Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins

In honor of National Poetry Month, I am reading and review books of poetry. Last week, I read fellow Austinite Michael Gilmore’s Restless Astronomy. This week, I am reviewing Billy Collins’ Picnic Lightning. The book came out in 1998, but I received my copy around 2005. My college roommate, a mountain man/physicist/poet, gave me the book as a birthday gift. (He also gave me Heart of Darkness; what this says about our relationship I do not know.)

As far as poets go, Billy Collins is something of a rock star, or at least a popular singer/songwriter whose music is in some memorable movies. He is well-known for his conversational, humorous style. He can also turn from silly to poignant within a stanza. He is the Scrubs/Parks & Rec of poets! Collins served as the U.S. poet laureate from 2001-2003. I admit, I had to look up what a poet laureate is. In short, the Library of Congress selects a poet to be a kind of ambassador for poetry in America – traveling the country, giving readings and lectures, and raising general awareness of the art and craft of making poems. For this honor, the poet receives $35,000.

Picnic, Lightning is easily of one my favorite poetry books. Collins is a master at transforming the mundane into the magical. He pulls memorable moments from everything. Some of my favorites are the sillier ones. In “Afternoon with Irish Cows” he tells the story of a time that he heard what sounded like a cow next door being murdered. He rushed over to see what was the matter:

Yes, it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one, anchored there on all fours,
her neck outstretched, her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

Then I knew she was only announcing
the large, unadulterated cowness of herself

The funniest poem by far was “Victoria’s Secret”, in which Collins peruses the infamous catalogue and details what is happening the photos:

her head thrust back, mouth partially open,
a confusing mixture of pain and surprise
as if she had stepped on a tack
just as I was breaking down
her bedroom door with my shoulder


Go ahead, her expression tells me,
take off my satin charmeuse gown
with a sheer, jacquard bodice
decorated with a touch of shimmering Lurex.
Go ahead, fling it into the fireplace.
What do I care, her eyes say, we’re all going to hell anyway.

There are more melancholy poems as well, covering sleepless nights, choices made, the death of a parent. If you are like me and new to poetry, I think Billy Collins is probably a great place to start. I’d recommend this one to anyone.