SR Considers the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry, Part I

Spencer Hupp

December 2017

Frank Bidart’s collected poems, Half-light, are this year’s selection for the National Book Award for Poetry. This honor is long-deferred; at seventy-eight Bidart has previously been a finalist for the Award once and the Pulitzer three times. His oeuvre includes two of what many critics consider to be the best dramatic monologues of the twentieth century, “Ellen West” and “Herbert White,” bona fide classics like “Golden State,” and “Marilyn Monroe,” incisive takes on Catullus, and some of the most moving poetry to come out of the AIDS epidemic. Bidart’s selection, though well deserved, seems untimely. Given his age, his career output is greater than all of the other finalists combined. This makes for an uneven playing field. Fortunately, there’s much to discuss in the four other books on the shortlist. Here I’ll consider two.

Leslie Harrison’s The Book of Endings is a deeply meditative collection, buttressed with images of harvest, death, and other “endings.” Winter especially haunts the volume, whose second poem, “December,” situates those to follow within “this winter of no more miracles/in this season of so much beauty such harm.” Harrison’s diction itself feels, to this reader, iced-over through its omission of punctuation. Since punctuation situates words and phrases, assisting in language’s forward movement, words become static in its absence, frozen on the page. Thus the pages “both contain and refuse” their speaker (the poem that line is taken from has an even trickier title: “I keep throwing words at the problem because words”); it’s sometimes difficult to read the poems aloud without tripping on a phrase. Like winter ice, Harrison’s language is both slippery and solid.

Regardless, she displays a keen formal acumen. Her language is musical and dense, as in the opening lines of “Ötzi”: “When the hay wain wound its way across the hill/ you failed to follow because winter meant/fallow.” In lieu of punctuation, internal rhyme and repetition grant these poems some order; here are two lines from “God Speaks”: “I laced the world in water water in ice ice in long slow/ nights ancient and faintly glow.” Harrison even manages some strong iambic lines: “a memory is what I have I’d rather do without” (“Salt”). She also displays a knack for parallel structures, frequently beginning and ending a poem on the same image or phrase. “Sisyphus in Love”, for example, begins and ends with lines centered on the word “stone.” The “slow”/”glow” rhyme from the beginning of “God Speaks” also echoes in the poem’s ending: “and call through the sun through snow listen to the wind/coming in listen hard and someone will name the bow.” These structures, coupled with the slippery-stasis of Harrison’s unpunctuated lines, create a figure for the recursive nature of time. This is evident in the collection’s central figure, winter, which ends one year and begins the next. In “Coda,” the speaker takes on Heraclitus, saying, “the river moves and moves on and does not.” In this book of “endings,” Harrison insists on a world that repeats itself.

The volume’s hypnotic effect eventually grates. Poems like “Landscape with Falling Birds” recall Frank Stanford at his least exuberant, and recurring images of ice, light, and falling snow accumulate too swiftly within the collection’s eighty-two pages. A good poem, however, is always worth the slog. “Charm for a Spring Storm” is the best one here. It opens on an image of futility, with its speaker tending to her garden during a hard freeze, as a late snow comes down. “Charm” deals with the hard work of living, the labors we take to love one another and the spaces we inhabit. “This is how you love you don’t give up,” the speaker insists. It ends on a consolation, some needed hope: “like a prayer you come over here you stay.”

The most difficult among this year’s nominees is Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. A “text” in the postmodern sense, the book’s principal virtues aren’t traditionally poetic. If Shakespeare was “all at war with time” then Long Soldier is at war with line, letter, word, and page. The book’s third offering, aptly titled “Three,” consists of four repetitions of the line “This is how you see the space in which to place me” arranged in a square. Language has boxed the speaker in. Charles Olson does something similar in the latter half of his Maximus Poems, letting his words spiral out onto the page like a fragmented jetty. Where Olson uses the text to conjure the coastal landscape of his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Long Soldier’s project is more combative. Like Olson, she contends with history, language, and conflict. Rather than call himself a poet, Olson compared his task to “archaeology,” himself an “archaeologist of morning.” This term could be applied equally well, and less pretentiously, to Long Soldier, an American Indian writing in the age of Trump and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

At first glance, some of Long Soldier’s linguistic tricks seem cheap. The “writing/righting” pun in the prose section of “Vaporative” wobbles between juvenile and revelatory. Weird substitutions also abound. The poem “Left” describes the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and miscarriage, with the word “bed” replaced by “stanza,” as best I can tell. However, some of these gambits provide insight, as when “Wahpanica” asks us to read its “commas aloud,” replacing the punctuation mark with the actual word. This motive behind the substitution soon emerges: “Wahpanica,” the speaker explains, is a Lakota word meaning “to be destitute to have nothing of one’s own.”  The trick’s cheapness expresses the poverty of language, and shows how the elements of culture can be degraded. Where European settlers and the US government nearly erased a continent’s worth of art, language, and civilization, Long Soldier takes aim at that oppressor’s most basic social tool, the rules of English grammar.

The poem further examines the paradox of being both an American Indian and a US citizen. She summarizes the problem of identity in the introduction to the second half of the collection: “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe . . . and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” Language is at the center of that conflict. Again from “Wahpanica”: “I must write it to see it comma how I beg from a dictionary to learn our word for poor comma in a language I dare to call my language comma who am I . . . But this is a spill-over translation for how I cannot speak my mind comma the meta-phrasal ache of being language poor.” It is bitingly ironic that the phrase “language-poor” operates within a collection so intimately in contact with the minutiae of language—how it works, and how it sometimes fails us.

The best poem of the bunch, “38,” also deals with the contradictions of language, and is hardly recognizable as a poem. It a satire expressing a moment in the US Government’s perpetual genocide of Native peoples, beginning in mock reverence for the principles of English syntax: “Here the sentence will be respected./ I will compose each sentence with care, by minding what the rules of writing dictate./ For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.” The poem then goes onto describe the conditions that led to the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota men in 1862, by the administration of our most morally exalted president, Abraham Lincoln. The poem is at once a history lesson, a statement of resistance, and an ars poetica: “‘Real’ poems do not ‘really’ require words,” Long Soldier’s speaker declaims. I’m not quite sure of that. Midway through the same poem, the speaker also says, “Everything is in the language we use.” That’s a notion I can get behind.

Spencer Hupp is an editorial assistant at the Sewanee Review, and a graduate of the University of the South.

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