"Joe Wilkins is a writer of great power and heart, and Fall Back Down When I Die is a riveting and timely novel.” – Jess Walter, National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins
Been a long run of rainy, cold days here in Oregon. Just now, though, after a brief, sleety snow on the fading crocuses and the daffodils yet waving their yellow flags, the sky went breakaway blue. A western sky, deep and shot through with high-running clouds.
Made the jump to Substack, and you can read the rest of my latest newsletter here.
“Thieve” by Joe Wilkins, winner of the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry, is a powerhouse collection. Unyielding, visceral, imaginative, and rendered with galvanic precision, the poems thunder along through gritty geographies of place and psyche, revealing the ruptures created by divides in both.
Of particular delight is the overarching arrangement. Several of the poem titles recur, including “Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic,” “Explain” and “Lost Boys of the Upper Great Plains.” These run as distinctive currents throughout and lend to an overall gestalt as satisfying as a fine musical album that leaves thrum and echo in its wake.
I cannot overstate how delicious the reading experience is, one to be savored in a single sitting – a rare feat enhanced by the author’s panoramic prosody opening multiple avenues to enter the poems.
The literary community in Oregon is diverse and vibrant, and I’m just as pleased as can be to be a part of it–and that Thieve is a finalist for the 2021 Oregon Book Award! A powerhouse group of writers being recognized this year, including my friend and Linfield University colleague Nick Buccola, for his amazing The Fire Is Upon Us.
A big thanks to Michael Garrigan and everyone at Terrain.org for this stunning review of Thieve. Loads of good stuff here, but this may be my favorite bit:
Through our pain, Wilkins shows us that we might find compassion and love, and that’s precisely what Thieve provides—a map exploring the parts of our world that no one else wants, the communities we may have forgotten, and we are all the richer for it. As readers, it is up to us to take what has been neglected or ignored and do the necessary work to realize and honor that beauty and value. We must find deeper connections to each other and our shared histories and landscapes if we are to survive.
This summer, we drove 3000 miles across the country, from our temporary home in the North Country of New York to our permanent home in Oregon, in the middle of a pandemic and in the midst of tragedy and protest. The good folks at Orion Magazine asked me to narrate our readying for the trip, as well as the trip itself. You can find the resulting essays here: Crossing a Riven Country, Part 1 and Crossing a Riven Country, Part 2.
Here’s a sneak peek from the second essay:
We left in a light rain, the sky gray and shadowed and close.
We waved goodbye to our rambling, white house, to the park and little downtown, to the Grasse River, and not long after—I’m not sure exactly where, maybe north of Syracuse, our first mixed CD still spinning—we entered, suddenly and completely, that other world: the fast, loud, American universe of the interstate, of movement and hurry and the next stop, the next thing. After a year in the quiet of the North Country, after four months of sheltering at home, it was a shock. But perhaps even more shocking was how quickly—we weren’t even out of New York State—I found myself adjusting to it again, the rushed rhythms, diesel stink, and breathlessness.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Along the verge, I named sumac, maple, spruce. Across these months at home, I have grieved the delights of travel and sport, the sustenance and texture of community, yet this time has reminded me, taught me once again, how myriad and lovely are the slow and close at hand, how much we might see when we take the time to look carefully, that the pace of our wider culture, of capitalism, often obliterates what is near and intricate and dear.
I knew this. I grew up way out on the plains of Montana long before cell phones and Wi-Fi, grew up miles from neighbors, the land itself close at hand. But barreling down I-90 just east of the Pennsylvania state line, I had to remind myself.
I just love the literary community that’s been built around the High Plains Book Awards over these last years, and it was a real treat to be a finalist for the 2020 awards alongside friends Pam Houston and Jory Mickelson. It’s even better to find out Pam’s Deep Creek took home the award in creative nonfiction, Jory’s Wilderness//Kingdom landed the poetry prize, and Fall Back Down When I Die is the 2020 High Plains Book Award winner in fiction!
Here’s what 2020 judge Sue Henderson, author of the “achingly magnificent” The Flicker of Old Dreams, had to say about Fall Back Down When I Die:
This is just a magnificent work of art on every level. I read it twice—first, gripped by the story, which is both intimate and sweeping. Then I went right back to the beginning to read it slower and marvel over the rugged poetry.
Wilkins takes the reader deep into the Bull Mountains, where tensions surrounding land rights and hunting regulations turn violent. We meet unforgettable characters—a man who doesn’t feel ready to care for a child, a teacher who doesn’t trust the child is in good hands, and a group of disaffected traditionalists who feel squeezed out of the only life they know. Every character is tangled up in relationships with each other that go back generations, all tied to the memories and the history of this land. The result is a story that surprises with compassion, mercy and sacrifice.
-Sue Henderson, Citation for the 2020 High Plains Book Award