The Black River Chapbook Competition Winner


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In the Carnival of Breathing

Publication Date: July 2011


Winner of the Fall 2009 Black River Chapbook Competition

In the Carnival of Breathing is home to eighteen lyrical poems in which land & flesh, water & lung, hope & duress converge. Here lives a narrator at once lake & lake-less, blamed & innocent, asleep & swimming. Angered, terrified, and wrecked not just by the ephemeral nature of love and breath but by her everyday-her progeny, herself-she attempts (or pretends) to make sense of life’s transitions wherein laughter is darkness and lightness the heaviest loss.


“In her poem ‘Staying Afloat,’ Lisa Fay Coutley declares, ‘You might say this is about held breath & swift kicks.’ This could be said about the entirety of In the Carnival of Breathing, in which Coutley deftly alternates moments of lyric contemplation with the brutal–and banal–realities of love. A single mother leaves Post-Its around the house convincing herself not to leave her children; a woman confronts the map of another woman’s hair on her pillow; a lake in one moment makes a cradle, and in the next ‘freezes just before she murders / her own shore.’ It’s impossible not to admire Coutley’s fierce language, her restless line, her attention to form, and her understanding that creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin. Prepare yourself to be drawn into the world of someone ‘who forces a bit into the mouth / of aurora borealis until the moon parades / its wounds in color.’ This is a terrific collection.”

-Sandra Beasley

The poems in this collection map for us the complex geography of the human heart.  Lisa Fay Coutley deftly melds the real with the mystical in these sage poems: where there is man or lover or son, there also lurks a wound dragging its shadow across the floor.  In the Carnival of Breathing is a book about the journey a soul takes from lushness to drought, from flowing liquid to hard-packed dirt, and the journey back again.  Cup your hands around these poems and you hold lakes and scorching deserts, a bruised home with two boys and lots of love in it.  You could chisel poems like ‘Respiration’ and ‘Errata’ into stone, erect them in city parks for all human kind to read.  Slow down now, these poems bid us, drown awhile in the sweet and haunting fires of the human heart.”

-John Rybicki

About the Author

© Randy Mattley

Lisa Fay Coutley

Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of HOST (Wisconsin Poetry Series, forthcoming 2024), tether (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), Errata (Southern Illinois University, 2015), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, In the Carnival of Breathing (BLP, 2011), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, and Small Girl: Micromemoirs (Harbor Editions, forthcoming 2024). She is also the editor of the grief anthology, In the Tempered Dark: Contemporary Poets Transcending Elegy (BLP, 2024). Her poetry has been awarded an NEA Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize, chosen by Dana Levin, and the 2021 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, selected by Natalie Diaz. Recent prose & poetry appears in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Barrelhouse, Brevity, Copper Nickel, North American Review, and Gulf Coast. She is an Associate Professor of Poetry & CNF in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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