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Iowa Poetry Prize winner brings light to everyday life

BY DAN VERHILLE | SEPTEMBER 20, 2012 6:30 AM

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What thoughts do you roll over while chewing? Can you recount the history of the wind by the path of footprints in the snow? What treasures and terrors can be uncovered in the crap of everyday life when you start asking, “What does any of this matter?”

In her collection Unbeknownst, Julie Hanson deftly lays out moments of small wonder culled from the banality of our daily lives. Hanson’s poems speak in a shockingly accessible language on the little moments and considerations that pass so many of us by without a second thought, like shutting down the mind before sleep, consoling a stranger at an airport, or eating cold cereal in the dead of the night.

Hanson, a recipient of the Iowa Poetry Prize, earned an M.F.A. in poetry and an M.A. in expository writing from the University of Iowa. In 2011, Unbeknownst was published by the University of Iowa Press to national critical acclaim for its illuminating candor.

The frankness of her poems is simultaneously beautiful and stunning throughout the entire collection, such as in “Criterion for Sleep,” in which she gets at the elusive feeling of trying not to overthink thinking before the onset of sleep.

Without reaching for abstract comparisons, Hanson pinpoints the moment when there’s “nothing left over in the machine of the brain to be tumbled and banked [and] … the only ceremony is to breathe without hearing the breath, to leave here temporarily."

In “Promise,” she considers the tasks and people we commit to and the perfection we will always fail to attain:

“People do not like to be reminded of promises they have made.” Hanson asks us to “notice the use of wide words” as simple as “I’ll remember” or as loaded as “I will always love you,” reminding us that all the promises, for better or worse, usually lack the permanence we wish to imbue in them.

In “Cold Cereal and Milk at 3 a.m.,” Hanson asks a question all have thought, “What can make something so simple taste so good, so indulgent?” She continues on to ponder how bizarrely plain things can evoke something powerful, such as a memory of a lost loved one, in the same manner a submerged piece of cereal is discovered in a bowl.

Unbeknownst also asks us to appreciate the simple beauty in experiences we’ve forgotten. ”The Kindergarteners” recreates one of these experiences perfectly: “All their lives they’ve waited for the yellow bus to come for them. Now it’s February and the mat is wet. The jointed door has folded back and shut again more times than any one of them can count … It goes without mention.”

In language that reads as casual as everyday speech but moves unpredictably, Hanson puts shared experiences on the cutting board and presents a delicately organized platter of poems sure to astound readers with their understated wisdom and creeping realizations of beauty.


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