by Liz Countryman
WINNER of the BERKSHIRE PRIZE FOR POETRY
“Load every rift of your subject with ore,” wrote John Keats to P.B. Shelley just six months before his death. It’s this line that I thought of again and again while reading Liz Countryman’s capacious, ore-filled lines. Ore: a rock or sediment that can, with effort and skill, be treated, refined, forged into something of great value. The poet’s ore is memory, or memory and thought, or memory, thought, sensation, and desire: all these elements are richly moving through nearly every moment of this astounding book.
Liz Countryman mines childhood for its longing, its intense sensations, its loneliness—a father’s face at a drive-through, “a pile of tethered whipped-around balloons”—but she also stays resolutely in the present, finding there the parent’s “soft anxiety,” the perennial wish for stasis and movement at once. “I want everything to live,” she confesses, and it’s because of this desire that the poet is compelled to describe, to give life to the dead, to dig in the garden, to rub her hands across the wood of a table, to “shove my face into distance like a bouquet.” This voracious relationship to the here and now presses firmly into and against the need to understand the past and all the longings it has deposited, like a residue of silt, on the skin.
I found myself so deeply moved by this tension, so awed by the intelligence that balances there between memory and present-time, that I frequently paused in my reading to at once note the world around me and to recall my own childhood—the precise scents, sights, and sounds of both. It was as if with this book, Elizabeth Countryman had granted me the gift of my own forgotten life.
— from the Judge’s Citation by Julie Carr
Published: June 2024
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“Liz Countryman’s powers of description remind me of both Virginia Woolf and Bernadette Mayer: she looks at the ordinary through the lens of history, seeing in a dresser, a seashore, a clearing the necessary and ruthless work that is time. She sees the past always staring back, and the challenge of her poems is to make a more meaningful life out of, and despite, the losses and failures of that past—the twentieth century, hers and ours. I am in awe of the masterful poise of these poems—insistently gendered, often wry, always wise, full of grief and fearless confrontation and full of the poet’s “desire to be lifted.” Green Island is a devastating book and a beautiful book, and it is a book to hold close and read again.”
“In Green Island, Liz Countryman’s beautifully perceptive and formally adventurous second book, she investigates how a ‘commitment to a disoriented wonderment,’ like an ‘arrogant fog,’ had once ‘obscured the physical reality of what passed.’ In doing so, Countryman does not give up surprise and ‘wonderment’ nor disorientation so much as she finds them in ‘undiscovered’ places as near at hand as an ‘embrace’ or when placing a ‘kiss [on] the inside of a turtleneck.’”
“You come out of a cave into a forest. Within the forest you find a clearing. The clearing opens onto a lake. The lake, you realize, is the ocean. Though you can’t see it, you know that in the middle of this ocean there’s a green island. It’s called Green Island. Your father had the T-shirt. You can see it in your mind because you were there. Or you were it, you were Green Island. You aspired to be. You don’t any more. But you remember the aspiration. This memory of an aspiration is a private map of who you were. Liz Countryman’s Green Island is the map of who you are now.”
The poems in Green Island delve into the relationship between place and imagination, examining the ways in which the physical places the speaker occupies, remembers, and imagines determine and enlarge her understanding of self. Speaking in long and open forms, these poems use the exploration of specific places to bring personal memory and domestic experience into conversation with larger narrative frameworks like history and ecological crisis. The collection addresses these communal concerns and experiments with poetic form to approach what is ultimately personal and archetypal—within these physical landscapes and the social and physical frameworks of the domestic, the speaker seeks new encounters with what had been assumed lost.
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