A History of Half-Birds

Milkweed Editions (2024)
Winner of the Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, selected by Maggie Smith
2024 Reading Tour

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

There’s an untamed luminescence to Caroline Harper New’s debut, A History of Half-Birds, a collection steeped in science and mythology. Out of the floods and hurricanes of the Georgia delta, near Florida and the Gulf Coast, New forges a watery world made up of wild horses, the live mermaids of Weeki Wachi State Park, hurricane sisters “running around the Gulf naked,” and “half-birds,” who are “half-woman, half-bird : feathered like the loon with bones thick enough to plunge their low-slung bodies through the ice.

Rebecca Morgan Frank, author of Oh You Robot Saints!
read review at Poetry Foundation

This poetic investigation finds that pain and love are intertwined during these trials… The past, present, and future are tinged with wondering what could have been if details had been altered… The poems ask and answer how we got here, and yet they also cannot look away from looming catastrophes either… Chaos and change are not a matter of if but when for these poems.

─Martha Stuit, Pulp
read review at Pulp

 Caroline Harper New’s poetry in A History of Half-Birds is a robust and enterprising collection of real and imagined dreamscapes designed to provoke the subliminal and visceral to beautiful effect, or maybe to butterfly effect, as the poems all support the notion that our world is deeply interconnected. How seahorses refuse to help save Amelia Earhart from drowning; how jellyfish hang in trees like Christmas lights; how Skinner’s pigeons showed that free will is an illusion, and yet we still choose to mourn loss, perhaps another variation on suspicious behaviors or religious fervor in “Notes on Devotion.”…
These poems are bold and elegant charms and full of shamanic vigor — a fantastic premiere collection of poems by an enthralling voice. As stated clearly in the poem of the same name, “Widdershins,” witchcraft, augury, lunacy, and devilry are worthy of account, and how one solves a riddle relates to how one tells a story: “We study the past to know the future.”

─Mikal Wix, West Trade Review
read review at West Trade Review

In the midst of this collection’s menagerie of animals and plants both living and extinct, however, A History grips readers most fiercely when the poems investigate the brokenness, the resilience, and the ruggedness of the people within them: an ex-lover and a current one, a mother and those who came before her, the founder of an elephant refuge, and many more. – Matt Del Busto, full review at Michigan Quarterly

─Matthew Del Busto, Michigan Quarterly Review
read review at Michigan Quarterly Review

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