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The Lost Country of Sight

Neil Aitken

Levine Prize in Poetry (2007)

It's difficult to believe that Neil Aitken's The Lost Country of Sight is a first book, since there is mastery throughout the collection. His ear is finely tuned, and his capacity for lyricism seems almost boundless. What stands out everywhere in the poems is his imagery, which is not only visually precise but is also possessed of a pure depth. The poems never veer off into the sensational; they are built from pensiveness and quietude and an affection for the world. "Traveling Through the Prairies, I Think of My Father's Voice" strikes me as a perfectly made poem, but poems of similar grace and power are to be found throughout the book. This is a debut to celebrate. -- C.G. Hanzlicek, Judge, 2007 Philip Levine Prize Prize for Poetry
Fueled by motion and emotion, Neil Aitken's The Lost Country of Sight is literally and figuratively a moving collection. His winding roads and "ghost cars" move us over the landscapes of identity and personal history with stirring meditative grace. "There is a song at the beginning of every journey," Aitken tells us in one poem even as he says in another, "these are journeys we never take." This poet is both our wise, wide-eyed tour guide and our dazed, day-dreaming companion in this rich, mature debut. -- Terrance Hayes
The voice in these poems is that of a sighted, awake heart discovering its home in language and its homelessness in the world. Steeped in longing, the imagination here is concrete, vivid, sensuous, and ultimately erotic, even as it perceives that meaning and beauty are evanescent. This book is a full helping from the world's infinite fund of tears. -- Li-Young Lee

Book Cover Goes Here

Cover: Man Entering the Waves, by C.L. Knight. The painting is based on a photograph of the wreck of the Peter Iredale on coast of Astoria, Oregon taken by Neil Aitken. The figure walking out toward the sea is his father.

In the Long Dream of Exile

You are counting the dark exit of crows
in the rear view mirror, or from the top of an overpass
looking back into the last flames of cloud.
Your car, steel to the world of flint, rests listless
with its windows wide, the stars slipping in
and settling down for the night.

Now, what you could not leave rides in boxes
heavy with numbers and places you've already
turned into poems. There is nothing left
in your pockets, your clothes worn down
to this list of miles taking you out of the known earth.

Outside your open window, the dark repeats
like the wind in late fall, twisting the names
of familiar back roads into a long rope of sighs.
You could lower yourself down with such longing.
It could be a woman or a young girl, the way the light
clings to that body like a sheet of immaculate heat,
invisible to the eye, but something, you are certain,
something that must be on the verge of love.


Pulling through Montana in the snow
we cling to the tail lights of the last car
blurring back into the darkness.

"Like the inside of a coffin," my father says,
as if knowing the exact shade the dead see,
lying stiff, frozen eyes peering up through closed lids --

he shifts in his seat, watches the road disappear,
thinks again of dying and the burials we've seen,
his father's simple reduction to ashes.

How small the urn, how light, for a man
that stood 6'3", carried a boy on his shoulders,
lived on trains as a youth, picked apples as a man.

This past summer, watching him thin
to disappearing, blurring out lines between lives,
my father trying to return pieces, fragments, time,

the body burning, the dark smells of crematoriums,
funeral homes, and pale faced lawyers.
Something merges, ends, and begins.

My father placing the ashes back into the air,
offerings to the skies, to the seas,
unaware how Buddhist he is at this moment,

how the faint sound of bagpipes echoes,
how the ashes fall catching light,
reflecting something back into the silence,

the dark birth of the sun coming into view.

Traveling Through the Prairies,
I Think of My Father's Voice

How we must have seemed like twins over the phone,
my father speaking with my voice, I speaking with his.
Some strange accident of genetics or the unchecked influence

of mockingbirds and mimeographs. I have heard two trains sound
almost alike till they passed, like the one last night bending westward,
the other slowing to a halt, the earth shuddering in the dark between,

while the stars held their place overhead, a thousand points of tin and fire.
Had it been day, I might have seen to the far faded edge of nowhere
or whatever town lies wakeless there. Here, the wind sounds the same

blown from any direction, full of dust, pollen, the deep toll of church bells
rung for mass, weddings, deaths. Coming through on the straight road,
the land seems especially bare this year, although the fields are still green

with new stalks of wheat, rye, canola. Someone has been taking down
the grain elevators one by one, striking their weathered wooden frames
from the skyline, leaving only small metal bins. The way the disease

took him by degrees, the body jettisoning what it could: his arms and legs,
his grin, his laugh, his voice. In the end, only his eyes -- their steel doors
opening and closing while the storm rattled within -- and his breath,

the body's voice, repeating the only name it knew sigh after sigh,
a lullaby sung to a restless child on a heaving deck, a hush we only learn
in the quiet dark long after the boat has gone and the waves have ceased.

The Lost Country of Sight - Available now from Anhinga Press

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Document last modified: March 3, 2015 11:07 AM