Winner of the 2021 Maine Literary Award in Poetry
A Literary Hub “Most Anticipated Book of 2020”
A meticulously detailed catalogue of ordinary people performing acts of extraordinary violence, The Century charts an awakening to structures of dominance and violence.
In the tradition of witness poetry, The Century tugs apart the quotidian horrors required to perpetuate acts of violence like the Holocaust, the deployment of nuclear weapons in Japan and Iraq, American slavery and its lingering aftermath. When Éireann Lorsung writes of death and dying, of “bodies in the fields becoming the fields,” it’s the simplicity that’s most haunting. After a fire, “some of their skin moved off of them as they ran, a very / simple melting…” But these poems don’t just witness; they also resist and serve as models for resistant lives. Pushing back against form and grammar, constructions of time and geography, Lorsung traces decades of technological, geopolitical, and cultural shifts through generations and across continents as networks of dominance continue to be stubbornly upheld.
The Century is evasive but thorny, splintering in the mind. This collection is a reminder that the arrival of each new century, decade, or year brings with it an invitation to join ongoing movements of resistance, air pockets of hope in the waters that we all swim or drown in.
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Praise and Prizes
“Éireann Lorsung's altering new collection of poetry, The Century, demands — not explicitly, but with the force of the depth of its inquiry — that we examine and re-examine the history of which we are part, as well as the histories we believe ourselves not to be part . . . The highest and best of what poetry can do is change the way we see, and such is what Lorsung has done.”
“As monuments fall around the country in the wake of the killing by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, this sensitive book — 11 years in the making — is coming out at the exact right time to implore white Americans to undertake their own excavations and remind us we are 'not innocent of our educations.”
“Vivid and ruminative . . . Acknowledging that 'The danger is beauty,' Lorsung uses her poetry to subvert the ease of resolution. She interrogates the privilege of whiteness in order, as she explains, 'to make the testimony.' The result is a book full of investigative critiques of historical, often violent moments, in which there is 'almost no language left at all.' Hope persists, however: in witnessing the past, Lorsung writes memorably toward a future.”
“One question poet Éireann Lorsung asks in her new collection, The Century, is how citizens contribute to societal structures of violence and control. Slavery in the US and the Holocaust are but two of the most glaring examples. Lorsung’s collection comes at a time when studies about the roles average people played in the perpetuation of Nazism and Italian Fascism abound, to say nothing of the 'minor' violences that often define interpersonal relationships across lines of color, gender, creed, and more.”
“The Century is remarkable in its ethical risks and for the formal dexterity with which Lorsung navigates those risks.”
“The Century is in part a record of [Lorsung] grappling with her responsibility as a white person within a system she believes is rigged in favor of whiteness. Throughout the book, she returns to images—of thread, fog, and scrims—to track how her upbringing trained her not to see certain aspects of race . . . It feels remarkably prescient after a summer of nationwide protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police.”
“To see thinking laid bare is an intimate version of Lorsung’s objective to slow our experience, and ask us to reconsider what, and how, we see. Inhabiting such different points of focus throughout the collection, from the intimacy of perception to the invocation of an event on a scale beyond comprehension, demonstrates Lorsung’s commitment to a moral project whose planes are at once personal and collective . . . [The Century] leaves open the possibility for exploration around any lingering moral uncertainty, or for others to try to answer this question of how to negotiate, think, and feel in the present’s living decay.”
“Éireann Lorsung’s The Century looks back and locates its necessary ethical work in the ongoing half-life of our irradiated past, seeking nothing less than to own up to, if not reconcile, the complexities and complicities of our moral failures. Those failures, from the bloody history of racism to the violent light of nuclear war, lurk in us as does a radioactive isotope, decaying us from within. Lorsung knows beauty cannot end our responsibility, and it is not beauty these poems seek. They search instead for something vastly more important, the ethics hidden in aesthetics, a realization by which we might find some means to alter our awful ways, to stop ourselves from wielding force against another, to stall the force that uses us for its tool, to not let our own hands become hammers breaking themselves apart. Let us be honest. Let us be sane. This book is our textbook for the education we most need.”
“With The Century, Éireann Lorsung braces us for—and against—the tectonic ‘crush of history.’ These poems are a reminder that every instant is itself nested among names and infinite correspondences, phantom loves and testimonies, the knots of languages and artifacts that give it life, that weigh it with grief. And so it is time to map our wrecks, to reckon with Lampedusa, Americium, Nasiriyah—to face the public square, the spectres of Pacific atolls, the warm shadows of fathers and brothers, uncles and mothers. As Adrienne Rich once wrestled with how the ‘reading or hearing of a poem can transform consciousness,’ Lorsung activates the past, the future and the ‘even now,’ challenging us to trust that ‘There is no excuse for not learning / to see. No excuse for not learning to / listen. No excuse not to work.’ ”
“In her new collection, Éireann Lorsung vividly enacts poetry as archeology, where each line glistens with sobering light in a careful unmasking that insists upon an urgent question: “To see, or not to see./ Who can not see?” The Century embarks on a deeply honest reckoning with the mythology of white innocence, artfully sifting through history’s wreckage to turn over the missing obscured by monument, redaction, atom-splitting, social geography—the inventory goes on. The past and future are each wings tethered to a questioning gaze, naked, blinking the light. Yet these poems pulse steadily in the heart of this moment, unwavering, and most of all tender, as “the silver-tipped fingers holding this pen” seek a new kind of seeing that asks us to hold each other whole."