Understated Love with Billy Collins

Billy Collins. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Gina Elia

On Sunday afternoon at the public session of this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, connecting to this year’s theme of Desire, was quick to point out that he is not a sexy writer, nor does he focus on romance. Yet with his trademark understatement, the poems he read aloud exuded a steamy sensuality. Passion, his poems suggested, is best expressed through evasion, leveraging images and textures to dance around desire, rather than stating it explicitly.  

His poem “Searching” describes a narrator who has stayed up late poring over texts about Barcelona, not out of interest in the city, but out of love for one of its inhabitants, an albino gorilla named Snowflake. 

In “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” the speaker describes peeling clothing off the nineteenth-century poet in obsessive detail, from her “tippet made of tulle” to the “mother-of-pearl buttons down the back” to the “clips, clasps, and moorings, / catches, straps, and whalebone stays” of her undergarments. 

In “Victoria’s Secret,” with equally rapt attention to the technicalities of garments, he  juxtaposes the supposedly sensuous expressions of Victoria’s Secret catalog models with overly detailed descriptions of their skimpy garb: “Go ahead, her expression tells me, / take off my satin charmeuse gown / with a sheer, jacquard bodice / decorated with a touch of shimmering Lurex.” Collins purposely kills any potential for desire with our ad-driven culture’s insistence on overstimulating potential buyers with objects for sale—while winkingly building a bond with the listener. 

Desire is big and unruly and messy, Collins’ entire reading seemed to say, and less is more when trying to encapsulate it in words. Suggestion, rather than definition, trusts readers to fill in the gaps. In that, we find satisfaction. 

Gina Elia is a high school Chinese teacher in the greater Miami region. She has published several freelance articles in publications including SupChina and Taiwan’s CommonWealth.

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