When the National Book Award in Poetry is announced Wednesday night, Alan Shapiro’s name should be called. His Night of the Republic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $21) transforms familiar places — a gas station bathroom, a car dealership, a dry cleaner — into enthralling, dreamlike scenes. Even a shoe store hums with energy: “The new shoes not wanting to be old shoes/ climb the walls;/ diagonally/ in diagonal rows,/ there on the stalled/ stair master/ of each narrow shelf/ shoe after shoe/ is climbing undiscourageably up/ to the boxes they get no closer to.” The book shifts gracefully from places that are devoid of people to locales where the poet encounters solitary figures: a homeless man, an elderly woman, a smoker searching through her purse for change. The third section focuses on public spaces such as a museum and a bookstore, that shape ideas, information and values. Finally, these poems turn the spotlight on the poet, who recalls key moments and places that shaped him. Yet whatever the setting, the places people create and inhabit in these poems seem to live beyond and without us.
David Ferry’s Bewilderment (Univ. of Chicago; paperback, $18) could also win the prize. This collection explores loss, mortality and desire by weaving memories and mythology into one seamless narrative. Ferry opens with Narcissus calling himself in a phone booth, and later shows a modern-day incubus at a dinner for homeless people . These poems highlight an age-old quest for truth that leads the speaker to consider his present and past, and to translate works by Horace, Virgil, Catullus and others. “Bewilderment” is vivid and sometimes heartbreaking, as when Ferry describes himself in “Soul”: “What am I doing inside this old man’s body?/ I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster.” As the book progresses, the poems suggest that every human being journeys toward the unknown and must decide, as Orpheus did, how much to look back.
Cynthia Huntington’s Heavenly Bodies (Southern Illinois Univ.; paperback, $15.95) is a raw and searing portrayal of abuse, drugs and promiscuity. Huntington never flinches as she describes the fear and chaos inflicted on a young speaker by her angry, ill mother: “Her palm raised to strike. Do not come down/ again today, or let me see you. Do not cross/ my sight, she said, to save me/ from punishment, to keep herself/ from hurting me.” The daughter, who craves love and autonomy, tries to dull her pain with rebellion and pills. The book includes a detailed fable about the sexual revolution, which promised power and freedom but delivered short-term pleasure. Defiance and boldness fuel this collection until the last poem, where the speaker looks at cut flowers and says, “I think I am talking about fear/ and I know fear is only ignorance/ of our true nature, mistaking/ the loss of ourselves for an end/ of being.”
Tim Seibles chronicles his evolution from innocence to adulthood in Fast Animal (Etruscan; paperback, $14). Along the way, he deals with the complexities of race, the challenges of love and lust, and covers a wide range of subjects from vampires, music and movies to aging, death and life in the streets. In some places, the speaker voices frustration and disillusionment, wanting, for example, to punch a certain president. Yet each experience is keenly observed and shapes his growing sense of identity and an exquisite awareness of the things all humans share. In “Ode to Sleep” he beautifully describes how “At any moment, half/ of humanity blind/ and bundled on your back/ snoring like/ there’s nothing else/ to do — as if that/ ragged song/ told the only story/ that might let us/ start again.”
Meme (Univ. of Iowa; paperback, $18), by Susan Wheeler, is the most challenging of the five finalists. The title explains what readers find in these pages: behavior, language and thought patterns that pass from one generation to the next and have the impact of stories or images that go viral on the Internet. The first section focuses on Maud, a delightfully cynical Midwesterner whose slang is decades old. In “Fiddlesticks,” Maud opens with, “Who rattled your cage? No, I do not have a Q-tip up here. Go ask your father. Wait — you’re going downstairs like that over my dead body.” The second section presents a sharp, amplified voice, and the third introduces a cacophony of ideas about the difficulties and disappointments of love and relationships. At its best, the collection mirrors the complexity of our fragmented society, but at times a lack of cohesion and context makes it hard to feel emotionally invested.
Lund reviews poetry for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.