVE POEM #35 – THE PALE MOON RISE

The sick stench of rot

Permeates from my soul,

Like the spilled glass of juice

Across the tiles this morning.

It seeps into every crevasse,

Every wooden frame,

Until it’s made a home in my life.

 

Of course, life isn’t always this way.

There are sunny days;

Laughing friends;

Happy thoughts.

 

But come the pale moon rise,

I’ll find myself shielded

Inside my room.

My fortress of solitude,

Impregnable,

But lonely.

 

Is it really a surprise

That my sheets are stained

With the faded remnants of blood;

Grown so old

That they look like the brown sores

From a festering spider bite?

 

And the knife hangs

From my desk table,

As a reminder of my sins;

Past,

And future.

 

The quiet piano music,

Sullen and defiant,

Reminds me there’s so much to live for,

Yet I cannot grasp it.

 

I sit there. Empty

Like a void,

Silent, quiet, and irrelevant.

 

And I just

And I just

And I just…

 

I just don’t want to be alone.

 

Not again,

Not anymore.

The ruthless onslaught

Of the rain’s downpour

Hammers my heart

Into the ground,

But I know

She’ll never come around.

——

 

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SPARKS FOR A WILDFIRE

Emblazoned, contemptuous, and enraged. The burning anger ignites like sparks for a wildfire. The yelling has stopped—I’ve even driven away, but the red in my cheeks couldn’t be more real. The pulse of bitter sadness and the beat of primal depression brush the needle edge of my consciousness, emboldening the fiery demon within to rear his ugly face; to take flight against friend and foe alike.

Of course, they’ll never see it. The waitress, the passersby. Friends and family, whores and ladies in kind. They all see the practiced mask of smiles, well worn by now, like a familiar pair of shoes. The unexpected cries of children, or the sudden guzzling of a motorcycle are the only moments where my armor cracks.

And yet, even now, they fade away. The fryers, the bustle of children, the lights and sounds and spirits all grow distant to the darkness inside my mind…

Is this why people shoot up schools?

The haunting image of my own tattered self lies dead before me. He’s gruff, bearded, and dirty, like the homeless man I saw off the freeway tonight. His jeans are shredded—not as a Hollister model’s, but as one lost, so worn dry that his bones stand out against his sunken skin, and the depths of his eyes hold an empty black void. A void filled with the same horror that lies within a black hole. His curly hair lies in shambles, down along his shoulder line, and his once proud, fat fingers are stretched boney and pale.

Of course, he is me, and I am him. I sit appalled, as this slump of a dead man sits across from me, his body listing weakly against the red and white diner booth. At once, I am filled with both disgust and jealousy. To die such a lonely, pathetic death.

And yet, to be freed from the world of lies, of pains, and of false smiles. I shift uncomfortably as the envy in me tries to win out. I think it will.

The hours have passed by. The heat of my anger has given way to the frost of my heart. Not the ice I instill on others. I cross my t’s and dot my i’s. I smile, and play along. But the frost bitten feeling within the carcass I inhabit. The chill I feel with each morning’s rise, and each evening’s fall. A familiar sting; one that I’ve made my own. But it is uncomfortable, nonetheless.

The limp returns. A phantom, not unlike my happiness, yet it seeps in to my life in ways the smiles don’t. It’s like an old friend come calling, sapping the life from me. He’s back again to tug at my will, to push me to give in; to bend me till I break.

Remind me again the need for faith and fitness, when we all will be buried in dirt just the same? Or burned, if we are lucky. Turned to trinkets our families can treasure for years to come.

My hand drifts absent-mindedly to my chest, adorned with my golden necklace.

Pages gone, scribbles, failed lines, cliché poems, broken stanzas; a myriad of simile and metaphor, and I am spent. Like the last dollar the single mother-stripper scrapes off the dance floor—too ashamed by the house lights to pick her head up. She fears the sting of her children’s stares.

Spent like the poor aching man, working two empty jobs so that his mother, wife, and children all have food on the table—though he himself is too weary to lift the spoon to his mouth.

Spent like the hearty teenage couple, after their first grip of ecstasy, when the reality sets in that the condom was broken.

Spent like the dimes clattering in the grizzled street musician’s guitar box. The hoots and hollers of drunkards make him wonder what good those years at Julliard did.

Spent like Dante, and Chaucer, and Shakespeare, whose pens all live despite their death. Yet we know not the men they were, just the pages they have left behind.

Pages, like the ones I’ve left you.

——

 

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A quick closing note. They say writing is an extension of self, and this is in no way inapplicable to this piece of work. However, you, the reader, should also recognize that this is a fragment of the emotions we all feel, which I have tried to capture as truly as I can. It does not reflect the day to day world I live in, or the feeling I am necessarily experiences at the time you read this. I could be at Disneyland for all you know! (Ok I mean I’m not but you get my point). Anyways, enjoy this, see the value it holds, and see what you can pull from it for your own well being. 🙂

MONEY TALKS (AND OTHER HAIKUS)

Money Talks

All this money talks

Yet I don’t speak its language

Because talk is cheap.

 

Details

I looked at the desk,

And thought to myself, “what luck!”

They got it in brown.

 

Mutt

The perceptive dog

Will live more in its short life

Than the vain master.

 

Power

Now that is power.

To still fire with their eyes;

Not extinguish it.

 

Rice

Single grains of rice

Do not provide sustenance

When eaten alone.

——

 

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DYSTOPIA

“And we’ve returned for another exciting adventure!” The neon green man yelled out from the billboard screen. Exciting indeed, I thought to myself dryly. I was walking along the sidewalk on a dreary Monday, with the sky threatening to break above us. Like myself, everyone was dressed in gray. Gray shirts, gray shoes, gray pants, even gray scarves. I mean, certainly, not everyone was dressed in gray, but it had the gray feel to it. You know, when everyone looks so boringly the same? A couple people had preemptively put their umbrella’s up—though I wonder whether that’s because they expected the rain, or were simply too oblivious to realize that it was not falling yet. I could hear phones buzzing (nobody ever set their phone to ring anymore—who could really take the looks of wonder from strangers when an unexpected song burst out? This was no Disney movie).

I, personally, do not own a phone. Not that it’s a bad idea, but I do not have much reason for it. My family died out a few years back—my mom died after a bout with brain cancer, and I never met my father. If I need to contact friends I know I will see them at work. Work. Everyday, everybody would pile onto the tram and—what? No no no, the tram. There’s no cars where I live. There is the work space and the living space. Each tram travels along a massive circular railing, roughly 8 feet from the ground, with break points at each living space, and at each workstation. To save time, the chairs of the trams fall out and drop people from their seat onto a padded surface. This initially was a problem, until people realized (or rather, were told) that they did not need all the extra baggage they carried. There were printers at work, and everyone’s documents were paired between their workstation and their home. And besides, who has time to do anything special like that anymore? It’s not as though we had energy to do anything after we got off work at night.

After people got off the tram, they would walk through the narrow walkway back to their home. Roads were disposed of quite a while ago—they just took up too much space. The living spaces were already at their maximum safety height—at least, maximum in terms of cost efficiency to safety ratios. And the people had grown so obese that they were losing functionality sooner. A short walk to home on our own time was a little trade for both our health and government time. Still, I feel bad for the eighties. They live nearly ten miles away from the nearest tram stop. But, that’s punishment for low efficiency units.

I live in the fifteens. Fifteens are a great lot. They’re far enough away that the air is still crisp, but not so far that it’s a voyage to Tram Stop #3. There’s no “early to work” or “late to work” anymore. People come and go as they please. The companies decided it would be more freeing to do that. But there is a minimum work efficiency barrier, and in the even that it is not met the companies and the government have taken measures to motivate people to get back to work. They will limit warm water, leisurely Internet access, and reduce the quality of food flavor. Consistently low efficiency units are moved further away until they fix their problem—assuming their space hasn’t been reassigned yet. The fifteens are pretty high—I have worked quite hard to earn my flat. It even has a couch. You never really realize what it’s like to not have a couch until you sprawl out on one.

But enough thought about home. The walk to work from the tram station—Tram Station #92, to be precise—is quite a sight. The busy lights, the gray masses of men and women. It’s really something to look at. Everyone has a screen in their face, protective glasses on to keep the light from frying their eyes over time—early blindness was a sign of systematic inefficiency. The air was moist, yet as always it was nearly odorless. The light scent of rose petals wafted through the air. I’m told somewhere, a higher up has the last garden in the sector, and that we are lucky they leave the window open for us to smell it. Though, truth be told, I’m almost certain they simply pump the scent into the airwaves. Otherwise that would be a vacation attraction.

——

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SNOWFLAKE

There’s a problem with being a snowflake,

Which is that, despite being beautiful,

It is crushed underfoot in human’s wake

And left for dead in a winter quite cruel.

And while it can glister like regal gold,

If left in light it will begin to melt.

Few snowflakes get to see their days grow old,

Even if in life they were made heartfelt.

Snowflakes are at the mercy of the wind,

And in the ravishing torrential air

Their valiant edges will find themselves skinned;

And their beaten bodies left weak from wear.

I think I know why people can relate

To the fragile life of a lone snowflake.

——

 

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THE PAINTERS

White

Look at those white men.

How do you agree with them?

Do they control you?

 

Yellow

Hey, long time no see.

He knows how to use chopsticks

And likes to play joke.

 

Black

Aye, boy, come here now.

I saw what you did to him,

Get that jacket off!

 

Brown

What was his name? Juan?

Hey! Juan! Can you pull my weeds?

His name is Steven.

 

Painters

We see face value

Rather than hear ideas.

Coloring who’s good.

——

This is one poem made of 5 separate haikus. That matters.

 

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I WROTE YOU A POEM

I wrote a poem for you

But I didn’t think you’d want it.

So I let it go.

I let it fly out across the wind

Up and up

Until I couldn’t see it again.

And I’m told it flew so far

That it passed through storms

And sunny skies alike.

Until, finally, it landed

In a hot, vapid fire

And it was consumed

For the paper fuel it was.

 

In that way, I suppose,

It was like me.

NUMBERS IN AN OFFICE

There’s an assortment of numbers

Hanging on the office’s wall.

Each a different person to call.

And yet they are filled with wonder.

 

Look at how each number can weave

It’s way through the lines of the board,

Or together become a hoard,

Asking for each of us to leave.

 

Yet we stay here, sitting alone,

With our hands clutching the dials.

Our mouths sound like nail files

As they beg us “please” to go home.

 

And it isn’t till the clock strikes five

That we will get to leave them be.

It isn’t till then that we see,

These poor numbers become alive.