A Winning Combination

Book cover
The Pushcart Book of Poetryby Edited by Joan Murray with the Pushcart Prize poetry editorsPushcart Press. 275p $29.95
As the poet Joan Murray points out in her introduction to this stellar collection, the glitteringly self-deprecating Pushcart Prize has been bringing extraordinary literary talents to a broad readership for 30 years. This volume is the third in a series of prize-winning Best of the Best volumes from Pushcart Press (after short stories and essays). It features selections from the annual poetry anthologies from 1976 to 2006, which represent the best from small presses. Murray, the general editor, instead of choosing the poems herself for the volume, asked the editors of the separate prize volumes to pick a number of selections. A communal endeavor, she believed, reflected the Pushcart spirit.

The opening poem in the volume is Power, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie. Its last lines, which assert that Curie died denying her wounds came from the same source as her power, is richly evocative of the early years of Pushcart Prize volumesvolumes that capture the tensions not just in American poetry, but in the nation itself. Rich expressed, better than many poets of her generation, how American power and the wounds to the American psyche had the same source.


Seamus Heaney’s The Otter resonates with the lyrical rhythms of memory and personal history. If Rich looks to larger histories, to issues of state, class, gender and race, Heaney’s two selections reveal the poet’s quest for himself and his need to cherish personal and historic memory as a source for poetry. Sweeney Astray uses Flann O’Brian’s character from At Swim With Two Birds to find his own identity through Ireland’s bardic past; the meter and rhyme hurry along to the poet’s declaration of self and song.

Although, as Murray points out in her introduction, this anthology reflects a noticeable shift from the socially conscious early volumes, through the casually ironic middle ones, to the eclectically postmodern and technically ambitious ones, there is a wide variety of styles and subjects within each section of the book. In his Everyone Knows Whom the Saved Envy, James Galway asserts that It isn’t such a bad thing/ To live in one world forever, while Lisel Mueller’s The End of Science Fiction argues that we must invent a new world, invent a child that will save the world. It is not that the poems are so different in language and meter, but they do look at the world differently.

By the mid-1980’s, the Pushcart poetry turns toward concrete language and nature poetry. While nature poetry never really went out of style in the 60’s and 70’s, it was a nature that served political and social ends, as is seen in Stephen Berg’s Variations on the Mound of Corpses in the Snow. In John Haines’s Rain Country, however, the poet moves through the politics of his early years, ask ing Is that/ the government? I ask you/ is that the government? to remem- bering the friends he has lost, the friends who came with him to the woods before politics entered poetry.

Allen Grossman’s Poland of Death and Arthur Smith’s A Little Death offer an opportunity to look at two seemingly different poems that might ordinarily never come in contact with each other. Grossman’s poem is an elegy to his father who, in his grave, is scratching his way to the Poland of Death, while the son stands above the earth, trying to talk to his parent. Smith’s poem, the narrative of an old turtle in the Knoxville zoo covering a female turtlewith accompanying sounds that make the viewer/speaker imagine that, even as he is creating life, the turtle must be dyingis both humorous and trenchant. Ironically, the female turtle in the Smith poem scooting rather/ Indifferently toward the mud-bracketed pond, after the act, is much like the mother in Poland of Death who, indifferent to her own son, says, This is Death at Last. What links the two poems are indifference in life and death, a desire to see oneself as unique and the final recognition that we, the turtles, the father, the son, the mother, share primeval connections.

Another set of poems, Post Larkin Triste, by Mary Karr, and Dying in Massachusetts, by Donald W. Baker, also establish a wonderful balance. It almost seems, reading the poems sequentially, that the man who wishes to die in Massachusetts is the embodiment of the poet Philip Larkin. Larkin wept hearing Wordsworth read on the radio, and he told a terrifying truth. The speaker who wishes to die in Massachusetts wants to die in a special place. Massachusetts, then, becomes the apogee of his life, rather than the nadir of his death. The man wading Parker’s River in sneakers sees the world in much the same way that Larkin’s poetry clutches at the sadness of reality and the imperfections of people, love and trust.

Steve’s Kowit’s Beetles is a reminder that the list poem, when executed elegantly, is a wonderful compendium of knowledge and beauty, and Charles Harper Webb’s Biblical Also-Rans is a list that urges us to see our lives in the context of the many forgotten, rather than the few remembered. Charles Wright’s A Short History of the Shadow, while not technically a list poem, creates a series of images that evokes the many stages of the day and year and shows the reader the shadow in its many and varied forms.

Readers will pick their own favorites in this volume of beautiful, elegantly structured poetry. Carol Frost’s The Part of the Bee’s Body Embedded in the Flesh has a simple beauty that almost makes one shed tears. The bee-boy, who gave himselfhis palate, the soft tissues of this throat/ What Rubens gave to the sun’s illumination, fills his bosom with bees, and Whatever it means, why not say it hurts. As in all poetry, it is the suffering that makes the beauty. It is the wound that creates the power of Adrienne Rich’s poem that opened the volume, and it is the mind’s raw, gold coiling whirled against/ air currents, want and beauty that creates poetry.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert Hurley
7 years 9 months ago
The poem, "Everyone Knows Whom the Saved Envy," was written by James Galvin, not James Galway.

I hope you will correct this. Thank you.

Robert Hurley


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