We Can't Tell If the Constellations Love Us
2021 Winner of the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award
by Jennifer Oakes
paperback, 92 pages
In her daring, risky, and tender new collection, We Can’t Tell If the Constellations Love Us, Jennifer Oakes leads us beneath the layers of depression, violence, and climate despair to remind us, ever so gently, “the world is connected/by breath/and it’s bodies that do/the breathing.” Oakes’ is one of the most original voices in contemporary American poetry, but with no posturing or easy gimmicks, her inventive poems grounded in the world we live in. In each of these pieces, and especially her long poem, “In My Original Kansas, We Were Iron,” she bares her soul, using the everyday, often difficult material of life as fuel.
—James Crews, editor of The Path to Kindness: Poems of Connection & Joy
Early in Jennifer Oakes’ uncompromising third collection of poems, We Can’t Tell If the Constellations Love Us, a child asks “if she will ever know war in her heart.” This nakedness of the word is a standard of candor the poet holds herself to and never falls short of. Anchored by two long, complexly voiced poems, this new collection defamiliarizes the physical, psychological, and political violence of our time, creating an uncanny space for us to hear “the trees filled with cellos / playing the names of the living.” Keep this book close. These songs for imperiled life will help you navigate a way to refuge.
—David Axelrod, author of Years Beyond the River
In language shiveringly sharp and sensuous, Jennifer Oakes weaves poems like spells. As if solving a puzzle, the poet records and memorializes fracture alongside wholeness. “Breakage is just another form of becoming.” In tales that translate the ordinary into the extraordinary and fables alert with warning, Oakes draws her reader into the shared task “to make one real sentence.” Her singular voice, like voices of our greatest poets, startles and enchants. This collection, wrought of rare fabric, stretches, shrinks, holds us breathless, drops us on hard ground and re-gathers us into an intimate net of common frailty. “But perhaps this is our job, to be/passed through. To be always/the thinnest slice of now.” Seer and surrealist, Oakes guides us through darkness and returns us to innocence and hope. “We go on living. I love everything/disastrously. Whoever you are, the trees have always been on fire.”
—Barbara Rockman, author of to cleave
I have long considered Jennifer Oakes’ poems to be works of magic, so perhaps We Can’t Tell If the Constellations Love Us is a grimoire for our present moment, “a field where lightning could ignite the world / if you could remember how to get there / and be lightning.” It’s a book full of spells for cosmic empathy and word-amulets that can reverse time, transform a reckless species, or heal a single heart. But this spell book acknowledges the limitations of words, too, in poems where the oppositional—aging and adolescence, sex and depression—illustrates the inability to force language to make the meanings we desire. Fortunately, one impulse is always hidden inside the other, and so making life from death becomes Oakes' greatest incantatory turn: “Each spoken thing is a harness / to morning, which is far away, but promised, which is far away, / but coming with the light by which we’ll assess the remains.” Thank goodness for poets and witches like this one.
—Keetje Kuipers, author of All Its Charms
About the Author
Jennifer Oakes (formerly Jennifer Boyden) is a poet and novelist whose books include The Declarable Future (Four Lakes Prize in Poetry) and The Mouths of Grazing Things (Brittingham Prize in Poetry), both with University of Wisconsin Press. Her novel, The Chief of Rally Tree, won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. Jennifer also collaborates with visual artists whose pieces feature Jennifer’s work on bridges, license plates, and columnar basalt, among other surfaces. She is a former recipient of the PEN Northwest Wilderness Writing Residency, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. A Minnesota native, Jennifer now lives in Seattle, Washington, where she is a teacher and education consultant.