An SPD #1 Best Seller
This book-length poem is in the voice of a speaker who brings the tatters of his life to a cabin in the woods and through brief, often fractured missives, breaks down and rebuilds himself by becoming, out of desperation, a naturalist for whom each of the landscape’s particulars offers a glimpse of salvation.
“Sancta is about a retreat (to a cabin in the woods)—but this is no Walden Pond. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Grace appears to have his eyes taped open to witness ‘Puddles blitzed by blood fly hatch’ and the rest of nature’s bounty. The language pops and sizzles. Here the poet’s perennial project of attention is raised to the pitch of pain and is enjoyable (for the reader) nonetheless.” —Rae Armantrout
The moon snitches on a clutch of skunks. Another rack of cloud scrolls over. At times, the eye seems charnel house of the known, and can only be slaked by novelty: that lavish other. It wants to turn down a corner of paradise. But tonight the eye seems instrument only, stunned as a lighthouse’s strobe. The marred moon hectors itself clear as if witness is all I am good for.
“A lake, despite the encroachment of development and the trash that washes up on the beach; a cabin that once belonged to the speaker's father: these sites carry the cultural weight of a literary history that casts the particularity of Andrew Grace's stunning sojourn with grief into starkly archetypal forms. ‘In short,’ he writes, ‘This place is a sanctum of all there is to lose’ (2). The lake, near the cabin where these poems precipitate from silence, is variously ‘ashen’ (2), ‘grand mal with lightning’ (12), ‘cross-eyed’ with ‘a convergence of kayaks’ (54), and ‘like a parchment rent open by use and time’ (56). That unnamed body of water seems always shadowed with the presence of absence, and the speaker returns to the shore seeking clarity with which to temper grief. . . . Cabin and lake may be a single ‘sanctum’ at the book’s opening, but by its close, Grace has moved beyond this literal location to find sancta in the meditations of each page. The meaning he finds is neither an Emersonian neoplatonism nor a modernist reaffirmation of the personal quest. His search for form washes up ‘empty,’ and personal transformation remains only a desire (82). It’s through language, ‘what I mean by radiance,’ for example, that ‘any vestige of God’ becomes available—thus the multiplicity of sancta in this fine collection (83).” —Elizabeth Dodd in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.3 (Summer 2012)
“A meditative daybook (and sometimes nightbook) in a tradition that runs from Thoreau down through Merrill Gilfillan, Andrew Grace’s Sancta inhabits margins: of waking consciousness, of the lake by which the speaker makes his home. Grace is a poet of consummate attention, one who ‘win[s] victories over the ordinary eye,’ for whom ‘the sparrows resume their bright, ruined Assisi’ each day.” —G.C. Waldrep
“Andrew Grace could have called this book Freedom, but he didn't. As it stands, Sancta finds the poet railing against (and falling in love with) the only freedom that matters; that is, the freedom to choose one’s own constraints. Each of these poems fits the mind like a brick fits the hand, and their speaker—like any one of us—is as capable of building as he is of rioting.” —Graham Foust
“In Sancta, divinity irradiates. The afterlife approaches nuclear, dangerous and fascinating, a mysterium tremendum fascinans that can kill you with overexposure: ‘…the sky is all cinders and oil. The ribs of heaven clutch its disc of sulfur…’ ...Over the retreat hangs a ‘white sky’ that resembles what he imagines “the mind to look like: expectant screen onto which synapses erupt like sparrows.’ (I think of the opening to William Gibson’s post-apocalyptic Neuromancer: ‘the sky was the color of television.’) Like the forest around Chernobyl, seemingly natural, pricked with bird songs and busy mammals, this landscape is endangered and dangerous: ‘There are objects along the shore so undone we can only call them remnants. Deathless matter. There is joy in this, the resilience of what’s left. The hypodermic needle’s glint, archipelago of Coke. The bones that will crowd out the lake. Flesh devout as junk.’” —Kascha Semonovitch in The Rumpus
I grew up on a farm outside of Urbana, Illinois. We are a third-generation farming family that grows corn and soybeans. It was only later in life that I realized that living in an ocean of grain was strange. Most of my poetry before Sancta is about that landscape. That type of distance available to the eye can create certain kinds of joy and loneliness that only the rural Midwest can provide. I think it does something to one's imagination as well. It dares you to fill it.
I think that I had read three poems before I went to college, but I always had a hazy ambition that I wanted to be a poet. As a teenager my main concern was music, punk rock in particular. The bands I admired had a strict work ethic and unabashed voices. I think this attitude still informs my work. At least they were enough to serve as catalysts to break through my self-consciousness and start to write.
I went to Kenyon College in 1997 knowing very little of its poetry tradition (Lowell, Jarrell, Wright, etc.) but soon became immersed in poems. I also met my wife Tory Weber during my junior year and we have been inseparable since. I was lucky enough to study with, among other wonderful poets, John Kinsella, who commissioned my first book for Salt Publishing, which became A Belonging Field (2002). My poems went on to have appear in Poetry, Boston Review, Iowa Review, LIT and Gulf Coast.
I went to Washington University in St. Louis for my MFA and worked with Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang, which was a thrill. During my second year, my father passed away in an accident on the farm. Amongst the many changes this caused in me, needing poetry even more was one of them.
Our next years were spent moving further and further west, from Tucson to Berkeley. I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford from 2006–2008, which not only gave us a reason to live in the Bay Area, but also for the first (and only?) time provided me with enormous amounts of time to write and read. I think I learned more about poetry by shopping at the bookstores in Berkeley than I did in any single workshop or class I have ever taken. So many poets found their way to me: Duncan, Eigner, Oppen, Bronk, Niedecker, Revell, Giscombe, Gizzi, Hillman. I read like a house on fire. I bought Jack Spicer's biography and stalked out all of the old houses he lived in.
With six months left in my fellowship my second book Shadeland was accepted by the Ohio State University Press. I spent the rest of the time working on what would become Sancta (more on this in the author’s statement). In the following summer, our daughter Lily was born. She has turned out to be quite the book fanatic. Good girl.
I currently live in Ohio where I am a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. Leaving the Pacific behind was difficult, but like I said, I was used to oceans of a different sort.
When my second book was accepted for publication, I celebrated, then grew pensive. Every poem I had written for the past six or so years had been written with that book in mind, so when it was finally done I felt a bit adrift. I had heard from other friends who had published books about the silence that can happen between manuscripts, and I was determined to avoid that since I had six months left of a Stegner fellowship at Stanford and I knew that such a large chunk of writing time would not come again any time soon.
One of the most formative books for my work is Charles Wright’s China Trace. It is a tremendous feat of compression that takes on issues of location and belief. It doesn’t leave my desk. With that book in mind, I started to think about short poems. One day I sat down and wrote a prose poem that was 70 words long (I count words). I liked the way it looked, like a thin strip of a poem. The next day I wrote another one. 70 words was a doable chunk of language to produce in a sitting. It kept me writing. I thought of what I was doing as an exercise, but the days went by, then weeks, then months. In all I wrote over 100 poems that were all exactly 70 words long. Needless to say, I was embarrassed. And obsessed. I had never realized how addicting forms can be.
I didn’t talk about the project much, not even to my wife. Once I realized I was writing a book, I brought a few of them into the Stegner workshop. The response was positive, so I kept going. I cut the manuscript down to my favorite 80 sections and starting sending it out. On a January afternoon I got a call from Janet Holmes saying that Rae Armantrout had selected my book for publication as the runner up in the Sawtooth Prize. My previous book took six years to write. This one took six months. Just when I had been most afraid of a spell of silence I wound up with the most rapidly written book I will probably ever author.
The natural question is: why 70 words? I have no insightful answer—it all stems from that first poem I wrote just to keep my fingers moving. The strict word count taught me how to move a poem along quickly, something I had struggled with before.
The book is about a man who brings his girlfriend, with whom he shares a troubled relationship, to his family cabin in the woods. My model was my in-law’s cabin in Horton Bay, Michigan, but it could be anywhere with a similar landscape (thus “sancta,” the plural of “sanctum”). She abandons him midway through the book, leaving him in a purgatorial situation in which he only has nature to compare himself to. Slowly, he begins to learn to navigate the language of the woods, but what he finds is not always what he wants to hear. He begins to think less in terms of redemption and more to cling to the pleasures of the given. In short, Sancta is an ode to undivided attention.