The finalists for the National Book Award were announced on October 13, but only three out of the five poetry finalists are available for purchase as of this posting date.
The first nominee is The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber. The poems are invaded by deliberate intelligensia, which is sometimes effective and sometimes annoying. It was less grating on the second and third reads through. Clearly, if I knew Aurelius as well as Graber, I could have gotten much more out of the entire second section, although I appreciated the idea of using poetry to reflect to another type of literature, and the threads of connectivity moving through.
The key themes seem to be loneliness and disappointment. The poem the book is named for even includes the line "Loneliness, our one defendable empire." (The Eternal City)
"A yellow wind whispers its one note over & over into the willow's ten thousand salt-blistered ears. Just now, only this - something so small not even you have given it a name." (Florum Principi)
The next volume is Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. This was easier to read, as it seemed more experience and emotion based than needing to have read obscure writings by historical figures. Some history is involved, largely to do with African Americans that have had public struggles and victories. Then there are some poems inspired by the Japanese presentation style of pecha kucha, which was a little startling.
Don't get me wrong, I actually really enjoyed this book of poetry, but I was left feeling as if I haven't lived enough. But really, Hayes is using the experiences of others in his poetry, but the way he writes makes them seem like he has also shared in those experiences. He makes them personal rather than universal, and this adds a power that I really liked.
"Friend, sometimes the wind's scuttle makes the reeds
In the body vibrate. Sometimes the noise gives up its code
And the music is better at saying what I meant to say."
-from "Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist"
The third book of poetry, I don't even feel qualified to judge. She bases the poems (loosely, I guess) on George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip. What? If I hadn't read that, I would never have made that connection. The poems are sparse and emotional, not really cats and bricks. I almost wish I didn't knew. I think I'd like them more without that bizarre connection.
Here is a great example of the imagery she creates:
Then one day she noticed the forest had begun to bleed into her waking life.
There were curved metal plates on the trees to see around corners.
She thought to brush her hand against his thigh.
She thought to trace the seam of his jeans with her thumbnail.
The supersaturated blues were beginning to pixillate around the edges, to become a kind of grammar.
She placed a saucer of water under her lamp and counted mosquitoes as they drowned.
Soot amassed in drifts in the corners of the room.
She pressed her thumb into the hollow of his throat for a while and then let him go.
(Does anyone else see cartoons? I'd be happy to have someone explain the connection to me, and shame me in my ignorance.)
I hope that at some point, By the Numbers by James Richardson and One with Others by C.D. Wright become available for purchase, so I can compare all of them with each other.
Until then, I'd pick the Hayes book as the top poetry finalist so far. I don't think the National Book Award people pick one book in every category, but I'm going to start there.