This evening, literary insiders will gather for the National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner, which will also be broadcast live on the National Book Foundation website for the viewing pleasure of those not invited.
Within the small, fractious group of people enmeshed in contemporary literature, any claim of excellence is bound to provoke loud praise, loud consternation, and—loudest of all—outrage. The competitive aspect to exercising taste, to saying this thing is superior to others, and if you disagree, you’re wrong, increases investment in the literary world—and, more importantly for publishers, the marketplace.
Nobody reads, bemoans the literary enclave. The Pew Research Center reported that 23 percent of Americans did not read a single book in 2014. Of those who did read books, only 28 percent read more than 10. Not nobody, but not many. And people panic because money is at stake. What slides into the larger market are the books that win awards, as happened recently with Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize), or appear in “Best of” lists or anthologies.
Best American Poetry, recently infamous for the 2015 anthology’s inclusion of a white man appropriating a Chinese woman’s name, might more accurately be called “[Name of Guest Editor]’s Least-Hated 75 Poems S/he Read This Year.” But the name, despite awareness of the politics and subjectivity that goes into the making, turns the reading experience into one of argument: Is this the best? Is this even good? Will anyone remember this poem or story or book in a year, or five years, or fifty? (Likely not.)
So the attempt to determine which, among many good (and bad) works, deserves first place is at bottom a stupid and capitalistic endeavor. Yet I have given into temptation, and ranked the nominees for the 2015 National Book Award finalists in poetry from worst to best.
Bright Dead Things, Ada Limón
Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things spikes into brilliance in certain poems but flattens, even disintegrates, in others. The most consistent attribute of the book, Limón’s fourth, is its voice, a bold, insistent one, though that insistence also creates problems, as poems that approach similar subjects often blur together.
Its subjects—Death, Love & Sex, Place—are classics, and Limón takes them seriously, sometimes too much so—the book can be tiresomely self-serious. Binding these subjects together is the poet’s struggle for self-definition in relation to the traditionally feminine. Limón repeatedly positions herself outside a sweet, domestic, submissive version of femininity, frequently using physical space as a metaphor for internal alienation.
The poems range across the United States, moving between California, Kentucky, New York (alighting briefly in other locales), and its investigation of space is one of the collection’s most promising aspects. Unfortunately, the poems gesture toward greater insights than they achieve. Limón relies too often on confession as provocation, as in “I Remember the Carrots.” She tells a story of ripping carrots out of the ground, “killing” them before they ripen. The act leaves her with her “own bright dead things,” which she loves, but her joy’s true source is the act of pointless destruction. She concludes, “There are days / I still want to kill the carrots because I can.” In looking for clues to their own characters, poets often return to these kinds of telling childhood incidents, which, examined years later, say something about the present manifestation of the self, desired or not. Yet Limón’s telling feels manufactured; the alignment of story with conclusion is too neat, and the revelation itself doesn’t go far enough. It’s a pallid confession, hardly qualifying as one.
On the other hand, “Prickly Pear & Fisticuffs,” a brief prose poem, thrills. It begins, “My older brother says he doesn’t consider himself Latino anymore” and then unpacks in sharp, concise language what composes being Latino, and whether it’s possible to shed identity. The poem uses a well-wrought scene to explore these themes conceptually and emotionally, fierce to its wallop of an end.
Limón’s management of sound can also be crisp and satisfying, as in “This life is a fist / of fast wishes caught by nothing / but the fishhook of tomorrow’s tug.” But there are many disappointing lines. The sea is “inky” (twice), multiple things (signs, light, carrots) are “neon,” and adjectives pile up far too often (“glittery and blazing and alive,” “hungry and reeling,” “riotous and windswept,” all from the same poem). That last is a particularly hazardous poetic strategy, as it forces adjectives to pull more weight than they, as a wimpier part of speech, generally can.
If only, if only was my refrain while reading. Still, Bright Dead Things
surprises often enough to propel me onward, despite pockets of frustration. Turn the page and from a dead zone emerges a lyric that fulfills its potential, the book suddenly, albeit too briefly, alive.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
Title and contents are perfectly matched in Ross Gay’s third collection of poetry—the entire book, not just the title poem, operates as a catalog. Throughout, Gay’s poems abound with ecstatic moments, frozen bits of joy arranged in sequence, the list-like, almost taxonomic, quality enhanced by Gay’s choice of mostly long, unruly poems with jagged lines. The poems trip down the page, using subordinate clauses and an abundance of conjunctions to stretch, and stretch, and stretch.
While only five of the poems in Catalog are explicitly identified as such, the ode, an address of praise to a particular being—or, in Gay’s case, experience—is the predominant form. The poems in Catalog are indebted to Pablo Neruda’s odes, which attempt to celebrate the everyday aspects of life and elevate common people as fit subjects for poetry (for him, this was poetry as political instrument). Neruda writes odes to salt, to the artichoke, to his socks, and Gay similarly includes the mundane in order to subvert: “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands,” and “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” as well as the weirder “Ode to the Puritan in Me,” a description of the double-self that’s more indictment than celebration.
Gay’s enthusiasm for the natural world and aggressive expressions of love push the book forward, but the strategy of heaping image upon image sometimes veers away from transcendence into sentimentality. This happens most often when poems, such as “To the Fig Tree at 9th and Christian,” extend to the point of exhaustion, requiring a continual escalation in feeling. The poems acquire emotional heft by accretion, but this strategy left me feeling hollow at the end, bounced along only to be left with this kind of manipulative mawkishness: “goddammit I have twice / in the last thirty seconds / rubbed my sweaty / forearm into someone else’s / sweaty shoulder / gleeful eating out of each other’s hands / on Christian St. / in Philadelphia a city like most / which has murdered its own / people / this is true / we are feeding each other / from a tree / at the corner of Christian & 9th / strangers maybe / never again.”
The tenacious celebration of Catalog is more compelling when it’s lent to odder subjects, as in “To My Best Friend’s Big Sister,” which opens with a scene of the pubescent boy disrobed and examined by the big sister. Gay does some of his best work here with lines like “mini-skirted scientist” and “hairless and shivering / warble of acne and pudge” as the poem swerves into the believable, painful “minor shame” and closes with a tonally appropriate moment of slight, redemptive beauty.
Despite its overreliance on the same tricks, the “unabashed gratitude,” is, in the end, bold enough to reward abiding the book’s failures. And the best poems, like “Spoon”—an elegy for Don Belton, a friend who was murdered because he was gay—conjoin intense sorrow with beatitude to make room for the range of human experience. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is determinedly humanist but not foolishly optimistic, a book that calls Neruda into the present moment.
Elegy for a Broken Machine, Patrick Phillips
Patrick Phillips’s Elegy for a Broken Machine nests itself within the elegiac tradition rather than trying to revolutionize it. The poems find newness by repeating with minor variations the moves of the past. Over the course of the book, Phillips’s elegies travel from lament to premonition, concentrating first on his recently deceased father, then gradually expanding into a preemptive grief for himself and his son, who will each become mourner and mourned. Phillips the poet-narrator seems slightly outside time, and it’s his peculiar angle of vision that keeps Elegy for a Broken Machine from becoming portentous. It’s his measured, searching intelligence, too, that turns the book toward the question of what can be communicated across generations, what is passed on and what is lost.
One of the most striking aspects of Elegy is Phillips’s ability to straddle innocence and experience, and to make that line between poignant but not maudlin. In “My Father’s Friends,” a precisely observed scene of dining with a group of “cranky, stooped old men” who “sip Natural Light / and make these little grunts / as they unwind // the ACE bandages / and braces from / their elaborately // wrapped legs.” There are perfectly chosen details (Phillips has a gift for detail): “their menus out / at full arm’s length,” “they chuff / and graze the last SunChips.” The poem tacks suddenly when Phillips includes himself in the scene, “‘the kid’ at forty,” a kid who, looking back at this other version of himself, inhabits the older men’s perspective. They are, he writes, exhausted by “my long, bright future’s / plain, goddamned / irrelevance.”
As in his two previous collections, Phillips is sure with form. In Elegy he employs tight stanzas, usually couplets or tercets, and short lines to enhance the fine details and simple, evocative images. As he touches briefly on one image after another, they accumulate power without sacrificing delicacy. Part of Elegy’s success lies in Phillips’s skillful use of meter and rhyme; he makes it apparent to the reader in a way that gives the individual poems an old-fashioned quality, as if they are just slightly out of step, not quite located in 2015. The clear, direct language is fresh enough to support the faint antiqueness.
In “Alan the Plumber,” perhaps the best poem, Phillips breaks suddenly from a description of Alan’s injury in a car accident (“the airbag’s explosives, / and the dashboard’s gray shrapnel, / had blown the nose clear off his face”) into an interrogation of reader and poet: “What is the meaning? / Where is the message? / Why have I dragged you // and poor Alan / together like this, / after all he’s been through?” Here Phillips sets out baldly questions that haunt Elegy for a Broken Machine. Phillips offers a tentative answer in the next stanza, writing, “There is everything we think / we know in the world. / And then there’s this shit / that just happens…” Presented with tragedy, the poet must figure out how to re-inhabit language, and Phillips knows this. So he returns to Alan the Plumber repairing the kitchen sink “while I stood over him / saying, as one knows / one must say, I am / sorry, I’m so sorry, // by which, we both knew, / I meant Jesus Christ. Jesus / fucking Christ, Alan, almighty.”
Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis
Robin Coste Lewis’s debut collection is a remarkable, capital-A achievement, executing an ambitious project with impressive skill. Daring to address historical (and ongoing) racism and oppression, Voyage of the Sable Venus centers on a long sequence of the same name composed entirely of “titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions” from thousands of years of art depicting the black woman’s body. Ekphrastic poetry has a long tradition, and can often feel tired in its contemporary embodiments, as if the invocation of art comes at the poet’s whim rather than some more urgent motivation. But Lewis’s work is always urgent; she inhabits the art, revealing no timidity when confronted with 38,000 years of it. In the process, she expands what ekphrasis can do—a surprising rejuvenation of the genre.
“Voyage of the Sable Venus,” the book’s second of three parts, passes in strict progression through history without slipping into tedium. Lewis manipulates form—line breaks, stanzaic structures, assonance, repetition—to give necessary tension to each section. The range of formal strategies also allows her to control and reorient the reader’s perspective. Lewis commands, Look, and we must. It is impossible not to be intensely moved—to anger, horror, indictment, pity, shame, or sorrow. Yet the effect of Lewis’s sustained attention elicits not only those emotions—there is also, toward the poem’s close, reclamation of black women from the world of objects. However, Lewis never strays into false redemption, redemption for the sake of it.
The majesty and scope of “Voyage” is especially impressive given that this is Lewis’s first book; it takes most poets who attempt it half a career or longer to construct a book-length (or, in this case, near-book-length) sequence that works. But while the book centers on the long title poem and has a definite set of concerns, Lewis does not restrict herself to finishing that particular project, though it’s a large one that could have been a book itself. Voyage of the Sable Venus is also a well-crafted self-portrait, introducing Lewis to the world as person and poet not only through her grand, historical investigation but smaller, more intimate moments as well. In “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” Lewis uses what could be a fairly conventional travel narrative to explore, and then expose, herself, in both the remembered moment and the present. The poem culminates in a visionary transformation. “Summer,” a confident, long-lined poem, takes a quiet scene that includes snakes shedding their skins and a son’s “incessant back-chat,” then injects into it the startling statement, “I peeled // a banana. And cursed God—His arrogance, / His gall—to still expect our devotion // after creating love. And mosquitoes.”
Voyage of the Sable Venus is a revelatory first book and foretells virtuosity to come. It’s hard not to read it without anticipating the brilliant career to follow, which is a terrible pressure to put on a poet. Lewis, though, seems comfortable enough with herself, and sure enough with her art, to flourish, whatever the expectations.
How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes
How to Be Drawn, Hayes’s fifth collection of poetry, displays, on every page, extraordinary confidence—and rightly so. The poems roam across subjects that include music, visual art, love, guilt, heritage, race while incorporating figures like Etheridge Knight (in one of the book’s most formally experimental poems, written in the style of a crime report), Othello, Ralph Ellison, Grace Jones, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and responding to art-makers across genres, such as Jenny Holzer and Ellen Gallagher.
Hayes’s gift with language is immense, as his other work has already shown, and How to Be Drawn is linguistic pleasure from beginning to end, rolling the reader along while constantly surprising. Slack lines are absent, familiar images few: ladies have “leopard-skinned intentions,” the speaker tries to “limber your shuffle,” and pants sag “like the skin / of a famished elephant.” These examples are drawn at random—there are a multitude. But Hayes is not showing off for the sake of it. The poems are intricately made without relying on intricacy alone; each poem satisfies its own requirements, aligning form with subject.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of How to Be Drawn is its sheer exuberance. Hayes is unafraid. He reveals his entire self, never uncomfortable when exposing joy, grief, desperation, rage, and failure, among other things. The effect is marvelous, like watching someone think—and feel—in the ongoing moment. This is such a rare quality, even in excellent books of poetry, that for me it elevates How to Be Drawn above the rest of the nominees. Despite the distance beauty can impose, the poems never seem caged. They are not lovely, fragile objects tucked high on a shelf. “Trouble is one of the ways we discover the complexities // of the soul,” Hayes writes in the sumptuous and heartbreaking “How to Be Drawn to Trouble.” These poems are tough enough to dive into all manner of trouble. They approach knotted-up subjects like the aggressive racism of a contemporary Confederate sympathizer, the prison system, and the black body with originality and grace, refusing to perform the expected.
As a whole, How to Be Drawn twists this way and that, rejecting the temptation to linger too long in any moment or relax into itself, perhaps because Hayes looks straight at the limits of language. In the final poem, “Ars Poetica for the Ones Like Us,” Hayes captures the disorientation of trying to write a poem that maps “The world outside and the adventure to unfold,” acknowledging that “Some things in this world / Do not depend on speech to be felt.” An admission that feels hard-won, and yet is spoken without defeat. Rather, Hayes recognizes the inadequacy of art, but will not submit to it.