Winner of the 2020 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, The Clearing is “a lush, lyrical book about a world where women are meant to carry things to safety and men leave decisively” (Henri Cole).
Luminous and electric from the first line to the last, Allison Adair’s debut collection navigates the ever-shifting poles of violence and vulnerability with a singular incisiveness and a rich imagination. The women in these poems live in places that have been excavated for gold and precious ores, and they understand the nature of being hollowed out. From the midst of the Civil War to our current era, Adair charts fairy tales that are painfully familiar, never forgetting that violence is often accompanied by tenderness. Here we wonder, “What if this time instead of crumbs the girl drops / teeth, her own, what else does she have”?
The Clearing knows the dirt beneath our nails, both alone and as a country, and pries it gently loose until we remember something of who we are, “from before…from a similar injury or kiss.”
There is a dark beauty in this work, and Adair is a skilled stenographer of the silences around which we orbit. Described by Henri Cole as “haunting and dirt caked,” her unromantic poems of girlhood, nature, and family linger with an uncommon, unsettling resonance.
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Praise and Prizes
“The poems in Adair’s debut draw on folklore and the animal world to assert feminist viewpoints and mortal terror in lush musical lines, as when 'A fat speckled spider sharpens / in the shoe of someone you need.'”
“Adair considers in her imaginative debut the intersection of human and animal life, closely examining the experience of womanhood . . . Like Grimms’ fairy tales, Adair’s poems are dark without being bleak, hopeless, or disturbing. Readers will find the collection’s lush language and provocative imagery powerfully resonant.”
“Astonishing and luminous . . . [The Clearing] is an alchemical feat, turning horror into beauty as Adair reveals what surges beneath — the violence, want, grief, thrill, and nameless fury.”
“The opening poem in the collection feels like a fable and nightmare; a scene out of time. 'We’ll write this story again and again, // how her mouth blooms to its raw venous throat—that tunnel / of marbled wetness, beefy, muted, new, pillow for our star // sapphire, our sluggish prospecting—and how dark birds come / after, to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.' We leave the poem a little scared, a little curious, and certainly more aware: The Clearing meditates on what is asked of women, and what is taken from them.”
“Juxtaposing somber images from the natural world (a runt rabbit, a strangled swan, a floor of dead birds, a landscape made of a woman’s hair) against seemingly more durable material like bones, chicken wire, rifles, and coins, Adair’s poems take as their central subject emotional and physical violence against women, which in this collection distorts all of life’s natural processes. Many of the poems are masterful.”
“A dark and bodily nod to folk- and fairy-tale energy.”
“Allison Adair is capable of a lush lyricism whose beauty is impartial, lighting up the junk of a region, a culture, and a family, its toxic heritage of violence and violation, while haloing the uncluttered space that remains after the mess has been cleared away.”
“[E]lectric, brilliant with loss and searching . . . As we read, we are on a journey into the woods with strangers, and The Clearing’s poems capture the beauty and terror of sudden, new site-lines.”
“It’s difficult to believe that The Clearing is Allison Adair’s first full collection of poems. Her once-upon-a-times are generational oral histories, from the Civil War to present day. They will endure, even as the land and these people endure, despite the violence done to it and them, despite the attempts to silence them directly or by neglect. Adair speaks for and through them, allowing their rugged, dented beauty to shine through in exceptional fashion. This assured, layered, altogether extraordinary debut collection will linger in readers’ minds long after the first reading.”
“Adair’s lush writing and its underpinning themes of threat, danger, and risk, much of it inherent in the lives of women, make for a nuanced, evocative, and glittering first book.”
“The poems of The Clearing form an intricate, compelling whole, sensual and musical, haunted (one poem literally featuring a ghost), and committed to focusing on what is often too blurry to see . . . the difficulty of wresting forms of love from forms of violence . . . The Clearing is a wonderful, exhilarating debut, a book for any who want to live for a while in the realm of the inarticulable.”
“Adair’s poems are set in new stone, a new poetic language for fear, danger, and escape . . . [Adair] knows that transformation comes from reexamination and reinvention, and she empowers her readers by not only changing the story but reclaiming its protagonists.”
“The Clearing . . . is a fiery, magnificent, urgent debut that reminds us of poetry’s ability to clarify perception, create awareness, and make space for us to connect with our authentic selves as we grapple with life’s chaos. Selected by Henri Cole, this book makes room for otherworldly grace, simultaneously allowing us to see the world around us while helping us find our place in it . . . Adair’s poetry provides shelter where we can pause, ask tough questions, and interact with our mortality through poetic language, compelling imagery, and animated musicality.”
“In The Clearing . . . Adair charts the concept of nuanced fairy tales—in both their magic and darkness—from the Civil War to now. The work ruminates on gender politics and the history of violence, juxtaposing severity and tenderness.”
“The Clearing is a book where the process of reading mimics the imagistic architecture . . . The result is an immersive linguistic world that invites a lingering, engaged contemplation and invites repeated readings and renderings of your own experience into its pages.”
“The Clearing is a lush, lyrical book about a world where women are meant to carry things to safety and men leave decisively. Out of dry farming soil come these wise, mineral-like poems about young motherhood, mining disasters, miscarriages, memory, and much more. Allison Adair's poems are haunting and dirt caked, but there is also a tense beauty everywhere. I found The Clearing devastating.”
“‘What if this time instead of crumbs the girl drops / teeth, her own, what else does she have…’ So begins Allison Adair’s The Clearing, the title poem leading us, tooth by tooth, line by line, into this dark forest of a book. Adair’s phrases are spell-like, their ingredients mixed in surprising, potent ways: ‘the fat matter of memory,’ a caterpillar’s ‘sad accordion hymn,’ the ‘Gregorian green singing grass.’ I would follow this poet wherever her mind goes—even into the deepest woods, into memories of grief and loss—and I would trust her words to lead me out again.”
“Adair dives into motherhood, history, and the now to find the currents—loss, violence, yearning—that keep us afloat, that shipwreck us. Her gaze is clear-eyed, precise, and jarring: ‘The dog’s staph-eaten paw / soaking in a Cool Whip bowl’ and ‘the caterpillar inches along, lost / in its sad accordion hymn.’ Her lyricism is astonishing and her attentiveness to sound dazzles: antlers rub against apple bark, bats drown, and music is struck from anvils. Adair’s sensory-rich language doesn’t reconfigure pain into beauty, though. It does something harder—it forces us to contend with the light and the dark inside each of us.”
"The Clearing traverses chicken-wired landscapes teeming with hunters and wolves, fields empty but for disappointment and danger. Personal trauma is recounted throughout with intimate detail and hard-won wisdom . . . Her poems unflinchingly face scenes of violence, painful miscarriage, young motherhood, absent men. And as much as The Clearing is a confronting of loss and grief, it’s also a stunning work of reimagining and rebuilding."
"Allison Adair’s poems chart the measureless ways that trauma is born of violence and loss while reminding us that tenderness and mercy are descendants of grief. Wise, rapturous, and thicketed with hair-raising imagery, the women in this collection wade through landscapes teeming with wolves and real-life danger surreal enough to be remembered, rendered as fable: 'I tell it as if there were grace- / full streetlamps craning toward us, as if nostalgia drips like a willow / from my mouth.' This effect—this devastatingly beautiful book—lingers off the page. It illuminates itself in the moment and at unexpected hours. The Clearing is an extraordinary debut."
“In Adair’s stunning debut collection, the verbs are vivid; the metaphors imagistic; the topics ranging through small town secrets, parenthood and childhood, physical love, violence and tragedy. These bold poems are imbued with the grittiness of landscape, biology, geology, and anchored by the recurring motif of searching below the surface like metal detectors or mines for things like fossils and rot, yes, but also veins of gold and memories.”