The Rain in Portugal
The Rain in Portugal
by Billy Collins
Random House, 2016
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
It’s always delightful to find a book of poems on the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s no surprise that the book is by Billy Collins, who has done so much to re-popularize poetry by making it accessible again without having to make it rhyme. The Rain in Portugal offers up the usual pleasures of humor, intelligence, tenderness, and close observations of life. I’ve always enjoyed his poems that appear to meander and then take us somewhere surprising and specific, a destination he may have discovered during the drafting of the poem, toward which he now leads us ever so intentionally, and ever so gently.
But today I’m going to focus on the cats.
Dogs are represented, too, as in “what I liked best / about the dogs of Minneapolis / is that they have no idea they’re in Minneapolis.” And there are plenty of birds and a fish on a plate. But it’s “CatOber” at Escape Into Life, a month of finding cats in poems, and I was surprised to find so many here in The Rain in Portugal.
Let’s start with “Predator,” a poem short enough to quote in full that demonstrates Collins’s straightforward language and choice to write about what other people will recognize as shared experience. It shows his tenderness, too.
It takes only a minute
to bury a wren.
Two trowels full of dirt
and he’s in.
The cat at the threshold
sits longer in doubt
to stay in or go out.
Ah, but look at that: this poem rhymes! Cat owners whose cats go in and out will recognize the hesitation. And how many of us would bury the wren?
I also note that Emily Dickinson might not be so forgiving of the cat.
“Lucky Cat” is all about the cat, a lucky one indeed. Likewise, most cat owners will recognize the situation presented in its first stanza:
It’s a law as immutable as the ones
governing bodies in motion and bodies at rest
that a cat picked up will never stay
in the place where you choose to set it down.
“Weathervane” describes, yes, a weathervane that is “a cat silhouetted in black metal / extending a forepaw downward / in order to reach one of four metal mice // perched on the arms that indicate the compass points.” I want one! This cat is another predator, of course, but one that like “the lovers on Keats’ urn” will never reach its prey.
There are many poems about art in The Rain in Portugal, specific paintings, specific poems and poets (J. Alfred Prufrock is here and an elegy for Seamus Heaney), and “On Rhyme” is about poetry and nursery rhymes and even musical comedy, the speaker preferring to speak not about “The Rain in Spain” but “the rain in Portugal, / how it falls on the hillside vineyards, / on the surface of the deep harbors
where fishing boats are swaying,
and in the narrow alleys of the cities,
where three boys in tee shirts
are kicking a soccer ball in the rain,
ignoring the window-cries of their mothers.
Ah, see how gently and meanderingly Collins took us to that particular destination? But this poem, which contains the phrase that titles the book, also contains the line, “I like a cat wearing a chapeau or a trilby.”
“The Day After Tomorrow,” about the various personas of Fernando Pessoa, has a cat in it “re-curling herself on a chair.” It is a comfort to me to learn from this poem that I am not alone in ruining a tea kettle while reading or writing or looking out the window…
Meanwhile, the tea water has boiled away,
and the crown of flames is working on the kettle,
and the cat has moved to another spot.
She loves the unmade bed, the mountainous sheets.
But now, as we leave “CatOber” and move into November, let me leave you with the first stanza of “Early Morning,” which does indeed lead to a surprising destination I’ll leave you to discover on your own. For now, I will impress upon you, as Billy Collins does here, the important destination of a voting booth:
I don’t know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them
on the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I’m at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.