A Look at the National Book Critics Circle Nominees - Poetry

Article excerpt

In a rare example of agreement, the National Book Critics Circle judges have nominated two poetry books that were nominated for the National Book Award last year. Neither Sharon Olds or Harryette Mullen won back in November, but getting this second endorsement is the sort of boost poetry publishers dream about - or used to before $100 million fantasies made all other poetic dreams look paltry.

Despite the flashes of brilliance in these verses, the real fireworks at next week's awards ceremony are likely to fly over one of the nonfiction nominations: "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." When it first appeared in three issues of The Atlantic Monthly, William Langewiesche's story about the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 elicited strong protests over the author's description of firemen looting during the early cleanup efforts. Now that the book version has been nominated for the NBCC, critics have added charges of plagiarism to earlier claims of inaccuracy and fabrication. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the book's publisher, calls these charges false and outrageous and has supplied the NBCC judges with a detailed description of the book's fact-checking process along with copies of their correspondence with the book's most vocal critic. Calls for the NBCC to withdraw its nomination have been rejected by the board, of which the Atlantic's literary editor, Benjamin Schwartz, is a member.

Our reviews of the nominated books in all five categories appear on the Monitor's website. The winners will be announced in New York on Feb. 26.

- Ron Charles

LEAVING SATURN, by Major Jackson, University of Georgia Press, $15.95

Small wonder that Al Young, in introducing "Leaving Saturn," calls Major Jackson's collection, "a debut album of a book." These assemblies of word, phrase, and line offer collages out of Romare Bearden, and their subtle meters have a musicality that conjures the back beats of an adolescence and adulthood in a Philadelphia stretching immeasurable latitudes away from the Main Line. For Jackson, the city's founding spawned a fallen place, where the prospect of "Penn's GREEN COUNTRIE TOWNE uncurled a shadow.../ that descended over gridiron streets like a black shroud." A darkness spreading more darkly into the present, inclusive of mainlining junkies, crack-smoking mothers, and daily sadnesses, such as those of Mr. Pate, who "swept his own shop/ for he had lost his best little helper Squeaky/ to cross fire." Still, there is resilience and vibrancy to this place and its people: grandmothers, musicians, break-dancing teens performing "Kangoled head spins," and people such as Mr. Pate, who endures, "gathering/ up clumps of fallen hair ... as though/ They were the fine findings of gold dust." Throughout, too, is the governing presence of the poet, whose "pen lifts like the blade of an oar/ out of cement.... You row for reflection as every action has an equal,/ the stamina of legends; rowing is vital." (75 pp.) By Reamy Jansen

EARLY OCCULT MEMORY SYSTEMS OF THE LOWER MIDWEST, by B.H. Fairchild, Norton, $22.95

The toughest men and women meet the most unyielding earth in Fairchild's welcome new collection. These poems are set in towns such as Snyder, Texas, and Liberal, Kan., and the characters in them are the machinists and roustabouts of the oil industry as well as the fancy women and saloonkeepers at its fringes. These people were forgotten before they even died, but now Fairchild's intimate portraits give them permanency. Here, the border between worlds is crossed in nearly every poem: "The dead in their stone sleep are roused into/ history," says the poet, while "the living pray into the earth and wait." The seriousness is relieved on occasion by stories such as the one about Elton Wayne Showalter - the "redneck surrealist" who tried to hold up a convenience store with a caulking gun - though there is an almost sacred tone to the collection as a whole, especially in "The Memory Palace. …