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Selected by Henri Cole for the 2018 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize

“The poetry of the earth is intensely alive in the poems of John James. In this luminous first book, there are poems of a son and a young father. Many of the best inhabit a tormented Kentucky landscape where there is a field with horses, a house and a barn, a flooding river, a cemetery where a parent lies, and bees or flies hovering. Out of the sorrowful fragments of personal history, John James has a created a book of unusual intelligence and beauty.”

—Henri Cole

“The titular poem in John James’s debut collection refers not only to the luminous hour of infant nurture, although that is its occasion, but to the violent loss of his father, an event distant enough that ‘snowmelt smoothes the stone cuts of his name.’ James’s searing attention is upon the fleeting, the untethered, upon fecundity and decay, the cosmic and the molecular. These are also the poems of a young father’s daily life in the wane of empire, who wishes ‘to remember things purely, to see them / As they are,’ and who recognizes in what he sees our peril. ‘The end,’ he writes, ‘we’re moving toward it.’ James is, then, a poet of our precarious moment, and The Milk Hours is his gift to us.”

—Carolyn Forché

“I can’t remember a collection of poems with a greater variety of trees in it than The Milk Hours, or one that has left me so conscious of the centrality of the tree to human history, or for that matter, to humanness itself—from the microscopic branches of our nerve endings to the vast tentacular dust lanes of the galaxy we live in. Impeccably constructed, profoundly felt, and every bit as gorgeous as it is full of powerful observation (a candlewick’s “braided cotton converting to amber,” dead stars that throw “cold light through the black matter / of millennia”), The Milk Hours is a startlingly mature, exhilarating debut, and one whose urgent evocation of the past and confident reaching for what lies ahead ensure it a prominent place in our present.”

—Timothy Donnelly

“‘Home is a question,’ writes John James in The Milk Hours, a remarkable debut in which sorrow leads to an astonishing intimacy with the world. The speaker is pensive but inquisitive, bewildered by the loss of a father and renewed by love and parenthood. Art, science, and travel, like mortality, become tethers to the elegant and chaotic truths of our world. The Milk Hours is a moving and urgently crafted testament to resilience and to beauty.”

—Eduardo C. Corral

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“In poetry of highest lyric order, music is its own mind. Such a mind doubts even as it believes, listens even as it sees. That mind forms on the page: what we read, it sings; and what it sings, we see. John James is writing such poems. I want to call them synesthesiac, so attuned are they to the ways in which the wonder of one sense trespasses into the working of another. But what all here interpenetrates is more than just sensory. He knows the heart is but a synesthesia of the mind; he knows the opposite holds just as true. He shows, poem by poem, that the immediacy of life’s moment—be it the domestic world of wife and child, be it the unspooling landscape, be it the literature of the past—reveals when pressed gently upon that entrance into the penetralium where behind time’s veils all that has been continues be-ing, and the intimate and the ancient, love nervous and word relict, twine together into these poems whose power is in making no claim toward the beauty they so abundantly reveal. He does as that first singer did, Caedmon, who sang because he was told he must do so—a song of praise, of animals and life, of land and blood and time. Such work is wholly personal and completely anonymous, embedded in the very life and limb whose limits it also astonishingly resists.”

—Dan Beachy-Quick


“A brilliant offering full of loss and intimacies, Chthonic is a chapbook that begs a closer look into the strange darkness of ourselves. Stark landscapes, a piercing exactitude, and a merciful wisdom fill this book that walks ‘a tripwire of grief.’ An unflinching observer, John James writes with a patient honesty and a lyric beauty that will leave you ringing.”

—Ada Limón


Chthonic is a rending of the earth, an exploration for the sake of understanding all the unarticulated motivators that lay just beneath the surface of consciousness. James’s poems dig deep as he asks us to join him at the edge of his excavations, to see what he’s unearthed, and we can’t help but look until we see it too.”

Portland Book Review

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