The Second Longest Day of the Year by Jean Prokott

Review by Kelly Travis

A woman walks into the world, collects semicolons, dollhouses, coffins, statistics about billionaires, an IUD, a 507-year-old Icelandic mollusk named Ming, and women taking long in the bathroom, then turns them into poems. Jean Prokott’s collection, The Second Longest Day of the Year, the winner of the Howling Bird Press Poetry Prize, carries the impact of Ann Sexton’s poems. I want to clap my hands in spontaneous adulation–OMG; this is a brilliant book! 

I work the front circulation desk of the public library in Minnesota’s 8th largest city, so I know how often poetry books get checked out (not often). I personally check out one or two poetry books weekly, and invest time diving deeply into at least 40 poetry books every year. Because I’m a member of the Lyricality leadership team, and Lyricalty is committed to supporting and promoting Minnesota’s vibrant, diverse community of poets, I get especially excited when I discover a new (to me) Minnesota poet.

I read poetry because it astonishes me when poets turn a moment of experience into an image that lodges in your memory, the way Ann Sexton’s words, “My mouth blooms like a cut” have stayed with me since I discovered her poem, “The Kiss,” in college.

From the late 1950’s through the mid 1970’s, Ann Sexton crafted an impressive body of work that garnered prestigious honors and awards. Her bold exploration of important issues made her popular with the public, even as some critics focused on the “confessional,” autobiographical nature of her work and considered her themes inappropriate.  

The Second Longest Day of the Year possesses the power of Ann Sexton’s work. Like Sexton, Jean Prokott contrasts and synthesizes somberly humoristic and sorrowfully human aspects of life, exploring unexpected topics like abortion, body fat, birth control, sex education, suicide, and time in a psych ward. 

In her poem “On the 20th Anniversary of My Attempted Suicide,” she brilliantly employs the semicolon as “a dot and wink punctuation puncture of the almost-suicide;” showing how the poem’s phrases are intertwined, implying that suicide was not the end of her story; she has the tattoo to prove it and is still here to “imagine being dead for 20 years; or alive for 20 more;”

“Sonnet for Another Birthday” does not go where I assumed the title was leading, into a celebration of Jean Procott’s life, but instead its 14 unrhymed lines tell the sad story of Ming, the mollusk who died when researchers opened him to see how old he was. The concept of a sonnet to a mollusk was quite funny to me, but I then felt sad for this invertebrate in his “gray, calcareous, chalky” shell. I found myself nodding my head in agreement with Prokott’s call to humanity; “let’s promise we’ll be better this year.” The irony is that Ming is dead, but at least we all know how old he was. Great work, science, “we scooped his story,” but Prokott’s poem reminds humanity to not destroy each other, to remember we are all soft-bodied beings, with “mysteries inside us.”

I am an oldest child who had to write my parents’ obituaries when both died too young in 2021. Prokott’s poem, “The Obituary,” piqued my interest. The poem’s epigraph is an actual obituary, more bitter than orange peels, printed in the Redwood Falls Gazette in 2018. Prokott’s poem then gives the dead a voice. The repetitive forward slash make the point that two or more things have a close relationship ginaandjay understand/ we grow from little stems/ that mothers nurture or drown/. The forward slash can also be read to mean that any or all of the stated words could apply to Gina and Jay and Kathleen /about the dim light present in us/. The obituary is for the living, Prokott’s poem reminds us. Kathleen has something to say/…She was broken too too broken/. I related to this poem. It reminded me that we’ve all been through difficulties. Why, then, even all the way to the end of life, do some insist on living in opposition to others? 

If you are a person who claims they “don’t understand poetry,” try this collection. Jean Prokott’s poems do not gamify poetry in a false or off-putting way. To me, her poems exemplify the spirit of poetry. If these topics–women’s bodies, suicide, grief, politics, the pandemic, environment, social and historical knowledge–interest you, then this book is for you. I love so many of the poems in this book that I can’t do what I usually do when reading a collection – pick a favorite few.

Jean Prokott writes with the soul of a confessional poet, while maintaining the intellectual honesty of a scientist. She scatters random tidbits of history, pop culture, scientific facts, literary references, language, symbolism and personal stories into a flood of experiences and struggles contained in poems that ask nothing more and nothing less than that we take the time to pay attention. 

I recommend we pay attention to this book.

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Jean Prokott’s poetry collection The Second Longest Day of the Year won the Howling Bird Press Book Prize and was published in 2021. read more

Kelly Travis is an ESL & creative writing instructor who attended creative writing classes at the Iowa Writers Workshop while pursuing an undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University. After years of writing in solitude she recently found her poetry communities in Minnesota. She is the Managing Editor of Sunday Morning Lyricality and a LyricaliTea Circle facilitator, as well as a member of the Grand View Chapter of The League of Minnesota Poets. In April 2022 she read at Cracked Walnut’s Poets and Pints celebration of Poetry Teachers.  Kelly actively promotes poetry in her work as an English as a Second Language Teacher and as an Associate at Great River Regional Library.