Review of Julie Hanson’s Unbeknownst.
Iowa Poetry Prize Series, UI Press: Iowa City, IA 2011, 84 Pages $17.00

By Matthew Guenette
You don’t have to read far into Unbeknownst, Julie Hanson’s Iowa Prize winning book, to find a thrilling turn. In the opening lyrical poem—the mischievous, cleverly titled “Use the Book”—the narrator begins with what seems a quiet, eloquent description of an unnamed book:
            I love this book, I was telling someone
            the other day: it’s as if the pages have been
            rinsed with tea and dried in the sun, gentle
            on the eye and wanting your touch. Old jacket,
            favorite hat, pages so soft they whisper right on by.
            Perfect for fishing, although the poems
            have little or nothing to do with Nature.
This is a set-up of course, the calm before the charge. The poem, with its steady rhythms, tempts our prejudices about just such a poem (it feels pastoral, old fashioned, quietist a la Silliman) before leaping into an ars poetica that would knock the socks off of Archibald MacLeish:
            Looking up from those surreal and strictly human
            situations into all this, then, is such a surprise:
            I thought I saw a muskrat there, just the other side
            of the stream, standing near that clump
            of darker grass…oh he’s slipped into the water,
            he’s gone now, you’ve missed him completely.
            Wait, see the head? He’s making straight for our
            stringer! Pull it up, pull it up! Well then, at least
            hit him on the head with something. Take this.

The most startling beauty in “Use the Book”—other than its ironic answer to the question of what poetry is good for (answer: whacking muskrats on the head!)—is the coherence of its disparate images and tones. The poem raises questions about poetry’s utility. And true to this concern Unbeknownst addresses suspicions poets have long held about poetic language, its patterns and designs, and its dialogue with notions of transcendence—all the while remaining remarkably accessible.

After “Use the Book,” Unbeknownst issues more hits than misses. The poems are largely unified by a voice that is empathetic, local, sincere with its irony, and wise in its rhetorical pronouncements. The best poems organize themselves around major shifts that generate surprise. And though the poems themselves are not particularly experimental in lineation, formally inventive, nor obtuse or paratactic in style and tone—a noteworthy point considering the tradition of books recently honored with the Iowa Prize—there is a run of poems in the book’s third section that traffic in the Ghazal. The best of these, “A Continual Effort,” makes excellent play with the form’s stringent demands, dancing its couplets and refrains through subtle variations that trace the poem’s shifting sense of sorrow and beauty.

            And if we stopped our improving and left everything as is?
            Unhelped, the desert could return to its scarcity basis.

            Landslide of paper, slivers of straw and glass, a toppled lamp.
            Don’t disturb the evidence. Leave everything as is.

            When God looked at all that had been done he said, “I’m spent.
            My imagination’s drained. This is how it finishes.”

            In the clamor of choices, nothing had seemed good and sufficient.
            He’d slumped and sighed and said, “Leave everything as is.”

            When you send back silence, or answer, instead, a question
            unasked, it’s your quiet or question then that is.

            What if we stopped taking photographs at Christmas?
            Would we really not remember if we hadn’t any images?

            Here I go again, knee-deep through the leaves, knowing
            full well now, and with what regularity, everything changes.

The divine issues silence throughout Unbeknownst, yet Hanson’s sensibilities are continually awake to the beauty in that silence. Surely these poems are alert to frustrations: with the quotidian; with family and love; with the way language, not always clear, talks back to us. But the most salient feature of Unbeknownst is the way so many of these poems crack wise as the world they describe falls short of expectations.

In the book’s last poem, “To encapsulate the unattainable, you speak to me of work,” the narrator confesses, “These are the subjects we endure / in order that we may better understand each other”. To love the every day requires a wit as fierce as Dickinson’s, whose eye for the squiggly line between cosmic and comic made her the best darkly comic poet of her time. Hanson conjures a world in the same tradition. They tempt the most heartbreaking question—is that all there is?—and at the same time insist the fantastic can flash anywhere, at any time. For the most part, Unbeknownst is a collection of poems that stand in awe of that flash.

Matthew Guenette is the author of two collections of poetry: American Busboy (U. of Akron Press, 2011) and Sudden Anthem (Dream Horse Press, 2008). He lives, works, and loses sleep in Madison, WI.


  1. [...] Iowa Poetry Prize winning book, UNBEKNOWNST, written by Matthew Guenette. Check it out HERE.   Here’s to no injuries today while you mess with explosives. Leave a [...]

  2. [...] Matthew Guenette has a terrific short review of Julie Hanson’s Unbeknownst in the latest issue of IO: A Journal of New American Poetry.  Check it out here. [...]