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We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

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Winner of the 2009 Bakeless Prize


Taking its title from a dodging statement from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know assesses what it means to claim new knowledge within a culture that professes to know everything already. The result is a poetry that upends the deeply and dangerously assumed concepts of such a culture—that new knowledge is always better knowledge, that history is a steady progress, that humans are in control of the natural order.

Nick Lantz’s poems hurtle through time from ancient theories of physics to the CIA training manual for the practice of torture, from the history of the question mark to the would-be masterpieces left incomplete by the deaths of Leonardo da Vinci, Nikolai Gogol, Bruce Lee, and Jimi Hendrix. Selected by Linda Gregerson for the esteemed Bakeless Prize for Poetry, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is the debut of a wide-ranging, audacious new voice.

Praise for the Book

Of difficult subjects—the structures of cognition, the structures of social exclusion, the promptings to love—Nick Lantz writes with elegant simplicity. Most poets take a lifetime to learn as much . . . We Don't Know We Don't Know is a brilliant book about the brutal limits of sympathy and imagination. Which is to say, it nurtures, brilliantly, the sympathy and imagination that might restore us.

—Linda Gregerson, from her Introduction

Drawing upon the dangerous obfuscations of Donald Rumsfeld and the quaint observations of Pliny the Elder, Nick Lantz questions the “known knowns,” the “known unknowns,” “the unknown unknowns,” and the “unknown knowns” that seem to permeate our daily lives. If this remarkably ambitious collection is in some ways an ontological quest exploring the limits of optics and epistemology with reference to Darwin and Aristotle, Petrarch and Christ, Plato and Tutankhamen, it is also a celebration of bees and eels and finches, of wildfires and crickets and light. Moving seamlessly from fable and folk tale to history and mathematics and physics, these exquisitely speculative pieces continually tug at the heart and tease the reader into thought. Having read Nick Lantz’s wonderful poetry, no matter what I don’t know I don’t know, I do know I know: this is truly a book of marvels, a marvel of a book.

—Ronald Wallace, author of For a Limited Time Only

Nick Lantz’s wonderful collection We Don’t Know We Don’t Know makes liberal use of quotes from Donald Rumsfeld and Pliny the Elder. Yes, I said Rumsfeld and Pliny—whose words, in Lantz’s hands, work beautifully to frame the poet’s exploration of the life and times of all things transient, including ourselves. The title We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, taken from the most famous Rumsfeld quote, contributes the section titles as well, dividing the book and the world into “Known Knowns,” with its Pliny-inspired “The order that Bees Keepe in their worke”; the “Known Unknowns,” with its single stunning poem about torture “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?”; the “Unknown Unknowns,” with darker poems like “What We Know About Death by Drowning” and “Harry Harlow in the Pit of Despair”; and the final “Unknown Knowns,” where the book closes with “Of the last peeces of Painters,” a transcendent meditation on the nature of art. We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is an expansive and magnanimous book, one that will renew your appreciation of the value of poetry—and life.

—Jesse Lee Kercheval, author of Cinema Muto

A most ambitious and deserving first collection of poems: Lantz demonstrates wild versatility, great variations of tone, and manages to create a book that is completely serious without adopting the usual postures of seriousness.   His poems take on the world beyond himself and the speakers of his poems view themselves with oblique suspicion.  Wit and language-play begin instantly, with the title, and shimmer throughout the book.  The metaphors are masterful, and the scope of the collection is large: art, history, literature, politics and biology are integral elements.  This book is both expansive and insistently interested in juxtapositions.  Indeed, juxtaposition could be said to be the overall strategy here.  He gives us the dangerously ridiculous as well as the wise and ancient sublime.  The poet’s fruitful combinations of subject matter never seem forced or clever, but somehow necessary.  Along with its intellectual appeal, the book is thoroughly human.  This volume gets top marks for its originality, variety of techniques, and its humor and ultimate seriousness.  Lantz does not offer a reader “experiment” for the sake of experiment.  The poems add up to something important and they comprise their own kind of engagement.

—Judges’ citation from the 2011 Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award


From Gulf Coast (reviewed by Sean Bishop)

Every now and then a new poet explodes onto the scene with enough force that struggling writers all over the country feel alternating tremors of jealousy and awe. Last year that poet was Nick Lantz. ... In one [poem] after another, Lantz brilliantly re-purposes Rumsfeld’s words to shed light on often deeply personal encounters with the limits of knowledge, perception, and understanding.

From Publishers Weekly

Lantz’s best poems have traditional strengths and narrative surprises: “Thinking Makes It So” records a shockingly callous act, and “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake” (another title from Pliny) reacts to the death of a parent, first with controlled humor, then with grief, and finally with sharpened irony—in a just world, anthologies would snap it up.

From Sacramento Book Review (reviewed by Robyn Oxborrow)

Has any other recent writer compared modern political speeches with those of first century philosophers? If not, then Nick Lantz is the first with his book of poems We Don’t Know We Don’t Know. Lantz takes excerpts of Donald Rumsfeld’s discourse and the writings of Pliny the Elder to build powerful expressions on humans ability to know and not know. Readers will be pulled into the mind of an interrogator in “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner”?,” back to Adam’s naming of the animals in “[                ]” and the recognition of the unknowing in “’Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake’.” Lantz’ imaginative writing is able to describe our ability the “know” when we, ourselves, are unable to even begin describing such a thing to another. Mostly, Lantz allows for the readers imagination to work with blacked out words, long empty brackets, and relating opposite imagery. His structural usage helps to hold together the complex imagery and thoughts as readers slowly take in each poem. Nick Lantz will gain quite a n audience with  We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and will have people talking for many years.

From Barnes & Noble Review, “Small Press Spotlight: Graywolf” (by Paul Di Filippo)

Deriving unpredictable inspiration from both Donald Rumsfeld and Pliny the Elder, Nick Lantz delivers We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, a striking volume of poems that are necessarily rife, both amongst and inside themselves, with fruitful cognitive dissonance. “The Prophecies of Paracelsus” is radiant with medieval mysticism, while “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” rubs the reader’s face in the bewildering human realities of torture. Employing both short, compact lines and complex broken ones, Lantz exhibits a feel for the epic noumena hidden within simple objects (“The anemones in the pale cave/gasping.”). Likewise, he adroitly parses the tangled emotions webbing loved ones together. “‘Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake’” offers a man’s melancholy musings on the death of his mother. Meditative and piercing, this book limns the tug of war between eternal verities and their contemporary manifestations.

From the Isthmus, “Poet Nick Lantz Poses Query after Query” (by Amelia Cook)

We Don’t Know We Don’t Know asks a lot of questions, and these questions make for good poetry—they put the reader in motion, actively considering what’s been asked. I'm not sure there are any clear answers, and Lantz’s poems are immensely satisfying nonetheless. His imagery startles and amazes—bodies of honeybees become “discarded coins” and a parking lot “fills and empties like a lung”—and the questions the reader is left with are intoxicating. Here’s one last one: “What / drives us out with a broom / each morning to knock / the fangs of ice from the eaves of our lover’s house?”

From the The Rumpus, “Disinclined to Mislead Anyone” (by Rachel Richardson)

Lantz has his finger on the pulse of the patient here—he chronicles the psychological trauma, through first person, second, and several other characters invented and historical, of disconnection between what is experienced and what is broadcast. ... Through examining the language of obfuscation and bad faith up close, he pierces a hole for us to another side, another way to see, and tell about what we find.

From the The Cafe Review (review by Megan Grumbling)

In deeply empathetic poems, Lantz mulls on the confusion, chaos and fallacy that are so often mankind’s lot, and tries to raise them toward the light. ... Clear of voice and generous in spirit, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is a volume both clever and very wise, its title at once riddle, lament, and mantra.

From Eleventh Stack, “We Don’t Know We Don’t Know: Poems by Nick Lantz

Lantz crafts his poems so skillfully that they catch you by surprise when they suddenly break your heart. Just try to read “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake” and not feel sucker-punched.


We Don’t Know We Don’t Know has won several awards, including:

The Larry Levis Reading Prize

The Council for Wisconsin Writers Posner Award

The Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award