Self-Portrait with Cephalopod
Chosen by francine j. harris as the winner of the 2019–20 Jake Adam York Prize.
Environmental collapse. The betrayals and alliances of the animal world. A father who works in a timber mill. The celebrities in our feeds, the stories we tell ourselves. Loss, never-ending loss. Self-Portrait with Cephalopod is an account of being a girl, and then a woman, in the world; of being a living creature on a doomed planet; of being someone who aspires to do better but is torn between attention and distraction.
Here, Kathryn Smith offers observations and anxieties, prophecies and prayers, darkness and light—but never false hope. Instead, she incises our vanities and our hypocrisies, “the bloody hand holding back / the skin,” revealing “the world’s inner workings, / rubbery and caught between the teeth.” These are the poems of someone who feels her and our failings in the viscera, in the bones, and who bears witness to that pain on the page.
Self-Portrait with Cephalopod is an urgent and necessary collection about living in this precarious moment, meditative and resolutely unsentimental.
“Self-Portrait with Cephalopod is lush and obsessed and frantic and deathy. At times, there is a pre-apocalyptic reverence and reflection in this collection that feels almost monastic. Beautiful and timely work.”―francine j. harris
“Kathryn Smith’s astonishing new collection, Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, is rife with deep intelligence, heart, and wit. Her engagement with the natural world comes through screens with news full of tragedies and celebrities, and asks why God is so conspicuously absent in the Anthropocene. Smith constantly surprises in her lyric leaps, weaving together scientific fact, keen observation, and a will for both physical and emotional survival. Despite how hopeless the headlines and environment can be, these poems continue to stun with their urgency and pathos. More than that, these poems are companions, ones to think and feel alongside while reading, and then carry within you. This book is timely and timeless, one that reminds us that those who love the world are―even if they want to be sometimes―never alone.”―Traci Brimhall
“I love the way science and faith exist in a symbiosis in these poems. Refreshingly, frustration, indignation, and compassion are also held in that same spiritual vision. As I read Self-Portrait with Cephalopod, I felt all of the little fists in my mind and spirit unclenching, opening to the ebb and flow of Kat Smith’s exquisite oceanic lyricism.” ―Kathryn Nuernberger
“In the age of social media and news cycles, even emotions can feel as ubiquitous, over-produced, and disposable as the plastic straws filling our oceans. But Kathryn Smith’s newest collection is a truly heart-crafted work, made from an aching need to be present in the chaos. Self-Portrait with Cephalopod confronts the global tragedy of the human role in the Anthropocene, and then dissects it to find out what’s inside, taking the self, the world, and, of course, the very depths of the oceans apart not layer by layer but with a scalpel that butterflies it open all at once. Though she tells us ‘I know what I know / changes nothing,’ I felt changed after reading this book.”―Keetje Kuipers