A Look at the National Book Awards Nominees / Poetry

The Christian Science Monitor, November 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Look at the National Book Awards Nominees / Poetry


Let's hope poets can't do math. The numbers are downright depressing. "Jack Ass: The Movie" elicited a slew of bad reviews but raked in more than $22 million on its first weekend. By contrast, a critically acclaimed book of poetry might sell 1,500 copies in a year. There's a meter at work in our culture that doesn't scan well.

But the National Book Award provides a rare moment of popular attention for a few poets. What's more, it's an arena in which small publishing houses can still compete with the giants. This year, for instance, little Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wash., earned two of the five nominations, knocking powerhouse Farrar, Straus & Giroux out of the running entirely.

in a dayMichael Wiegers, managing editor at Copper Canyon, knows how that kind of recognition can charge a book of poetry. "As soon as I saw the list of nominations, I told our production manager to start reprinting," he said in a recent phone interview. "Normally, a stock that would have lasted a couple of years was gone

in a day

." By his estimates, a nomination doubles sales, and a win quadruples them. The winning poet will receive $10,000. Hardly Hollywood headlines, but not a bad rhyme for a book that might otherwise remain in complete obscurity.

The $1,000-per-plate awards dinner will be hosted for the fourth year in a row by writer-comedian Steve Martin and attended by about a thousand authors, editors, and publishers on Nov. 20 in Times Square. Reviews of the nominations for fiction and nonfiction appeared in the Monitor on Oct. 24. We'll review the young adult nominations next week.

- Ron Charles

SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY

Mullen's poetic landscape isn't easy to enter. The road signs may be printed in English, but they can't be read in conventional ways. This is avant-garde territory, where words are combined in unusual ways and sometimes used for their sound alone, as in these lines from "Blah-Blah": "Ack-ack, aye-aye./ Baa baa, Baba, Bambam, Bebe, Berber, Bibi, blah-blah, Bobo, bonbon...." Mullen bends cliches and fables until they break open into new, and sometimes strange possibilities. Readers must slide between the words in these poems. They must put aside their dictionaries to understand what her words are really saying. One can't assume that the normal laws of physics or sensibility apply in Mullen's realm: "quantum mechanics fixed my karma wagon./ Gypsies want to hold my hand/ Dr. Duck recommends soap and ream therapies/ With remedies like these/ who needs friends?" Some of the strongest poems in "Sleeping With the Dictionary" are the most straightforward and conventional. "Eurydice," "Dream Cycle," and "Bilingual Instructions," for example, all resonate emotionally and intellectually. But for most of this poetic journey, sense lies beyond nonsense, and the only way to get there is to explore every wandering moment and slowly walk through the absurdities. (85 pp.) By Elizabeth Lund

by Harryette Mullen

University of California, $14.95

THE UNSWEPT ROOM

In her seventh collection of poems, Sharon Olds is as honest, raw, and accessible as ever. Her free verse and sprung rhythms range from sensual to angry, from achy longing to tranquil joy. Her topical repertoire is familiar: memories of an alcoholic father; the terrain of sexuality; notes on getting older; awed reflections on her two children growing up; and fraught, tender glimpses of "the old nymph," her aging mother. The main sequence begins with Olds's birth - "That hour, I was most myself" - and continues chronologically. It pauses at the bed of a dying childhood friend curled amid Scotch tape and paper dolls, on the day Olds cuts off her eyelashes in the school bathroom, at her wedding when she feels "the silent, dry, crying ghost of my/ parents' marriage there," and along her journey as daughter, mother, and wife. In "The Clasp," Olds writes of a rainy, tense day when, as a young mother, she presses her daughter's wrist too hard, "almost/ savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing," and shocks the girl with knowledge that "near the source of love/ was this. …

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