In When We Were Birds, Joe Wilkins wrestles his attention away from the griefs, deprivations, and high prairies of this Montana childhood and turns toward “the bean-rusted fields and gutted factories of the Midwest,” toward ordinary injustice and everyday sadness, toward the imminent birth of his son and his own confusions in taking up the mantle of fatherhood, toward faith and grace, legacy and luck.
A panoply of voices are at play – the escaped convict, the late-night convenience store clerk, and the drowned child all have their say – and as this motley chorus rises and crests, we begin to understand something of what binds us and makes us human: while the world invariably breaks all our hearts, Wilkins insists that is the very “place / hope lives, in the breaking.”
Within a notable range of form, concern, and voice, the poems here never fail to sing. Whether praiseful or interrogating, When We Were Birds is a book of flight, light, and song. “When we were birds,” Wilkins begins, “we veered & wheeled, we flapped & loped – it’s true, we flew.”
***Winner of the 2017 Stafford/Hall Prize in Poetry from the Oregon Book Awards***
When We Were Birds possesses the kind of vision and verve reserved for those who have a hallowed conception of our journey on earth. I cannot recall such a book in recent memory that has me read with such careful attention to my breathing or reminded me of the aliveness of poetry in our age. Reading When We Were Birds leaves me hankering for the complex richness of our shared humanity, which I secretly think is Wilkins’s great agenda for his art, and nothing less. -Major Jackson, Citation for the 2017 Stafford/Hall Prize from the Oregon Book Awards
Love—or something like it—is everywhere in Wilkins’ lines, a bright-eyed beast in its own right, marred and unpredictable, dragging barbed wire and dead fish and slim-hipped girls and the brokenness of the world. It is irresistible. It calls to us. It reminds us there is nothing for us to do but tear into these words like the hungry dogs we are and find ourselves filled. -Missoula Independent
Joe Wilkins’ poems are located in the tradition of the sacred, but holiness here is found in common experience. When We Were Birds, as the title indicates, is full of imaginative novelty as well as reminders that miraculous secrets are hidden in the fabric of everyday life. These poems show us the truth and even the dignity of ordinary experience. -Billy Collins
This gritty collection from Joe Wilkins showcases how the outdoors can be a classroom for all matters of the heart: it sneaks devastating truths and disjunctions into soil and shattered rivers, into places where “a vole snouts through my throat, where a tree frog’s scream fills my heart’s dark riffle.” When We Were Birds doesn’t just contemplate all ruin and hard work, where “the backs of my hands had lustered clear to burlap or dry river mud,” but also masterfully showcases a magnificent spill and glide of beautiful language even if the speaker begs, “O god/of busted wishes/ leave me here a long time here/ in the stinking dark.” -Aimee Nezhukumatathil