These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.
10 of 100: Half-Hazard by Kristen Tracy (2018, Graywolf Press)
Quick, personal thoughts:
- These poems depict how precarious things can seem in every part of our experience and our world. Whether it’s our psyche, relationships, beliefs, families or communities, we’re always on some tipping point. We teeter. But the poems convey more than that. As likely as we are to fall down, break up, stumble or choose wrong — or, when the stakes are even higher, to die — we can’t despair about it all the time. Quite simply, these poems exist in a very familiar space: Being Human, Planet Earth.
- Most of these poems include animals, and I believe the role of this attraction/obsession in the collection is to provide somewhat of a foil for the human characters (the narrator as daughter, as lover, as seeker, etc.). In addition, they really help the poems noodle the contrast between simplicity (matter of fact, way of the world, etc.) and complexity (yeah, but) in the themes they address. In particular, the collection made me consider cruelty and kindness in these terms.
- I really enjoyed how some of the poems in Half Hazard come at things sideways while facing them head on. It’s an interesting trick. My favorite poem in the collection is “What We Did Before Our Apocalypse.” It recounts not only Being Human, Planet Earth, but precisely what those of us who are U.S. citizens are doing right now: “We watched an old man insult / nearly everybody and then let him fondle the nukes.” The president is not named, and that’s part of the magic of the poem. Throughout the collection, Tracy names some things and not others. The effect it has is to enlarge the themes: the struggles aren’t just here and now; they are for all of time. (Another good example is the poem “Half-Hatched,” in which the subject of the poem is the same as Into the Wild. McCandless isn’t named; instead, he is “a boy.”)
- In the final pages of this book (Acknowledgments), Kristen Tracy writes, “This book has been a long time coming, close to 20 years.” Considering the status of my years-long attempt at submitting, editing and revamping my manuscript, I really appreciated this confession.
Lines I want to remember:
- “a lion with a caramel-brown face. // … It opened its mouth and received / a man’s head. … Its big fur / held the light as it balanced // all four paws on a milking stool. / It stayed steady, mouth open, // so a man would not die, / not in front of us.”
- “Thankfully, the crows never came, though // I kept my eye in them. I knew their game. / Pirates. Gangsters. Extortionists. Thieves. / But even if the world is half bad, it remains / half good. While some of us sleep, our hearts // lie open, turned to the tender, dreaming up ways / to thwart the crows. Yes, a hapless jay stumbles / into our lives believing it can fly, and we — knowing / what we know — do what we can to make it so.”
- “One day, I hated my own girl heart; / it was stone inside of me. The next day, / this was not so and never would be again.”
- “I learned this because PBS wanted me / to know about misery… / What’s the point? my new loved asked me / as I recounted the documentary and cried. // He felt that TV ate my sensitive heart”
- “Who handed me these knives / to juggle? Who said everything was gong to be fine? // I know. I know. Childhood shows no mercy.”
- “Led by hunger // to my doorstep, to my dreams, they wildly arrive / almost every day. And I close my eyes, starving // in my own ways. Bread crumbs in my pockets. / Trout in the refrigerator. The deep smell of myself // on my fingertips.”
- “But the world isn’t perfect. / We suffer even when we do everything right.”
What others have said:
- The Adroit Journal: “As days grow cold and short, it’s refreshing to encounter a book like Kristen Tracy’s Half-Hazard, which at every opportunity orients itself toward gratefulness, luck, and wonder. Tracy’s debut collection isn’t free of darkness—it lives in the real world—but it asks the reader to acknowledge their own resilience; they’ve survived every danger, returned from every underworld, and that’s remarkable and worth celebrating.”
- Shelf Awareness: “Tracy’s personal pain and diligent ambition bring a good deal of ambivalence and perspective to poems that ring with the fresh sounds of a conversationalist and wordsmith. They are blunt, funny, tactile and alive with the wisdom of a woman old enough to know what she’s doing–even when she doesn’t. … The primarily formal poems of Half-Hazard not only inspire second thoughts, but also startle the ear and eye with fresh images and line breaks.”
- The Washington Post: “The writing is delightfully crisp and wry, and always walks a tightrope between hope and disaster.”
Where some of the poems from this collection live online:
Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!