Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf; paperback, $20) is the most engaging and innovative of the five finalists for this year’s National Book Award in poetry, which will be announced Wednesday night in New York. This engrossing collection of prose poems — interspersed with photos and related graphics — begins with a simple yet powerful hook: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” That past, as Rankine describes with a novelist’s flair, is marked by memories of racism that stretch from childhood to adulthood and become a constant, unwanted companion. As the book progresses, Rankine shows the impact of endless slights, barbs and injustices on working men and women, sports stars and victims of violence whose stories made history and the news. Readers feel the frustration that arises when individuals are silenced again and again, even by close friends and colleagues. “Citizen” makes this important point while challenging subtle stereotypes and restoring people’s humanity.
Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions; paperback, $20) also addresses America’s racist past, yet does so by employing the intricacy and syncopation of jazz. Entering these poems is like walking into a club where everyone knows the musicians, the riffs and the history behind this art form that arose in African American communities. Novices may skim the work looking for familiar names — “bukka white” a.k.a Booker T. Washington White — and entry points like this: “the world waits every day for freedom/ fighters and they come every day with/ music in the delicate lofts with cats like/ delicat and mantee and fragam playing/ organ, flatted graven, rided for the rocket/ in a chapel, the cats who can tell a story.” The writing is evocative yet elusive as it addresses cultural milestones, shared passions and instrumental places, notably Alabama. Each section honors a famous musician — Cecil Taylor, Tony Oxley and William Parker — and features a different look and flow. Changing rhythms define this challenging collection, yet below all the shifts and improvisations, dedicated readers will find a compelling undercurrent of sound, insight and devotion.
This Blue (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24), by Maureen N. McLane, opens with a reminder to “Old Adam” that “every day the world exists/ to be named.” The speaker does some naming, too, as she searches vistas “beyond the door” and considers how aspects of the natural world — plants, animals, the sky — might suggest unseen dimensions. The opening pages, which are exquisite and clear, give way to bolder, more boisterous writing. One poem, for example, moves from the Internet to ancient diction, from cave drawings to night dreams. Other pages explore foreign lands and dip into literature or history. The book concludes the way it opens, with resonant images pointing to the intersection of the temporal and the timeless: “I’ve left words/ in woods the thrushes/ sing in refusing/ the extinction/ of the day. Pines/ guard the path./ The way we come/ back will not/ be this way.” McLane’s writing is a wonderful example of the surprises that readers find when a poet asks fresh questions about the world, humanity and what ultimately survives.
Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23) evolves from dreamlike visions and a moving narrative about two children being raised by an aunt after the death of their parents. That bifold starting point expands into a multifaceted tale that feels like one part reality, one part fable. Along the way, the speaker’s perspective changes from child to adult and from male to female. Readers hear a variety of voices, including an elderly woman in a park, a sleeping man who appears to be dead and grieving writers and artists. The common thread is loss and the question of how to proceed. As the title poem expresses: “It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided/ into those who wish to move forward/ and those who wish to go back.” Glück, a former U.S. poet laureate whose awards include the Pulitzer Prize, understands the power of mystery and the need for sincerity. The best writing here feels authentic, as when one of the orphaned children recalls the day that words were swallowed by grief and silence: “Perhaps it is like a diver/ with only enough air in his tank/ to explore the depths for a few minutes or so — / then the lungs send him back.”
Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood (Graywolf; paperback, $16) rounds out these finalists with shrewd and sometimes shimmering portraits of memory and experience. The speaker watches events unfold with the wisdom of an oracle sent to witness but not disturb. These poems create a fragmented, lyrical landscape shaped by “Weary fears, the/ usual trials and/ a place to surmise/ blessedness.” Page after page offers evocative images — black winter gardens, stone walls, chalk scratches — that anchor and unbalance readers at the same time. As with much of Howe’s work, the poems reveal themselves slowly as the speaker touches upon religion, ways of seeing and the losses felt in childhood and later decades. Occasionally, a gem shines amid more difficult passages, as with the gorgeous poem “Sometimes” that begins, “Sometimes a twinkle/ gets in my eyes./ It’s like a rhinestone/ on a prom dress./ It shoots light/ so bright I can’t blink/ without tears.” The title poem, also strong, looks back and ahead. Think of this collection as a metaphysical kaleidoscope in which clearer views unfold only as readers allow their vision to become hazy.
Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.