A look at the National Book Award Finalists / Poetry
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 LundSkip to next paragraph
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"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.