Five finalists for National Book Critics Circle award in poetry

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By Elizabeth Lund
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:14 PM

The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, which will be given Thursday night, have little in common, except that each employs a distinct tool or perspective that pushes the margins of the genre. The result is like a smorgasbord, with flavors ranging from strong to subtle. Not every offering will appeal, but they all deserve a bite.

Kay Ryan 's The Best of It (Grove, $24) is the most inviting - and enjoyable - of the group. Ryan, who served two years as poet laureate of the United States, combines wordplay with wisdom that delights and resonates. The result are poems that go down easy and transform like grapes into wine. In "Spiderweb," for example, she opens with "From other/angles the/fibers look/fragile" and winds her way to "It/isn't ever/delicate/to live." The ending compels the reader to begin the poem again and focus on the landscape of the mind, which is always Ryan's subject. Each section of the book illustrates how her work has developed since 1994. The new poems are among her strongest, which makes the whole collection feel essential.

The poems in Kathleen Graber's The Eternal City (Princeton Univ.; paperback, $16.95) are more dense and sprawling than Ryan's. Yet Graber, who draws on philosophy and theology, knows how to juxtapose large ideas with small moments, as in these lines: "What I know of conversion/I learned while cleaning the sticky shelves of the icebox,/a glass sheet exploding as one end hit the sink's hot suds." Her careful balancing and sensitive descriptions often feel as refreshing as a cold drink on a hot summer day. That's especially true with the heart of this collection, 12 interlocking poems that begin with quotations from Marcus Aurelius. The last line of one poem begins the next, and the opening of "Book One" reappears near the end of "Book Twelve." This series demonstrates why ancient ideas are relevant today, and why Graber deserves to be in the company of such accomplished poets.

Terrance Hayes draws on more recent - and wide-ranging - sources to achieve the playful, edgy writing in Lighthead (Penguin; paperback, $18), which won a 2010 National Book Award. The collection opens with "Lighthead's Guide to the Galaxy," a snappy poem that alludes to the science fiction classic by Douglas Adams and explores ideas about words, writing and sex. Various threads come together in these memorable closing lines: "Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights/out on a limb, there's a chance you'll fall in your sleep." Despite that warning, Hayes is comfortable on a limb, leaping from his own experiences to jazz and hip-hop, race relations and history. Then he leaps some more, as with his pecha kucha (a Japanese form), which contain 20 related stanzas, each of which is meant to be read in 20 seconds. Those pages feature some of his strongest writing, as do other poems where his thinking - like a pungent spice - is controlled enough to release its full power.

Anne Carson is one of two nominees who create a new recipe for contemporary poetry. Her collection Nox (New Directions, $35) - reviewed at fuller length in these pages by Michael Dirda on April 28, 2010 - is a fascinating mix of elegy and history that at times is overshadowed by the book's unusual design. A hardcover box houses the freestanding text, which, printed on one sheet, opens like an accordion. On the left side of most leaves, Carson defines words from Catullus's "Carmen 101," an elegy to his brother. On the right side, she shares the story of her brother Michael, who fled to Europe in 1978 after the death of his girlfriend and died unexpectedly in Copenhagen 22 years later. Passages about the Greek historian Herodotus interweave with Michael's story, as do other classical references, family photographs and letters. These add depth and heft without feeling like adornments. Yet the most resonant sections rely as much on Carson's honest, unadorned writing - "It was a relief not/to have him dropping through every conversation like/a smell of burning hair" - as on her intellectual or artistic leaps.

One With Others (Copper Canyon, $20), by C.D. Wright, is an acquired taste because its blending of poetry with journalism often leans too much toward the latter. Wright recounts racial incidents surrounding Big Tree, Ark., and the march against fear there in 1969, and tells the story of her mentor, V, an African American mother of seven. Wright uses newspaper articles, oral histories, hymns, lists and more in her account of Big Tree, which struggled with bigotry and forced integration. The march and the detainment of African American youths changed the opinions of many residents. Readers will feel a shift themselves, especially toward the end of the collection, where the author writes, "Look into the dark heart and you will see what the dark eats other than/your heart." Such phrasing, along with Wright's use of repetition, finally creates momentum and cohesion.

Lund was the poetry editor of the Christian Science Monitor.


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