One-Minute Book Reviews

May 14, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – The 2010 Poetry Winner, Rae Armantrout’s ‘Versed’

The latest in a series of posts on literary-prize winners and whether they deserved their honors

Versed: Wesleyan Poetry Series. By Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, 120 pp., $22.95, $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rae Armantrout writes poems for an age of spin-offs of spin-offs. The theme of many of the 87 poems in Versed is more complex than “you can’t trust appearances”: It’s that you can’t even be sure they are “appearances.” Reality is unknowable.

Armantrout tells us that truth sometimes hides behind the intentional or unintentional deceptions of others. She writes in “New”:

The new pop song
is about getting real:

“You had a bad day.
The camera don’t lie.”

But they’re lying
to you
about the camera.

Reality can be elusive for reasons more subtle than lies, including the difficulty knowing ourselves or others. Armantrout writes in “The Racket”: “It’s as if / the real / thing – / your own absence – / can never be / uncovered.

Armantrout has said that the first half of Versed focuses on the dark forces that emerged in the United States during the war in Iraq and the second half on the shadows that fell over her life after she learned in 2006 that she had adrenal cortical cancer. That’s true as far as it goes. But Armantrout expresses her views on Iraq more obliquely than have poets like Robert Hass, who won the 2008 Pulitzer for poetry for Time and Materials, which includes the antiwar poem “Bush’s War.” In “Own,” she compares medical experts dissecting her illness to televised images of President Bush as she juxtaposes the human body and the body politic:

“We will prevail,”
says the leader on multiple
screens. The words
are empty, but he’s there
inside the lie
everyone believes –

Verses like these have made Armantrout a star of the Language movement in poetry, which seeks to separate words from their usual associations and create something other than the reflection of the world that poets typically strive to produce. Like many others of that school, she combines prose and poetry, often in the same poem.

The poet John Drury has noted that critics of the Language movement see much of its poetry “a mass of pretentious gibberish, a dead end of nonsense verse that is not even funny.” And while the poems in Versed are far from gibberish, they are often enigmatic or abstruse. These lines these from “Left” sound like a trick question:

If an instant
is a measure of

endurance,
what is the distance

from expectancy
to spider?

If the goal of Language poetry is to detach words from their usual connotations, the poems in Versed succeed perhaps too well: They are detached to the point of sterility. They don’t appeal, as great poetry does, both to the intellect and to the emotions, something accomplished by Claudia Emerson’s 2006 poetry winner, Late Wife. The poems in Versed speak more to the mind than to the heart. But they are so intelligent when much poetry is trivial that you can see why the book became the most celebrated collection of published in 2009. Many modern poets steep their work in mythological or other symbols, but Armantrout warns that symbolism is “the party face of paranoia.”

Best line: “Metaphor / is ritual sacrifice. // It kills the look-alike.”

Worst line: “that a discrepancy / is a pea / and I am a Princess.”

Furthermore: Versed won the2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.  James Marcus wrote a brief, eloquent review for the National Book Critics Circle site. The poems in Versed appeared in publications that include The Nation, The New Yorker and The Green Integer Review.

Published: May 2009

Read poems from Versed: “Scumble” and “Guess.”

About the author: Armantrout teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

One-Minute Book Reviews posted Pulitzer Prize Reality Checks for the 2007 biography winner, The Most Famous Man in America; for a 2007 fiction finalist, After This; and for a 2009 fiction finalist, All Souls. The site also has reviews of the 2006 poetry winner, Late Wifeand the 2009 fiction winner, Olive Kitteridge.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 20, 2008

A ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ Brings News No One Wants to Hear

Great photos by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Todd Heisler and others enhance a poignant story of how Americans learn that their relatives have died in Iraq

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your (relationship), John, (died/was killed in action) in (place of incident) (city/state or country) on (date). (State the circumstances.) The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
The Marine Corps’s suggested script for casualty notification officers, which they may modify, as quoted in Final Salute

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. By Jim Sheeler. Penguin, 280 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

It seems heartless today that the military once announced combat deaths in telegrams or brief sympathy letters that left relatives alone in their sorrow. Near the end of the Vietnam War, the government changed its policy and began sending two-person teams of uniformed officers to deliver the news instead. And Jim Sheeler shows how harrowing that job can be in this wonderful book about one such officer, Major Steve Beck of the Marine Corps, that grew out of a Pulitzer Prize–winning series with the same title for the Rocky Mountain News.

Sheeler doesn’t say so, but newspapers have reported that the notification policy changed partly because as Western Union offices became fewer, the military started asking taxi drivers to deliver the telegrams. Many of those cabbies — quite understandably — refused the work.

In Final Salute, Sheeler shows why anyone might decline the job now done by servicemen and -women known as “casualty assistance calls officers” or “casualty notification officers.” The military sends teams not just for emotional support but for the protection of the messengers: At the beginning of the war in Iraq, a furious mother slapped a Marine from Beck’s unit.

But the emotional hazards of casualty notification clearly outweigh the physical dangers. Officers do not generally call ahead to announce their visits. But families know instantly why they have arrived. “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor,” Beck said.

Sheeler couldn’t go with Beck when he knocked or rang doorbells. But he got as close as any reporter may ever have and followed up with the families. He also interviewed a former Marine who painted the names of the fallen on gravestones and went to a wake on an Indian reservation for the first Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe member killed in Iraq. Some of his most poignant stories involve a fatherless preteen son, who told him, “I get mad when kids tell me the wrong things like, ‘Your daddy died for no reason.’”

Writing in a calm tone and plain language somewhat reminiscent of that of All Quiet on the Western Front, Sheeler never overdramatizes or sentimentalizes his material. He also breaks up long stories into well-crafted shorter segments. This helps to keep his book from becoming almost too painful to read, but at times works against the narrative flow. Sheeler tells us on page 23 that a mother who had two sons at war screamed, “Which one was it?” when she realized that one had died. When he continues her story on page 114, he says she screamed, “Which one is it?” You don’t know if he gives two versions of the question because he had conflicting sources, because he massaged one of the quotes, or because the woman said first one thing, then another.

The story told in this book is so memorable that – with one exception – its lapses hardly matter. Final Salute benefits greatly from the photographs of Todd Heisler, who won his own Pulitzer, for feature photography, for the pictures in the “Final Salute” series in the Rocky Mountain News. Sheeler thanks Heisler in his acknowledgments. But neither he nor the jacket-copy writer mentions Heisler’s Pulitzer. How Sheeler and his publisher could have treated so much of their material so sensitively – and this aspect of it so insensitively – is a mystery.

Best line: Beck’s comment: “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor.”

Worst Line: The failure of Sheeler and his publisher to note that Heisler en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Heisler won a Pulitzer for his photos for the “Final Salute” series www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/feature-photography/works/, some of which appear in this book, including the elegant image on the cover. This is a disservice to Heisler, to readers and to others, including booksellers, who could have used the information in hand-selling the book. Sheeler is a great writer, but the importance of photographers to a story like the one told in the Rocky Mountain News series — without which this book would not exist — cannot be overstated. It is not simply that photographers can raise a story to a higher power artistically or help to persuade reluctant sources to cooperate. Outstanding pictures, such as those Heisler and others took, can help to “sell” editors on a story — to persuade them give it the play it deserves — and to persuade readers to read it. Just below the headline of this review appears a line that shows how easily Penguin could have mentioned Heisler’s Pulitzer, without doing an injustice to the other photographers, in one sentence on the dust jacket. Heisler was also part of a team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for breaking news photography. He is now a staff photographer for the New York Times.

Published: May 2008 www.jimsheeler.com and us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781594201653,00.html.

Furthermore: Sheeler is now a a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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