Billy Collins Comes Up Short in Musical Tables




By Billy Collins

Random House, 176 pages.




Billy Collins is my favorite poet but his latest, Musical Tables, is a small disappointment. Small, because it’s a collection of around 125 short poems. Collins seldom writes long poems, but I’d have to place these efforts–many of which are just two or three lines long–in the same category as I put most short stories. That is, they left me wanting much more.


Musical Tables isn’t haiku, nor does it pay much attention to meter or stress; they are prose poems that seek completeness within a compact form. Collins tells us that he’s always admired poets who have expressed themselves that way. He offers as way of explanation this little chestnut from A. R. Ammons titled Their Sex Life: “One failure on/Top of another.” I admit that this is a zinger and so too are some of Collins’ efforts. Allow me to offer a sampling of the ones I liked and before making more comments about why I was disappointed.


3:00 am


Only my hand

is asleep,

but it’s a start.


Reflections on an Amish Childhood


I was a little square

in a round hat.


The Visit


The wind blew

open the front door.

and sat down

in my father’s chair.


Google Maps


my parents’ grave

is 1198 miles north of here.


17 hours and 23 minutes

from now,

I’ll make believe I’m there.


The English Professor


when I asked him

if he was in love,


he accused me

of anthropomorphizing him.


The Exception


Whoever said

there’s a poem

lurking in the darkness

of every pencil

was not thinking of this one.


Embedded in these and a dozen others is the cleverness and poignancy leavened with humor that makes me a Collins fan. He cites Gary Snyder, Kay Ryan, and others as inspirations for his efforts, plus his habit of flipping to the short poems when perusing poetry volumes. Collins calls such short works, “poetry’s way of squeezing large content into small spaces.”


I understand where he’s coming from and share his enthusiasm for reading short, random samples of a book as a way to determine whether or not to read more. For me, though, an entire collection of short poems adds up to too much. There are gems in Musical Tables, but I was left feeling a combination of meh! and ennui. I reiterate that Collins is not a writer of epic poetry; a really long Billy Collins poem is one that spills onto a second page and when it gets past three, one feels as if it should be the lead story of the arts section: Billy Collins Writes Long Poem: Literary World Stunned.


Nonetheless, the best Billy Collins poems are stories that leave you giggling or stab you in the gut. His greatest poems do both. Musical Tables seems more like idle thoughts, the likes of which I jot down in my own writing notebook. The difference between me and Collins is that he takes his one or two intriguing lines and surrounds them with more quality material that makes me think, “Oh, that’s why he was a poet laureate and I’m just a guy who occasionally composes a good hook.”


I was disappointed in Musical Tables because too much of it read like my notebook. The above samples are roughly half of the ones I enjoyed. Quick arithmetic will tell you that roughly 90 percent of the rest struck me not as squeezing big ideas into small spaces, but as small ideas in need of more context. Modernist architects are fond of the concept “less is more,” but I don’t think it’s always the most flattering way to fashion a building or composing a poem. 


Rob Weir


Brian McQuillan's Whimsical Vision

Here’s a short for-fun posting for what is usually an off day for off-center views.


I’ve long had a fascination with art made either from repurposed machine parts or from metals that look as if they were. Vermont’s late Bill Heise (1943-2011) was one of the first I encountered. His work can be found in lots of places and is recognizable as he like to fashion animals and whimsical creatures from shovels, rakes, plows, and other such objects. When I moved to Western Massachusetts, I met Archie Nahman (b. 1931) who used found metals and tools to make Jewish religious objects, among other things. You might also see work from other “junk art” artists like James Kitchen, Dale Rogers, or Emily Toth.


In this column, though, I’d like to focus on work of Brian McQuillan on view last December at the Hosmer Gallery of the Forbes Library in my town of Northampton, Massachusetts. He too likes found materials and from it he creates some very cool things, usually animals. He makes his home in Hampden, MA.


None of this needs a lot of commentary from me. Here are some quick iPhone images I shot that induce emotions ranging from aww! to how did he think of that? Some of his work costs thousands of dollars so I’m not likely to be hauling one of them into my front yard any time soon (or at all), but he makes me smile every time I encounter it. Enjoy and if you’re ever tempted to own one, some of his smaller pieces can be yours starting at $300. That’s a price point that tempts me, though I’ll be hanged if I know where I put any of it.


Sometimes the greatest pleasure isn’t in the owning, it’s seeing public art from a talented guy wherever you encounter it. If you can’t buy a piece, check in with your local arts council and encourage them to buy a piece and display it for all to enjoy.


Rob Weir



Jazz Garden
Mad Monk





Trois Couleurs is Brilliant and Worth Rediscovering


If you love film, you must see the brilliant Trois couleurs trilogy, which I just viewed again. The title is French, director Krzysztof Kieslowski was Polish, and the themes pan-European. The order in which you should view them are: Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge. Depending on the data base you search, they might appear under their French titles or their English translations (Blue, White, Red). Each was distributed by MKZ Diffusion. They are in French with some Polish and English. Do not let subtitles deter you; they are masterpieces.


Trois couleurs appeared at a crucial moment in European history. Discussions of a unified Europe had been kicked around since after World War II and decisions implemented in stages. Standardized monetary exchanges came in 1986, and the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht eliminated border controls between member states and set in motion various other mechanisms: the creation of a blue European Union flag (1993), a central bank (1994), and the adoption of the Euro in 1999 in most EU nations. (Not all of Europe belongs to the EU, most notably Iceland, Moldova, Norway, Switzerland, several Balkan countries, and Britain, which left the EU in 2020.)


Whether it’s on the screen overtly or not, the coming integration of Europe lurks in the background of Trois couleurs. So too do reflections upon the colors of the French flag: blue for liberty, white for equality, and red for fraternity. Pay attention to the clever ways in which Kieslowski links one film to the next (some tips below), the circularity of the films, the clash between old and new, and as the late Roger Ebert observed, the ways in which Kieslowski subverts conventional notions of tragedy, romance, and comedy. 




Bleu/Blue (1993, 94 minutes) stars Juliette Binoche as Julie de Courcy, the wife of Patrice, a composer who dies in a car crash that almost kills Julie as well. He left unfinished an anthem to European unity, and Julie is besieged by those who suspect she is the real genius behind her celebrated husband’s compositions. Among them is Olivier Benôit, who has loved Julie from afar. Julie is too consumed by grief to care about music, Oliver, or what others want. In this sense Bleu is the color of grief and when I say the screen is bathed in that color, I mean it’s as if it were literally washed in blue.


For various reasons, including constant calls from journalists and the anthem commission, her mother’s dementia (the divine Emmanuelle Riva in a cameo), and the revelation that Patrice had a mistress, Julie puts her country estate and all of its contents up for sale, and moves to Paris in an attempt to be anonymous. At some point, grief mutates into an embrace of her solitary life (“liberty”). A few things will happen that melt Julie’s defenses, including a friendship with her peep show exhibitionist neighbor and Benôit’s reappearance, but Bleu can also be seen as feminist awakening.


Binoche is riveting. When she meets Sandrine, the lawyer carrying Patrice’s child, their encounter is not what you’d anticipate. Sandrine tells Julie that she’s not the sort of woman a man would leave, and we know exactly why she said it. Watch also for the color shift as the anthem grows closer to completion, with blue sharing the screen with green. Is this a subtle hint that monetary unity will destroy the old ways? Don’t bet against such an interpretation; not everyone was happy to abandon markers of nationalism. Trois couleurs shows that tension, quite often by juxtaposing younger people with older ones. 



Blanc/White (1994, 87 minutes) is my least favorite in the trilogy but I appreciated it more this time. After an opening shot of cases moving along a conveyor belt–a foreshadowing of an important plot device–we see one of Kieslowski’s connecting links. Sandrine is the lawyer about to enter a divorce court to dissolve the marriage of Dominique Vidal (Julie Delpy) and her Polish husband Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) on the grounds that Karol is impotent. He opposes the divorce, but what chance does a Polish hairdresser with rudimentary French have after admitting he had not consummated his marriage?


Notice that a stooped old woman struggling to recycle bottles reappears in Blanc and remember that white represents equality. It’s hard to discuss the plot without resorting to spoilers, so I will simply note that equality is further embedded within several key relationships, those of Dominique and Karol, Karol’s with his brother Jurek, Karol’s with his well-to-do benefactor Mikolaj, Mikolaj’s with himself, and Karol’s with those in France who dissed a poor Polish immigrant. This film certainly demonstrates why Roger Ebert said Kieslowski undermined conventional movie romances. The film ends with what is outwardly a labyrinthian revenge, but Kieslowski leaves open a barred window to the possibility we’ve not yet seen the film’s final chapter.


I really mused upon equality this time around and suspect I simply missed clues and cues in 1994. On the other hand, it remains Kieslowski’s weak link as its equality theme is incompletely developed. But Kieslowski certainly painted the screen white: shirts and dresses, Delpy’s pale complexion, sunlight bleaching her blonde tresses, snow, ice…. Whites contrast with gray, especially in scenes shot in Poland, perhaps Kieslowski  signaling that Poland was an outlier in plans to unite the continent.     




Rouge/Red (1994, 99 minutes) is on my list of all-time favorite films. And, yes, it bleeds red, the color of fraternity. One reviewer described the term “luminous” to describe Irène Jacob, who inhabits the role of Valentine Dussaut.


Rouge is set in Geneva, where Valentine is a university student and part-time high-fashion model. She is kind, thoughtful, and so stunning that her chewing gum advertisement becomes a gigantic traffic-stopping hanging banner. (Want to guess the background color?) Alas, she’s in love with a jerk who either can’t or won’t commit and whose phone calls from London are abrupt and insensitive. Valentine also has family woes. Her life takes a turn when she hits a gentle German shepherd named Rita as she drives home.


Rita is alive, Valnetine reads her collar, and finds herself at the home of Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintigant), a retired judge and practicing cynic. He tells her to just take Rita, a level of callousness that staggers her. Don’t worry dog lovers; Rita survives. One day at a park, though, she tears off and races back to Joseph’s house. This sparks what is surely one of the strangest relationships imaginable and I don’t mean a romantic one. Valentine seeks to humanize Joseph and he makes her aware of her self-worth, a slanted look at fraternity. Valentine also shames the judge into giving up an illegal habit–not drugs, though they are a plot device–and he desires for her the courage to tread a path he never took to avoid the guilt he has harbored for decades.


There is a parallel story about a young man studying to be a judge with his own relationship woes and despair. Rouge is shot full of abandonment issues, inner anguish, the need to let go of things one can’t change, and lots of scrumptious red. You will notice that Valentine is only person in the trilogy to help the old woman deposit her bottles, but the harrowing, moving, and poignant ending–based loosely on a real event–brings the series full circle. I admired Kieslowski’s courage in tailoring such an unusual narrative. Is Irène Jacob luminous? Like the red backdrop to her water-soaked hair. Like the way dreams sometimes come true.


Rob Weir




6:20 Man a Good Thriller with Too Much Military Nonsense



THE 6:20 MAN (2022)

By David Baldacci

Grand central Publishing, 417 pages.





A book labeled “A New York Times Best Seller” means it sold a lot of copies, not that Times critics liked it. The Best Seller tag has been applied to David Baldacci for so long that I decided to check out his latest, The 6:20 Man. My mixed review: Loads of thrills and loads of contrivances.


Travis Devine, the book's titular character, is so-dubbed because six days a week he gets up at 4 am for a vigorous workout, showers, and catches the 6:20 train from Mount Kisco where he shares an apartment with three roommates, and commutes to his job in Manhattan. He's a “Burner” in the investment firm of Cowl and Comely, his status an indicator that he and other recent hires are vying to remain on staff. That requires that they make scads of money for the firm. Travis hates his job and the workplace is toxic, but he left the U.S. Army under less-than-ideal circumstances and got an MBA. Coincidentally he’s trying win parental approval, which is unlikely; they disapproved even more strongly when he entered the military.


One morning he receives an untraceable email with the message, “She's dead.” She is Sara Ewes, a woman with whom Travis had a very short and clandestine affair, as she too worked at Cowl & Comely and interoffice relationships are frowned upon. Her death was ruled a suicide but changed to a homicide, which causes Karl Hitchcock of the NYPD to question Travis. Soon tongues are wagging, but who sent the email and how did anyone know he had slept with Sara? Can it get worse? Yep. He is summoned to a meeting with Emerson Campbell, an ex-Army officer now working with a powerful government agency. He knows that Captain Devine, an Army Ranger, was responsible for another officer's death. How and why don't matter; Travis either plays ball with Campbell or will spend the next 30 years in Leavenworth. He wants Travis to bring down Cowl, a slimy Machiavelli akin to a Wall Street Elon Musk.


This is the tip of the iceberg in a novel dealing with billionaires, funny money, and dangerous people. Cowl is an egoist with a modernist McMansion the 6:20 passes each day. Among its amenities is a gorgeous exhibitionist girlfriend whose poolside antics can be viewed through a gap in the trees where the 6:20 pauses. She titillates with colorful string bikinis and, once, by wearing nothing at all. She is Michelle Montgomery, Cowl's girlfriend of the moment, not that prevents him from also having sex with Jennifer Stamos, another top official at the firm.


The 620 Man is filled with characters with baggage. If Hitchcock is NYPD, how is other homicide agents in the office have never heard of him? What about Devine's roommates? There's Will Valentine, an overweight pizza-and-beer-loving Russian immigrant who works from the apartment as a hacker. What's the deal with yoga-loving Helen Speers, an NYU law school grad allegedly studying for the bar exams but whose books don’t seem to have been opned? Or Jill Tapshaw, who seeks venture capital for a franchise of dating apps? Why is Travis harassed by three guys, jumped in an alley, and forced to kick the crap out of them? How is that one of them is Christian Chilton, an old friend of Michelle's who owns more of Manhattan than Native Americans ever did? Why does another email alert Travis another colleague has bit the dust, and how is his face on a video inside the office the night she was murdered?


Welcome to the world of international finance, erstwhile lords of the world, dark web activity, spying, big guns, and Army Ranger machismo. There's even a teaser involving a Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot. The 6:20 Man is a heart-stopper in the mode of writers such as Lee Child, Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum. If you know their work, you know blood will be shed, men will be men, gals will be bedded (with some twists), and butts will be kicked. If this is your genre, you'll like The 6:20 Man.


Credit to Baldacci for masterful suspense and not tying things together in a neat bow. Yet there is much that’s not my cup of tea. Among them is slobbering over the military. Travis Devine has a Rambo-like side in that odds don't seem to matter. Plus, the oooo-he's-a-Ranger stuff gets my back up. Baldacci does take down the “Thanks for your service” cliché, but I'm not buying Special Services invulnerability. I also found Baldacci's conspiratorial worldview hard to stomach. He might be right but if so, we're so screwed I'd rather not know about it.


Rob Weir



Random Thoughts for Today

Random Sunday Thoughts February 5, 2023




I left the Democratic Party during the Clinton administration. I was appalled by his callowness, his lying, and smiles as fake as a “genuine” Rolex sold in Shanghai back alleys. I cast votes for independents, or Democrats I find more trustworthy than Bonkin’ Bill or Hawkish Hillary. Almost all of them are either local or State (Massachusetts) candidates of sound policy and impeccable character: Jo Comerford, Jim McGovern, Lyndsay Sabadosa, Elizabeth Warren….


Why rehash “ancient” history? The Democratic National Committee has long been as braindead as Bill Clinton was amoral. A case in point is its decision to supplant New Hampshire as its first primary in favor of South Carolina. Are you freaking kidding me!? Can you say reality challenged? Why not change it to West Virginia or Utah, he asks sarcastically? A Democratic nominee for president has as much chance of winning South Carolina as that Shanghai Rolex has of fetching $10,000 on the open market. On the other hand, New Hampshire’s four electoral votes could be the difference between winning or losing an election in a divided land we ironically insist on calling the United States of America. So, what does the DNC do? It alienates the Granite State.




On a more pleasant note, I attended a Smith College basketball game last week, something I hadn’t done in decades. Smith is 19-1 and riding high (#5) in Division III women’s basketball polls.


Granted that Division III hoops can be as analogously ragged as, say, the lower levels of minor league baseball. Nonetheless, several things stood out that made me smile.


·      Coaches stress fundamentals. You’d have to watch NBA footage of the 1970s to see players pass the ball as often as women’s teams do. They cycle the ball in search of high-percentage shots or an open three. Am I alone in finding the modern NBA boring with constant three-point attempts, a shot with a less than 40% chance of success. Michael Jordan and Larry Bird shot percentage points under 50% for their careers; Magic Johnson retired at 52% and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nearly 56%. See my point!

·      I nearly fainted to witness traveling calls and three-second violations. In the NBA, you’d have to take the inbound pass and run the length of the court with the rock under an arm before traveling would be called. You might need to pitch a tent beneath the hoop and take out a Coleman lantern to get a three-second whistle.

·      Decorum: Smith thumped Wheaton by 36 points. It could have been worse had not Smith emptied its bench early and often. Yet, players on both sides conducted themselves with dignity and respect. Any elbow thrown was accidental and composure was kept. Who’s in favor of automatic ejections in college and professional ball for thuggery?





A big thank you to my friend Huck for reminding what a great poet Frank O’Hara was. He was just 40 when he died in 1966, but his was a rare talent. He often wrote in deceptively plain blank verse about seemingly mundane observations. There was no need to unpack cryptic terms and arcane allusions in order to find the poignancy lurking within.




The Grammy Awards are tonight. I loathe award telecasts and won’t be tuning in. But hear this: The cameras will be pointed at industry-created celebrities, but for pure talent Molly Tuttle would hold her own against anyone and then some. She’s pigeonholed as a bluegrass performer, but there aren’t many in any genre worthy of carrying her guitar case. Watch her put some Martins to the trial:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwuCG-UvgZo  (John Hartford is smiling from Heaven!)