Joan Houlihan’s third book, The Us, is a fifty-one page sequence of poems recounting the story of an imagined pre-historical culture. The narrative focuses on one of the culture’s members in particular—in a sense, its first true individual—“ay.” Although the book is mythological in its scope, it is lyric rather than epic in its approach, proceeding not with heroic pomp and encyclopedic comprehensiveness but instead with lyric delicacy and attention to carefully chosen particulars. The Us is not monumental, nor is it meant to be.
The Us begins with a table of contents, an “Argument” (which is in fact a synopsis), and a list of the cast of characters. These three elements serve as guide to a vaguely familiar yet unnamed country and time where the living is primitive and the people’s speech is rendered in an English unlike any known before—a broken, thorny idiom that scrambles the linearity we associate with traditional heroic narratives. It is the hobbled tongue of an anti-hero, and with The Us, Houlihan has given us an anti-epic with a scrappy, rebellious underdog placed front and center.