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Arts & Culture

The Poetry Of Life


In When We Were Birds, Joe Wilkins wrests his attention away from the griefs, deprivations, and high prairies of his Montana childhood and turns toward “the bean-rusted fields & gutted factories of the Midwest,” toward ordinary injustice and everyday sadness, toward the imminent birth of his son and his own confusions in taking up the mantle of fatherhood, toward faith and grace, legacy and luck.

A panoply of voices are at play—the escaped convict, the late-night convenience store clerk, and the drowned child all have their say—and as this motley chorus rises and crests, we begin to understand something of what binds us and makes us human: while the world invariably breaks all our hearts, Wilkins insists that is the very “place / hope lives, in the breaking.”

Within a notable range of form, concern, and voice, the poems here never fail to sing. Whether praiseful or interrogating, When We Were Birds is a book of flight, light, and song. “When we were birds,” Wilkins begins, “we veered & wheeled, we flapped & looped— / it’s true, we flew.”

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Joe Wilkins, author of The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up in the Big Dry, by Joe Wilkins
Joe Wilkins

Joe Wilkins is the author of the memoir "The Mountain and the Fathers" and the poetry collections "Notes from the Journey Westward" and "Killing the Murnion Dogs." A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award finalist, he lives in western Oregon and teaches writing at Linfield College. His essays, poems, and stories have appeared in many magazines and journals, including The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, Harvard Review, Orion, The Sun, The Utne Reader, and Slate.