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2014 National Book Award Contenders

This year's James Laughlin Award winner, Brian Blanchfield, and two of the Academy's current Chancellors—Edward Hirsch and Claudia Rankine—are among those included on the longlist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry. Read their bios and a selection of work from their nominated books.

poem

from Citizen, I

A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the café you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something—she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?—her son wasn’t accepted. You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater’s legacy program; instead you ask where he ended up. The prestigious school she mentions doesn’t seem to assuage her irritation. This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive.


/

A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.

Claudia Rankine
2014
poem

from Citizen, VI [My brothers are notorious]

My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget that we are named. What is that memory?

The days of our childhood together were steep steps into a collapsing mind. It looked like we rescued ourselves, were rescued. Then there are these days, each day of our adult lives. They will never forget our way through, these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear hea rt—

Your hearts are broken. This is not a secret though there are secrets. And as yet I do not understand how my own sorrow has turned into my brothers' hearts. The hearts of my brothers are broken. If I knew another way to be, I would call up a brother, I would hear myself saying, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—

On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call.

If I called I'd say good-bye before I broke the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up. Don't hang up. My brother hangs up though he is there. I keep talking. The talk keeps him there. The sky is blue, kind of blue. The day is hot. Is it cold? Are you cold? It does get cool. Is it cool? Are you cool?

My brother is completed by sky. The sky is his silence. Eventually, he says, it is raining. It is raining down. It was raining. It stopped raining. It is raining down. He won't hang up. He's there, he's there but he's hung up though he is there. Good-bye, I say. I break the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up, don't hang up. Wait with me. Wait with me though the waiting might be the call of good-byes.

Claudia Rankine
2014
poem

from Gabriel

The evening with its lamps burning
The night with its head in its hands
The early morning

I look back at the worried parents
Wandering through the house
What are we going to do

The evening of the clinical
The night of the psychological
The morning facedown in the pillow

The experts can handle him
The experts have no idea
How to handle him

There are enigmas in darkness
There are mysteries
Sent out without searchlights

The stars are hiding tonight
The moon is cold and stony
Behind the clouds

Nights without seeing
Mornings of the long view
It’s not a sprint but a marathon

Whatever we can do
We must do

Every morning’s resolve

But sometimes we suspected
He was being punished
For something obscure we had done

I would never abandon the puzzle
Sleeping in the next room
But I could not solve it
 

Edward Hirsch
2014
poem

Funny Loss of Face

Late in the last of the sun all over the wall

across the lot the bordello larks on the ivy vine

visit one another’s resting closets

like boys and men in Taiwanese baths:

anyone could be behind that leaf or must he

prefer sleep to sharing sleep, the overcome one,

flustering, not just anyone, retorts

and have him know, special again only once

the turnkey checks, before the wind top to bottom

as in a movie of itself plays the shuddering

singularity of love, selecting no one

particularly anyway, but all in las peliculas

sit deeper in their popcorn parkas down.

Everyone’s in for the night except

you who had flown all day didn’t want to fall asleep

here I was telling your neck relax your eyes

were going to wake up raw without solution

for lenses, so it was better you find

the little baths they had at home. Why it was

funny I suggested we concoct it from scratch’s hard

to say and whether one of us or which was

good about everything. When you call and

the leaves are brighter red, it’s later, nearer

the sun, and relief is that vibrant.

That you can see already where more doors

were and birds the ropey circuitry

the wall will bare is an occupancy of mine.

Brian Blanchfield
2014
poem

Edge of Water, Portage Bay, Washington

 

Standalone heron borrowing a pylon in Portage Bay

            accounts payable

according in quarter turns her head by the dial

of her beak to motion under current

                                        until certain. One of seven.

 

But the night began later.

Even after the soaring bridge hid

the assignation, the dark water passing darker

though. A grade higher, inland, on the return path

the tedium of midges lifted that hung about

kissing level.


Like we left the guild victorious.

Brian Blanchfield
2014