The Abridged History of Rainfall
reviewed by SARAH ESCUE

McSweeney's Poetry Series, 2016

The Abridged History of Rainfall, Jay Hopler’s second collection and finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, is a lamentation for his father, a requiem of birdsong and thunder. Hopler documents the tragedy and beauty of life and death, love and loss, collapsing the sky and tornadoing through fish-foul towns, the wild American West, the lush tropics of Florida, the Umbrian countryside, and the winding streets of Rome.

The collection centers on finding the light in darkness and finding the darkness in light. Hopler’s voice, manic and subdued, shows the vulnerability and resiliency of the human spirit. This book is a “rowdy hallelujah,” a tantrum of laughter and tears, sometimes occurring in the same stanza. He creates a world in which hope and sorrow are one in the same. He breaks and rebuilds and breaks and rebuilds; he’s full of awe and uncertainty: “Isn’t there a bird, somewhere, whose call sounds like i’msorry, / i’msorry? / What silence is there deep enough / To follow a cry like that?” (64) 

With the use of irony and verbal extravagance, Hopler grapples with the struggle of living in the face of loss; he searches for some source of consolation from within the shadow of a shrouded sky. Among the debris of disfigured stars, a jazz funeral, spectral flames, saints, village chapels, and fighting barnyard fowl, Hopler scavenges for peace and relief from the constant uproar of disaster. 

Hopler’s poems demand the reader’s full attention with sarcasm and hesitation. The speaker is self-deprecating, and much of the dialogue in these poems is between the speaker and himself. He’s tired, disinterested, empty: “To be born tired and to live tired and to die tired. / To die of tiredness.” (30) He throws stones at birds and curses god, calling out the “angels with our prayers still caught in their teeth” (33). However, he also finds solace in the dark and sharp rain, parakeets, and blood orange trees, as he attempts to understand the world’s gifts and limitations. 

Hopler’s lyric poems shatter and unshatter “the soul, / The spirit, whatever you / Want to call it” (24), in ghostly chorus. Throughout the book, Hopler calls on his father, confesses to him and questions him—hears his voice in freight train whistles. In the poem “Excerpts From the Unabridged History of Rainfall” he writes, “Today it rained so hard, Father. / You could hear it, life’s shortness / Of breath.” And, in “May 25,” he writes, “Father, isn’t there anything / In this evening’s long cortege of bloom as beautiful / As it used to be?” (18) He searches the sky for answers, hoping his father will speak back to him. He meditates on how his life has changed and will continue to change in the face of loss, saying, “Last year when I did this, / My father was alive.” (45) 

Jay Hopler’s vision and voice is honest, vulnerable, and sardonic. His poems aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves, others, or the absurdity and beauty of life, even through the midst of grief and loss. The Abridged History of Rainfall is vivid, haunting, and playful; it’s a remarkable and lasting masterpiece. 

SARAH ESCUE is a poet, visual artist, and editor in Boulder, Colorado. Her poems and artwork appear or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, The Elephants, Dialogist, Idle Magazine, DIAGRAM, Wildness, Lullwater Review, and others. She holds a BA in English Writing from the University of South Florida, and she’s currently an MFA Writing & Poetics candidate at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Her first chapbook Bruised Gospel is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in the fall of 2017. You can visit her website at 

The Adirondack Review