Finalists for the National Book Award in poetry


‘Incarnadine” by Mary Szybist. (Graywolf )
November 19, 2013

Black Aperture (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 64 pp.; paperback, $17.95), by Matt Rasmussen, is the biggest surprise among the poetry finalists for this year’s National Book Award, which will be announced Wednesday in New York. His stellar debut is inventive and courageous, a stark exploration of the giant hole — and dark opening — created by his brother’s suicide. Rasmussen conveys this duality through recurring images — a field, leaves, hands and birds — and multiple versions of events that help the speaker address this tragedy. Rasmussen’s chiseled language haunts and delights, as when he describes his father: “his face carved / from pale wood. / You can imagine / the tools used to shape / his expression. Except his eyes. / Those are unfashioned. / They say what / his wooden mouth can’t.” Grief, like the writing, becomes more direct as the book progresses. The third section opens with the speaker recording over his brother’s voice on the answering machine. Other erasures will never be complete because the loss follows everywhere. Yet in “O Cremulator,” the perspective becomes broader and more accepting: “At every moment / we are broken in half / and then half again, and then / one shadow melts into another, / one ashtray spills into the next. / We burn early into the morning.”

Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine (Graywolf, 70 pp.; paperback, $15) is the long-awaited follow-up to her outstanding first book. This gorgeous collection is shaped by the biblical story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she had been chosen to bear the Savior. That intersection of human and divine colors every page, beginning with several unusual views of the Annunciation and renderings of both the iconic Mary and a modern one. Szybist often shifts through different kinds of faith, as in her opening poem: “The Puritans thought that we are granted the ability to love / only through miracle, / but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through, / how to make themselves shrines to their own longing. / The spectacular was never behind them.” In a similar way, Szybist burns throughout these pages, whether she writes about a butterfly, a donkey sanctuary or a young captain during World War II. When Szybist sees angels, they are everywhere — in alchemy, barrenness and earthquakes. A spirit descends or lingers in several poems, though the spirits are not always good. In one of the saddest poems, “So-and-So Descending From the Bridge,” Szybist grieves over a woman who threw both of her children off a bridge into the water below — “So-called / crazy little mother who does not jump.”

Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke (Penguin, 109 pp.; paperback, $18) – his third collection — is an engrossing portrait of Jack Johnson, who was born to emancipated slaves and became the first African American heavyweight world champion boxer during the height of the Jim Crow era. The poems begin with the young Johnson learning to fight and driving himself relentlessly to earn the top prize. Success will bring riches, fast cars, respect and white women, yet will always be tinged by a palpable reality: “When we rise up, / the whole Negro race rises up / with us. When we get to the top, / it’s just us. No use for Negroes / then, not even ourselves.” Johnson never forgets the example of his hardworking mother or the necessity of his demanding regimen. Yet as he works toward — and retains — the pinnacle, he also abuses the women he loves. In “Cooking Lessons,” he explains the rules to one lover: “Belle, I wouldn’t put / my hand on you if you’d do / what I say. If you’d just do / what you’re told, I wouldn’t / shake you that way.” Johnson risks jail by marrying a white woman, and her suicide dogs him, as do the criticism and racism that never go away. This is a rich, sometimes disturbing portrait of a fascinating, flawed and complex man.

Frank Bidart is a four-time finalist for the National Book Award. In Metaphysical Dog (Farrar Straus Giroux, 113 pp., $24), one of his boldest works, he writes about the deep hungers that fuel many of his central conflicts. Those hungers include a need for intimacy, a desire for the absolute, freedom from others’ definitions and “an aesthetics of embodiment” in a world where nothing fully satisfies. Bidart’s experience as a gay man informs his never-ending quest for truth and clarity. In “Queer,” one of the strongest poems, he describes the challenge he and his peers faced in the 1940s and ’50s as they considered coming out: “Everybody already knows everything / so you can / lie to them. That’s what they want. / But lie to yourself, what you will / lose is yourself.” Bidart skewers cultural ideals about love, sex and marriage, and he does not spare himself or his readers as he recalls his parents’ strained relationship and his own attempts to find romance and satisfaction. But art is his constant companion. In “As You Crave Soul,” he writes: “Ordinary divided unsimple heart. / What you dream is that, by eating / the flesh of words, what you make / makes mind and body / one.”

Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion (Knopf, 100 pp, $26) is the most demanding of these five finalists. Her surreal perspective and seemingly disjointed lines create a somber landscape where magic and imagination are as unsettling and present as some of the ugly realities of modern life. The most powerful poems consider the deaths of loved ones, the silent suffering of animals and the irony of “humane” farming. Other deaths tinge the collection as well, as with the account of Rickey Ray Rector, whose mental state was such that he thought he could eat a piece of pie after his execution. At its best, Stay, Illusion illuminates various transitions and weaves a complex web of images that demands the reader’s compassion. The opening lines of “Considering the Possible Music of Your Hair” demonstrate why this poet is regarded as a major voice: “And all that night carries soundlessly, a satchel of eels. / Fever going down like anemones too full with sweat to float, / Cloak of many blankets wounding you to warmth. It was not, / We both agreed, the time for hospital, its open sea of urgent / Care. Close your eyes and try to sleep. Underwater the music / Of your hair is glossy even now.”

Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.

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