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.”