A Look at the National Book Awards Nominees/ Poetry

The Christian Science Monitor, November 18, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Look at the National Book Awards Nominees/ Poetry


Randall Jarrell once said, "A poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great."

Over the years, that quote has been paraphrased to mean that writing a handful of great poems makes one a great writer. And, by extension, that a book with a dozen or so strong, memorable poems becomes a towering achievement.

That may be an exaggeration.

But by any standard, the poets nominated for this year's National Book Award have earned their laurels. All five have wonderful moments of clarity, color, and depth. Each sings with an original voice and, page after page, conveys something insightful about the human condition.

None of these volumes achieves perfection. But in each there is something to celebrate.

Wednesday night, about 1,000 writers, editors, and publishers will attend the $1,000-a-plate awards ceremony in Times Square. Novelist Walter Mosley will serve as the host, and horror-meister Stephen King will receive a lifetime achievement award.

The National Book Foundation sponsors literacy and book- appreciation programs in city schools, urban libraries, native American reservations, and other underserved communities. They also conduct a summer writing camp for young authors.

- Elizabeth Lund

Sparrow, by Carol Muske-Dukes, Random House, 63 pp., $22.95

The book jacket describes this volume as an exploration of love and grief. But Muske-Dukes doesn't just memorialize her late husband, the actor David Dukes, and she doesn't rehash familiar literary ground. As the poet looks back on their 18-year marriage, or across their now-empty bed, she wonders about the masks they both wore, the disguises they donned as lovers and artists. In "Love Song" she writes: " ... Love/ was a camera in a doorway, love was/ a script, a tin bird. Love was faceless,/ even when we'd memorized each other's/ lines...." The poet constantly questions, considers both the past and her new solo life. Some of the earlier pages feel a bit stiff, as if her grief was something she literally had to work through. But Muske-Dukes writes masterly endings, in every case opening up her subject matter in compelling, thoughtful ways.

The Owner of the House, by Louis Simpson, Boa Editions, Ltd., 407 pp., $19.95

The sense of foreignness in Simpson's work doesn't come just from his stories about Russia and the West Indies. Somehow, the poet always manages to keep one foot in those distant lands and one in America, his adopted country, without losing his balance. That's true even in this volume, which spans six decades. What's more, Simpson, who was born in Jamaica, never seems to lose his keen objectivity, his outsider's eye. He tells his truth simply, directly, not one for charged emotion or obvious adornment. In the compact "Shoo-Fly Pie," he writes: "The plain-faced Mennonite woman/ with her little white cap/ selling cheese and shoo-fly pie .../ Existence can be so peaceful -/ you only have to be good. …

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