The best in poetry: National Book Critics Circle Award finalists

By Elizabeth Lund

On March 12, the National Book Critics Circle will award its annual prizes in fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, criticism and poetry. Because these last two categories frequently struggle for attention, we present here a roundup of the 10 finalists for criticism and poetry. For a list of all of the finalists as well as coverage of the awards ceremony in New York, go to the Style blog.

Abide (Southern Illinois Univ.; paperback, $15.95), by the late Jake Adam York, is the most understated of the five poetry finalists. The exquisite writing in this posthumous collection subtly upends readers’ experience of time and reality, as in these closing lines from the opening poem: “All sound is light./ Your fingers pulling back/ the dust, the curtains./ Pull back the curtains,/ pull back the day/ so we can fall/ breathless into night.” Music is a driving theme in these poems, which show how history and childhood memories helped shape the speaker’s consciousness. The work honors martyrs from the civil rights movement — as in York’s three previous books — and creates a dialogue with contemporary black artists. This is a lovely, haunting book about the power of remembrance from a poet who left us too soon.

Christian Wiman’s Once in the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23) is spare, imperative and beautifully chiseled. In some ways, this collection echoes his previous book of poetry, with Wiman again revisiting his native Texas. There, life was hard and several people he knew suffered untimely deaths. That landscape informs his view of faith, which provides few answers as he battles cancer. Looking back at “the safe dangers of memory” grounds Wiman’s writing as he struggles to resist the temptation to elevate “sadness/ to a kind of sad religion,” attempts to “befriend one’s own loneliness” and tries to surrender “to the wonder/ nothing/ means.” These poems exude a hunger for moments filled with love and peace. The final poem is a sweet reward for readers who understand the value of not giving up when all one can do is stand and continue to stand.

Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House, $16) is a rigorous collection that challenges political, sexual and familial norms and bristles with pain. “Beware/ of how they want you;” the speaker warns, “in this town everything born black/ also burns.” At times, what burns is a desire for justice, both for children trapped by poverty and for men who’ve been tortured and killed because of the color of their skin. In many poems, the speaker — called Boy — struggles with the forbidden desire to love other males. No matter the subject, Jones’s writing is silky smooth, as Boy grapples with his sexuality despite beatings by his father and the disapproval of those around him. He begins to fight back in the penultimate section, and in the final poem he asserts, “I am not/ your boy. I am not.”

Willie Perdomo’s The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon (Penguin; paperback, $18), is a rollicking, pleasurable excursion into the world of a musician created in the memory of the author’s late uncle, Shorty. His story flows with the swagger of someone who knows that “That night, I put the dong in the ding./ In shadow-speak, light was my king.” Wordplay and sound make up the bass line for these poems, which recount Shorty’s evolution as the percussionist of a 1970s descarga (Latin jam) band. Shorty also pulls readers into his turbulent relationship with Rose, who could “angel-trade songster for gangster./ (She dreamed numbers I couldn’t divine.) It was/ As if I got my first lesson in everything two/four,/ Four/four, six/eight, half break & run, baby, run.” This collection feels light compared to the other finalists, but Perdomo’s experience as a spoken-word performer makes the book sound no less urgent.

“The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon” by Willie Perdomo. (Penguin)

Claudia Rankine’s prose poems in Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf; paperback, $20) are both engaging and provocative as they explore the impact of racism from various angles. Rankine knows when to use the immediacy and imagery of poetry and how to cast a narrative arc that pulls in readers deeper and deeper. Her deft choices begin with the opening paragraph, which creates a meditative state — “Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable” — before shifting to a sharp memory of being humiliated by a white teacher who “never actually saw you sitting there.” That feeling of invisibility permeates the book and defines life for African Americans, even those who have made history or shaped popular culture. Rankine is an astute observer who shows how frustration builds and silences people who routinely deal with expectations that do not apply to whites.

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for The Washington Post.

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