A look at the National Book Awards nominees / Poetry

Let's hope poets can't do math. The numbers are downright depressing. "Jack Ass: The Movie" elicited a slew of bad reviews but raked in more than $22 million on its first weekend. By contrast, a critically acclaimed book of poetry might sell 1,500 copies in a year. There's a meter at work in our culture that doesn't scan well.

But the National Book Award provides a rare moment of popular attention for a few poets. What's more, it's an arena in which small publishing houses can still compete with the giants. This year, for instance, little Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wash., earned two of the five nominations, knocking powerhouse Farrar, Straus & Giroux out of the running entirely.

Michael Wiegers, managing editor at Copper Canyon, knows how that kind of recognition can charge a book of poetry. "As soon as I saw the list of nominations, I told our production manager to start reprinting," he said in a recent phone interview. "Normally, a stock that would have lasted a couple of years was gone in a day ." By his estimates, a nomination doubles sales, and a win quadruples them. The winning poet will receive $10,000. Hardly Hollywood headlines, but not a bad rhyme for a book that might otherwise remain in complete obscurity.

The $1,000-per-plate awards dinner will be hosted for the fourth year in a row by writer-comedian Steve Martin and attended by about a thousand authors, editors, and publishers on Nov. 20 in Times Square. Reviews of the nominations for fiction and nonfiction appeared in the Monitor on Oct. 24. We'll review the young adult nominations next week.

- Ron Charles

SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY
Mullen's poetic landscape isn't easy to enter. The road signs may be printed in English, but they can't be read in conventional ways. This is avant-garde territory, where words are combined in unusual ways and sometimes used for their sound alone, as in these lines from "Blah-Blah": "Ack-ack, aye-aye./ Baa baa, Baba, Bambam, Bebe, Berber, Bibi, blah-blah, Bobo, bonbon...." Mullen bends clichés and fables until they break open into new, and sometimes strange possibilities. Readers must slide between the words in these poems. They must put aside their dictionaries to understand what her words are really saying. One can't assume that the normal laws of physics or sensibility apply in Mullen's realm: "quantum mechanics fixed my karma wagon./ Gypsies want to hold my hand/ Dr. Duck recommends soap and ream therapies/ With remedies like these/ who needs friends?" Some of the strongest poems in "Sleeping With the Dictionary" are the most straightforward and conventional. "Eurydice," "Dream Cycle," and "Bilingual Instructions," for example, all resonate emotionally and intellectually. But for most of this poetic journey, sense lies beyond nonsense, and the only way to get there is to explore every wandering moment and slowly walk through the absurdities. (85 pp.) By Elizabeth Lund
by Harryette Mullen
University of California, $14.95
THE UNSWEPT ROOM
In her seventh collection of poems, Sharon Olds is as honest, raw, and accessible as ever. Her free verse and sprung rhythms range from sensual to angry, from achy longing to tranquil joy. Her topical repertoire is familiar: memories of an alcoholic father; the terrain of sexuality; notes on getting older; awed reflections on her two children growing up; and fraught, tender glimpses of "the old nymph," her aging mother. The main sequence begins with Olds's birth - "That hour, I was most myself" - and continues chronologically. It pauses at the bed of a dying childhood friend curled amid Scotch tape and paper dolls, on the day Olds cuts off her eyelashes in the school bathroom, at her wedding when she feels "the silent, dry, crying ghost of my/ parents' marriage there," and along her journey as daughter, mother, and wife. In "The Clasp," Olds writes of a rainy, tense day when, as a young mother, she presses her daughter's wrist too hard, "almost/ savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing," and shocks the girl with knowledge that "near the source of love/ was this." Here is Olds's finest realm: the shadowy chamber between love and wounding. She is, by turn, wistful, rapt, political, delving into memory with marvel, quiet fury, and penetrating grace. (122 pp.) By Christina McCarroll
by Sharon Olds
Alfred A. Knopf, $15
THE SMALLEST MUSCLE IN THE HUMAN BODY
"The places in between places/ They are like little countries/ Themselves," writes Alberto Ríos in "Day of the Refugios." It is these borderlands - between childhood and adulthood, science and imagination, magic and reality, Mexico and the United States - that form the basis for most of the poems in his latest book. Grounded in concrete, evocative images - maps, horses, a glass of ice water, or "A yellow leaf in the branches/ Of a shamel ash" - Rios's poems are accessible and disarmingly simple. The best lead to sometimes surprising revelations. He draws heavily on memory, legend, and his childhood in Nogales, Ariz. - "Childhood itself a kind of country too." We learn of his grandmother, whose hair saved her and her child, of the "hundred trombone players in a single-file line/ Without any other instruments," and that "the easiest sadness is a boy/ Watching another boy/ Walk with a barefooted girl." His more esoteric poems often delve into metaphysical questions of language or science: "Which the stronger? The names for things/ The things themselves?" In the end, Rios's verse inhabits a country of his own making, sometimes political, often personal, with the familiarity and pungency of an Arizona chili. (103 pp.) By Amanda Paulson
by Alberto Ríos
Copper Canyon, $14
IN THE NEXT GALAXY
We're here with the poet "in her moon boots from Ames," standing with the other transients at the Albany bus station. We're offered a glimpse of a lover long gone, who came to visit her at "the abandoned campus, empty brick buildings and early June." We're reminded why we read poetry, because "the most beautiful videos come from reading poetry. And they're in your head." We're given a peek at her vision of the "next galaxy" of the title poem, "which will be all Catskills with brand new wraparound verandas." The reader can't help agreeing with Ruth Stone's observations on the physical world of cold mornings between semesters, bus stations, and regional reflections on upstate New York, which are interspersed with bodily changes and lamentations for joys past and sorrows endured. These are very readable poems on some of the most difficult topics. Earthy and harrowing, while also deeply personal, purposeful, and timely, her work charts poet and reader through the ups and downs of life. Stone is a longtime professor of creative writing and a much-honored poet. She first earned notice in the 1950s, when she encouraged many other poets, including another of this year's nominees, Sharon Olds, who calls her old friend's book "remarkable and gorgeous." This is Stone's eighth collection. (96 pp.) By Leigh Montgomery
by Ruth Stone
Copper Canyon, $20
SHADOW OF HEAVEN
Voigt's sixth book of verse examines mortality, frailty, and aging in a domestic landscape. People, animals, and nature interact in ways that illuminate basic questions of living. The volume is divided into four sections. The first contains eight brief poems that raise the themes of the collection: the harsh light cast on the living by the dead, the changes in our bodies and minds, the quality of living ("is this merely practice?"). The second section contains 15 poems, each of 12 lines. The brief scenes captured here detail minute shifts in mood, weather, and perspective that trigger insights about the human condition. The third section is comprised of seven longer poems that explore strength and frailty in beings - both man and beast - that suffer physical and psychic injuries. The final section continues to work the same themes in longer poems. "A Brief Domestic History," for instance, explores the intersection of generations, youth and age, and vigor and wisdom in a single kitchen. Voigt's voice is strictly honest, often tense, and uncomplicated. Her tone is formal but friendly, her lines flowing and balanced. Although this volume offers few great surprises, several gems repay a second and third reading. (87 pp.) By Tim Rauschenberger
by Ellen Bryant Voigt
W.W. Norton & Co., $21

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