National Book Critics Circles nominees / Poetry

The poetry finalists for this year's National Book Critics Circle awards have very little in common, at least on the surface. One writer uses a breezy, conversational tone, for example, while another sculpts and crafts every sentence. A third poet composes in a foreign language, while a fourth writes about distant cultures. In addition to their differences in style and approach, the nominees also represent different ends of the career spectrum: One woman has just published her first book, while another has long been considered a major poet.

What the nominees seem to share, however, is a longing to connect with something larger than themselves, whether that something is God or the American psyche. Of the five nominees, two are searching for spiritual understanding, and two are trying to save and transform pieces of very difficult pasts. This sense of reaching gives poets more depth and poignancy, and it gives readers another reason to invest our time in close, thoughtful reading.

All the nominated authors have been invited to read from their work on March 3 at the New School in New York City. In addition to the presentation of prizes at the ceremony on March 4, Pulitzer Prize-winner Studs Terkel will receive a lifetime achievement award. Both events are open to the public. For details go to www.bookcritics.org. - Elizabeth Lund

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What Narcissism Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, 78 pp., $14

In his first two books, Tony Hoagland displayed great candor and incisiveness. Whether his subject was dating or his dad's infirmity, Hoagland unabashedly rendered the details and captured his subjects' unspoken fears. His best work had a perceptive grace, an everyman's perspective. There could also be a withering sense of humor.

These qualities are present to a lesser degree in Hoagland's third book, "What Narcissism Means to Me," in which he explores how the themes of love, aging, and the search for purpose relate to 21st-century culture. Think "American Graffiti" meets middle age.

The writing, which is simple and direct, focuses primarily on the mundane, at times reaching the poignant. Some of the work addresses sensitive subjects - such as race relations - but as in his earlier books, Hoagland really shines when he turns his eye toward people's unresolved struggles and confusion. At times there is artistry in the poet's stanzas, but for the most part he sticks with unadorned portraits. In "Impossible Dream," he writes: "I was reading a book about pleasure,/ how you have to glide through it/ without clinging,/ like an arrow/ passing through a target,/ coming out the other side and going on." A few more moments of such simple brilliance would have really lit this collection.

She Says, by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Graywolf Press, 163 pp., $15

In the poems of Lebanese-born Vénus Khoury-Ghata, language is not just a vehicle. It provides a setting, subject matter, and a lens for this long-time Paris resident, a "stray between two languages," as she refers to herself. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that some of the book's most memorable poems focus on language. Take, for example, these lines from "Where do words come from?": "Words are rocky tears/ the keys to the first doors/ they grumble in caverns/ lend their ruckus to storms/ their silence to bread that's ovened alive." What is startling, however, is the even quality and tone throughout "She Says." Translator Marilyn Hacker deserves a lot of credit for that, and for making sure that Khoury-Ghata's images are consistently polished and evocative: "The wind in the fig tree quiets down when she speaks," "Autumn preceded summer by one day," "The frost that year shattered both the indoors and outdoors." The "she" who tenaciously survives in many of these poems is an alluring figure, but the poems become predictable after a while, and the surreal nature of the work can be a bit frustrating. A fire on the moon, for example, is just that. The image has no deeper meaning.

Granted, by Mary Szybist, Alice James Books, 60 pp., $13.95

"Granted" is Mary Szybist's debut collection, but this poet can certainly hold her own against the other four more experienced finalists. In fact, with her intelligence and understated grace, Szybist may become one of the best-known writers of her generation. In "Granted," she explores a timeless theme - spiritual and romantic longing. In page after page, she wrestles with faith and hope, struggling to find peace by finding freedom from desire. In the process, she lures readers into a hidden place somewhere between intellect and silence. Syzbist opens her poems beautifully, with intriguing lines and images: "We like loss to be quiet," "Yes, the open mouth/ of your watering can, it/ reminds me of you...." Many of her descriptions are evocative, and at times she makes wonderful, surprising leaps, as in these lines: "Before I started to love you/ I tried to love the world:/ the plump, dumb oranges that crushed/ in my mouth, the waves that rolled upshore/ until they were eyelid thin and purple...." This collection has many strengths, but the poet sometimes seems a bit too reserved, as though she could offer more wisdom, more directness. Give Szybist a chance, however. Her second book may show even more depth and reach.

Columbarium, by Susan Stewart, University of Chicago Press, 122 pp., $22.50

"Columbarium," like Mary Szybist's "Granted," deals with the spiritual realm. But Stewart wants to convey more than emotions or lyrical descriptions. In this, her fourth book, she tries to reveal certain truths about the mind and the senses, the living and the dead, the physical world and the metaphysical realm. To do this, she juxtaposes solid-looking free verse with looser poetic forms. In some poems, the words sweep across the page like a flock of sparrows. But Stewart also makes her subject matter do a great deal of work, and her topics vary from scarecrows to dreams to views of hell. In the best of these poems, Stewart combines lovely sounds and images with ideas about the invisible forces that undergird life on earth. In "Rewind" she writes: "Strange how he had written, when he was thinking about music,/ that it is not motion, but a miracle, if a thing changes/ place without crossing the interval/ between its former and latter place." Some readers will feel that the book really quenches their thirst for understanding, but others may find themselves wishing for less visual effect and longer, more frequent drinks at the fountain.

Blue Hour, by Carolyn Forché, Harper Collins, 73 pp., $24.95

Carolyn Forché has long been known as a "poet of witness," a writer who refuses to forget the oppressed. Her political reputation was established in 1982, when she published a book about her work in El Salvador as a human rights activist. Now, in her fourth collection, Forché travels in a different direction, journeying inside the emotions and the soul. The title "Blue Hour" refers to the time between night and daylight, a period associated with waiting for salvation. In Forché's case, however, salvation is earned by learning to recall painful events, to observe them with clear eyes while somehow retaining a shred of innocence. The title poem, which includes scenes from Paris, does contain some warm maternal moments, but there are also brutal details of childhood abuse and the chilling statement that: "You see, one can live without having survived." The longest poem, "On Earth," is modeled on ancient gnostic hymns, and like many of the pages in "Blue Hour," this section demands several readings. Some readers may find the work too dense or confusing. Of the five nominees, this book is the most challenging.

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