Published, February 2014
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I love this book’s “snow falling / soft on the cut of living,” its magnificent force–epic in scope, lyric in texture. Here is a poet who creates not just her own voice and narrative–but her own language, animating it with a passion rare among her contemporaries. This book is a single poem, a sequence, a lyric breath. It is a field where ”under the bode of sky / old-eyed horses stood.” Meet its hero, who is magical, and yet so like us. What does this Ay want, you will ask? “Ay want what is not Ay–” Like all of us, one could add. And, in this is its author’s wisdom, admitting: “and blind / from shoulder to pit to eye / Ay am hollow and lit by a hunger.” To say that Houlihan is a unique voice in American poetry is an understatement. The work is breathtakingly inventive and yet deeply humane. In the time when so many poets create linguistic fireworks that possess little, if any, emotive depth, Houlihan gives us a poetry of passion and lyric attentiveness that is rich in its textures, lyric tonalities, and rhythmic, memorable speech. It is a narrative and song at once; it is talismanic.
In The Us, Joan Houlihan introduced her readers not only to an invented pre-historic culture, its collective struggles, and a handful of its most illustrious members, but also to an artfully primitive idiom unlike any other in use in poetry today. The sequence of poems collected in Ay revisits these inventions and pushes them even further, refreshing the possibilities of our present by drawing deeply on the ruddier vitality of an imagined ancient past: “Morning, born, kept / limb to limb, a fruit new-grown, / to where it riped before.” Musically rugged, riddled with insight, resonant, gripping, and chock-full of moments that startle with their vividness (“What eats grass slow and bent- / necked, eyed from the side, is deer”), Ay deploys its fertile idiom not only for the pleasure of it, which is immeasurable, but as a medium through which to investigate, among other things, the mechanics of subjectivity, grief, empathy, and forgiveness. The result is one of the most radically inventive and invigorating books of poetry I’ve read in years.
“If as Nietzsche says, all language is metaphor, Houlihan could be said to be imagining the moment in the development of language when the possibility of metaphor was born, when the name of the thing became separate from the thing itself and entered its own abstract system. How thrilling!”
—Julie Sheehan, The Southampton Review