Iowa Poetry Prize

John Smith, Will Wordsworth

Published by: University of Iowa Press

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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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Playful Song Called Beautiful

John Blair

Playful Song Called Beautiful ranges far into the intersections of faith and scientific thought, places where “there is no stranger who is / stranger than you, no / familiar who’s more / familiar.” In poems that are either formally rhymed and metered or written in syllabically structured three-line stanzas, Blair wanders among universal orders and failures of desire, where the unlikeliness of any of us being who we are, what we are, where we are forces us to consider—and reconsider—the possibilities of belief and meaning. Blair’s poems are elegant and earthy, sometimes profane, and sometimes lovingly playful.

From the invisible landscape of elementary particles to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s love of the smell of rotten apples, Blair’s poems direct us through a “great wide world that is / ours and never ours” and somewhere among the rolling tercets, the transcendent becomes not only possible, but entirely inevitable. 

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A Point Is Which Has No Part

Liz Waldner's bold new collection takes its title and its inspiration from Definition 1 of Euclid's Elements of Geometry. Its six sections—point, line, circle, square, triangle, and point again—are explorations of various kinds of longing and loss—sex, death, exile, story, love, and time. Drawing from culture high and low—Eno and Aquinas, Lassie and Donne, Silicon Valley and Walden Pond—these poems offer proof of and proof against the “mortal right-lined circle” of memory and identity.

The innocence and Keatsian beauty of Euclid's geometry become poignant from a perspective that encompasses all that is non-Euclidean as well as space, time, and the theory of matter. With rare wit and linguistic daring, Waldner opens resonant channels of communication that show there is indeed more than meets the eye—or the mind—in her poems.

Hand to Mouth (Twist and Shout)

Cold comes slow up out
of the darkness among the leaves
that smell so good when bruised

Do you, too, recognize me
god so soon?

Her First Reckoning

Pour wine into vessels the violet of woods,
wine of the reddening stars.
You are god, you can do it.

Your lover calls you St. John the Conqueror.
I have heard her.
This is the name of a root.

Asperge the thousands and thousands of rooms
in which photosynthesis promises sun
to the acolyte cells. Rain yourself on a leaf.

Birch. The bark is malleable as mushroom flesh.
Show that you know me. Scratch out my name
with this tree. My name of trees.

On the day I arrive at the door of my death,
myself now hard to tell
from the trees that had hid it from me,

I will demand that you love me.
You made me like this.
Why did you make me like this?


Transitive, Intransitive: Extemporary Measures

Two crows above the marsh: sew.
Stitch the seventeen sleek shades of blue
to the shadow-patterned greens below.
See fit to make me a suitable view who
having nowhere to else to go
might as well wear this world well.
Llama necks periscope the view:
yonder, across the water, you
testing the air now a crow
chases a redwing blackbird through.

What can I show you who sees
I don't believe? For now,
what the eye of the needle sees:
through through through:
clouds, birds, me, trees;
soon: in, out, with, to;
something moving, something moved:
a stitch in time's an avenue,
future's sutures' revenue—
“the shining hour” improved.

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