Winter Stranger: Poems

Image of Winter Stranger: Poems (Max Ritvo Poetry Prize)
Release Date: 
June 13, 2023
Milkweed Editions
Reviewed by: 

Life, for all its foibles, also has its little justices: you miss the bus and meet the lovely boy waiting for the next one. They hire somebody else and the company promptly folds. You skip the game before the rainstorm, by surprise, floods the field.

And poor Max Ritvo dies before he can ever release all the beauty he owes the world, live all the days the world owes him—but every year, it seems, one of the best new books of poetry is released with his name on it. It is not fair but, oh, it is poetry.

Every year Milkweed brings to a young poet the chance that cancer never afforded poor Max, and every year they put out a stunner. If ever there were a ghost in the machine, it’s this—a generation of poets we’ve now all heard of, brought to us by the poet we never got to hear enough from.

And so it goes, once again, here, with now-you’ve-heard-of-him poet Jackson Holbert and his first book, Winter Stranger, selected by Henri Cole for this year’s Max Ritvo Prize. It is customary to always include some glimmer of hope in a terrible review and some anchor of negativity in a rave, so let’s get it out of the way at the fore: Winter Stranger is a lousy title, cold and bloodless for a book that is in every other way plenty superb.

The state of Washington is full of life: ocean currents bring heavy endless rains to drench the coast and blanket the western part of the state with verdant cold-weather rainforests that stretch all the way until its soft bays give way to cities, swapping millions of roots for millions of legs, until the cities turn into crops: miles and miles of food and flora that bracket the state with life, glorious life, a mask on the only thing that gives life meaning. Here, Holbert lets us know that his home can’t have so much life if it can’t but have just as much death; that every stalk, eventually, faces a thresher.

Bound in a rock-solid hardcover that still, somehow, is bruised, Holbert unravels the browning of the Evergreen State. 

“When we travel / the dead travel too,” Holbert opens the book. “That is the law / and the law is full of dreams / It’s April. We’re dying / again, all of us, among poplars.” A downer note to begin a book, but true to everything that follows.

The actor Michael Caine once said his primary qualification for deciding whether he liked a script was to turn to the last page and see if he’s still in it.  

It’s hard to imagine such last pages when Holbert paints an idyllic place as far from ideal, making plain the mundane, but also to turn its brooks and birdsongs into guttural scratch: girls who beat cats with padlocks, townies who do drugs like candy because, well, in a way, it is. Coyotes that fumble for yard dogs, power lines that fill the suburbs with static hum, hearts that break, limbs that fracture, fertilizer that leaches into loam. 

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.

The American backyard, here, is a breeding ground for war: “everything depends on boys who know nothing . . .” writes Holbert, “the country depends on them, senators, kindergarteners, mailmen depend on them, those boys standing in the rain, the creases in their hats filling almost comically with water.” That war is afar and oh-so-close: the war of stray cats in foreign lands and kids popping pills in Seattle. The war is right here, standing in the rain, running into the fertilizer, running water into running water running among people running. “Poisonous rivers make / poisonous ice,” Holbert writes in “Landscape.” “In every mailbox / for a dozen miles / there’s the same letter.”

Which brings us back to Michael Caine, and to our last page. Are we still on the last page of the script of our lives? “It would be nice to hear you say . . . that the rooms we walked through” Holbert closes the book, “years ago picked up our conversations, / that not everything was lost just after it was said.”

This is a fine, fine book, that in its end does not close, but merely dies.