When I decided to attend graduate school at the University of North Texas in the fall of 2003, I don’t think I really anticipated how challenging the entire experience was going to be. I didn’t know anything about Texas. I also didn’t know anyone in Texas. In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that I talked myself into going at all. However, I was lucky in many ways while I was at UNT but I think I was most lucky in all the amazing writers I met and became friends with through classes and workshops.
One of my dear friends from those days in Denton, Natalie Giarratano, is the winner of the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Prize for her debut collection Leaving Clean.
Leaving Clean is filled with thick, grit that is both beautiful and haunting. At times, the poems stand up, address the audience candidly, almost daring the reader to continue through a less than hospitable landscape. Other times the poems are quieter, asking you to lean in and listen carefully. These are poems that you return to and that you linger over long after you’ve closed the book.
One of my favorite poems, “Trophy: Photo of a Dead Boy” comes near the end of the first section in the collection. The opening of the poem immediately grounds the reader in the real world, but there is something unsettling just beneath all those concise details: “I was thirteen when I saw your photograph/in my uncle’s study: he told me/you should have been mounted on the wall,/his taxidermist’s masterpiece.” As the poem unravels, the images build and the feeling of unease intensifies to the point where I want to break away from the poem. Away from the photograph. But I can’t. And I’m glad that I don’t when I reach the ending lines “You look strangely fierce with eyes open/staring through my wholeness.”
Leaving Clean is full of poems that pull the reader in close, force an intimacy is both uncomfortable and revelatory at the same time. “Armenia at the Dinner Table” is an example of this intimate lens as we find a woman whose hair “had it not been knotted up on her/square head to work the grid of farmland” and “…Her face/is just lazy from the sun and soy beans/ and eight babies, a few who couldn’t outlive her.”
I could keep going about all there is to admire in this collection. I’ve read it a half dozen times and every time I return to it, I find something new to think about. I’m proud to know Natalie and beyond excited that her collection is out in world for people to read and appreciate. I can’t wait to share her poems with my students and I encourage you to go out and buy Leaving Clean. There’s a rumor going around that Natalie will even sign it for you if you.