Literary awards often reveal as much about the current trends in a genre as they do about which books are worthy of praise. Nominees usually hint at judges' preferences for style and form. But the finalists for this year's National Book Critics Circle Awards in poetry defy that generalization somewhat. The books in this diverse group share just one thing in common: a singular voice and vision. Each writer leads readers through a landscape only he or she could create. Think museum with five different hallways, no two of which intersect. Of the nominees, two are considered living legends who have left indelible marks on the genre during decades-long careers. One of those writers - Gary Snyder - broke a lengthy silence with the publication of his latest book. The three younger poets are all well respected.
All the finalists are invited to read from their nominated books at a gathering open to the public on March 17 at the New School in New York. The awards will be conferred the next day in the same auditorium. Reviews of the NBCC finalists in fiction, biography, and nonfiction can be found on our website. - Intro and reviews by Elizabeth Lund
Kelly doesn't write simple poems; she weaves elaborate tapestries. Her work begins in the opening page of "The Orchard," her third collection, where she repeats certain words - boy, bird, bush - to establish a meditative tone that runs throughout the book. Subsequent pages explore those and other images, turning them round and round until they seem both familiar and strange. Kelly, who has a keen eye for detail, slowly adds layer upon layer of meaning, entwining various threads. She is driven, almost obsessive at times, in her desire to understand the world around her, which is often surreal and dreamlike. A boy may become a black swan or a doe may give birth to a child. The biggest delight in Kelly's work is the language, which is often quite sumptuous: "Big as a summer hotel, thirty rooms/ For thirty birds, thirty perches from which to sing. Such is the moon when it is full...." As strangely delightful as these poems can be, they are also dense and demanding. Small servings and multiple readings may be required.
Powell's third book is a smooth mixture of word play and memoir; three parts careful craftsmanship, one part witty banter, with occasional cultural references to add extra flavor. Many of these poems go down easy - despite their graphic subject matter - because Powell is so good at supplying tight, arresting turns of phrase. "Cocktails," like his previous collections, recounts his struggles, as a young gay man, with uncertainty, alcohol, and HIV. The work, which some may find disturbing, is broken into three sections: mixology, filmography, and bibliography. The second section seamlessly blends movie allusions with the poet's own memories. The result is a distinctive mix of individual and collective experience. But the third section, which plays off New Testament stories, is far less successful. There, the poet strains unsuccessfully for hints of redemption. The narratives and the Christian phrasing just don't mix effectively.
This is Rich's best work in years. Everything that makes her poetry distinctive - the eye for detail, the piercing language, the marriage of personal and political concerns - is present in these pages. What's less noticeable, compared with previous volumes, are poems that stumble under the weight of heavy-handed agendas. The title piece, about a third-world school devastated by American bombing, is genuinely moving in places: "Today this is your lesson:/ write as clearly as you can/ your name home street and number/ down on this page/ No you can't go home yet...." Rich is full of surprises, with subject matter ranging from love to cellphones to the war on terror. Lyrical poems balance those that are more strident. Take, for example, these lines from "Livresque": "There hangs a space between the man/ and his words/ like the space around a few snowflakes/ just languidly beginning...." "The School Among the Ruins" isn't perfect, but it demonstrates why Rich is considered a major poet.
These new and selected poems and aphorisms trace the evolution of a poet who earned his reputation as a master of imagery and concision. Richardson's early works are like small pieces of stained glass, carefully cut and polished: "Light swaying/ and straightening, like reeds. It has been everywhere..../ If I bend I will spill/ a great blaze." Over time, however, Richardson shifts from tight, tiny gems to slightly looser poems, and then to aphorisms. This allows him to try various approaches and voices, and to explore larger concepts. But while they may be a useful exercise, they lack the originality and wisdom of his earlier work. His return to poetry is a welcome relief - given his hauntingly beautiful lines - until he reverts to compiling long lists of aphorisms. The last section of the book, all poems, contains some real delights. "I watch the woods fill up with road, or snow;/ and snow, or woodland, overflow the road./ The wind has whited out the signs/ that would say who owns what's next, if anyone." No platitude can top that.
Fans of Snyder may be surprised by this collection, his first in 20 years. The book opens with several mountain poems, some of which are set in the 1940s. In one, the poet asks,"Who wouldn't take the chance to climb a snowpeak and get the long view?" From there, the work fast forwards, but that "long view" sets the tone and shape of the book. Yes, there are plenty of "nature poems" and extended haiku, as readers would expect from this activist and practicing Buddhist. But the most memorable pages focus on Snyder's connections with other people: lovers, friends, acquaintances. There, he seems to take more risks, as in these lines about poet and publisher James Laughlin: "I think of how J writes stories of his lovers in his poems - puts in a lot,/ it touches me,.../ ...Then I think,/ what do I know?/ About what to say/ or not to say, what to tell, or not, to whom,/ or when/ still." Snyder's 10th book of poems, while uneven and sometimes flat, is a comforting visit with a friend who has been away for a long, long time.