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This review is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.

GET A LIFE BILLY COLLINS, Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh) $12.95

Billy Collins takes his title from a throwaway line in Lolita that, my 'mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)...' It's doubtful that any poet today would have the guts to write about illicit desire out on the lubricious poly-chromatic landscape (fast food, motels) of the American road; the film Lolita can't even get a general release. But Collins' adoption of this parenthetical aside suggests that he could be interested in the uncounted daily horrors pushed offstage by Humbert and Lolita's monstrous performances. But while picnic lightning and the death of a 'photogenic' mother is no rare thing, Collins goes off in a direction which can only be said to be actuarial: 'It is possible to be struck by a meteor/or a single-engine plane/while reading in a chair at home.' Fatalism is an interesting subject but absent any eschatological dimension and it becomes in modern hands like Collins' a wan thing, devoid of any majesty or terror. When Kurt Vonnegut used the tag line 'So it goes' it was against the background of the bombing of Dresden. But Collins has no such external referent, either historical or religious, so the continual evocation of the quotidian in his poems eventually becomes a mirror to banality as the poet's lines duplicate the small events of his life: 'And if I am drinking/a cup of tea at the time/or a small glass of whiskey,/I will find a line to put it on.' This tone of coyness, sustained throughout Picnic, Lightning, eventually ...


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