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ISBN: 978-1-62557-961-4
Categories Poetry

Common Ancestor

Publication Date: January 2017


Red Wreck Watches PBS

Red Wreck is a wreck. She has been for many years, unnoticed since early girlhood when she was a little throb and pulse no bigger than a Chihuahua’s bulbous eye. Alone, she watches daytime talk shows featuring bad kids who are brought out on stage to be put in their place by a huge man in camouflage who can take them away to a camp where they will lie on their bellies holding golf balls in their mouths for being disrespectful. These men have nothing on Red Wreck’s father, who so terrified her that she would take down the shelves from inside a cabinet to make herself a secret hiding hole to ride out his tantrums. Once he was winded, heavy, exhausted breaths shuddering the house, she would emerge to get him a nice cold glass of milk that he would drink in one long gulp before collapsing into his chair to stare at her. Blood now a rapid rush, Red Wreck changes channels, settling on PBS. She likes the ancient history shows the best, calls her vagina, “The Pharaoh’s Tomb” fondly and without irony. Today there is a documentary about the Nazca Lines. On the reddish floor of the Peruvian Desert ancient geoglyphs of birds, animals, insects, and not-quite-human figures stretch for almost miles. Red Wreck’s father did a lot of drugs. From boyhood up he smoked marijuana, and before prescription pills were a popular high, he raided the medicine cabinets and bedside tables of his rickety aunts and cousins and the decrepit woman on the street of no blood relation, who everyone called Granny. From ten onward, there is not a photograph of him, where he doesn’t look freshly concussed. The documentary is full of theories: alien technology, early hot air balloons, exquisite mathematicians. Watching, Red Wreck thinks of distance functioning like height. Look back, she instructs. How much more do you see now? How has your understanding changed? With the distance of years, do the events of your life fall into patterns? From these patterns, can you glean understanding? She asks herself, “Of what?” and can imagine only two possible answers: everything-or-nothing. She tests each, but finds neither satisfactory.


Jenny Irish’s scintillate debut collection of prose poems, Common Ancestor, is an awe-inspiring read. From the confident power of its narratives to the hurricane-force language of its vision, this poetry’s riveting. In two dramatic personae series of gorgeous, near-gothic detail, Irish looks at all the havoc humans wreak and does not blink. She scrutinizes violence with rare sangfroid, and though never moralizing, leaves us in little doubt of the moral center of her universe: “Metal is not guilty for what it does in man’s hands, absent of soul” as one poem puts it. In lines laced with brilliant figure and sly internal rhyme, Irish’s poetry is charged by truth’s searing song.

-Cynthia Hogue, author of Revenance

Extreme intimacy paired simultaneously with objective distance-it is an odd, almost impossible, but compelling juxtaposition of feelings and revelations that we are gifted with in this book. The language is consistently profound even in its brevity, equal measures of brutally frightening and whisperingly tender. These are survivor monologues, emanating from somewhere between poetry and ruthlessness, the words not poems, exactly, but poetries, moments of their own devising, sudden, without history, without blueprint. Added to this layering, the rhyme we hear-so close to childhood-keeps us close to center, but we are no less scared. These are a litany of confidences, not examinations, not explained, but shared hard and felt forcefully. They are fierce even in their quietude and made fiercer when the words will not say what they say. Language here is a study of language, of how much the speaker wants to be to the speaker but in being the speaker is in constant and imminent danger. This is a powerful offering.

-Alberto Ríos, author of A Small Story About the Sky

About the Author

Jenny Irish

Jenny Irish is the author of the hybrid poetry collections Common Ancestor (Black Lawrence, 2017) and Tooth Box (Spuyten Duyvil, 2021),  the short story collection I Am Faithful  (Black Lawrence, 2019), the chapbook Lupine (Black Lawrence, 2023) and most recently Hatch (Northwestern University Press, 2024). She teaches creative writing at Arizona State University and facilitates free community workshops every summer.

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