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Couldn't Prove, Had to Promise

Couldn't Prove, Had to Promise
, 72 pages
December 2014



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Couldn't Prove, Had to Promise



In Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise, Wyatt Prunty ushers readers into a seesaw world, one that teeters between small fables of childish misgivings and adult assurances. Alternately shadowed and illuminated by nostalgia, this deft, witty volume brings together seventeen of Prunty’s recent poems, seven of which have been previously published in Poetry, the Hopkins Review, the Kenyon Review, and Blackbird.

In "Crescent Theater, Schenectady, NY," a silent-movie accompanist reads his foreign newspaper after work as he listens, ever the outsider, "to his children using English / For everything they wish." In "Rules," a small girl, told she can’t go to the school nurse "every time some bad thing happens," plaintively wonders, "Where do you go?" And in "Making Frankenstein," a boy who has cajoled his parents into letting him see The Curse of Frankenstein wakes to a nightmare. His father bans horror films as "too anatomical"; "What’s anatomical?" the boy wonders. Given a book that catalogs diseases, the worst of which come "from intimate contact," he is horrified by his father’s explanation of grownup intimacy: "That’s how you made your way into this world."

Moving from a wry portrait of a husband—musing on mortality—whose Christmas tie lands in the gravy, to "Reading the Map," which grapples with the cartography of love, to "ad lib," a farewell that redefines farewell, these poems burnish the small triumphs and fears that fill our daily lives with humor and pathos. The book closes with a long, four-part poem, "Nod," which transports readers to a parking lot in July: an asphalt-as-inferno where Cain the cracker, or adversary-as-initiator, the pleuritic voice of disappointment, names the ways inversion makes a lie reliable and works people best as, like a joke or discount price, "It makes you feel you’re getting more by giving less." Funny, raw, and colorfully musical, "Nod" plays what teeters, like a tuning fork.

Wyatt Prunty is a professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South and the founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is the author of nine collections of poems, including The Lover’s Guide to Trapping, and two critical works.

"There are vast expanses of ordinary fabric, bejeweled by moments of existential clarity... Prunty holds everyday experience up to the light in such a way that it seems anything but. He has an exquisite hold on life."

"A distinct and distinctive voice... best looked at not amongst his peers but in the light of an earlier generation of elegant formalists, from Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, and James Merrill, to the less well-known Edgar Bowers and J. V. Cunningham."

"Some poets write in a plain style and do it well. Wyatt Prunty does it even better—with wit, with narrative grace, and with modesty. His poems are wise and compassionate. He is a superb poet."

"Wyatt Prunty is a classic poet in the tradition of Frost, Wilbur, Merrill, and Justice. His work involves a wry sanity toward the world and an impeccable ear for both prosody and the rhythms of American speech. Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise features his breakout Dantesque poem, 'Nod,' about an encounter with a lost soul in the parking lot of an Atlanta shopping mall around the 4th of July. Its unnerving pleasures are inseparable from Prunty’s ear for language. There’s a connection between that perfect fit of language to meter and the sense of necessity and brutality in the world described. The effect is both comic and terrible, and makes you know you are in the hands of a master."

"In these intimate confessions of--as the jacket says--'childish misgivings and adult assurances,' Wyatt Prunty brings a grace and dignity to the speaking voice, as well as ironical humour in the case of the adult assurances."

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