Breath on a Coal
by Anne Haven McDonnell
Paperback, 85 pp.
Winner of the 2021 Halcyon Award for Poetry
In Breath on a Coal, Anne Haven McDonnell writes of what is transient and enduring, with intense focus, lyrical precision, and emotional expanse, in poems that are grounded in landscape and ‘inscape.’ This is a marvelous debut.
—Arthur Sze, author of The Glass Constellation, Sight
Lines, Compass Rose, (Pulitzer Prize winner), Quipu
You need this book. You need Anne Haven McDonnell's keen observations of the self in relation to bears, stories, juniper, salmon, family, rivers, cultures, roadrunners, and past. Searingly honest, tenderly lyric, exactingly gorgeous, Breath on a Coal is “an embarrassment of light.” Reading Breath on a Coal, I feel the animal of my body “owling up” into awareness, I put my queer antlers on and wear them proudly, I know more deeply how we can be of a place even while admitting that we are “made of stolen land.” These poems invite me to breathe fresh, to “root for everything I want / and know won’t return,” to “plan to go on rooting” despite personal loss, ecological damage, and social trauma. They invite me to be inspired by the actual, complicated world. What a thrilling debut from a poet who writes from a widely-lived and richly-attended life.
—Elizabeth Bradfield, author of Interpretive Work (winner
Anne Haven McDonnell’s sinuous, lush language captures the transient nature of existence in narratives that combine revelatory beauty with compassionate wisdom. Her deep knowledge of the earth—gathered from countless hours listening to what elk on the mountain might be saying, to what salmon in the riverbed might be whispering—teaches us the ways we are transformed by other living beings. “I put on my antlers in the sun. / I walk through the dark gates of the trees,” she professes. And we trust her for this love and loyalty, for the art and artfulness of shapeshifting that reveals to us how coming out to one’s family or to a lover is intimately related to touching a trout, to noticing with gratefulness a roadrunner who builds a nest on a light outside a window.
—Todd Davis, author of Coffin Honey and Native Species
The exquisite poems in Anne Haven McDonnell’s Breath on a Coal are concerned with wholeness and intimacy and are made out of direct encounter with the more-than-human world, a world rendered with extraordinary sensitivity and directness. Bears, bullfrogs, roadrunners, bats, fireflies, salmon, elk, chanterelles, vultures, birches, mussels, and loons live in these poems, in all their innate radiance. In McDonnell’s hands, the precision of the mystery astonishes, takes your breath away: A slug “with its eyes of boneless horns” glistening along a black road like something “just born.” Later, a “sunlit blizzard of seed/blowing off cottonwoods.” The startling truth of “I forget sometimes/how trees look at me with the generosity/of water.” One moment, your attention is caught by riveting textures and meticulous observations of the living world; the next, you find yourself exhaling with an achingly clear grief. The poems in this collection breathe close enough to the coals that meaning flares up in every line. And life rises in all its pain and beauty from these pages.
—Jenny George, author of The Dream of Reason
"Anne Haven McDonnell’s Breath on a Coal is my favorite kind of environmental writing – a writing that does not privilege the human experience in nature over nature itself. The poems in this collection allow the experience of the More-than-Human to mingle with personal poems of love and loss, allowing the natural to remain silent as it so often does, while reminding us not to forget that silence “… the whir and clack/ in the country of insects falling// to quiet pieces of shell and wing./ Piles of carapace mute as sand// on the damp ground between grasses.” A completely enjoyable read (or listen)."
—James Thomas Stevens, author of Combing the Snakes from His Hair
An outstanding collection of poems that weaves a narrative that builds through its whole with continual quality and craft, its careful attention to consciousness, place, metaphor, symbol, time, process, voice, inclusion of perspectives, philosophy, toponymy, geophony, loss, recognition of beauty, the grieving process, elements, animals, integration and wholeness. Set in three succinct sections McDonnell opens us to experience a progression of time and an integration of the events and psychology of the preceding sections . . . these are passages illuminating the grieving process, lit by the light of the cycles of salmon, of death, decay, rebirth, an orphic journey awakening one to oneness, regeneration, and a bigger picture of life in its wholeness.
There is an androgynous, or agenderous or nonbinary sense to the narrator, the voice, lending an inclusive openness to the reader, whomever they may be. The sense of place, localities in Colorado and elsewhere blend seamlessly with the sense of place of the voice of the work in its life and their journey with strength and balanced.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anne Haven McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, NM where the high desert meets the southern-most Rocky Mountains, the Sangre de Cristo range. She teaches as associate professor in English and Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poetry has been published in Orion Magazine, The Georgia Review, Narrative Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. Her poems won the fifth annual Terrain.org poetry prize, second place in Narrative Magazine’s 12th Annual Poetry Contest, and second place for the Gingko international ecopoetry prize. Anne received a special mention for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook Living with Wolves was published with Split Rock Press in fall 2020. Anne Haven holds an MFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage and has been a writer-in-residence at the Andrews Forest Writers’ Residency and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. She helps edit poetry for the journal Terrain.org. Breath On A Coal was the recipient of the 2021 Halcyon Award from Middle Creek Publishing.