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Judge’s comments in Poetry

The judge in poetry for the 2009 Oregon Book Awards was Matthea Harvey. Matthea Harvey is the author of Sad Little Breathing Machine and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. Her third book of poems, Modern Life, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book.

Here are her comments on this year’s finalists:

Matthew Dickman for All-American Poem:

Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem, is a terrific book, crammed with odes, incantations, riffs, elegies and hybrids of them all. The voice in these poems moves between registers of emotion as if there were no divisions at all, mixing anecdote, fact and speculation and somehow making these wide-ranging poems cohere. Some of the magic is in the specifics, in Dickman’s delight in detail: “I see how we are with each other. / I see how we act. It’s not the world / with its ten zillion things we should be grasping, / but the sincerity of penguins, the mess we made of the roses.” Some of it may be the intimacy one feels listening in on the mind in “V,” where the speaker sees a girl wearing a t-shirt “that says / TALK NERDY TO ME,” and
follows with fifty lines of thinking about how best to do just that. These poems are brash, exuberant, and utterly memorable.

Alicia Cohen for Debts and Obligations:

Alicia Cohen’s Debts and Obligations is an innovative and innervating
book. After reading it, you feel like you have formed new neural
connections (or perhaps re-formed ancient ones) regarding modern
humans and the natural world. In the poem “Second Lithuanian Bear
Boy,” Cohen starts by pointing to the cellular similarities shared by
animals and humans “first there were single cells / then
complexities” and concludes with a historical list of children raised
by animals: “lost Lobo Girl of Devil’s River / Third Sultanpur Wolf-
Boy / Ape-Child of Tehran.” In another poem, “Vacation,” the world
itself becomes human: “the thin skin covering a spinning globe /
everything is / hot at its core.” And in a poem, titled “Le Bateau
Ivre” (after Rimbaud’s poem written in the voice of a drunken boat), there is a moment of self-consciousness, “he awoke when I quote quote quoted him” which is part irony, part acknowledgement of influence and —because of what comes before and after—also the song of a strange new bird.

Endi Bogue Hartigan for One Sun Storm:

Endi Bogue Hartigan’s One Sun Storm is a book of eruptions,
avalanches, exaggeration and imagination. There is a sense of quiet
and sometimes deadpan observation in these poems, which is all the
more striking because what is observed often quickly undercut and
questioned. The tigers in “Tiger Entries” are there, not there, then
through not being there, there again: “I said I want to encompass
tigers, I’ll encompass tigers. But still there were no tigers and I
gave up, thought here is a world without tigers, and I walked through
the field without tigers and because there were no tigers, I knew
tigers.” Hartigan frequently employs syntactic repetition and
listing, as if she were laying out Tarot Cards and refusing to
interpret them for us. The Tabor Diary, a series of haiku, has a
similarly light touch: “Diaries burning / will always be diaries /
Fine soot in the smoke” and “I might as well say / I’ve lived beneath
ten chimneys / in total, one moon.”

Andrew Michael Roberts for something has to happen next:

Andrew Michael Robert’s book something has to happen next, is full of surprises. Things do happen in these small, imagistic poems.Roberts writes to people, places and objects—and his work gains great energy in these addresses. There is an assumed intimacy with the world (in a poem about the quark, he calls it a “little tramp”). There are moments of hilarity, for example the entirety of the poem, “safe shower,” reads “my cap is / a condom // stretched over my head. // we’re ready / she // in her snorkel / and pink // water-wings,” but also mysterious lyrics and plaintive love poems. These poems often begin in or lean heavily on their titles. This makes the slide of the logic of these slight lyrics even more effectively and delightfully slippery.

Crystal Williams for Troubled Tongues:

In Troubled Tongues, Crystal Williams makes abstractions concrete and therefore, somehow both more possible to comprehend and manipulate, as well as more mysterious. Beauty becomes a woman who makes everyone else feel ordinary. Happiness is a girl who “was a little cockeyed & her dress was a peculiar yellow & when she laughed, she sounded, well, something like to a donkey.” In Williams’ poems, phrases such as “God Don’t Like Ugly” and “Crazy as a Road Lizard” become the names of people who are then defined and trapped by those names. In “Telegram,” the retired Gods write home: “Hades retired to Arizona, works part-time at a Krispy Kreme. Stop. / Eurydice wears heavy-duty bras. Stop. / All have wisely avoided Florida / & want you to know they are fine.” In “Race Card,” the poet imagines this idea of “playing the race card” as a literal thing: “Dear Mr. Burke, As you might remember from our conversation, my mom gave me this Race Card (enclosed as per your request) at the beginning of the year because my college said that every freshman needed one. But I never needed mine.” Williams uses the full palette of the emotions in this book— utilizing every color between anger and love and the result is a troubling and moving experience.

One thought on “Judge’s comments in Poetry

  1. I love Matthea Harvey. When she taught a workshop at Tin House summers ago, I jumped to be a part of it. She’s rad. It’s great to see her involved in the Oregon lit scene in a new way.

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