The finalists for the 2015 National Book Awards in poetry are a diverse group in both subject and approach. The winner of the $10,000 prize will be announced in New York on Wednesday.
Terrance Hayes’s “How to be Drawn” (Penguin; paperback, $20) is the challenging follow-up to “Lighthead,” which won the 2010 National Book Award. In this, his fifth collection, Hayes examines perception — how we see and are seen — through a variety of lenses that reveal the realities of life for black Americans. The work opens with a warning: “Never mistake what it is for what it looks like.” In the pieces that follow, the speaker refuses to be silenced or to let any point of view be denied. The tone swings from pensive to mocking to outraged as the writing draws on history, artists — including Walt Whitman and Vladimir Mayakovsky — and a variety of tools and formats (maps, photographs, police reports) to convey insights about how language and behavior define, trap or erase. Some of the strongest writing comes when the speaker summons the ghosts of lynching victims, elicits rich sounds from a piano or considers the power of images in the lovely poem “Self-Portrait as the Mind of a Camera.” There, he explains, “Camera, you really have to love us/ To keep us from disappearing. Bodies of solar-powered soul,/ Most of what we know of the past we know because of you.”
“Voyage of the Sable Venus: And Other Poems” (Knopf, $26) is the surprising debut by Robin Coste Lewis, whose ambitious triptych considers the nuances of race and identity from ancient times to the present. The first section begins with a family secret that spurs the speaker to examine what it means to be female and how various cultures express or oppress that strength. The second section is a complex narrative created from the titles, catalogue entries or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects that include a black female figure. Those pieces, intricately woven together, create an alternate collection of images that challenges hundreds of years of stereotypes. The final section features more intimate views, as the speaker considers places and people closer to home, including grandparents, aunts and an ancestor who makes her wonder if “Perhaps she is the answer/ to this sensation/ I’ve had for years:/ that of another body/ hovering inside me/ waiting for address.” The most resonant poems appear in this section, where the poet’s sharp intelligence is matched by remarkable insight and the audacity to confront even her own painful history.
“Elegy for a Broken Machine” by Patrick Phillips (Knopf, $26) is a slim, exquisite collection. The book opens with the title poem, where the speaker recalls watching his dead father in a dream: “I kept asking where he’d been,/ until he put down a wrench/ and said, Listen:/ dying’s just something/ that happens sometimes.” What follows is a bittersweet recollection of his father’s last days and the realization that as one generation passes, the next inches closer to the inevitable end. Phillips does a brilliant job capturing family tensions and connections between generations, and of giving new life — however briefly — to friends and acquaintances, some of whom have long since passed. The writing is beautifully spare and chiseled as it illuminates sweet moments that mitigate life’s pain.
In “Bright Dead Things” (Milkweed; paperback, $16), Ada Limón’s poetry balances between power and wildness. In the opening poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” the speaker professes her love of female horses, for the confidence they represent, “how they make it all look easy,/ like running 40 miles per hour/ is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.” The speaker, like her beloved horses, always seems a bit untamable as she considers interconnectedness with nature and other people. Several poems grapple with the death of a stepmother, and with the idea that one can make peace with mortality by feeling its constant presence. Relationships, whether broken or struggling, also fill many pages as the speaker finds a clearer sense of her identity. To her, both humanity and hope are masterful and mad. “But it’s not the light that’s ever in question,” she writes, “rather, what’s your brilliant, glaring wattage?”
“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” (University of Pittsburgh Press; paperback, $15.95) is a charming collection by Ross Gay that gives readers permission to feel joyful. Here, one finds a fig tree that brings neighbors together in Philadelphia and a father whose ashes nurture a plum tree that in turn inspires his son. The poems often spring from mundane items — a button, feet, a spoon — then develop into rich, sprawling narratives. Losses, small slights and large issues — such as prejudice and violence — also appear, yet the speaker always tries to translate everything back into the original language of possibility. Things are never as simple as they seem, and poems, like life, often contain the gift of a mistake that can launch one into new realms of thought. As the speaker explains in the long title piece, “I can’t stop/ my gratitude, which includes, dear reader,/ you for staying here with me,/ for moving your lips just so as I speak./ Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.”
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for The Washington Post every month.