Iowa Poetry Prize

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Published by: University of Iowa Press

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Inland

Pamela Alexander's poetry is characterized by inventive language, scrupulous accuracy of imagery, and a winning fusion of the comic and the deeply serious. Her subjects vary as widely as her settings, which range from the New Hampshire woods to the Arizona desert. A family life eccentric to the point of chaos, close observations of wildlife, and coastal sailing are among the poet's topics.

Despite this variety, Inland has an emerging organization that suggests a kind of plot. The family is left behind in the way that families of origin always are, revealed fully only in perspective: “foghorns / in the harbor, two different pitches / at different intervals / repeating so often I didn't hear them / and their accidental harmonies / until I'd left town.” Shifting toward the subject of new relationships, in her diatribe against a past (and passing) lover Alexander gives a new twist to the fact that this subject has been fair game for poets for centuries: “...you could say hello, you canoe-footed fur-faced / musk ox, pockets full of cheese and acorns / and live fish and four-headed winds and sky...”

James Merrill, praising Alexander's first book, called it “a wonderful achievement. Her language is now simple, now playful, now extremely poignant.” This is an apt description of Inland as well, a book that shows Alexander in witty yet serious engagement with the world. The longest poem here, “Swallowing the Anchor” (the title is the sailors' term for giving up the sea), is also the most directly personal. It closes the section of the book in which the poet comes to terms with losses, including the death of the loved one. She does this with grace—and her wit is not jokes, her poignancy is not sentimentality.

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La Far

Eric Linsker

How far are we from the Lake District? How far from the garden? Eric Linsker’s first book scrolls down the Anthropocene, tracking our passage through a technophilic pastoral where work and play are both forms of making others suffer in order to exist. In La Far, the world is faraway near, a hell conveniently elsewhere in which workers bundle Foxconn’s “rare earths” into the “frosty kits” that return us our content, but also the sea meeting land as it always has. Both are singable conditions and lead, irreversibly, to odes equally comfortable with praise and lament. The poems in La Far hope that by making the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract, “literalizing / a nightingale beyond / knowledge,” we might construct what Words-worth called a “Common Day,” a communized life partaken of by all.

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Ledger

The many meanings of “economy” are the ground for the mediation and lament of Ledger, Susan Wheeler’s fourth book. In its Greek origins, economy referred to the stewardship of a household and, as it developed, the word also came to include aspects of government and of religious faith. Ledger places an individual’s crisis of spirituality and personal stewardship, or management of her resources, against a backdrop of a culture that has focused its “economy” on financial gain and has misspent its own tangible and intangible resources.

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Like a Sea

Samuel Amadon

   Drawing equally from Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, John Berryman, and Robert Frost, Samuel Amadon’s award-winning Like a Sea is a collection of poems where personality is foregrounded and speech is both bizarre and familiar. Central to this weirdly talky work is “Each H,” a sequence of eleven monologues and dialogues wherein an unknown number of speakers examine their collective and singular identities while simultaneously distorting them. From a sequence of pared-down sonnets to a more traditional lyric to a procedural collage inspired by J. D. Salinger, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Walter Benjamin, Jane Kenyon, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Primo Levi, Eugenio Montale, and Edwin Arlington Robinson, Like a Sea is a book of significant variation and originality.
     Amadon’s electric collection begins with the line “I could not sound like anyone but me,” and through a wide range of forms and styles and voices he tests the true limits of that statement. The image of a half-abandoned Hartford, Connecticut, remains in the background of these poems, casting a tone of brokenness and haplessness. Ultimately Amadon’s poems present the confusion and fear of the current moment, of Stevens’s “river that flows nowhere, like a sea,” equally alongside its joyful ridiculousness and possibility. Rather than create worlds, they point out what a strange world already exists.

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A Little Middle of the Night

The language of Molly Brodak’s first full-length collection, A Little Middle of the Night, is ever shifting, brightly sonic, and disarming while exploring the margin between nature and art, darkness and beauty, dreams and awakenings. As echoed in one epigraph from Emerson, these poems capture “the Exact and the Vast” of consciousness in intense lyric verse with an angular and almost scientific sensitivity. Here is a speaker intent on discovery: “Oh whole world, we choose / another.”
      This award-winning collection simmers with wit as Brodak confronts tragedy, childhood losses, transcendent love, and the question of art itself. Tinged with a suffering—“I was the littlest wastebasket. / I was my own church. Except— / scared, scared”—that rises above personal sorrow, her fierce and painterly poems redefine nature and art and what exists between: “Lately, there is spangled shade in my space / and a cold apple orchard to tend in place of consciousness.” As Reginald Shepherd said about the poems in Brodak’s first collection, the chapbook Instructions for a Painting, her world is “‘small enough / to sing in all directions,’ and large enough to take us there.”

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Love's Answer

Michael Heffernan

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Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk

A Poem in Fragments

Drawing from the paintings of Susan Rothenberg, Gwyneth Scally, and Eric Fischl as well as from the photography of Allison Maletz, Joshua Marie Wilkinson's Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk is a book-length poem written in small fragments. Comprised of seven sections, the poem is formed as much by the poet's travels through Turkey, the Baltics, and Eastern Europe as it is by the movies of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Bill Morrison. The painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are here alongside whispers of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk is a book of cinematic images and fragments, of small stories overheard and quickly abandoned, of hidden letters and phone booths, and of ghosts who return with questions.

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The Messenger

Stephanie Pippin

In thrilling poems of metamorphosis and birth, death and dissolution, Stephanie Pippin’s debut collection returns us to a world unshorn of wildness. Delivering accident and hunger, love and grief, nature in these poems is beautiful and brutal, “a hellish magnificence” that both invites and denies the meanings we project onto it. Refusing the domesticated comfort of our usual myths, Pippin reminds us of our place as creatures among others in a world where “what isn’t dead / is dying,” and where the thrill of predatory flight commingles with the desperation of the prey.

This mesmerizing and astonishingly assured collection offers a message as harrowing as it is essential. Faced with the hard master of necessity—“angel stinking of his own / excitement”—and bare before what Mallarmé called “the horror of the forest,” we are helpless, finally, to do anything to save what we love. Our sole task, these poems insist, is to look on while we can, and to love harder. 

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Natural Selections

Joseph Campana

Whether wandering the paths of the imagination, driving through sparsely populated countryside, or listening for the voices of animals, Joseph Campana’s poemsattend to the ways we are indelibly marked by habitat. Shot full of accidental attachments and reluctant transience, Natural Selectionsproduces from vibrant contradiction potent song.
 
In poems both lyric and expansive, Natural Selections finds in the simplicity and strangeness of middle America a complex metaphysics of place and an uncanny perspective reminiscent of the landscapes of Grant Wood. Birds and beasts, frequent storms, country roads, a fraught election, and some of Ohio’s literary guardian angels (James Wright, Hart Crane, and Sherwood Anderson) haunt the poems. Whether enigmatically refracted or brutally direct, these poems attend to the way life is beautifully, violently, and unexpectedly marked by place.
 
With a boldness of vision that might overwhelm a lesser talent, Joseph Campana gives us a collection guided by a focused intelligence and yet containing wonderment and awe at its heart. By turns ferocious and charming, contemporary and mythic, grief-stricken and funny, the poet’s voice is always original, direct, and pitch-perfect. The poems in this book are a wonder.

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Odd Bloom Seen from Space

Timothy Daniel Welch

These poems speak an odd nostalgia for what turns on, in, and alongside the world. A tragedy of loss, a miracle of eroticism, or a comedy of road kill, Odd Bloom Seen from Space looks at the self amid the ashes of fleeting exultation and uncertainty. The speaker tells stories with wild candor on matters of heroic inadequacy while searching through his obsessive questions for greater meaning.

But it’s in the act of discovery, through the hero’s immediate ancestry that Welch’s debut collection confronts big questions about family, music, art, and memory. Like a contemporary Diogenes who pursues meaning one small gesture at a time, Welch comes to learn truth is a “brutal commerce,” beauty is “white legs / upon which she shed her childhood,” time is “Michael Jackson / hooting in the trees,” and “Love is gradual, a bottle / by sips, a bottle / poured onto the floor.” There is wisdom to be gained from these inventive pursuits, but in the end it’s not what is said, but how it’s said with terse rhetoric, deep imagery, and surprising humor that makes Odd Bloom Seen from Space such a gorgeous, original, and baffling collection.

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