Throughout this week, the longlists for the 2019 National Book Awards are being announced, with the selection of finalists in each of five categories—Fiction, Nonfiction, Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, and Poetry—to follow. This morning, we present the longlist for the category of Poetry. Additional longlists will be announced each day.
This year’s longlist for the National Book Award for poetry celebrates brilliant, searing, experimental voices, and includes everything from deeply personal reflections on identity, to ecologically-focused site-specific poems composed on foot. You’ll find poems confronting everything from climate change to trauma to ghosting in the ten outstanding collections below.
Variations on Dawn and Dusk, by Dan Beachy-Quick
Acting as poetic records of light, the poems in Variations on Dawn and Dusk follow the sun as it warms, cools, colors, and shifts the space of Robert Irwin’s untitled (dawn to dusk) in the desert of Marfa, TX. Built on the footprint of the town’s old hospital, Irwin’s permanent installation is a remarkable structure with walls, windows, and screens that both capture and are taken over by the sun’s changing light. Through this deeply engaged ekphrasis, Dan Beachy-Quick uses language to participate in the overpowering elegance of Irwin’s structure. The poet’s fervent observations lead us in cycles of meditation, moving with the light that slides through the surfaces of the installation. Here, the very foundation of our vision—light—forms the vocabulary from which these poems are built.
The Tradition, by Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown’s daring new book The Tradition details the normalization of evil and its history at the intersection of the past and the personal. Brown’s poetic concerns are both broad and intimate, and at their very core a distillation of the incredibly human: What is safety? Who is this nation? Where does freedom truly lie? Brown makes mythical pastorals to question the terrors to which we’ve become accustomed, and to celebrate how we survive. Poems of fatherhood, legacy, blackness, queerness, worship, and trauma are propelled into stunning clarity by Brown’s mastery, and his invention of the duplex—a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues—is testament to his formal skill. The Tradition is a cutting and necessary collection, relentless in its quest for survival while reveling in a celebration of contradiction.
“I”: New and Selected Poems, by Toi Derricotte
In Derricotte’s own words:
“How do you gain access to the
power of parts of yourself you
abhor, and make them sing
with beauty, tenderness, and compassion?
This is the record of fifty years
of victories in the reclamation
of a poet’s voice.”
Build Yourself a Boat, by Camonghne Felix
This is about what grows through the wreckage. This is an anthem of survival and a look at what might come after. A view of what floats and what, ultimately, sustains. Build Yourself a Boat redefines the language of collective and individual trauma through lyric and memory.
Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky
Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—they all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language. The story follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence: a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya’s girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain. At once a love story, an elegy, and an urgent plea, Ilya Kaminsky’s long-awaited Deaf Republic confronts our time’s vicious atrocities and our collective silence in the face of them.
A Sand Book, by Ariana Reines
Deadpan, epic, and searingly charismatic, A Sand Book is at once relatable and out-of-this-world. In poems tracking climate change, bystanderism, state murder, sexual trauma, shopping, ghosting, love, and the transcendent shock of prophecy, A Sand Book chronicles new dimensions of consciousness for our strange and desperate times. What does the destruction of our soil have to do with the weather in the human soul? From sand in the gizzards of birds to the iridescence on the surface of spilt oil, from sand storms on Mars to our internet-addicted present, from the desertifying mountains of Haiti to Sandy Hook to Hurricane Sandy to Sandra Bland, A Sand Book is both a travelogue and a book of mourning. In her long-anticipated follow-up to Mercury, Ariana Reines has written her most ambitious, visceral, and satisfying work to date.
Dunce, by Mary Ruefle
Through her many projects across numerous genres, Mary Ruefle has proven herself a singular artist, drawing many fans from around the world to her unique vision. With Dunce she returns to the practice that has always been at her core: the making of poems. With her startlingly fresh sensibility, she enraptures us in poem after poem by the intensity of her attention, with the imaginative flourishes of her being-in-the-world, which is always deep with mysteries, unexpected appearances, and abiding yearning.
Be Recorder, by Carmen Giménez Smith
Be Recorder offers readers a blazing way forward into an as yet unmade world. The many times and tongues in these poems investigate the precariousness of personhood in lines that excoriate and sanctify. Carmen Giménez Smith turns the increasingly pressing urge to cry out into a dream of rebellion—against compromise, against inertia, against self-delusion, and against the ways the media dream up our complacency in an America that depends on it. This reckoning with self and nation demonstrates that who and where we are is as conditional as the fact of our compliance: “Miss America from sea to shining sea / the huddled masses have a question / there is one of you and all of us.” Be Recorder is unrepentant and unstoppable, and affirms Giménez Smith as one of the most vital and vivacious poets of our time.
Sight Lines, by Arthur Sze
From the current phenomenon of drawing calligraphy with water in public parks in China to Thomas Jefferson laying out dinosaur bones on the White House floor, from the last sighting of the axolotl to a man who stops building plutonium triggers, Sight Lines moves through space and time and brings the disparate and divergent into stunning and meaningful focus. In this new work, Arthur Sze employs a wide range of voices—from lichen on a ceiling to a man behind on his rent—and his mythic imagination continually evokes how humans are endangering the planet; yet, balancing rigor with passion, he seizes the significant and luminous and transforms these moments into riveting and enduring poetry.
Doomstead Days, by Brian Teare
Doomstead Days is a lyrical series of experiments in embodied ecological consciousness. Drafted on foot, these site-specific poems document rivers, cities, forests, oil spills, mountains, and apocalyptic visions. They encounter refineries and urban watersheds, megafauna and industrial toxins, each encounter intertwining ordinary life and ongoing environmental crisis. Days pass: wartime days, days of love and sex, sixth extinction days, days of chronic illness, all of them doomstead days. Through these poems, we experience the pleasure and pain of being a body during global climate change.
The 2019 National Book Award winners will be announced on November 20.