The Empty Boat

Michael Sowder

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Winner of the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize

In finely wrought, image-driven poems, The Empty Boat explores the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of the human relationship to the natural world, asking how nature speaks to us and what wisdom and solace it may offer the tragic aspects of our lives.

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Winner of the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize

In finely wrought, image-driven poems, The Empty Boat explores the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of the human relationship to the natural world, asking how nature speaks to us and what wisdom and solace it may offer the tragic aspects of our lives. From haunting poems that give voice to losses and seek redemption in wilderness, to those that celebrate ecstatic moments of mystical vision, the book’s trajectory moves ever toward Taoist landscapes of thought. The book concludes with the return of love and reimaginings of the relationship of presence and emptiness in our lives.

This earthy yet elegant poet is a true heir to all the exciting poetry of the 20th century. He takes the crow myth of Ted Hughes and the wish for Electra’s retribution in Plath, creating his own personal mythology out of American reclamation and spiritual revelation. Reading these poems, I felt the possible power of all poetry: a way of understanding and connecting to the primal and expanding universe. I hear the Western affirmation of D. H. Lawrence, and the journey from Sappho’s Greece via Pound into all our American landscapes. This poet, evolving from the American Modernists, transforms the ordinary into magic. A journey, a quest: I could not stop or be distracted from his path.

—Diane Wakoski, 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize Judge

Though the longest poem in this wonderful debut volume is an elegy, Michael Sowder presents us with an abundance of joyful encounters and revelations as he opens himself, tenderly as Walt Whitman, not only to the elements of earth, air, and water, but to the love of his fellow humans and the guidance of masters like Li Po and Saint Francis. I admire his masterful technique—his command of sonic structures, his lineation, his prolific images and metaphors—and I admire just as much his condensed narratives with their double-plots, their flashbacks, their humor, and their scenes of passion. Here is the poetry of earth Keats claimed is never dead; it thrives in Michael Sowder’s vivid imagination, where crows, stars, rivers, and lovers cohabit in dynamic and rapturous connections.

—Laurence Goldstein, Editor,
Michigan Quarterly Review

Reading Michael Sowder’s The Empty Boat is, as one poem says, “some kind of wild celebration.” I think of Whitman’s “child” going forth every day to name anew each experience; to begin each day, each moment, fresh and clear and open; to celebrate life. Each poem is like an “empty boat” waiting for us to step in, launch, and float into “the sky-blue waves.”

—Kenneth Brewer, Utah Poet Laureate

Michael Sowder is a seeker of meaning, a seeker of the hidden significance that lies under the everyday occurences of the real world. He is one of those rare poets who is constantly looking for what Robert Penn Warren called the logic of the original dream. These poems are fine tributes to the mysteries.

—David Bottoms

“…my father one day walked out / the back door and drove nails / in a post and put clothes on a cross / he set up against their intransigence.” I love how these poems peck at “bright blood,” at “what glitters,” till what was decussate is “more of a kite than a cross” tethered, and “something from childhood” wakens to BBs/beaks/needles/black arcs/black blades/talons, till “waiting in a field…a cold moon cuts through.” I can feel it. [“Can you feel this cut I have / from my chest to my throat?”—Lorca (el cuervo)]; feel the cut string, the “afternoon light, the yellow crocus…all the transoms / open.” These poems are tinder: Lady Mori’s sweet moon-boat, her weightless bed: a radiance.

—Margaret Aho

Contents

Acknowledgments

The Glittering Bodies
     Lightning Whelk
     Ludington Beach, Lake Michigan
     My Grandfather from Kentucky
     My Godfather’s House
     Killing a Crow
     At the Rehabilitation Center
     Learning Names
     Watching Crows
     Reading Sylvia’s Journals
     Wapiti
     Cuervo Thoughts on the East Rim
     Tattoo
     Driving to North Carolina
     The Gulf
     Rose Bush
     In the Dentist’s Office, Reading an Old Issue of Poetry
     Crow with Lexus
     Elegy for Ford
     Fishing, His Birthday

The Empty Boat
     Watching Orion
     Three Days in Grand Island
     At the Edge of a Field
     Waking Up
     Former Attorney Offers Prayer of Thanksgiving for His New Job
     May in the Kingdom of Hsuang Tsung
     Down the Etowah
     Fallen Crow
     A Lesson
     Christ’s Kite
     Ikkyu
     The Strangeness of Crows
     In the Luminous Dark
     November Suns
     Cleaning the Face of the First American Bank
     Saint Francis in Ecstasy
     That Drink
     May Morning, Snake River
     Rifle River
     New Snow, Ann Arbor
     The Lost Verse
     My Friend Takes My Dog for a Hike
     Falling Asleep

Afterword
Notes on Poems

Authors

Poet and essayist Michael Sowder is an associate professor of English at Utah State University, in Logan, Utah.

Visit Michael's website.

Reviews

These are daring, bold, and original poems. Today Thoreau would see a fellow traveler. Sowder's poems, distinguished and rewarding, are here to be read.

Western American Literature

Sowder’s own graceful, lyric poems lift us gently into the empty boat, guiding us to pay attention to the world around us.… Sowder is a skilled poet and a gentle guide, a narrator to whom we must listen eagerly. In The Empty Boat, he rewards us for our attention.

Crab Orchard Review

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