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The Us

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The Us by Joan Houlihan

Synopsis | Reader’s Companion | Selected Poems | Reviews
The Us
Joan Houlihan
Photo by Meg Lukens

$16.95 Paperback Original
ISBN: 978-1-932195-77-4
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The Us, Joan Houlihan’s tantalizing third book of poetry, is a poetic sequence spoken in the collective voice of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Incompatible with a stronger, more advanced culture (“Thems”), the Us must live outside civilization in order to be free and fully alive. Practical and canny, the Us are also possessed by a sense of awe expressed in superstition and ritual. With echoes of classical mythology, age-old legends, and resilient allegory, this is an absorbing and altogether unique book of poetry. Houlihan’s language is ancient in sound and texture yet entirely modern in impact.

From “Froze by winter blast”:

Froze by winter blast
us could not grip on meat or crust,
fingers blackened down to all the hand.

And many fell that time
and so were fewer count of us
coming into weather, loosened snow,
water falling down around the stones.

Us heard command in that.

Praise for Joan Houlihan’s new book of poems:
The Us is like nothing I have ever read or seen. These poems are just extraordinary: wildly hewn, classically construed and skewed by an imagined lexicon.… In a voice that is elemental ancient, animistic, pre-lingual even, the speaker manages, with nothing short of magic, to communicate… in a language both syntactically inventive and radically simple.
—Lucie Brock-Broido

And for Houlihan’s previous books:
… These rich, dense poems have a magical realist quality in which the objects and occasions of the everyday are transfigured into talismans brimming with meaning and contained yet powerful emotion.… a unique and vital voice in contemporary American poetry.
—Reginald Shepherd
… an impressive control of prosody and an arch yet tender sensibility throughout, often distilling perceptions of the physical world into exacting, resonant imagery.…
Boston Review

Reader's Companion

Tupelo Press is pleased to provide the The Us Reader’s Companion in free, downloadable PDF format. (196 K)

Selected Poems

A kind of cold A kind of cold and moon rise changed the air and told us coming dark. Us cut the elk apart — hoofs tossed — and by antlers pulled hims head, eyes alive. Hail the kill and all it bring! Ours father, bowed and slow, behind, would point us on, not keep to him. As fruit begins by seed and shows itself in time the gleam that sees from night grew in. Hail, hail! The trunk ran red. Moon lit the smear dragged on snow. From dirt, a stir From dirt, a stir put forth its mix, smell of weed and green-held bud, deep cups sweet and sharp. Warmer started day. Sun lay wider where us walked. And ay had seeing out to hers — long cloth tied with hemp, of smaller head than ay, and that head bent to sounds from brae, hers hair a gleam-fall over him, the weaker, full of noise for her and lifting up. And ay would turn to watch the smoke go high in thin and thinner twist the way the sun must bring its burning home. From branch shaked out From branch shaked out and speckled egg, us made new eating, not to harm the ones of hoof and horn and ground were dug and seeded taking those to plow who were ours tame. Night and day, day and night, sun and rain took up the work and gave a take of all the fruited riped and sweet from green. Us lived, and us of all, as to a light and drinking from the sun. Night kept us as would a pelt of highest fur, the stars its eyes around.


Few contemporary poets dare brave the epic; the shadow of the Ancients is not just long but consuming. Houlihan’s courageous The Us is an allegorical epic of the first order: an affecting tale of otherness, modernity, violence, and identity.
— Seth Abramson, The Huffington Post.

Although the book is mythological in its scope, it is lyric rather than epic in its approach, proceeding not with heroic pomp and encyclopedic comprehensiveness but instead with lyric delicacy and attention to carefully chosen particulars. The Us is not monumental, nor is it meant to be.
— Sawnie Morris, Boston Review.

Also includes an interview with Joan Houlihan and new poems.
"If this book sounds like nothing else you’ve read, it isn’t. The distinctiveness of The Us from the one-thousand or so single volumes of poetry published each year in the United States is remarkable. From the first section, in which we encounter the ‘us’ ‘portrayed in everyday life,’ to the last, in which a tenuous order is restored to the tribe, again and again the reader is struck with the question: who else could’ve written this? The answer of course is no one."
—Brian Brodeur, Quarterly West
The Us is a breathtakingly memorable collection which celebrates the startling things language and story can do. These poems touch on raw power in their invention. With The Us, Joan Houlihan has pushed the possibilities of poetry.
—Keith Leonard, Indiana Review
Jack Tres has posted a great description of the uncanny texture and arc of The Us at the Mowgli, Esq. blog:
In this string of narrative poems, Joan Houlihan gifts an imagined tribe with English. The language the nomads return to us is begrimed, streaked with sweat, stinking of smoke, wild of eye, and three-fourths feral. ‘Ice-taught, bit by sun’s low arc,’ the tribe foots a hard route and gives rise to a poetry as rough and exciting as an arrowhead clawed free from a patch of land we all thought had been picked over and parceled out.

Craftwork abounds. Houlihan looses iambs as taut as skin and with all the rum-pum of a tribal drum (‘A smoke struck high on a night’s half-light….’) and sometimes steers the poems into rhymes so tidy you’d sing them in the nursery if only they weren’t about, say, the final hours of fetid, fly-festooned livestock (‘…hog and cow, sheep and fowl / bled black and brayed to blue- / wide-eyed and the light gone through.’) Can’t bed down baby with that one, but the point remains.

Running through each of these poems is a vein of ungrammatical speech, all of it arrestingly nascent and novel. When some wronged horses prove uncooperative, the tribe tells us, ‘Thems sickened to us. All the light went out / inside thems coats.’ Impossible not to read aloud a language so textured and freshly-forged, so don’t resist. Intone alone in your bedroom. Clear yourself some space on the subway.

Embark. Houlihan’s wanderers will have your heart louding while they’re here, colding like a cookfire forgotten once they’re gone.
Read the original review (and see a beautiful collage made in response to the book) here.
Dean Rader speculates about broader implications of the controversy sparked by The Us as readers have responded to Fiona Sampson’s critical review in Poetry magazine:
“… Joan Houlihan’s wild new book of poems, The Us,… tells the story of a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers (the Us) who are at odds with the hegemonic band of hunter-gatherers (Thems).… With its ritualistic rhythms and gestures and its Yoda-like syntax, it is one bold book. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.…

“… The Us is the Twin Peaks of American poetry. It weaves in and out of reality, it plays with perspective, it sets up a moral dichotomy, and it splits its audience into camps that think it’s genius and those that think it’s gibberish.

“Perhaps the riskiest move of all is Houlihan’s decision to play with vocabulary. Like Twin Peaks, there are experiments with language, word order, and plurals. It recalls novels like A Clockwork Orange or those Hobbit movies where people speak a funked-up English. This move is probably both the strength and the weakness of the collection. I thought most of the attempts worked; some did not. But, I was always amazed by how brave the project is.

“… You’re either willing to go along with the project, to suspend disbelief and be invited into the wacky world of The Us, or you’re not. But, the problem is, if you side with the latter, then you’re not an us anymore… you’re a them. And, I think they all watch Fox.”
Read Rader’s full posting here.
Kirk Etherton reviewed The Us from the Ibbetsen Press blog:
Joan Houlihan’s new book The Us is truly Something New, in all the best ways: it is completely original, thought-provoking, timeless, and written in a way such that any intelligent reader—from the pre-undergraduate to the most jaded professional poet—will quickly be captivated and intrigued.

The Us is a novel-like sequence of poems spoken in a collective voice. ‘Us’ is identified at the outset as a ‘group of primitive people who speak as one.’ Us is comprised of six individuals, including ‘father’ (leader of the us), ‘ay’ (oldest son of father), ‘brae’ (the second son) and ‘g’wen’ (the wife and mother). What follows is a description of everyday life, travels, pivotal events, successes and setbacks faced by this tribe of hunter-gatherers as they make their way in the world—a world which includes a stronger, more advanced group (‘Thems’), with whom they can exist only as slaves.

Houlihan has achieved something remarkable in the way the Us speak to us: you may feel as though you’ve stumbled across something written thousands of years ago in an unknown language—something almost pre-literate you can, for some reason, understand without difficulty. The writing manages to be simultaneously primitive and poetic. (The last place I encountered language this unexpected was in the beginning of The Sound and the Fury. )
Read the whole review here.
An Amazon reader has posted this enthusiastic comment:
Readers bored with the ‘epiphany in the parking lot’ school of modern poetry will be amazed and delighted by The Us. Houlihan draws us in with her surprising narrative and the strength of her words and rhythms.…

Like ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ this collection of poems sets the stage with ‘the argument’ and includes a ‘gloss,’ or series of side notes. The gloss explains the narrative without breaking the lyrical flow and becomes part of the poem itself. Some are poignant for being so direct (‘The father is ill.’ ‘The son says goodbye to his mother.’) Others are classic statements of situations we’ve read about time and again in good literature (‘His reverie at sea’s edge …’)

The poet has created a unique idiom for the principals in these poems, a group of hunter gatherers called the Us. Their unexpected but melodic phrasing allows the poet to cover traditional ground in a fresh way. There is melodrama (in the confusion, prisoners escape), nature poetry (‘night and day, day and night / sun and rain took up the work / and gave a take of all that fruited / ripe and sweet from green’), alliteration, meter and rhyme (‘then horses low and red / came slow for us to ride’), inversion (‘past horses splayed and swole’) and big themes (death, birth, wandering). So much to like.

Read Jacob Bennett’s review of The Us (entitled "A Verse to Self") from the online journal Critical Flame.