Literary awards often feel like the Oscar race for Best Picture. Fans hope the finalists will be outstanding and the winner an undeniable classic. But often the nominees are simply good, occasionally even questionable, and the chosen film is a bit disappointing. Poetry lovers may feel the same way about this year's finalists for the National Book Award. All five poets have well-deserved reputations earned over the course of many years. All five collections are solid, demonstrating skill, vision, and moments of brilliance, but as a group they fall a bit flat. It's not obvious why some of these books were chosen instead of others. The sentimental favorite is Donald Justice, long considered a major poet, unequaled as a craftsman. His "Collected Poems" was published just weeks after his death in August. The winner will be announced at a $1,000-a-plate black-tie ceremony in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor. Finalists in the fiction, nonfiction, and young adult categories were reviewed in the Monitor earlier and can be read at csmonitor.com. - Elizabeth Lund
"Shoah Train" takes readers through the harrowing territory of the Holocaust. This is a return tour for Heyen, who revised and expanded his 1977 book "The Swastika Poems" into "Erika" (1984). Critics praised the volumes, saying they conveyed the victims' experience without being maudlin, sentimental, or sensational. In "Shoah Train," the approach is similar but broader. Heyen examines the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust) from many angles: a rabbi forced to clean a toilet with his prayer shawl; Dr. Josef Mengele, upset that one of his meticulous files has become soiled; and an American of German descent who peers through the lens of history. Heyen's writing is clearsighted and direct. He doesn't try to add drama or emotion, allowing events and the chorus of voices to speak for themselves. As a result, "Shoah Train" is often moving, as with the poem "Auschwitz Swans": "We still see the electrified/ barbed wire fence strung/ on swan-necked cement poles/ bending inward over the grounds,/ ash-gray, but graceful, even beautiful,/ as though unintentional elegy, as though these lines had been conceived/ by an angel in its anti-world." These tragic subjects aren't new, but they are compelling, even if the poems are oddly understated at times.
Since the poet's death this summer, some critics have tried to cement Donald Justice's legacy as both a great poet and a great teacher. The latter is indisputable, given that some of his students have become major literary figures. With "Collected Poems," readers can see why he was considered one of the best poets of his generation. Even in his earliest work, Justice displays great skill with form - from sestinas and villanelles to the use of repeated words or refrains. In addition to being a master craftsman, Justice is a keen, perceptive observer. He writes with compassion and sensitivity about the people around him, as in this passage from "Men at Forty," one of his strongest poems: "And deep in mirrors/ They rediscover/ The face of the boy as he practices tying/ His father's tie there in secret...." The subjects he addresses throughout his work - memory, the past, losses, and shared passages - strike a universal nerve. These are intelligent, elegant poems, and Justice never falls into the trap of emotional excess, as did many of his peers. That strength, ironically, may be also his weakness. Often he seems to be holding something back, as if his dedication to form limits the way his poems can function. Even in later sections, when he is at the height of his powers, the work feels a bit hollow.
Carl Phillips is no stranger to the subject of desire - physical, spiritual, and emotional. This is familiar territory for the poet, who in previous volumes has skated a fine line between belief and disbelief, abandon and control. In "The Rest of Love," his seventh book, the balancing act continues. Phillips approaches his subject matter boldly, using muscular language and logic. At his best, as in "Conduct" and "White Dog," he adroitly moves from event to emotion to insight and back. The poems crackle with intelligence, as in these lines from "Singing": "It's a dream I've had/ twice now: God is real,/ as the difference between/ having squandered faith and having lost it/ is real...." In many cases, however, the poems do not move seamlessly; juxtapositions feel a bit forced or opening lines are difficult to move through. The poem "Mastery," for example, is disorienting with this opening: "Dry waterfall/ that eventually, almost,/ the skull resembled-/ And then the skull was just/ a skull. The heart-/ at last nothing/ but a muscle moving...." "The Rest of Love" would be difficult to forget if every poem were as disciplined and full as Phillips's strongest. In those moments, whether he's addressing God or a lover, working from myth or reason, the poet demands - and commands - the reader's attention.
Cole Swensen leads readers through history as she explores the subject of light, both natural and man-made. The poems in "Goest" travel back and forth through time - from the present-day United States to the streets of Paris in the 1500s and Rome in 50 BC. A highly intellectual poet, she traces the development of incandescents and the events they set in motion. She also writes, with meticulous care, about the color white and, more briefly, about mirrors, whose reflected images become another form of illumination. Her subject matter is often fascinating, and the language - spare and highly visual - seems to mimic flashes of light. "The Invention of Streetlights" is a good example of the poet's approach and tone: "noctes illustratas/ (the night has houses)/ and the shadow of the fabulous/ broken into handfuls - these/ can be placed at regular intervals,/ candles/ walking down streets at times eclipsed by trees." Long lines sometimes slow the narratives and make the work seem denser than it is. More disappointing, however, is the lack of clarity and directness in the book's third section. After following Swensen through many landscapes, the reader longs for a more personal or emotional approach. That payoff doesn't come, leaving one to feel that opportunities for enlightenment have been missed.
Jean Valentine's writing is spare and tight, with images that are often masterly, lovely, and startling. This is visceral poetry, whether Valentine explores mundane topics such as friendship or childhood memories and losses or larger subjects, such as death and love. She aims to capture elusive moments and express what can't fully be understood or grasped. When she succeeds, the poems - written from 1965 to 2003 - are breathtaking in their ability to describe "between moments" - transitions between, say, dream and waking, life and death, dark and dawn. The section from "The Cradle of the Real Life" is one of the strongest. But because the work can be so spellbinding, the reader feels cheated when Valentine withholds information, as if she doesn't really want readers to follow where she goes. Many poems contain leaps of logic magnified by the work's compression. "We cut the new day" is an example of this: "We cut the new day/ like a key:/ betrayal:/ We went ahead anyway/ drinking down the will of the event/ On the eighth floor/ something fell/ alive inside the old street wall/ next to the bed/ I heard it fall/ and fall." Her earlier work tends to be more explicit, often with longer, fuller lines. But despite the flaws, there are wonderful, resonant moments here.