Correction: An earlier version of this review of ”Kingdom Animalia,” a poetry collection by Aracelis Girmay, incorrectly said that the opening poem was written in response to the death of the author’s brother. He is living. This version has been updated.
When the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry is announced Thursday night in New York, Yusef Komunyakaa’s name should be called. The Chameleon Couch (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24), which was also a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award, is a signature collection that leads readers around the world, weaves history and mythology into the present, and delves into some deeply personal yet universal experiences. Komunyakaa, like the chameleon, changes tone and approach depending on his setting and subjects, which include war, genocide, love and loss. In “Poppies” he writes, “I am a black man, a poet, a bohemian, / & there isn’t a road my mind doesn’t travel.” Readers gladly follow along because his thoughts are as original and compelling as his descriptions, as when he transforms a simple winter scene into “a white buffalo birthing in the front yard: / big-eyed with beauty, half out & half in. / Branches cluster with mouths ready to speak / a second coming.” Komunyakaa’s poetry hums with music as he crosses cultures and challenges expectations in this unexpected journey.
Music also influences Bruce Smith’s jazzy Devotions (Univ. of Chicago; paperback, $18), which is a dark horse among the NBCC finalists. Smith’s writing has a grittiness and edge the other nominees don’t, and his blunt, sometimes searing meditations seem to hover just inches above his subjects. Take, for example, these lines from “Devotion: Sleep”: “He dreamed his face was lashed by waves he split as the masthead / of a ship, a leaking vessel, The Idiot Pirate. She slept, as if she were / taunted by borrachos with guns and knives who made her dance.” American culture colors most of these poems, and Smith seems equally at home on baseball fields, in laundromats, high schools or prisons. The wisdom in “Devotions” is hard-earned and unabashed, and Smith’s long lines and dense writing can be demanding. But if readers stay with this collection, they will find honesty and a sharp intellect.
Kingdom Animalia (BOA; paperback, $16), by Aracelis Girmay, has a wonderfully fresh voice and approach. Sometimes Girmay aches for lost grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the culture they understood. In “Abuelo, Mi Muerto,”Girmay writes, “I’ve walked three nights / in the last city you breathed in, / trying to read every thing: / the birds, the buildings, the rain. & still / no luck, which means nothing / more than I am dense & far from you.” In other poems, she examines the connection between an individual and the vast universe always pulsing and transforming. “Kingdom Animalia” does a beautiful job of balancing archetypal concerns with a contemporary perspective. The book also shows that while life may be fragile and fleeting, the human heart can continue beating despite abuse, injustices and war.
Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon; paperback, $16), by Laura Kasischke, shares a kindred spirit with Girmay’s work, yet here the natural world feels more threatening as it pulls everything toward a sad conclusion. In the title poem, Kasischke explains, “It’s all space, in chains — the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm, the steam / rising off the asphalt, a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping / out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen, / Sweetie, don’t be gone too long.” These poems spring from everyday moments: watching a father slowly dress himself, giving thanks for accidents that did not happen, handing a beggar a dollar. Kasischke keeps a watchful eye on parents and loved ones, as if she wants to protect their days but can’t. Every poem is exquisitely crafted, with crisp, clean lines and imagery that dazzles, as when her son stands at the edge of a public pool staring into water that “was a slowly rolling mirror. / A strange blue porcelain sheet. / A naked lake, transparent as a need.” Each of the book’s three sections contains a riddle poem because life, for this poet, is a great unsolvable question.
Forrest Gander’s Core Samples From the World (New Directions; paperback, $15.95) is the most surprising of the finalists. Here, the avant-garde poet uses haibun — a Japanese form of essay-poem — and black-and-white photographs to ground his writing as he travels to China, Mexico, Bosnia and Chile. Each section opens with a complex, disorienting poem that re-creates the traveler’s experience of being in a place where things don’t quite make sense. Then Gander shares stories of things he has seen or heard of. He records his observations as he travels with other writers and exchanges ideas about poetry’s ability to transcend borders. The reader is constantly surprised by what comes next — such as a side trip to Utopia, Va. — and begins to crave the interruptions, which add freshness and energy to the work. The approach could have fallen flat or seemed amateurish, yet despite occasional missteps, the book delivers on its promise.
Lund periodically reviews poetry for The Washington Post.