National Anthem

 

One of Publishers Weekly's Five Best Poetry Books of 2008!
Citation: A rare poetry collection: as angry and ironic over the state of contemporary America—figured here as a great classical empire in decline—as it is funny and perversely pleasurable.

Best book of the Year—Virginia Quarterly Review!
Citation: This is the collection of the year so far as I’m concerned. These poems look back on America from a not-so-distant future during and after the apocalypse that toppled our empire. Prufer’s speaker shuttles between anger and ironic bemusement as he catalogs visions of destruction and the survival of the worst of us. When the speaker sets off to find what’s left of America, for example, only the Motel 6 and Waffle House seem to be thriving. It’s like Omega Man meets The Waste Land—which is to say that’s it’s a biting social critique of our times, but it also feels legitimately visionary (and scary). —Ted Genoways & VQR

Finalist, the 2010 Poets' Prize!

A 2008 "Notable Book"—Poetry International!

from Publishers Weekly
[STARRED REVIEW ] Anyone with doubts about the place of politics in poetry should have this book thrust in his hands. Prufer (Fallen from a Chariot) writes, “I don't know what to do/ with the doomed, the chilled over and gone,/ but drink until my fingers become twigs.” This powerful collection, makes the political personal and the personal political, all in the service of sinuous, moving free verse. He has a rare gift for bringing the inanimate to life on the page. The American West becomes a drifter on a raft, his chest “brown and flecked with hair,” and the title poem begins with a shopping center calling out like a lover. Elsewhere, ancient Rome, its empire in slow, steady decline, is found “curled on a pew, asleep,” a haunting parallel for contemporary America. Poetry—a possible source of salvation?—is a boy locked in a car's trunk, screaming and refusing to die. And there are people in these poems, too: a speaker who writes love notes he describes as “empty and vaguely/ sad.” Dead children, soldiers and those left behind in an evacuation speak and are spoken about. An absurdly large parachute falls over a suburb, and the speaker writes letters to his lover while trying to find his way out from under it. Near the end of the book, Prufer's fourth, is an ongoing elegy for a dark time in American history.

from The New Yorker…
The America of Prufer’s fourth collection is an empire in decline, a medicated landscape (“snow / like little tranquilizers all over the yard”) peopled by pilgrims to shopping malls. The book opens with a panoramic vision of the aftermath of apocalypse—“expired” cars, silenced TVs, coffins “unmoored and happy with the storm”—but ends intimately, with a child’s memory of his first encounter with death; the thin wire between political failure and personal grief runs taut throughout. In the eerie centerpiece poem, the suburbs are sealed under an enormous parachute, its nylon shimmering; icicles line the seams and crash into the streets, and the narrator walks for days, never finding the edge.

from Library Journal…
The author of four books of poetry (e.g., Fallen from a Chariot) and coeditor of the important anthology New European Poets, Prufer here continues to grapple with human suffering, smudging the border between real and surreal in a kind of imagined poetry of witness: two strangers comb a ravaged war site in search of food, a man who personifies the American West sleeps on a raft, Caesars fill the hospital beds. In the title poem, the speaker waits in a parking lot while his companion finishes shopping: "What was the body but a vessel, and what was the store but another,/ larger vessel?" Often, things are inside of other things: a body inside a car trunk or a man beneath a spread parachute that covers an entire neighborhood. At the core is a boy’s fear of the unknown: "My brother cried at dinner when he learned/ one day he would die. I picked at my food/ and wanted to be a chip on the wall/ or a spot that would not wash away."   Recommended for contemporary poetry collections.

from Ploughshares
Kevin Prufer’s terrific fourth collection exposes a nightmare straight from the head of Walt Whitman. In it, America sings a democratic song of distress, with no one, or thing, denied suffering or a voice: not the moon, nor minor politicians, shopping centers or the book’s most prevalent speaker, an ‘I’ without biography, who transcribes societal and environmental break-down via tropes suggestive of the post-apocalyptic scenarios of Mad Max and television’s “Jericho,” of the conquer-n-collapse history of the Roman age.  —Dana Levin

from The Antioch Review…
Clearly, National Anthem confirms, once again, that Prufer's voice is one of the most original and powerful of his generation.  —Jane Satterfield

from The Georgia Review
These are political poems, but unlike many other contemporary poems, they are not limited by circumstance. Instead, they are visionary.  —Judith Kitchen

from Colorado Review
A beautiful poetry…like the best love songs, the poems in this book are absolutely fearless, and demand respect—fearless because they promise to be the voice of a people, demanding respect because they succeed.  —David Doran

from Prairie Schooner
If the dark prospect portrayed in National Anthem strikes us as grim and worrisome, then perhaps, like old Ebenezer Scrooge, we had best commit ourselves to altering these shadows of "things to come" before they unfold themselves to our peril. This, after all, is why we have poets—and why we need them.  —Stephen Behrendt

from Oxford American
[From "Ten Great Novels of the Apocalypse [and one book of poems]": And here, for good measure, is one last book, which missed the above list only because it is not a novel: National Anthem by Kevin Prufer (apocalypse by enjambment): This is the one (good) post-apocalyptic poetry collection I know. There are no hands rising from the soil here, no horror-movie contrivances, but even the most naturalistic poems seem touched with a terrible wreckage, as if everything were occurring after the world had been torn to pieces. The opening lines of "We Wanted to Find America" are representative of the book's tone of frightening moss-lit elegy:

We wanted to find America through the gasps of snow that fell like last century's angels—
And the starving horses, their shanks brittled over with ice—
And the moon atop its brilliant derrick, and the poor burning so beautifully in the oilfields.
As we drove, their cries lit the wind with wailing
 and you said, This isn't America into the truck's dark cab and turned the radio loud.
                                                —Kevin Brockmeier

from Contemporary Poetry Review
I hope to be alive in the year 2038 (I don’t ask for 2048) and I hope to be living an American life in which we still have our well-stocked supermarkets, and our rooms full of books, a life in which we are not divided into tribes desperately fighting to survive in the junkyards and ruins left by the collapse of empire, and I hope to then pick up National Anthem and smile at its quaintness, its fever-dream exaggerations of solvable problems ... be amused by its presumption that we today endure the ultimate in deracination and alienation. But I think, and fear, that National Anthem—delving as it does into the caverns below hipness—has a much better chance of ringing true to those serious readers whom I keep trying to believe in and who go by the name of posterity.   —Mark Halliday   

from American Book Review
Prufer's complex and utterly beautiful National Anthem haunts and proclaims in subtle ways that recover the possibility of the American epic for a millennial and skeptical generation ... It is this care for clearly ringing music, more hymnal than conversational, and the patterns of complex and intricately resonent motifs, of snow, of ash, of the moon burning or falling like a bomb, of bare skulls and the light shafting through their excavation, which make the best argument that National Anthem is much more than an otherwise sly wink from a generation looking for America.  —Lynnell Edwards

from Indiana Review
National Anthem is a collection of love poems to both the infinite and the infinitesimal. They are transformations at the most beautiful: an ever-expanding universe squeezed into a teacup, an entire cosmology fit into a mechanical bird's heart.  —Ryan Teitman

from St. Ann's Review
No empire lasts forever, and Prufer has achieved an elegy of sorts to his country at a moment when it needs to soberly assess the wreckage.  For all the challenges that decline may pose, National Anthem reminds us how after a multitude of disasters, the past may yet sustain us for another moment, as we pause to take in its quiet and steady erosions, “so beautiful,/ I know you'd agree,/ and terrible.”   —Gabriel Rocha 

from Post No Ills
There are poets writing who know a poem is also place, a crowded room where one can be whomever he or she desires, who understand that to be able to write a poem is a form of freedom. The publication of National Anthem shows Kevin Prufer to be this kind of writer. In this collection, the voices are myriad and unexpected: gunfire, a shopping mall, young girls in heaven, history, and the American West all speak. And yet the collection’s preoccupation is not with voices, but with the idea of nationhood—how it crumbles and how people love while it crumbles. —Reginald Dwayne Betts 

from The Athens Banner-Herald
Prufer's meditations on a post-apocalyptic America manage to be frightening, amusing and, above all else, extremely insightful. —Janet Geddis

from On the Seawall, A Literary Website by Ron Slate…
This is Prufer’s most sophisticated book to date in thought and in scope, as other reviewers have amply noted. But what I love about National Anthem is not so much the big but the small -- how each arresting image layers on top of others for a complete effect. In a poem called "The Mean Boys," Prufer ends with: "The snow has painted the town away, and I miss the flash when they opened their mouths to laugh." Here, Prufer's images don't only sound interesting, but also serve a greater purpose of indicating a decaying and a fallen world. A distant town is described as "a row of crumbled teeth." Ruin and decay are adeptly made artistic by such original imagery throughout a book that travels skillfully and widely between the macro and the personal.  —Victoria Chang

from The Laurel Review
National Anthem is an accomplished book that is deceptive in both its brevity and its quietude. Behind its seeming uncertainty are poems that scream across a continent and through thousands of years of imperial failure and ineptitude…its cries are haunting long after the book is closed.  —Michael McLane

Still More reviews....

Prufer grapples with American power and its deceptions with subtlety and sadness.  —Editors Select, The Notre Dame Review

"There is nothing so lonely as an empire detached from its people," writes Prufer in his poem "What We Did with the Empire." If anything, that line could well serve as the thesis statement for this collection of more than 40 poems by the English professor at the University of Central Missouri and editor of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. In two sections, the slim book collects poems that consider the failings and foibles of politics and government, urban life and consumerism -- belated wakeup calls for citizens of a police state that's constantly at war with other nations (and itself). The tenor and tone is largely one of careful but unavoidable and perhaps understandable neutrality and distance -- reminding me slightly of the prose of Ben Marcus and the comic books of Peter Milligan -- and Prufer's imagery is strong but subtle: birds and boats, coins and coffins, snow and soot. This is a poetry of decay and decline, and there's little hope in the book outside of the occasional lines like, "and the office towers bending down to us as if they'd cup us in their hands and warm us, / as if they'd lift us from the streets before we froze." ("We Wanted to Find America") Too little, too late, for now, and for that, I am thankful.  —Small Press Review

The poetry in National Anthem, simply put, is necessary. Gritty and vibrantly-realized, Kevin Prufer’s work is a concretization of an imagined apocalypse—an analysis of the nation's affairs and poignant observations on life in contemporary America ... Prufer has the unique ability to tap into the current state of affairs and the vibe of the national consciousness. But he doesn't stop there. His work transforms the material into something necessary whose lasting benefit speaks to a country in a unique sort of turmoil.   —Cynthia Reeser, Prick of the Spindle

Also favorably reviewed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, Miami Herald, and elsewhere.

 

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