Honor roll: National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

Each of these books has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. They are ranked by honors received.

Book:My Alexandria

My Alexandria: Poems

Mark Doty

One of the most highly praised and touching collections of poems to appear in recent years. In selecting it for the National Poetry Series, Philip Levine said: “The courage of this book is that it looks away from nothing: the miracle is that wherever it looks it finds poetry… Mark Doty is a maker of big, risky, fearless poems in which ordinary human experience becomes music.”

Book:Black Zodiac

Black Zodiac

Charles Wright

Black Zodiac offers poems suffused with spiritual longing—lyrical meditations on faith, religion, heritage, and morality. The poems also explore aging and mortality with restless grace. Approaching his vast subjects by way of small moments, Wright magnifies details to reveal truths much larger than the quotidian happenings that engendered them. His is an astonishing, flexible, domestic-yet-universal verse. As the critic Helen Vendler has observed, Wright is a poet who “sounds like nobody else.”

Book:Men in the Off Hours

Men in the Off Hours

Anne Carson

Following her widely acclaimed Autobiography of Red (“A spellbinding achievement” —Susan Sontag), a new collection of poetry and prose that displays Anne Carson’s signature mixture of opposites—the classic and the modern, cinema and print, narrative and verse.

In Men in the Off Hours, Carson reinvents figures as diverse as Oedipus, Emily Dickinson, and Audubon. She views the writings of Sappho, St. Augustine, and Catullus through a modern lens. She sets up startling juxtapositions (Lazarus among video paraphernalia; Virginia Woolf and Thucydides discussing war). And in a final prose poem, she meditates on the recent death of her mother.

With its quiet, acute spirituality, its fearless wit and sensuality, and its joyful understanding that “the fact of the matter for humans is imperfection,” Men in the Off Hours shows us “the most exciting poet writing in English today” (Michael Ondaatje) at her best.

Book:Desire

Desire: Poems

Frank Bidart

I hate and—love. The sleepless body hammering a nail nails itself, hanging crucified.—from “Catullus: Excrucior”

In Frank Bidart’s collection of poems, the encounter with desire is the encounter with destiny. The first half contains some of Bidart’s most luminous and intimate work-poems about the art of writing, Eros, and the desolations and mirror of history (in a spectacular narrative based on Tacitus). The second half of the book exts the overt lyricism of the opening section into even more ambitious territory-”The Second Hour of the Night” may be Bidart’s most profound and complex meditation on the illusion of will, his most seductive dramatic poem to date.

Book:One with Others

One with Others

C.D. Wright

Investigative journalism is the poet’s realm when C.D. Wright returns to her native Arkansas and examines an explosive incident from the Civil Rights movement. Wright interweaves oral histories, hymns, lists, newspaper accounts, and personal memories—especially those of her incandescent mentor, Mrs. Vititow—with the voices of witnesses, neighbors, police, activists, and black students who were rounded up and detained in an empty public swimming pool. This history leaps howling off the page.

I can walk down the highway unarmed
Scott Bond, born a slave, became
a millionaire. Wouldn’t you like to run wild.
Run free. The Very Reverend Al Green…[more]
Book:Versed

Versed

Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout has always organized her collections of poetry as though they were works in themselves. Versed brings two of these sequences together, offering readers an expanded view of the arc of her writing. The poems in the first section, Versed, play with vice and versa, the perversity of human consciousness. They flirt with error and delusion, skating on a thin ice that inevitably cracks: “Metaphor forms / a crust / beneath which / the crevasse of each experience.” Dark Matter, the second section, alludes to more than the unseen substance thought to make up the majority of mass in the universe. The invisible and unknowable are confronted directly as Armantrout’s experience with cancer marks these poems with a new austerity, shot through with her signature wit and stark unsentimental thinking. Together, the poems of Versed part us from our assumptions about reality, revealing the gaps and fissures in our emotional and linguistic constructs, showing us ourselves where we are most exposed.

Book:Refusing Heaven

Refusing Heaven: Poems

Jack Gilbert

More than a decade after Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires, this highly anticipated new collection shows the continued development of a poet who has remained fierce in his avoidance of the beaten path. In Refusing Heaven, Gilbert writes compellingly about the commingled passion, loneliness, and sometimes surprising happiness of a life spent in luminous understanding of his own blessings and shortcomings: “The days and nights wasted…Long hot afternoons / watching ants while the cicadas railed / in the Chinese elm about the brevity of life.” Time slows down in these poems, as Gilbert creates an aura of curiosity and wonder at the fact of existence itself.

Despite powerful intermittent griefs—over the women he has parted from or the one lost to cancer (an experience he captures with intimate precision)—Gilbert’s choice in this volume is to “refuse heaven.” He prefers this life, with its struggle and alienation and delight, to any paradise. His work is both a rebellious assertion of the call to clarity and a profound affirmation of the world in all its aspects. It braces the reader in its humanity and heart.

Book:Ooga-Booga

Ooga-Booga

Frederick Seidel

From the winner of the PEN/Voelker Award, poems of love, terror, rage, and desire. The poems in Ooga-Booga are about a youthful slave owner and his aging slave, and both are the same man. This is the tenderest, most savage collection yet from “the most frightening American poet ever” (Calvin Bedient, Boston Review).

Book:Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest

Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest: Poems

B.H. Fairchild

B. H. Fairchild’s memory systems are the collective vision of America’s despairing dreamers—failed baseball players, oil field laborers, a surrealist priest, college boys at a burlesque theater, the last remaining cast members of The Wizard of Oz. Looming over all is the fact and the mystery of our continued renewal.

Book:Carolina Ghost Woods

Carolina Ghost Woods: Poems

Judy Jordan

“A startling first collection of poems—startling because of bone-crushing violence and poverty and startling also because of the beautiful and precise language the poet brings on these scenes, violent or not…. The genius of these poems is that they insist on seeking the human despite devastating circumstances. Even the most wrung-out individual must still have a soul.” —James Tate, from his judge’s citation

The daughter of sharecroppers and raised on a small farm near the Carolinas’ border, Judy Jordan in her first poetry collection transforms the harshness of her youth with the beauty, inventiveness, and musicality of language. Physical and emotional privation, familial violence, racial enmity, and recurrent death haunt Carolina Ghost Woods, which is set amid the lush landscape of the South and enfolds the wildness—inclement and consoling by turns—of nature and agriculture. Jordan, though, reveals…[more]

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