By Joyce Carol Oates

New York: Ecco, 2021
112 Pages

book jacketA new collection of poetry from an American literary legend, her first in twenty-five years.

Joyce Carol Oates is one of our most insightful observers of the human heart and mind, and, with her acute social consciousness, one of the most insistent and inspired witnesses of a shared American history.

Oates is perhaps best known for her prodigious output of novels and short stories, many of which have become contemporary classics. However, Oates has also always been a faithful writer of poetry. American Melancholy showcases some of her finest work from the last couple of decades.

Covering subjects big and small, and written in an immediate and engaging style, this collection touches on both the personal and the political. Loss, love, and memory are investigated along with the upheavals of our modern age; the reality of our current predicaments; and the ravages of poverty, racism, and social unrest. Oates skillfully writes characters ranging from a former doctor at a Chinese Peoples’s Liberation Army hospital to Little Albert, a six-month-old infant who took part in a famous study that revealed evidence of classical conditioning in human beings.

table of contentsContents

The Coming Storm

In Hemp-Woven Hammocks Reading the Nation information
Exsanguination information
Little Albert, 1920 information
Harlow’s Monkeys information
Obedience: 1962 information
Loney information
The Coming Storm information
Edward Hopper’s “Eleven A.M.,” 1926 information

The First Room

The First Room information
Sinkholes information
That Other information
The Mercy information
The Blessing information
This Is not a Poem information
Apocalypso information

American Melancholy

To Marlon Brando in Hell information
Too Young to Marry But Not Too Young to Die information
Doctor Help Me information
Old America Has Come Home to Die information
Jubilate: An Homage in Catterel Verse information
Kite Poem information
American Sign Language information
Hometown Waiting For You information

“This Is the Time . . .”

Hatefugue information
A Dream of Stopped-Up Drains information
Bloodline, Elegy information
Harvesting Skin information
“This is the Time for Which We Have Been Waiting” information
The Tunnel information
Palliative information


This Is not a Poem

in which the poet discovers
delicate white-parched bones
of a small creature
on a Great Lake shore
or the desiccated remains
of cruder road-kill
beside the rushing highway.

Nor is it a poem in which
a cracked mirror yields
a startled face,
or sere grasses hiss-
ing like consonants
in a foreign language.
Family photo album
filled with yearning
strangers long-deceased,
closet of beautiful
clothes of the dead.
Attic trunk, stone well
or metonymic moon
time-traveling for wisdom
in the Paleolithic
age, in the Middle Kingdom
or Genesis
or the time of Basho . . . .

Instead it is a slew
of words in search
of a container—
a sleek green stalk,
a transparent lung,
a single hair’s curl,
a cooing of vowels
like doves.


reviews, starts, 5Reviews

Publishers Weekly, December 21, 2020, page 59
4 stars

In urgent and unsettling poems that question national mythology, Oates (Tenderness) brings her talent as a storyteller and powers of observation to bear on a variety of American characters and institutions. . . . Written with mournful and harrowing clarity, this collection reveals an America grown accustomed to cruelty and forgetting.

Barbara Egel, Booklist, February 1, 2021
4 stars

In her poetry, as in her fiction, Oates is not especially concerned with her readers’ comfort, though her goal is far larger than discomfiture for its own sake. . . . Oates concentrates her powerfully unnerving sensibility into poems that challenge and haunt.

Library Journal, February 2021, pages 86-87
4 stars
We do not think of poetry as Oates’s genre; she is so cherished and prolific in prose, especially fiction (e.g., A Book of American Martyrs), that it is difficult to recall that she has always taken an interest in the field, as both critic and writer. . . . Oates’s high profile as a novelist should not discourage avid poetry readers from seeking out this volume, which aptly demonstrates the writer’s gifts in the genre and includes several poems of the highest quality.

Martin_Johnson_Heade_Approaching_Thunderstorm_ATCImage: Approaching Thunder Storm by Martin Johnson Heade, 1859


  1. Loved this book! I am not much of a poetry reader – but this book was very approachable and easy to read! And as always with whatever she writes – it makes you think!


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