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
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
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. …