“In the Anthropocene, we may be tempted to ask what poetry can do for us when what we need are tools for survival. I’d argue that these poems are just that—expertly crafted, satisfying to hold and behold, and sharp enough to dissect what needs dissecting. We’re so lucky to have this book here and now.” – Maggie Smith
Selected by Maggie Smith for the 2023 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, this debut collection of poems explores the aftermath of history’s most powerful forces: devotion, disaster, and us.
Rooted in the Gulf Coast, A History of Half-Birds measures the line between love and ruin. Part poet, part anthropologist, Caroline Harper New digs into dark places—a cave, a womb, a hurricane—to trace how violence born of devotion manifests not only in our human relationships, but also in our connections to the natural and animal worlds. Everywhere in these pages, tenderness is coupled with brutality: a deer eats a baby bird, a lover restrains another. “I promised / a love poem,” New proclaims, then teaches us about the anglerfish, how it “attracts its mate / and prey with the same lure.”
In New’s exceptional voice, familiar concepts take on a shade of the fantastic. A woman tastes the earth for acidity, buries lemons and pennies for balance. Limestone “sucks the sea / into little demitasse” and hyacinths “sip the sun / black.” A lone elephant wanders into the wilderness of rural Georgia, never to be seen again. But perhaps most arresting about New’s work are the truths told by its strangeness, like the ancient fish who “carved their shape” in a mountain’s peak, or a mother who wears a lifejacket in the bathtub.
Crafted by New’s voracious mind and carried by her matchless lyricism, A History of Half-Birds is a stunning investigation of love’s beastly impulses—all it protects, and all it destroys.