A History of Half-Birds
Winner of the 2023 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, selected by Maggie Smith
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.
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A History of Half-Birds, an inventive and impressively wide-ranging collection, has me considering and reconsidering the connections between seemingly disparate things: between poetry and science, both fueled by curiosity, imagination, and possibility; between history and myth, precision and ambiguity, the known and the unknown. 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, author of Goldenrod
Steeped in Gulf Coast flora and fauna, Caroline Harper New’s A History of Half-Birds is a gorgeous collection of poems that spins widdershins like a hurricane. This book embraces life’s complicated dualities—the precarious gravity of Saturn’s rings, nightmares that visit with every new love, the way an anglerfish attracts both its mate and prey with the same lure. Equally embracing facts and lyricism, New weaves stray opossums and beached whales into love poems, jellyfish and memory into a chandelier. Each poem is full of the world’s intimate facts that suddenly become mirrors. They are tender and wise and illuminate their mysteries. It’s a truly beautiful debut.
─Traci Brimhall, author of Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod
Like a ‘flashlight / prying through the night swamps,’ Caroline Harper New’s poems delve into the dark and treacherous corners of ourselves to ask, ‘What would any of us do / if freed?’ Through conversations with doctors and paleontologists, she traces ‘what’s left of a body,’ eroding the borders between human and non-human: inside a humpback whale she finds a sitting room, and it is unclear whether the floating lights of a Florida street are jellyfish or chandeliers. When ‘the future prickles dark at your spine,’ Caroline Harper New’s A History of Half-Birds teaches us that our only hope is to return to the body, to open our ‘shoulder / blades and dig.’
─Maia Elsner, author of Overrun by Wild Boars