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Omens in the Year of the Ox

by Steven Price

Steven Price’s second book of poetry, following the Gerald Lampert Award winner Anatomy of Keys (2006), is a clever mix of ancient and modern. Omens in the Year of the Ox delves into mythology, retelling stories of Icarus, Medea, and Odysseus in a way that feels fresh and new. It also mixes in contemporary observances and events from the author’s own life, including a trip to Europe with his wife. Price references other writers and works of art in a way that is encompassing but never pretentious.

While the subjects of the poems vary, the serious, weighty tone is constant. The collection’s title fits perfectly: the image of an ox conveys the heavy, blunt nature of Price’s language, and the word “omens” conveys the sense of menace he finds in everyday objects (a jar of pears, for example). Price has the ability to zero in on targets in the environment or his imagination and make them appear both beautiful and sinister. “I have seen this, seen / this”, he writes in “Field Guide to Sanctuary,” “The dart and snaking / barb of swans at feed. // A slow child swarmed / by slithers of char-geese, dragged / howling into black water.” Water, a recurring motif in the author’s previous work, reappears here frequently.

The poems are characterized by vivid images, precise details, and many shades of grey. Price clearly delights in choosing and arranging his words to forge lines and phrases at once guttural, visceral, and mythic. He revels in creating inventive compounds: “rain-shivering,” “half-kind,” “wind-amped,” “noonspackled,” “sunhammered.” The neologisms enhance the book’s profound, almost prophetic, feel.