National Book Critics Circle Awards


Johnson annoints the streets Daniel DeBonis, Contributing Writer

Love, mortality, melancholy these are the great poetic themes to which Major Jackson has added another: urban renewal. Jackson isn’t the first poet to address the subject. After all, urban poets reflect a world that is made and remade every day, but he takes his pen to the streets of the slums.

Leaving Saturn begins with ‘Urban Renewal,’ a twelve-part meditation on art, humanity and Philadelphia. The first image is a painter, working religiously: ‘anointing streets I love with all my mind’s wit.’ Then, after wandering through local history, lonely alleys, the Liberty Bell, Temple and various other locales and complexities, the narrator arrives at the Cascades, listening to ‘This American Life.’ Jackson’s subjects may start out in the Blumberg Housing Projects, but they invariably end up elsewhere, recalling a place far away. After all, Leaving Saturn is inspired by Sun Ra, the jazz pianist who claimed to have been sent to Philadelphia on a mission from Saturn.

It’s a mistake to categorize Jackson’s work as social, sacrificing the varied abilities of a talented poet for the sake of easy classification. He is certainly socially conscious but conscious of the broad prejudice (and solidarity) that comes from living on the wrong side of the tracks. His poetry bears many resemblances to Carl Sandburg’s, drawing on definite people and places, inventive free verses and a clear poetic language. Both are occasionally sentimental, but unlike Sandburg, Jackson withholds judgment, sharing his subjects’ guilt. In ‘Euphoria,’ for instance, the young narrator pays for a handjob while his mother is in a crack den, enjoying that ‘happiness so hard to come by.’

Jackson’s poetry is built on the idea that art can be the instrument of urban renewal, and as a poet, Jackson himself is pointing the way.

Zagajewski creates a mysterious atmosphere Kerri Chyka, MUSE staff

In Adam Zagajewski’s latest volume, Without End, the acclaimed Polish poet draws us into moments in which the world is in a state of suspension. By zooming into particulars of history, landscape and feelings of fear and curiosity, Zagajewski traps us in his poems and gently urges us to perceive both the beauty and horrors of our present and past. Sometimes he takes us back to World War II, sometimes in front of a painting; in other poems, we are inside his memory. However, out of these somewhat static moments emerges an awakening spirituality or a premonition of danger. Eventually, Zagajewski takes us around the world, writing on both local and universal planes. He writes of his hometown of Lvov, Poland and also transports us to Greece, Italy, Paris and Texas. Echoes of these places reverberate throughout the volume.

Zagajewski writes with subdued assertion, often in the form of simple, graceful statements. On the other hand, he tends to stray at times, linking lists of images, which seem to follow the movement of his eyes as if he were scanning a painting. While he seems skeptical of the world, a sense of honest humor comes forth in Without End. Zagajewski’s poems create a languidly fluid, mysterious atmosphere that guides us through his memory, temperament and vision.

Along with Zagajewski’s new translated poems, Without End also includes early poems and a large portion of selections from his previously published volumes of poetry written in English, Tremor, Canvas, and Mysticism for Beginners.

Olds writes honestly about sex, love and sex Christina Goodwin, contributing writer

Sharon Olds is known for speaking about sex honestly a characteristic not everyone appreciates. Critics have called her poetry crass, sacrilegious and downright unliterary, especially after the publication of her poem ‘The Pope’s Penis.’ In recent years, however, Olds has finally received the respect she deserves. Olds is not vulgar; she is merely telling stories to which young women nationwide have related since her first book Satan Says in 1985.

Unlike previous books, The Unswept Room, her most recent work, contains poems that seem to be part of a plan. Olds uses the metaphor of sweeping several times in reference to topics such as sexual abuse, love, abortion and domesticity. She investigates sexuality with Freudian motivation, writing about her mother and father in the same lines as her sex life. Any discomfort a reader might have with those associations is alleviated by Olds’ interesting and well-paced narrative.

Olds writes about sex subtly, taking advantage of the reader’s imagination to complete the picture. Her language is clear and flows easily from word to word. Most of the poems are less than a page long, and her free verse format heightens her stunning imagery. The reader never feels threatened by her writing. Although the subjects are sometimes hard to take, Olds communicates them with humility and softness that only makes the reader want to keep reading.


Templeton tells tales of feminine longing Lauren Yang, contributing writer

The Darts of Cupid, a collection of short stories by Edith Templeton, explores scenes steeped in the past, ranging from tales in a Bohemian castle to stories about life in England during World War II. The emotions portrayed by the women in the stories are completely timeless. Templeton uses beautiful, clear prose that brings to mind a feminine version of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her close attention to detail makes the feelings and thoughts of her protagonists, all women aged 12 to 60, come alive. Templeton also describes her settings with vivid detail, drawing on her own life experiences.

The title story, a quintessentially Templeton tale, was first published in The New Yorker to critical acclaim. It is about a British woman who falls in love with her American military superior during World War II. Even after he has passed from her life forever, she has internalized some essence of those two nights and remembers the incident for a lifetime. Templeton’s stories encapsulate what it means to be a woman who longs for something or someone. Her heroines all lack something in their lives, but they are not melodramatic. They are everyday women with wants and needs, but they won’t die if they don’t get them.

The ending of each story is haunting, and there is always some aspect that remains elusive. In one of the stories, ‘The Blue Hour,’ Templeton uses a young train conductor to convey all the hidden desires of her protagonist, Louise, who is trapped in a marriage without love or attraction. The story ends abruptly with the reader wondering if he is merely voicing Louise’s own opinion about husbands or whether he is revealing something unknown to Louise until that point.

The Darts of Cupid is not for all readers, but if you favor descriptive prose and elusive concepts then this will be an enjoyable read. Welcome to the world of Edith Templeton, a world that is a bygone era but still has the same problems of loss and longing as today.

Hermon explores questions of meaning John Tozzi, MUSE staff

Aleksandar Hemon’s carefully crafted narrative Nowhere Man asks the big questions of modern literature: Can language ever adequately communicate experience? Is it possible to actually know another person in any meaningful way? What makes someone’s identity? And, does such a thing even exist?

Along the way, readers glimpse through the eyes of several mysterious narrators into the life of Jozef Pronek. His story jumps around in time and place, divided among three cities. In Sarajevo, we watch him grow up restless as any American teenager in the suburbs, playing Beatles covers (one of which becomes the book’s title) and eventually his own brand of Bosnian blues with his band, Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls. Like his delta blues forebears, Jozef eventually migrates to Chicago, where he struggles to learn English and pay rent while war breaks out in Bosnia. In between, he watches the Soviet Union collapse during a summer spent in Kiev getting in touch with his father’s Ukrainian roots.

But as his life plays out sometimes comically, sometimes tragically against the backdrop of violent history, we feel as though we know less and less about who Jozef really is. Hemon shows how some events that at first seem insignificant are, in fact, as one narrator puts it, ‘the real substance of life: the ephemera, the nethermoments, much too small to be recorded.’ But those moments are recorded here, and beautifully. Hemon, who only learned English after he himself moved from Bosnia to America, chooses his words and images more carefully than is at first apparent. Observant readers will find almost every sentence infused with meaning, although what all those meanings add up to may not be immediately clear. Jozef’s life is an exploration of how dreams and reality intrude on each other, and where identity exists when the boundaries of language and geography blur. In the end, Hemon refuses to tie Jozef’s stories into a neat conclusion. Readers are left with more questions than answers, but we are richer for the asking.

Fairchild addresses memory, loss and the American idiom Alexa DeGennaro, contributing writer

As a post-Sept. 11 society living with the possibilities of an impending war with Iraq, Americans seem to be acutely aware of what it means to be an American. In his new book of poetry, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, B.H. Fairchild addresses the American idiom and fulfills our need to rejoice in our strengths, to recognize our weaknesses and to retreat to the nostalgia of simpler times.

Through rich description and resonant imagery, Fairchild paints a portrait of a vast, gritty and distinctively American life on the Western Plains from the 1950s to present. Each poem, whether it relates a comical story or communicates the poet’s observations of life, induces a physical and emotional sense of the people and places described. Fairchild is a poet intimately concerned with the sound and effect of words, and it is his very choice of words that converts a simple idea to a physical and emotional experience. One poem explores the peculiarity of the sound ‘uck’ and the loveliness of ‘l’, which blossons into the Audrey Hepburn of consonants.

The poems in this collection are anchored largely by the theme of memory and pervaded by a sense of loss. The author writes to preserve the memory of his friends, neighbors and parents of his generation and childhood. The subjects range from the death of Big Band to the experience of joyriding with boyhood friends, from a tale of college boys visiting a burlesque house to a poem from the point of view of a comatose patient.

Although Fairchild’s memories and observations are very much his own, they convey the innocence, longing and vibrancy of every American. Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest takes the reader for a wonderful ride through a wide range of emotions and sensations and is a collection worth reading for this experience.

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