National Book Critics Circle Award Valu-Pak

Here are reviews of the five National Book Critics Circle Award nominees in poetry. A reading featuring the nominees will be held at 5 pm on Wednesday, March 9 at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY. Winners will be announced at the same location at 5 pm the following evening, Thursday, March 10.


Nox, Anne Carson

New Directions

“Herodotus is an historian who trains you as you read.”

From John Deming’s review (forthcoming): “The moment that Anne Carson’s latest spilled like an accordian out of my hands and onto the floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble, I knew that she was up to something new. Nox, Carson’s elegy for her brother Michael, a poetic scrapbook “epitaph,” is one of the most original, intelligent and affecting art objects of the 21st century. Michael is a hard character who had difficulty making friends as a child; as an adult, he fled the county to avoid going to jail. Their relationship was spotty, occasional, unresolved, but not without love. (He signs one letter, reproduced here, “love you love you love you.”) The poet’s grief finds form in scholarly pursuit, a comfort zone. She provides a near untranslatable elegy that Catullus wrote for a brother, and translates for us as we proceed, one word at a time. Just past the halfway point, we get her translation, a knockout. Michael called her “professor” and “pinhead,” endearing terms “implying intellectual respect” — “So pinhead d’you attain wisdom yet?” The issue of her brother is too big for resolution, possessing the quality of “overtakelessness.” But Nox is wisdom redeemed.”


The Eternal City, Kathleen Graber

Princeton University Press

“Intent seems so small / a part.”

From John Deming’s review: “The Eternal City is a city in the clouds, your head in the clouds, leaping into imagined memories and plans, stitching them to the caricature of their realizations…[Graber] sees the history of human thought, and its correspondence with human action, as patchwork — a work in progress at best. For her title poem, she summons Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180, ‘was in love / with Wisdom.’ But Wisdom ‘married him off to Duty instead.’ Aurelius is important because he embodies the fantasy of the leader-philosopher, one who, looking down upon his civilization from the height of meaningful power and success, finds “that all of this has been for nothing.” A leader who realizes his nation’s struggles and loyalties and beheadings take place in the name of sinister fictions.”

Read the rest of the review here.


Lighthead, Terrance Hayes


“The mind light-headed and hawked.”

From Melinda Wilson’s review (forthcoming): “Terrance Hayes is in complete control in Lighthead, and the result is a commanding openness. He offers an impressive variety of poems that are bound by the way that seem to vaporize, or become atmosphere, the moment you finish reading, the moment before you re-read just to mimic the sensation. He moves from high drama to music making to both at the same time, grounding his sequence only with the recurring character “Lighthead,” and concluding with freedom as a kind of essential state: “I have no form because / I have no allegiance / to form.” All of his realities become real, simultaneous or duplicitous as they may be. He is careful to distinguish between “living” and “surviving.” Pretending that the two are synonymous comes across as dangerous. In a poem called “Nothing,” the speaker differentiates between two other oft-confused abstract nouns: “I believe happiness / is not the same thing as success.” …Hayes employs multiple forms and techniques, and individual poems are nearly flawless.”


The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, Kay Ryan

Grove Press 2010

“As though the / self were eager / to be wrecked.”

From David Gruber’s review: “At the beginning of the second part of Goethe’s Faust, Faust, exhausted from his tormented encounter with Gretchen, finds renewal in contemplating the “changing-unchanged arch” (Stuart Atkins’s translation) of a rainbow formed by a mountain waterfall.  Reading Kay Ryan’s volume of new and selected poems, The Best of It, offers us a similar experience of change that remains grounded in concrete and specific concerns, both in terms of Ryan’s themes and in the long view that we get of her stylistic evolution over the last sixteen years.

Ryan’s poems as represented in this volume are almost all short, and in many cases presented in a single, highly focused stanza.  The natural world, animals and abstractions are her central subjects; we get few poems here about people in anything other than a general sense.  The whole body of Ryan’s work reflects an impulse towards aphorism, even in the occasional case where the intention towards meaning of the aphoristic form is subverted by the poet, which may be why her poems are able to pull us away from the frenetic worlds of work, media and society.  These poems offer us the opportunity to contemplate the image or thought at their heart without distraction, with the result that, in the best of the poems collected here, we are able to see afresh the fragment of the world that Ryan focuses on and to consider the ways in which the world, in the form of these fragments, shapes us.”

Read the rest of the review here.


One With Others, C.D. Wright

Copper Canyon Press

“Someone knew, someone told.”

From Steven Karl’s review: “C.D. Wright’s dazzling new book, One with Others, can be seen as a thematic continuation of two previous books, Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, which consist of many voices and narratives that expose the corrupt underbelly of the South’s systems of power.  In One With Others, Wright focuses on the civil rights movement in the South, specifically Arkansas. She weaves narratives of those that survived the vicious polarizations of hatred and those who did not…Although the bracketed title is [a little book of her days], there is nothing “little” about this book. It is more than 150 pages long, and is formatted as one extended sequence (continuing, and perhaps paying homage to the book-length Southern poem tradition of Frank Stanford). It is full of voices, stories and fragments, and closes with 10 pages listing source material and notes. Wright provides real voices of the Civil Rights-era South. The South at its best — “Then she shocked me saying, They have souls just like us.” — but mostly, at its worst.”

Read the rest of the review here.