Winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, Jackson Holbert’s Winter Stranger is a solemn record of addiction and the divided affections we hold for the landscapes that shape us.
In the cold, seminal countryside of eastern Washington, a boy puts a bullet through his skull in a high school parking lot. An uncle crushes oxycodone into “a thousand red granules.” Hawks wheel above a dark, indifferent river. “I left that town / forever,” Holbert writes, but its bruises appear everywhere, in dreams of violent men and small stars, the ghosts of friends and pills. These poems incite a complex emotional discourse on what it means to leave—if it’s ever actually possible, or if our roots only grow longer to accommodate the distance.
Punctuated by recollections of loved ones consumed by their addictions, Winter Stranger also questions the capricious nature of memory, and poetry’s power to tame it. “I can make it all sound so beautiful. / You’ll barely notice that underneath / this poem there is a body / decaying into the American ground.” Meanwhile, the precious realities vanish—“your hair, your ears, your hands.”—leaving behind “the fucked up / trees,” the “long, cold river.” In verse both bleak and wishful, Holbert strikes a fine balance between his poetic sensibilities and the endemic cynicism of modern life.
“It is clear now that there are no ends,” Holbert writes, “Just winters.” Though his poems bloom from hills heavy with springtime snow, his voice cuts through the cold, rich with dearly familiar longings: to not be alone, to honor our origins, to survive them.
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Praise and Prizes
“Winter Stranger uses spare language to portray a Washington countryside beset by hopelessness and addiction.”
“In this beautiful book, poems of life are tempered by the shadow of mortality. Written in an exacting, minimalist style, with great silence, it records the tumult, the solemnity, and the spiritual survival of a young man.”
“A brutal, beautiful book about all the things that try to kill you in your youth—pills, friends, the trees, winter—and all the things that save you—pills, friends, the trees, winter.”
“Engaging with the dead in epistolary forms, Jackson Holbert’s poems are born of the pain of traumas and addictions that, though now dissolved into memory, can ‘poison the aquifer / . . . miles down.’ What haunts me about this book are not its poisons, however, but its remedies, its rich influences out of Rilke’s night-fears and Paul Celan’s fugue music (‘We went to school we ate pink beef we drank’) and the stark, moon-pale wartime imagery of Georg Trakl, poets writing a hundred years ago but who are transubstantiated here into the language of 21st century parking lots, baseball fields, and emergency rooms. Holbert’s poetry is remarkably tempered for all its frenetic living, the lines crashing but landing acrobatically along the edges, never memorializing but advancing old relationships, the tone wizened and resilient, willing of heart. Even when the only light to lead us is poetry’s refracted and warped transcription—each poem shines through grief’s windows.”
“In the world that is Winter Stranger, oblivion is by turns muse and menace; life at once too brief and yet intolerably long—its excesses carved away by pills, guns, wildfires, grief; and violence often holds the keys to the only tenderness that hasn’t yet left town. Set in the semi-wilds of the Pacific Northwest, amid mountains too big to tear down and towns too small to hold their enormous losses, Holbert’s poems intoxicate with harsh yet intimate confidences, sharp syntax and tender letters to far-off friends, and vivid conundrums of life lived—and youth endured—far from any city. These are poems that dare to knock at death’s door and suffer him, for he is a character in their pages, to answer. They are poems that dare to conjure a reality, one caught between rapture and imperilment, in which ‘the law is full of dreams’ and regret is not just a note haunting the voice in your ear, but a pure and steadfast longing for the past, full of losses ‘weightless and bizarre,’ to change its impossible ways.”