Results of the National Book Award in the year 2011.
The poems in Nikky Finney’s breathtaking new collection Head Off & Split sustain a sensitive and intense dialogue with emblematic figures and events in African American life: from civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, from a brazen girl strung out on lightning to a terrified woman abandoned on a rooftop during Hurricane Katrina. Finney s poetic voice is defined by an intimacy that holds a soft yet exacting eye on the erotic, on uncanny political and family events, like her mother s wedding waltz with South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, and then again on the heartbreaking hilarity of an American president’s final State of the Union address.
Artful and intense, Finney’s poems ask us to be mindful of what we fraction, fragment, cut off, dice, dishonor, or throw away, powerfully evoking both the lawless and the sublime.
The latest collection from one of our preeminent poets, The Chameleon Couch is also one of Yusef Komunyakaa’s most personal to date. As in his breakthrough work, Copacetic, Komunyakaa writes again of music as muse—from a blues club in the East Village to the shakuhachi of Basho. Beginning with “Canticle,” this varied new collection often returns to the idea of poem as hymn, ethereal and haunting, as Komunyakaa reveals glimpses of memory, myth, and violence. With contemplations that spring up along walks or memories conjured by the rhythms of New York, Komunyakaa pays tribute more than ever before to those who came before him.
The book moves seamlessly across cultural and historical boundaries, evoking Komunyakaa’s capacity for cultural excavation, through artifact and place. The Chameleon Couch begins in and never fully leaves the present—an urban modernity framed,…[more]
In the hands of Bruce Smith, devotions are momentary stops to listen to the motor of history. They are meditations and provocations. They are messages received from the chatter of the street and from transmissions as distant as Memphis and al-Mansur. Bulletins and interruptions come from brutal elsewheres and from the interior where music puts electrodes on the body to take an EKG. These poems visit high schools, laundromats, motels, films, and dreams in order to measure the American hunger and thirst. They are interested in the things we profess to hold most dear as well as what’s unspoken and unbidden. While we’re driving, while riding a bus, while receiving a call, while passing through an X-ray machine, the personal is intersected—sometimes violently, sometimes tenderly—with the hum and buzz of the culture. The culture, whether New York or Tuscaloosa, Seattle or Philadelphia, past or present, carries the burden of race and “someone’s idea of beauty.” The poems fluctuate between the two poles of “lullaby and homicide” before taking a vow to remain on earth, to look right and left, to wait and to witness.
Comparing any human life to “a restless choir” of impulses variously in conflict and at peace with one another, Carl Phillips, in his eleventh book, examines the double shadow that a life casts forth: “now risk, and now / faintheartedness.” In poems that both embody and inhabit this double shadow, risk and faintheartedness prove to have the power equally to rescue us from ourselves and to destroy us. Spare, haunted, and haunting, yet not without hope, Double Shadow argues for life as a wilderness through which there’s only the questing forward—with no regrets and no looking back.
Relationships—partings/reconciliations, solidarities/ruptures, trust/betrayal, exposure/withdrawal—are the deep fabric of this forceful work.
In the intimate address of “Axel Avákar,” the black humor of “Quarto,” and the underground journey of “Powers of Recuperation,” compressed lyrics flash among larger scenarios where images, dialogues, blues, and song spiral into political visions. Adrienne Rich has said, “I believe almost everything I know, have come to understand, is somewhere in this book.”
There’s the poverty of wages wired for the funeral you
Can’t get to the poverty of bodies lying unburied
There’s the poverty of labor offered silently on the curb…[more]