Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Aimless LoveI am a relative newcomer to the poetry of Billy Collins, but thanks to an admiring fan, I was lent a copy of his collection Sailing Alone Around the Room which was an extremely readable, entertaining and at times even hilarious read and so when I saw this new collection was coming out I requested it.

Who even knew that one could study for a PhD in Romantic Poetry? Does that make him of Doctor of Love I wonder?

His poems speak of ordinary things but steer clear of cliché, and Aimless Love as a title for this collection of collections as well as some new poems, seems perfectly apt for all manner of common things he appreciates and shares with us.

Aimless Love brings together selected poems from previous collections as well as some new poems

Here are a few extracts from moments of pure joy in reading Billy Collins Aimless Love:

The Country

I wondered about you

when you told me never to leave

a box of wooden, strike-

anywhere matches

lying around the house because

the mice

might get into them and start a fire.

But your face was absolutely

straight

when you twisted the lid down

on the round tin

where the matches, you said, are

always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?

Artwork by our Allia

Artwork by our Allia

Who could whisk away the thought

of the one unlikely mouse

padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper

gripping a single wooden match

between the needles of his teeth?

And who could not be tempted to read and understand more of this familiar relationship between the poet and his parents in:

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,

I tap the horn as I speed past the

cemetery

where my parents lie buried

side by side under a smooth slab

of granite.

And this line from a poem called

Monday

Just think –

before the invention of the window,

the poets would have had to put on a jacket

and a winter hat to go outside

or remain indoors with only a

wall to stare at.

There are other fabulous poems like The Great American Poem, Horoscopes for the Dead, and Ode to a Desk Lamp.

But just as good as reading his poetry is listening to him read aloud, he has a melodic voice that lulls the listener into a kind of warm familial comfort, his words caress like a gentle tide of steaming bath water with the scent of Cedarwood. Well, perhaps if you close your eyes while listening, like I do.

Here he is reading just a few days ago, the title poem to this collection Aimless Love, so sit back, close your eyes, listen and be soothed:

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy, provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Helium by Jaspreet Singh

I doubt this book would have crossed my path, had it not been sent to me by The Guardian in recognition for an extract quoted from my review of Caroline Smaile’s The Drowning of Arthur Braxton, one of my outstanding reads of 2013.

Helium2However, I am glad that it did, as it is an example of important fiction that crosses between cultures and provides us with insights into other worlds and perspectives, lessening our ignorance of events which often account for the unspoken attitudes and undercurrents present in countries that visitors, travellers and outsiders rarely gain access to. We are seeing more novels written in English from immigrants written from outside their country, alluding often to tragic events that have happened in their home country; for many, the reason they have fled.

Last year one of my favourite reads was one such book, Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, based on a true story of the survival of seven-year-old girl of royal descent under a despotic regime in Cambodia and fictionalised as a tribute to those who were lost, in particular her own father. It is a stunning portrayal seen through the eyes of a child with both a chilling and hopeful view of humanity.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi

Helium centres around one man, Raj, a scientist who was an only child; we learn he left India 25 years before and will discover the reason why, along with his continuous fascination for science, the periodic table and memories. One memory in particular influences his journey and decisions, the attack of his college professor, a Sikh, who along with thousands of others in 1984 are targeted and killed in revenge for the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (daughter of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru), in what was believed to be a government assisted genocide.

“How wrong Professor Singh was that day on the train when he said that the three most important questions for us concerned the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of the mind. He forgot to add other questions or shall I say he forgot to ask the three really significant ones: Why do people respond differently to traumatic events? How do we remember the past? Why when ‘meaning’ collapses in our lives, do some of us seem to locate a new ‘meaning’?”

Rashtrapati Niwas, built 1888  Source: Wikipedia

Rashtrapati Niwas, built 1888
Source: Wikipedia

Raj, who faces his own challenges as a husband and father back in the United States, returns to India and unable to face his father, whom he suspects of being involved in those events, looks for the wife and children of his Professor and finds her working in an archive at Rashtrapati Niwas, formerly the Viceregal Lodge in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.

“Clara has her romantic ideas of India and she clings to those ideas and I am a personification of those ideas. I am not allowed to narrate the dark side of that romance – how ugly the collective consciousness of a nation can be.”

Singh references Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, a novel of science and memory and a man who survived persecution in the concentration camps of WWII and who wrote that outstanding, compassionate masterpiece If This Is A Man: The Truce which I was fortunate to read last year. And the black and white photos throughout the text are a sure reference to W.G.Sebald, another author he admires and relates to. They have the effect of making the reader almost forget that this is a work of fiction, and are a more than subtle reminder that the background events certainly did.

Jaspreet Singh’s character Raj is conflicted, being neither victim nor perpetrator of any crime, except perhaps ignorance, he reads Levi but can’t embrace his humanity or gift for forgiveness. He is angry, as much with himself as anyone else, and must live with the knowledge and acceptance of his role as bystander.

It is a novel that addresses the attempt to escape the past through distance, both physical and cultural and is a reminder that even as many as 25 years will not keep the past from affecting the present when confronted with people, places, books and reminders of that past, that without facing up to our inner demons, they will likely continue to possess and haunt us.