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Ay by Joan Houlihan

Synopsis | Selected Poems | Reviews
Joan Houlihan
Photo by Meg Lukens

$16.95 Paperback Original
ISBN: 978-1-936797-41-7
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A powerful sequel to The Us, which ended with the son Ay wounded, rendered silent and immobile by a head injury. In Ay, the boy is propped up and worshiped, as others project a kind of divinity onto his stillness. While Ay recovers, in a series of lyrical monologues he discovers an individual self-awareness, separate from family and tribe.

“Musically rugged, riddled with insight, resonant, gripping, and chock-full of moments that startle with their vividness (‘What eats grass slow and bent- / necked, eyed from the side, is deer’) Ay deploys its fertile idiom not only for the pleasure of it, which is immeasurable, but as a medium through which to investigate the mechanics of subjectivity, grief, empathy, and forgiveness. The result is one of the most radically inventive and invigorating books of poetry I’ve read in years” — Timothy Donnelly

“In a time when so many poets create linguistic fireworks that possess little, if any, emotive depth, Houlihan gives us poetry of passion and lyric, attentiveness that is rich in its textures, tonalities, and rhythmic, memorable speech. Ay is a narrative and song at once: it is talismanic.”
— Ilya Kaminsky

Joan Houlihan’s previous books are The Us, named a must-read of 2009 by Massachusetts Center for the Book, The Mending Worm, winner of the Green Rose Award from New Issues Press, and Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays. Her work has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry— Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press). She is founder and director of the Concord Poetry Center and the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference and she has taught at Columbia University and Emerson College. Currently on the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she also teaches part-time at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts

Selected Poems

DANCED THE ANTLERS, knelt hims body—large still beast killed to make me alive. Char-water, river-rock stand the night. As spark on spark fed sky-cold stars, smells bramble the fire. Powders of hazel-shell flare. Ay will be offered too. Next world, will you have me?


“Ay doesn’t feel like someone’s creation. It feels “received” as if the writer, as if Ay, were both vessels through which a coherent, unknown but deeply familiar, world has been poured. Which is not to say that one doesn’t witness Houlihan’s inventive sense of the sound, her dexterity, her fine-tuned ear. It is the content and the diction that feel almost otherworldly in that it’s so far removed from our contemporary experience. The philosophical understanding the book suggests is radical and vital for our time. Without apology Houlihan boldly presents a record of an imagined or possibly recreated world:

Ay lived and spoke to what Ay was. No matter if you hear

In its almost monosyllabic lack of modulating self-diminishment, this is the credo of integrity, of a wholeness that is evident at every level in this odd and magnificent work.”

— Rebecca Kaiser Gibson, Pleiades

“In your and my English, yet as you’ve never encountered it before, Joan Houlihan’s Ay reads with the elements of great poetry, with an immediate simple if disconcerting charm haunted by profound resonance.”

— Mike Steffen, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art

“The immediate effect of the language used in The Us and Ay is jarring, puzzling, as risky and fragile in its emotional venture as it is alluring, like a riddle, for its difficulty and resistance, the abruptness of the violence it depicts and its thoroughly physical appeal.”

— Michael Todd Steffen, Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene