Scared Violent Like Horses
Selected by Victoria Chang as winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, John McCarthy’s Scared Violent Like Horses is a deeply personal examination of violent masculinity, driven by a yearning for more compassionate ways of being.
McCarthy’s flyover country is populated by a family strangled by silence: a father drunk and mute in the passenger seat, a mother sinking into bed like a dish at the bottom of a sink, and a boy whose friends play punch-for-punch for fun. He shows us a boy struggling to understand pain carried down through generations and how quickly abandonment becomes a silent kind of violence; “how we deny each other, daily, so many chances to care,” and how “we didn’t know how to talk about loss, / so we made each other lose.” Constant throughout is the brutality of the Midwestern landscape that, like the people who inhabit it, turns out to be beautiful in its vulnerability: sedgegrass littered with plastic bags floating like ghosts, dilapidated houses with abandoned Fisher Price toys in the yard, and silos of dirt and rust under a sky that struggles to remember the ground below.
With arresting lyricism and humility, Scared Violent Like Horses attends to the insecurities that hide at the heart of what’s been turned harsh, offering a smoldering but redemptive and tender view of the lost, looked over, and forgotten.
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Praise and Prizes
“McCarthy’s book of Midwestern threnodies begins in image and ends in solemnity. . . . McCarthy’s poems are profluent stories—a joy to marvel at this skill, impressive considering the book’s bleak landscape.”
“McCarthy has whittled out a sense of freedom from the heartache of the past, and the reader is left with a remarkable vision.”
"In unshowy, plaintive, quietly delivered language that should not be mistaken for affectless—and that can be stabbed through with surprisingly piercing metaphor—McCarthy vivifies a place and a hard way of life too little visited."
“I found Scared Violent Like Horses while browsing at Powell’s books in Portland, Oregon. I was in search of a collection of poems that would swallow me like a novel, carry me to the timeless dimension of literature. In other words, to be my balm in this fractured twenty-first century landscape. This book deeply satisfies . . . Direct from the heartland, John McCarthy speaks to all of us in a compassionate, whip-smart American voice.”
“In this devastating, gorgeous collection, John McCarthy opens up ‘[t]he hurt and mangled parts of us,’ the places in us where we are ‘hollering fervent and raw,’ to explore the pain of abandonment and the purity of that loneliness, so that we might understand how trauma breeds desolation. ‘How could we not / break the mirror we look at in the morning?’ How do we escape the desolation we are? ‘I carved my scalp open,’ he writes, ‘until I could feel the smoke leaving my body,’ and such viscerally brutal moments in this book remind us that ‘there are many different kinds of beauty.’ McCarthy is a master of transforming his world into every kind.”
“Scared Violent Like Horses is the story of a ‘lost boy with a quiet ache’—a story about a boy and a young man who grows up amid the landscape of a vast yet specific Midwest filled with switchgrass, scarecrows, dead leaves, dirt, factories, and family and childhood people. It’s the people the speaker is really writing about—the speaker’s connection and disconnection with those who populate the landscape and the feeling of being different or not fully belonging. Ultimately, what the reader is left with is a stunning overlap of lost boy and lost landscape glimpsed through the lens of a gifted poet’s magical linguistic and storytelling abilities.”
“Scared Violent Like Horses is a book that grabs the reader with its insistent lyric beauty. It’s a book where its speaker is haunted by the empty violence and despair of a Midwestern landscape full of “smolder and silence.” It’s a landscape usually underestimated and derided—the “flyover country” of condescending editorials and talk show chatter. But in the hands of this poet, these hardscrabble landscapes, these haunts of hurt and hurting families and friends who show love through their thrown punches—these scenes become so relentlessly beautiful that a reader cannot look away. John McCarthy’s poems have had their hold on me for a long time, and I defy anyone who reads this book not to walk away shaken, stirred, and ultimately, utterly changed.”
“Throbbing with the ‘quiet ache’ of the flown-over, John McCarthy’s extraordinary perception and lingual deftness unveil the grit and humble grandeur of Springfield’s north end. Rural Illinois’s emotional brutality is rendered raw as we see into and through a young man reaching beyond the debris of a violent and damaged lineage, in search of a gentler, less destructive self.”