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.Skip to next paragraph
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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
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.
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.