Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon, $22) deserves to win the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry Thursday night. This gorgeous collection spans the landscape of loss with unexpected leaps and ripples, as if someone has skipped stones across a lake. The opening lines are engrossing: “My heart is cold,/ it should wear a mitten. My heart/ is whatever temperature a heart is/ in a man who doesn’t believe in heaven.” Heaven does not exist in these pages, where absence is always present and life and elegy coexist. In one striking poem, a search party finds the body of a missing woman and wishes for the “right girl” even as they look at the “wrong girl” before them. Hicok, who lives in Blacksburg, Va., understands mourning and desire as loved ones slip further away while survivors search for words and consolation. That duality colors everything from a Jesus who cries to be healed, not remembering who he is, to a couple who leave their wedding because the bride’s father has died. Wordplay, subtle humor and unexpected moments of hope give these lush poems depth and dimension. Hicok’s work is memorable because of the new vistas it creates.
Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk & Filth (University of Arizona; paperback, $15.95) raises a metaphorical fist to accepted ideas about feminism, culture and race. This raw, sharp book opens with “Gender Fables,” a sequence of poems that breathes new life into female icons who’ve been reduced to one-dimensional figures. Among those women are Malinché, an interpreter and advisor caught up in the Spanish conquest of Mexico; Llorona, a doomed mother who drowned her own children; the Red Lady, a 16th-century English pirate; Our Lady of Guadalupe; and the witch Baba Yaga. After these re-imaginings, Smith nods to Adrienne Rich before fearlessly diving into more personal stories and her own evolution. In “Parts of an Autobiography,” the speaker explains in numbered sections how “14. Sometimes feminism seemed a miracle, a cork bobbing up for air in the ocean./ 15. Or I was the cork and the ocean was everything else that conspired and conspires to be like a cage.” The speaker doesn’t hide her flaws, admitting, a few lines later, that her bad parenting will teach her “children about complicated people.” The book’s final poem, “When God Was a Woman,” upends the reader’s expectations once again, portraying a deity that is as complex as her children.
Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24) also portrays the evolution of an individual who defied cultural norms. For Bidart, who is gay, the struggle began early on, when society and a controlling mother both tried to mold him to their expectations. In “Writing ‘Ellen West,’ ” the speaker says, “All he had told her in words and more than words for years was/ that her possessiveness and terror at his independence were/ wrong, wrong, wrong.” Bidart, like others of his generation, had to choose whether or not to come out and live with the consequences. Lying to others is justified, the poem “Queer” explains, “But lie to yourself, what you will/ lose is yourself. Then you/ turn into them.” Bidart finds himself and his purpose in these pages, while struggling to find love and satisfaction. He realizes that theology, history and even literature can never fully satisfy. A fervid intellect drives the speaker to keep looking, helping pave the way for others in the process. “Metaphysical Dog” is both a singular and a shared journey, one of Bidart’s strongest collections. It was a finalist for the National Book Award last fall.
Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion (Knopf, $26) was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Her poems — filled with seemingly disjointed lines — create a grim tapestry of complex ideas about cause and effect and mourning. The grief ranges from personal to cultural, with Brock-Broido considering the loss of her father and her earlier selves in some poems and the moral failings of a nation in others. The latter theme is best exemplified in “Of Tookie Williams” and “Of Rickey Ray Rector,” which describe the inhumane execution of inmates. In other poems, animals are brutalized, the dying suffer, and Brock-Broido speaks for those who cannot as she transforms pain into verse that’s rich with ornate grandeur. “Stay, Illusion” demands sophisticated readers who can delve beneath multiple layers of language. Yet, even for those determined people, some of the most memorable moments will come when the poet uses simpler, more direct writing, as in these lines from the lovely poem “For a Clouded Leopard in Another Life”: “You were a seed still in Darwin’s left breast pocket,/ Not imagined yet, almost invisible in the felt/ There just above his heart,/ The bluey nubbin sleeping in a child’s/ Unmarred arms.”
Denise Duhamel’s Blowout (University of Pittsburgh; paperback, $15.95) is an enjoyable cross between “Sex and the City” and the breezy novels of Sophie Kinsella. This fast-reading collection opens with the speaker and her husband watching a lifeguard and his girlfriend argue on the beach. As the scene unfolds, the elder pair predicts an eminent breakup, not realizing that they, instead of the young lovers, will soon part ways. The husband disappears a few days later, leading to a painful divorce and an unexpected journey for the speaker, whose favorite shade of lipstick — Bali Brown — has been discontinued. That transformation and search for happiness begin with “Madonna and Me,” in which the plucky speaker compares her “guy” to the singer’s ex, Guy Ritchie, and her own teaching to Madonna’s performances. “I had to work to support us/ work just to survive/ but the truth is/ I was also happiest working/ away from my husband/ whose body left an imprint on the couch/ like a chalk outline at a crime scene.” The clear, direct voice in that poem continues throughout the collection as the speaker grapples with her loss and explores the choices, sacrifices and missteps people make as they try to find love. These poems are confessional but not cloying, fervent but not overdone.
Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.
For comments on this prize from the chair of the NBCC poetry committee, go to the Style blog.