The Primitive Observatory

Southern Illinois University Press, 2016

About the Book

The poems of The Primitive Observatory, set roughly in the Gilded Age, take readers into a dreamy, alluring world where hapless travelers, doomed heirs, and other colorful types grapple with horrors. Within the pages of this book, we find a group of cousins who wager their pets in endless games of mahjong, a village whose inhabitants all dream the same dreams, and Maurice, who watches Greta Garbo movies while waiting for death in the macabre home of his grandfather, a man suspected of sinister hypnosis and unspeakable crimes.

Kimbrell explores such themes as memory, class prejudice, family violence, and greed in a flamboyant, yet matter-of-fact style to create verse that is both amusing and unsettling. Combining prose that evokes H.P. Lovecraft, classical mythology, and Marcel Proust with the look and taut line of traditional formalist verse, the poems appear on the page as perfect rectangles, yet revel in narrative and linguistic absurdities.

The Primitive Observatory offers a dark and evocative experience through the tangible grotesque. Fans of David Lynch, Franz Kafka, Edward Gorey, and the like will be startled, excited, and pleased by this entertaining and disturbing book of poetry.

Sample Poems

1900 Gibbon Street” (Blackbird)
The Age of Miracles” (Blackbird)
Nocturne (Tremors of the Earth)” (Verse Daily)
The Succulent Flowers” (Blackbird)

Buy the Book

Southern Illinois University Press (Paperback and e-book)
Amazon (Paperback and Kindle)
Barnes & Noble (Paperback and Nook)


“A deserving winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, The Primitive Observatory by Gregory Kimbrell delivers what its title promises. Typically, an observatory either contains instruments for examining the world or provides a broad view, but Kimbrell’s book does both. Its poems are tools for observing many characters in various times and places. Inspired by history and myth, this poetry collection achieves a powerful blend of realism and fantasy that focuses on primitive behavior.” — Nathanael Tagg, author of Animal Virtue (Read the full review in Colorado Review.)

“The poems in Gregory Kimbrell’s riveting collection, The Primitive Observatory, take place in unnamed, remote districts teetering on the cusp of apocalyptic ruin. Characters go about their everyday lives the best they can amidst war, plague, murder, and cataclysmic winters. But even stranger things are afoot. Sinister diplomats in black overcoats wander the streets, meting out justice. A man in a crocodile mask performs a funeral ritual in the middle of a lake. In these poems, the mundane, the historical, and the fantastical mix into a mesmerizing, nightmarish concoction. Kimbrell is a fabulist of the highest order. His stunning debut comes spinning out of the dark like a terrifying new planet.” — Brian Barker, author of The Black Ocean

“If poetry casts a spell, this debut collection is a book of magic in which an idiosyncratic sensibility and a wry, anachronistic tone conjure a precisely imagined, alternative realm that feels both strange and strangely familiar. From the opening page of The Primitive Observatory, we are thrust into a darkly fantastical landscape that has been pervasively stamped by both culturally endorsed violence and requisite greed. Kimbrell invites us, through masterfully baroque yet honed vignettes, to consider not only the tenuous nature of our own understanding of causality but also the seemingly inexhaustible allure of the myth.” — Kathleen Graber, author of The Eternal City

“Entering a poem in this book feels much as if you have stepped out onto thin air, and yet there it is, a staircase solid beneath the foot, so you are already moving quickly before you can guess where, and if the diction seems antique, the writing is never dusty—instead, the intensity of these vignettes blows the cobwebs off you, dear reader, as you discover intimacies of surprise, puzzling dimensions of entrapment, an alien force caught in the act of becoming self-aware, as if Chekhov’s mind might enter Escher’s hand and he would begin to draw out yet another twisting tale more entrancing than the last, the age of miracles returned to find you in your shadow again.” — Gregory Donovan, author of Torn from the Sun

“The Primitive Observatory is an astonishing construct: a museum of cinematic dreamscapes that push far beyond magic realism and allegory into luminous, unclassifiable narrative. This is masterful, strange, and essential work from a new voice.” — Joshua Poteat, author of The Regret Histories

Image: The Primitive Observatory cover, design by Erin Kirk New, courtesy of Southern Illinois University Press