Jackson Holbert’s debut collection, Winter Stranger, winner of the Milkweed Editions 2022 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, considers the surprises in grief and the unexpected reminders left by the dead for the bereft. The speaker, a young man negotiating his own demons and drug addiction, constantly apprehends signs of a presence: a beloved lost one, personified grief, family members assembled on scene in the frostbitten farm, a mailman carrying or not carrying away stamped postage, even Death itself. Holbert’s voice—sparse, elegant, breathlessly fragmented—observes and contends with these elusive appearances, to which he assigns winter’s iconic attributes. Color (or lack of), snow, barren landscapes—he draws from the emptiness as it gives room to reckon with the spiritual struggle of mortality, addiction, and misery. The stranger that graces the cover in fogged faceless blue reappears throughout the poems in different forms before the speaker, who maintains, if not hope, a quiet persistence in survival among the hauntings.
Throughout the thirty-four poems, Holbert showcases a formidable range of registers. Some lines float lyrically with sonic glissandos, like “blueberries and hail / hard as ball bearings” in the opening poem, “For Jakob.” Others adopt more colloquial diction, harsher sounds. In “We Learned the Mountains by Heart,” Holbert channels the declarative litany of Gwendolyn Brooks: “We went to school we ate pink beef we drank / lots of water we snorted ritalin . . .” He takes a cue from Franz Wright’s elliptical refrains in navigating addiction and recalling the dead among the natural world in “For Jakob”: “It’s April. We’re dying / again, all of us, among poplars, . . .” As prevalent as the presence of snow and snow-white letters in the poems’ scenes are the pills to which the speaker turns for recreation or a coping mechanism. Confessing or openly announcing his usage, he does not absolve himself for his current state of addiction, but the speaker’s naive persona divorces himself of accountability when it comes to reckoning with the bigger issues, including death. “These White Letters Look Nothing Like the Snow” features Death in physical form. “But how was I supposed to know . . .” he demands of the unwanted guest’s constant unpredictable arrivals. A strange, foreboding presence pervades the poems, and Holbert draws the reader’s eye downward: aquifers, creek beds, sunlight penetrating the earth—everything settles into the ground, the holding place for death.
Equally as pervasive in its faceless presence, fear reappears as a central character in the poems. Unlike death or even grief, about which the speaker finds himself sometimes confounded or surprised, fear is no stranger to him. In “The 26th Birthday Poem,” the speaker concludes with resigned familiarity:
A long life full of terror
is still a long life. And the terror
subsides after a little while
until you can barely distinguish it
from the clouds. (I promise.)
In spite of his lists, his deliberate plans for the future, or his memories of specific moments intentionally engaged in life and living, Holbert’s speaker cannot escape the fact that fear has always been in watchful attendance of his life. A few lines in “After Rilke” likens fear to “the uncertain light that filled / all those childhood afternoons and evenings / when we were so afraid.” Unnameable then, fear is nonetheless ominously intuited by the precocious persona. Holbert thus strips childhood of innocence. Numerous poems recall boys now dead—by shootings, overdoses, or world war. Youth are recklessly driven into substance abuse, into killing moose or beating cats to death. Forever frozen in the speaker’s memory as teenagers, his friends, even the dead, have not departed, but are constantly rediscovered. He apprehends recollections of them everywhere, of Jakob in particular.
To this most prominently featured character, Holbert assigns an entire section of Winter Stranger; yet, like the unpredictable encounters with grief, Jakob is not confined to one section. Poems about him and allusions to him spill throughout the collection, and it is with Jakob that Holbert deals most explicitly with the spiritual reckoning of grief. The constant recalling of Jakob everywhere— “even the sugar”—exhausts and vexes the speaker, who resists the demoralizing reminders with an insatiable hunger for life. In “Unfinished Letter to Jakob,” he claims that after the first overdose he “thought constantly / of fruit–plums, / blackberries, plums.” He outwardly rails against grieving Jakob, “. . . done with your dead eyes, done with your hospital grip socks” in “Jakob in the Basement,” but in efforts to move away from the dead toward survival, he discovers and tenderly admits to an inevitable loyalty: “I owe you nothing but love . . .”
Winter Stranger insistently demands of Holbert’s speaker and reader to account for the ghosts in our lives. How complete is a person’s absence after they have gone? In one sense, the body no longer takes up space. The person is silenced, making room for the voices of the living. In another sense, the absence makes itself felt all the more acutely in ubiquitous signposts for the living to detect. The speaker questions the futility of constant recollections, preserving a memory that too will expire. He ecclesiastically remarks, “I could keep saying this forever / and still nothing would be preserved.” Yet the inescapable presence of the dead—pine trees the color of a mother’s hair, memories of boys either grown or gone—demand a watchful attendance on the part of the bereft. Jackson Holbert rattles off memories with stream of consciousness energy, sends letters that will never be received despite the amount of postage or deliberation, and struggles between wanting to abandon the role bridging the living and the dead— “I’ve done death’s handiwork before,” he announces, “This time I’m coming home home.” Throughout Winter Stranger, the poet inquisitively searches for absolution in lost conversations, ground oxycodone, dying uncles, and the childhood trapping and releasing of spiders, in the hopes of uncovering an answer to a world that makes room for boys capable of both destruction and tenderness, a world that likewise deals both destruction and tenderness to them.
About the Reviewer
Shannon Nakai is a poet, book reviewer, and contributing editor for The Cortland Review. Her work has also appeared in Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. A Fulbright Scholar and nominee for the Pushcart and AWP Intro Poetry Prizes, she works with and for refugees with the International Rescue Committee.