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Safe Houses I Have Known

Poetry by Steve Healey

September 10, 2019 • 6 x 9 • 112 pages • 978-1-56689-561-3

A father revealed as a spy, a child unmoored from normalcy—in Safe Houses I Have Known, poems ripple with the secrets that we keep from ourselves and each other.

As a child during the height of the Cold War, Steve Healey learns that his father is a spy for the CIA. Beneath the banality of everyday life—the suburbs of Washington, DC; school and play; his parents’ deteriorating marriage—assumed names, parallel lives, and myriad Cold War menaces linger. Drawing from CIA training manuals and pop culture references alike, Healey’s poetry is both intimate and claustrophobic. In these poems, the natural anxiety of childhood is compounded by the weight of both national and family secrets, and Healey draws deep parallels between the shaky foundations of truth in his past and the paranoia and obfuscation that envelops our nation’s present.

About the Author

Steve Healey is the author of two previous books of poetry, 10 Mississippi and Earthling, both from Coffee House Press. His poems have been published in magazines such as American Poetry Review, the Awl, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, jubilat, and the Nation, and in anthologies, most recently The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. He’s a professor of English and creative writing at Minneapolis College.

Reviews

“With skillfully rendered domestic detail and tension, Steve Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known discloses that there is scant buffer between civilian life and espionage. Rupture, as documented here, is silent—from private childhood shame, muted haiku of cartoon violence, to critical erasures of CIA interrogation protocols. Through such uneasy quiet, Healey’s chilling collection confides that conflict is intimate, no matter how much language a global superpower encodes to insist otherwise.” —Douglas Kearney 

“Steve Healey’s an N of 1: a poet whose father was a spy for the CIA. He’s written a wonderful book that gets at the nature and difficulty of trust—not just a son’s trust in his spy pops or in a family broken up by secrecy, but of the self when we know our bodies let us down, of the other when love is often fraught and contingent. Healey goes at the complexity of our attachments with a style and verve that pushes against the burden of the material: what is weighty is also buoyant in poems that jump and swerve thanks to the playfulness of his mind and language. If trust is an issue here, by infusing new life into whatever they touch, Healey’s poems are also embodiments of faith in the transformative and unifying qualities of art.” —Bob Hicok 

“Steve Healey’s brilliant Safe Houses I Have Known is a riveting, unsparing account of Healey’s particular familial experience: a father who was a CIA spy. The fractious effects of the family secret (revealed to Healey in early adolescence but felt throughout childhood) become our commonality. Through scrupulous intelligence, dark wit, and his generous yet wily imagination, Healey lays bare the disassociation and guilt of our complicity in our country’s practices of self-surveillance, military coups, lies, and deceit. Through Healey’s command of poetic forms and mash-ups of CIA training manuals, icons of a childhood’s innocence—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the board game Clue, Geppetto—all become ‘an eerie meaninglessness.’ It shows that the Cold War was never over, rendering us all famous and afraid. Such a clear-eyed portrait is rare, as is the presence of both horror and love. Though I felt the recognition of Healey’s warning to us and to our country—‘it is safer not to finish anything’—I couldn’t put this book down.” —Gillian Conoley

Praise for Steve Healey

“Steve Healey blends the sharp and the sad in such a moving way in this stunning second book, but it’s at the level of the phrase, and behind that, at the level of the idea, that something really extraordinary is going on—Healey’s perspective constantly reinvents itself in striking ways. Though these poems are rangy, Healey nonetheless keeps each one focused on a single theme, which is, in turn, a facet of an elaborate mirror that shows us ourselves, our difficulty, and our promise, refracted through an unremittingly honest world—‘Not a day ends without the sun totally surrendering.’ Brilliant and deeply moving.” —Cole Swensen

“Steve Healey’s dazzling first book of poems, Earthling, will leave you reeling. Poem after poem, bold imagination coupled with intense passion sets this book ablaze. His very unique sense of humor adds to the delight.” —James Tate

“These poems are so enlivened they seem to have yeast in them. In every one, the consequences of a single thought or action expand to the ends of the alphabet. They talk right at you as if there were no tomorrow, but in the best of all possible finales, decide that there is.” —Mary Ruefle

“Despite the national craze for self-expression that poetry has become, it is harder than ever to hear an original voice; but here one is and it’s a doozy. Somehow Steve Healey has figured out a way to get a new sound out of the saxophone of English. Loopy, smart, eyebrow-raising, wiggy, and wildly entertaining belong in the string of modifiers that would try to describe this poet’s amazing voice.” —Billy Collins

“This is a powerful book, a great book of urgent knowledge. What art does when it tells us awful things in ways so beautifully made creates a rip in our spirit where deeper and real truth can get in. Healey brings together children’s games, survival tactics, reports of war, reports of violence on the Mississippi River, various instances of hide-and-seek, tensions between hunter and prey, in language tuned up to exquisitely arresting and inevitable wavelengths. I love 10 Mississippi. —Dara Wier

“Comically obsessive, meditative in wonderfully askew ways, Healey’s poems signal the melding of a frisky poetics with a weighted consciousness of peril: political, environmental, personal. Explorative of an often hostile, chaotic yet exquisite and wounded world, with a matter-of-fact authority that leads sometimes to the miraculous, sometimes the absurd, sometimes stark truths, 10 Mississippi delights with the buoyancy of invention and scares with ‘the law, the final black / that comes after dusk.’ Reader, prepare for your training wheels to fall off.” —Dean Young

10 Mississippi reveals the sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful truth of our daily lives. Healey offers us our shining memories of childhood innocence, and then, just as earnestly, the abrupt but enduring realization that life will never again be so easy.” —Verse Wiconsin

10 Mississippi is a startlingly rich and absorbing read that also stakes a claim to big ideas, and does so using the sort of simple yet endlessly inventive metrics equally familiar to precocious children and the very best poets of our times. Highly recommended.” —Huff Post Books