Finalist, 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize
“Poems that lead us to striking insights and strange destinations.”
The men who recur as characters throughout Jess Williard’s Unmanly Grief perform their masculinity in a variety of ways: boxing, theater, brotherhood, labor, and familial and romantic love. Marked by a sharp nostalgia, Williard’s poems move from Wisconsin to New York City and back, tracing the geographic movement of the speaker and his family: a teenage sister who disappears and returns, changed irrevocably; an older brother dismantled in adulthood; an ever-sacrificing father. Woven through the musculature of this varied and exciting collection, music appears as readily in dexterous formal verse as in lean, scrappy storytelling. What results is a crooning celebration of struggle and tenderness in this world, “where to be small and furious is enough.”
Supported in part by the Arkansas Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Miller and Lucinda Williams Poetry Fund.
“Jess Williard’s powerful debut sings the stories of the workaday world into the realm of the epic. With a vision that moves beautifully between the horrific and the sublime, and voice that yawps as brightly as it yearns, Williard’s poetry moves us to take a second look at the fringes and see both ‘the battered and battering’ among us. Self-deprecatory and sometimes ashamed, elegiac and often celebratory, these poems dance around the poet’s own eloquent question: ‘Measured against the beautiful-/brained and impermanent, how can we not be a little grotesque?’”
—Dean Bakopoulos, author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon
“In Unmanly Grief, the pale apostles of youth lead us through a childhood of corn and cement. Jess Williard shows how quiet some violences can be, how our incorrect heaven communicates through bats and waves, as well as what to believe in—the low pools of mourning where ‘formal nouns will stack their spines on any ground.’ This book knows the before and after of loves that don’t ask us to hurt for them; this book is that kind of love, the kind you keep.”
—Traci Brimhall, author of Saudade and Our Lady of the Ruins
“Jess Williard’s Unmanly Grief is a journey into an unsung and often unseen America—and a love song to all those working just to get by. Here are poems of the people, told not in the elevated register of so much poetry, but in the rough and beautiful, guttural music of plain speech.”
—Patrick Phillips, author of Elegy for a Broken Machine
“Unmanly Grief intersperses narratives of the body’s specificity, vulnerability, and perseverance with feats of lyrical reflection and music enough to bridge the gap between the personal and shared nature of those narratives. The tension between the stories of the poems (grounded in family, work, place) and what can be made of such reverent, yet unflinching observation gives the poems their power. There’s grounding in detail, voice, and careful observation, but also room, occasion, and audacity enough to leap from boxing to roofing to Hamlet and back.”
—Max Garland, author of The Word We Used for It
Every year, the University of Arkansas Press accepts submissions for the Miller Williams Poetry Series and from the books selected awards the $5,000 Miller Williams Poetry Prize in the following summer. For almost a quarter century the press has made this series the cornerstone of its work as a publisher of some of the country’s best new poetry. The series and prize are named for and operated to honor the cofounder and longtime director of the press, Miller Williams. The series is edited by Billy Collins.