The Rain in Portugal

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The Rain in Portugal
128 pages; Random House
Fifteen years ago, in an Atlanta bookstore, I overheard a woman ask a clerk about someone she'd heard on Garrison Keillor's radio show–you know, the poet who... Without hearing more, I interjected: Billy Collins? "Yes!" she exclaimed. It was an easy guess; long before I met Collins, I felt I knew him. Across 11 volumes of poetry, he has created a voice not just familiar but familial– what poets and their nephews and nieces might call avuncular. The vast audience that has made Collins that oddest of phenomena–a best-selling poet–will find much to savor in his latest collection, The Rain in Portugal (Random House). 

Collins gains his readers' trust through humor; it's way of descending the perch of authorial authority and sitting down next to you, as in the poem "Early Morning": "You know, when I told that interviewer/early morning was my favorite time to write,/ I was not thinking of this particular morning." Devotees may come for his jokes, but they stay for the asides. 

The jovial and the grim coexist in The Rain In Portugal, especially in poems dedicated to profound, if pleasing melancholy. These range from "Oh, Lonesome Me" to "Poem to the First Generation of People to Exist after the Death of the English Language," which, by the way, isn't an elegy to the language that "seemed for so many of us/the only true way to describe the world/ as if reality itself were English," but rather a defiant celebration of the art form Collins loves. As in almost all his recent work, the new poems engage with the sorrow of losing loved ones, the distance, and the frustrations of aging–we turn to Collins for Comfort in the face of such inevitable. Take "only Child": "Not until my parents entered their 90's/did I long for a sister, a nurse named Mary." His invented Mary, Collins knows, is no less reassuring for being a wish. The Rain in Portugal reminds us of the importance of wishes and that as long as we have poetry, we are not alone. 
— Kevin Young