2007 Philip Levine Prize Winner
Revolving around the themes of exile and return, memory and forgetting, and the reconstruction of home through the written word, The Lost Country of Sight navigates a path through loss and separation that spans Canada, the United States, and Taiwan; the death of a father; and a life lived in the liminal space between cultures and languages.
It’s difficult to believe that Neil Aitken’s The Lost Country of Sight is a first book, since there is mastery throughout the collection. His ear is finely tuned, and his capacity for lyricism seems almost boundless. What stands out everywhere in the poems is his imagery, which is not only visually precise but is also possessed of a pure depth. The poems never veer off into the sensational; they are built from pensiveness and quietude and an affection for the world. “Traveling Through the Prairies, I Think of My Father’s Voice” strikes me as a perfectly made poem, but poems of similar grace and power are to be found throughout the book. This is a debut to celebrate.
—C.G. Hanzlicek, 2007 Philip Levine Prize Final Judge
The voice in these poems is that of a sighted, awake heart discovering its home in language and its homelessness in the world. Steeped in longing, the imagination here is concrete, vivid, sensuous, and ultimately erotic, even as it perceives that meaning and beauty are evanescent.
Fueled by motion and emotion, Neil Aitken’s The Lost Country of Sight is literally and figuratively a moving collection. His winding roads and “ghost cars” move us over the landscapes of identity and personal history with stirring meditative grace. “There is a song at the beginning of every journey” Aitken tells us in one poem even as he says in another, “these are journeys we never take.” This poet is our both our wise, wide-eyed tour guide and our dazed, day-dreaming companion in The Lost Country of Sight. This is a rich, mature debut.
Neil Aitken’s The Lost Country of Sight is one of those collections I have ear-marked and bookmarked and placed in the main bookcase in my home office because I return to it frequently. Yes, it’s a thing of beauty, particularly because of how its themes about exile, the loss and yearning to construct sacred places out of unchartered territory, love, grief, and of rising and existing beyond the loss of loved ones speak to me.
There are qualities and skills that make Aitken so accessible and meaningful. But let me speak directly to one characteristic—Aitken has this innate gift of sentience that radiates through his work like a song; it’s Buddhist-like, this unyielding desire to observe life in action, an adoration of how life and humanity connects, how humanity can connect, and the great care for which he desires to communicate his observations and insights to us. At times, his work is breathtaking.
—Michael Parker, MiPOesias
Landscape, family and language come together beautifully in The Lost Country of Sight. Aitken uses his father’s death as an occasion to explore issues of heritage and memory, all in beautiful, precise language. In the process, he explores the places tied to his heritage—the lushness of Taiwan, and the barren Canadian Plains—bringing them vividly to life.
—G. Murray Thomas, Poetix
For Aitken, hope is found in language: “A cradle of words, candle, camera, / and pen.” Throughout the book, letters are a form of communication, connection, solace. If “the pen has claimed /his tongue, rendered him speechless,” one still has “the heart-ticking balm of silence.” That people are “haunted by words” imbues the book with rich longing and wonder.
—Crystal Hurdle, Canadian Literature
Neil Aitken’s The Lost Country of Sight may be a first collection, but it is a collection of very seasoned writing. Aitken’s notion of poetic possibilities and his level of accomplishment are both very, very high…
—Scott Hightower, Ekleksographia
Aitken”s first collection begins with a poem—”In the Long Dream of Exile”—that marks the solitary nature of the poet’s vocation. Pointing to this call to wander rhetorical landscapes in pursuit of, among other things, what poet Adrienne Rich calls “the dream of a common language”(the shared signs and tokens through which we might make our way into deeper relationships with one another, with the earth, and with God), the poet shows how this work keeps those who choose it always “on the verge of love” (line 19). As a participant-observer who is both a compassionate part of and who stands apart from various communities (the latter as a function of the solitude necessary for the poet to assimilate and express his insights into human experience), he skirts this verge with longing and lyric precision. He traces rich veins of language and connection through relationships lost, forged, and remembered on his journey through the lost country of sight: the exilic, often neglected place wherein poetic imagination and memory offer new visions of personal and communal histories, presence, and potential.
—Tyler Chadwick, Mormon Artist