Archaeology

Kevin Prufer

I went to the basement where my father kept his skulls.I stood before the metal utility shelves. Skulls to the ceiling.I looked into the eyeholes. I looked into a cranium’s tomahawk hole.Down there, it was nothing but his lab. I heldthose skulls like empty pots. What did I know about Indian pots?Some days, we went to the bars. I swung my legs from the barstooland drank my Coke. Some days, he dug the fields.Then it was skulls in the sink, skulls in the drying rack.The fields are full of skulls. You have to know where the plowsturn them up. What did I know, then, about digging?The dark inside the eyeholes. He wrote his notes on themin indelible ink. 2.7 pounds. 2.5. The fields are full of pots.It’s true. He told me, packing his shovel into the Volkswagen.What did I know about Indians? He kept a lab in our basementbecause the university was too cheap. I went to the basementwhere he kept his skulls. I looked into their eyeholes. I lovedtheir weight, but what did I know? When I lay in bed,they glowed down there. It was many years ago. I closed my eyesand the skulls talked in the basement. Indian pots. Teeth.The noise of sex from his room. At the bars, farmers told himwhat their plows turned up. I drank my Cokes. Cheap universitywithout a decent lab. The skulls spoke a language no one knew.Look at this, my father said, rinsing another one in the sink.This one took a bullet to the head. History, then, was silence.

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Photo:
Emy Johnston

Kevin Prufer was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Wesleyan University, The Hollins Writing Program, and Washington University. He is the author of eight poetry collections, including the Four Way Books titles The Art of Fiction (2021); How He Loved Them (2018), long-listed for the Pulitzer, named a finalist for the Rilke Prize, and winner of the Julie Suk Award; Churches (2014), named one of the ten best poetry books of the year by The New York Times Book Review; In a Beautiful Country (2011), a Rilke Prize and Poets’ Prize finalist; and National Anthem (2008), named one of the five best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly and a finalist for the Poets’ Prize. Prufer is the recipient of many awards, including four Pushcart prizes, several awards from the Poetry Society of America (including the 2018 Lyric Prize), fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation, and several Best American Poetry selections. He is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Editor’s Pick for Library Journal

In this his eighth collection of poetry (and fifth with Four Way Books), Prufer’s career-spanning talent for estranging the familiar—and also for recording the unthinkable with eerie directness—recurs, enhanced and transformed by the collection’s meta-level attention to the role of fiction in our civic lives. Prufer describes, often through personae, a near future, tracing there the political gambit of Fake News and the role of the imagination in our self-understanding (whether it’s cogent or delusional). Via both satire and direct address (to the point of reader-squeamishness), Prufer aims to understand the ugly-casual atmosphere of our often racialized, pervasive distrust. The Art of Fiction fundamentally understands that fictions are deployed to divide us, and they work: they get under our skin. Prufer powerfully explores the roles of imagination and art in how we explain ourselves to ourselves.

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