Five finalists vie for the National Book Award in poetry

Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23) is smooth and delightfully consistent, the most enjoyable of the five finalists for the National Book Award in poetry, which will be given Wednesday. The glasslike surface of his language highlights the mysterious undercurrents that swirl and swell in every one of these poems. In “Clear, Cloudless,” Phillips explains that “the stars look steadily down upon me. I look / up, at the stars. Life as a recklessly fed bonfire / growing unexpectedly more reckless seems / neither the best nor worst of several choices / within reach, still.” These lines point to the duality — light and dark, fear and boldness, sensuality and transcendence — that we all struggle to resolve, or live with.

But The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24), by Pulitzer Prize-winner Yusef Komunyakaa, deserves to win this year’s award. In this new collection, Komunyakaa turns his gaze to both small, private moments and issues that affect millions as life takes him around the globe. History, mythology and musicsometimes shape these sophisticated poems, as do the speaker’s graceful language and vast intelligence. The latter is obvious in “Ode to the Chameleon,” which describes a lizard: “Little shape shifter, lingering / there on your quotidian twig / of indifference, you are a glimpse / of a rainbow, your eyes an iota / of amber.” The book touches upon everything from mortality and crumbling relationships to the Holocaust and American standards of beauty. Yet whatever the subject, or how painful the loss, Komunyakaa deftly guides readers because he is more than just a witness. As he writes in “When Eyes Are On Me,” he is “a prodigal bird perched on the peak / of a guardhouse. I have a message / for fate.”

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux/ ) - ’Double Shadow,’ by Carl Phillips
  • (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/ ) - ’Double Shadow,’ by Carl Phillips
  • (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/ ) - ’The Chameleon Couch,’ by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • (Triquarterly/ ) - ’Head Off & Split,’ by Nikki Finney
  • (University Of Chicago Press/ ) - ’Devotions,’ by Bruce Smith

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux/ ) - ’Double Shadow,’ by Carl Phillips

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Nikky Finney doesn’t forget injustice or ineptitude. In the opening section of Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly, $15.95), she takes aim at the failures and foibles of President George W. Bush, the aloofness of Condoleezza Rice and the unresponsive rescuers who left many African Americans stranded on New Orleans rooftops after Hurricane Katrina. These figures contrast sharply with Rosa Parks, who is described in “Red Velvet,” the opening poem, as a woman who “can pull cloth and others / her way, through the tiny openings she and others / before her have made.” Finney creates small fissures of her own when she challenges racial inequities, sexual and social norms, or reveals how her family’s story intersects with historical events. Her work is coarser and more uneven than Parks’s meticulous stitches, yet the poet earns her withering assessment of others by turning her sharp gaze toward herself, too.

Bruce Smith considers and contemplates American culture in Devotions (University of Chicago Press, $18), a collection that feels more like a kaleidoscope than a magnifying glass. Smith can look at any situation or setting — laundry mat, high school, baseball field — and find layers of association. In some cases, he gazes across oceans or into history to inform his view of the present; at other times, the connections are more personal. One of the book’s most compelling poems is “Devotion: Changeling.” The speaker sees himself in the face of an ex-con who wears “clothes I once wore, but shabbier, dingier / the worse for wear, and around him a caged halo like submarine creatures / have in dense refracted light.” Smith’s language is often edgy and direct — befitting his subject matter — and his long lines add to the weight and density of the writing. These are complex, sometimes ponderous poems that force readers to slow down and think about daily life because each heartbeat is “a betrayal of the dead / second you just loved a second ago.”

As with her previous collections, Adrienne Rich, who won a National Book Award in 1974, gives voice to those who are oppressed by governments, narrow thinking or social inequities. Yet in Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (Norton, $24.95), the writing has an inviting expansiveness. Many of these poems, from 2007-10, are lovely or touching, as are the opening lines from the title poem: “Saw you walking barefoot / taking a long look / at the new moon’s eyelid / later spread / sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair.” Section IV focuses on the fascinating character Axel Avakar, whom Rich describes as a “fictive poet, counter-muse, brother.” Axel allows the speaker to explore the evolution of her perspective, and that insight enriches the political poems, which at times feel somewhat predictable. Yet because “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve” provides welcome glimpses of Rich’s humanity, some readers may find here a fresh appreciation of her work.

Lund was poetry editor of the Christian Science Monitor.

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