Winter Stranger

Winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize

“Written in an exacting, minimalist style, with great silence, [Winter Stranger] records the tumult, the solemnity, and the spiritual survival of a young man.”—HENRI COLE
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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.

The Winter Stranger audiobook read by Jackson Holbert is available everywhere you listen to audiobooks.

Publish Date
8.5 × 5.5 × 0.5 in
8.6 oz

Jackson Holbert

Jackson Holbert is the author of Winter Stranger. He was born and raised in eastern Washington. His poems have appeared in Narrative, The Nation, and Poetry. He received an MFA in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers.

Praise and Prizes

  • “Holbert’s poems are emotionally generous. They blend accessible language with imagery that feels familiar yet beguilingly strange.“

    Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle
  • Winter Stranger uses spare language to portray a Washington countryside beset by hopelessness and addiction.”

    Library Journal, What to Read in 2023
  • “Winter Stranger is in every other way plenty superb. […] It is a book where everyone leaves, as if carried by river, as if held by current that came from an unknown place, that goes to an unknown place, a rill that runs ever with life itself. Home, here, is a place where we lose resemblances, not just to our fathers and grandfathers and mothers alike, but in a flush of pills and powders and escapes to that river shed the appearance, even, of ourselves.”

    B. A. Van Sise, New York Journal of Books
  • ”[Winter Stranger], is teeming beneath its plainspoken surface, like fish under lake ice. […] I’m certain this is just the start of a long poetry career for Holbert.”

    Kristen Steenbeeke, Texas Monthly
  • “Succinct but uncommonly far-ranging, Winter Stranger crafts a pliable style from an amalgamation of sources [… ] Its stranger achievement is the fashioning (or warping) of a sense of time unique to American poetry. Holbert’s titles sketch a universe where everything happens far too often or not enough: symptoms recur like seasons (“Another Summer Withdrawal Poem”); necessary words never get said (“Unfinished Letter to Jakob”). Holbert’s narratives hinge on catastrophic change, but the word he pronounces most tragically is “stay”[…] few debut poets have such a clear-eyed sense of how much—or how little—their poems can do for them.”

    Christopher Spaide, Harriet Blog, Poetry Foundation
  • “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.”

    Henri Cole
    Max Ritvo Poetry Prize Judge
  • “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.”

    Hedgie Choi
    co-translator of Hysteria
  • “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.”

    David Keplinger
    author of Ice
  • “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.”

    Devon Walker-Figueroa
    author of Philomath
  • “Throughout Winter Stranger, the poet inquisitively searches for absolution in lost conversations, ground oxycodone, dying uncles, and the childhood trapping and releasing of spiders, in the hopes of uncovering an answer to a world that makes room for boys capable of both destruction and tenderness, a world that likewise deals both destruction and tenderness to them.”

    Shannon Nakai, Colorado Review