Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last
Mothers masquerading as witches and sepulchral bellhops who reveal themselves to be fathers: in Justin Boening’s debut collection of poems, selected for the National Poetry Series by Wayne Miller, nothing is as it seems.
Peopled by figures both uncanny and tragic—lionesses who dance and cry, surgeons who carry with them the trauma of past lives, an opera singer whose notes go awry—Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last uses the language of dreams and of fairy tales to deliver a keenly felt exploration of family, grief, regret, and belonging. Here everything stands for something else. But though the Freudian mother and father lurk behind every sequined costume, continue to strip away the masks, Boening suggests, and you’ll find an even more primal absence at the center—Nobody, No One, mortality, death. Beyond that, we find, lies only the truth of our relationships with each other.
Shot through with mournfulness, gorgeously spangled in its language—“a squall of chrysanthemums / and the weird”—Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last is an unforgettable collection about our human failings and the grace we seek.
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Praise and Prizes
“Justin Boening’s lines consistently elude our expectations, but somehow encourage and fulfill them in doing so. Surprise is a recurring texture throughout these shimmering poems, and no wonder, when ‘we changed our laws as often as our laws allowed.’ Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last is a stunning achievement.”
“An emotionally rich, intellectually sharp gospel . . . Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last announces the arrival of a poet—inheritor, it seems to me, of Mark Strand and John Ashbery—who may be our generation’s own skeptical spiritualist. . . . Boening’s seems a skepticism only the most faithful could possess, a doubt that provides the constitutive backing of belief. I’m moved, time and again, by the depth of feeling in these poems, by a sincerity that’s never saccharine or simplistic, and by Boening’s ability to articulate spiritual desolation in ways that feel fresh and engaging. . . . A lustrous debut written by a poet who already, it seems, possesses the wisdom and spiritual depth of a much more established writer.”
“Justin Boening is capable of a remarkable music of longing, and sometimes a music of the flailing and fantasy that screen for longing. Aside from Kafka, I sense kinship with Mark Levine’s cracked landscapes, Mark Strand’s serene self-effacement, and Lucie Brock-Broido’s extravagant menagerie.”
“Boening is a master of massive observations masquerading as minor heavenly bodies, all singing to each other in their coupled descent.”
“Justin Boening’s work is fearless, self-deprecating, ironic, sublime, heartbreaking, and beautifully wrought. His poems have a way of taking you off guard, of taking you from a real world of ‘celestial certitudes’ through a wilderness where the other world hangs in a ‘museum / of what is not there,’ a world of buskers and strangers, of fortunetellers, of a family gone wrong and a mother gone sour. There are many shadows, and many shades from a curdled past. His muse is an afterlife he swears by, but it is, likewise, one he swears cannot possibly exist. This book has a way of having its way with you, and you like it, you surrender to it. Boening asks, in this marvelous first collection, ‘Is there another world? Is it this one?’ You answer: Yes. It is. It is this one.”
“Wild, lush, and dreamy . . . A book that gives pleasure, a visceral sensation that starts somewhere in the chest and ripples down to the feet. . . . Justin Boening’s poems are ancient, mystic, sometimes wry, and always ardent. I will be returning to this book often, to spend time in the places these poems have built, to spend time with this speaker at the ends of the earth.”
“Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last is a book of vividly dreamlike Freudian meditations and parables. There’s a wry fatalism throughout the collection as Justin Boening leans toward an acceptance of mortality and, more importantly, our basic human capacity for failure—but there’s also a quiet playfulness that emerges from inside the traps these poems make. I found myself consistently astonished and thrilled by their ability to reverberate in many directions at once, articulating elemental human paradoxes and needs in ways that feel vital and engaging and new.”