Tag Archives: National Book Award

Diving into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich

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Adrienne Rich died this week. Her voice, in her poems, writing, and speaking, was never strident, always insistent that we remember our highest selves and live for them. She wrote about class differences and indifferences and the pain and joy we cause ourselves and others in concise and brilliant language that placed her at the forefront of American letters. She never compromised—and she rued the compromises we make in the pursuit of comfort. Someone, she reminded us again and again, always pays for that untroubled comfort. She was unwilling to settle for comfort.

Diving into the Wreck, a collection of poems written in 1971-72, remains one of my favorite of her books. “…poems taut with pain and intelligence,” writes Marge Piercy of this volume. “…nobody else writes quite like this,” said Margaret Atwood. The poems are observations, introspections, revelations. They range wide and go deep, skating from social commentary to searing metaphor. Even the early poems never seem dated. It’s possible to slip inside every one and experience the life it transcribes as the poet did.

The title poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” is a marvel of fact and symbol. I don’t know whether Rich was a diver but she gets the precise detail of a scuba dive on a wreck in the shallows exactly right, so I assume she’d been there. She gets the rest right, too. What is the wreck but an image of a life, an emblem for the battered heart, broken against rock or shoal? Rich writes: 

 I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed


the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters. 

You tend to realize, at the end of a line or a stanza, that you have been holding your breath, loathe to miss a beat or a syllable or the architecture of an unexpected phrase. Adrienne Rich wrote powerful, powerful poetry—poems designed to conjure or, at the very least, agitate for keen personal awareness and social change. Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award. Rich won nearly every award bestowed on a poet in her long writing life. But she never lost her edge, her discomfort, the pebble in the shoe that leads, inevitably, to the poem.     

Diving Into The Wreck: Poems 1971-1972   Adrienne Rich | W. W. Norton & Company 1993

New and Selected Poems – Mary Oliver

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It is reported that the poet Mary Oliver is seriously ill and has canceled all her appearances. The heralds of this sorry news have urged people to share via social media something about what the poems and the poet have meant to them. That sounds like code for “mortal” or “fatal” or “terminal”—why do all the ending words rhyme?

Rather than scribble unoriginal comments on a laundry line of the same thoughts over and over, better to read the quiet and the dazzling poems. New and Selected Poems (volume 1) holds bears, egrets, snows, swamps, winters and springs from 1963 through 1992. Oliver has her fervent fans—devoted to the holy gospel to be read in the pulpy guts of a freshly filleted fish and the epiphanies to be found in a host of pond lilies. She has her dismissive detractors—high-minded lovers of the lofty and the abstruse who might never have broken apart an owl pellet to let its history spill out in their hand or dared to offer a drift of sugar to a grasshopper. I’m in it for the epiphanies.

“Nature poems” sounds like the artifacts of a pastime for ladies of leisure who pen couplets in gardens. But poems rooted in nature can be muddy shards of a rough world that remind us where we come from and how we should live in this world. Oliver insists on this disorderly encounter with reality as a means of remembering what is authentic, of being mindful. In “Rice” she writes:

I don’t want you just to sit down at the table.

I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.

I want you to walk out into the fields

where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.

I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.

I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Of course, my favorite is the well-known “The Summer Day” with its heart-stopping last lines:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

And, while you ponder your answer to that, contemplate the final stanzas of “When Death Comes” which is as much a game plan as a reflection:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.


I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world.

Dig into some Mary Oliver. And then get out of the house and turn your face to the wind or step out of your shoes and walk barefoot on the ground. Feast your eyes on a garden slug or a breaching whale and be as deliberate as that slug or as exhilarated as that whale. Wear some crumbs of rich dark dirt or a scatter of salt spray. Reconnect to the physical creature that you are to rediscover your soul.

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1   Mary Oliver | Beacon Press   1992

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette – Jeanne Birdsall

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Let me just say that I like the Penderwicks best when they are on vacation. Jeanne Birdsall’s first book, The Penderwicks, tracked four kids and a big sloppy dog named Hound through a summer holiday on a country estate. Plenty of misadventures and great adventures behind the hedgerows in a very charming, old-fashioned story with wonderful characters, terrific humor and the sort of British country setting (although the tale is set in New England) that enchanted me in the books I read as a child.

Birdsall’s second in the series follows them home to Gardam Street in Massachusetts and it is sweet and simple but not nearly as much fun as the summer escapades. In book three,  The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, the three youngest girls, Skye, Jane and Batty, are vacationing in Maine while their eldest sister Rosalind gets a much needed break from minding all of them and is off to the Jersey Shore with a friend. Their newly-married father, stepmother and her young son are on an academic business trip to England and the girls are in the care of second-eldest Penderwick, Skye, and their Aunt Claire.

This makes Skye all kinds of nervous because Rosalind has always cared for Batty, the baby, since their mother died and keeps the rest of the team in line. Skye isn’t sure she has the right stuff for the job. Their best friend Jeffrey, collected on the first summer jaunt, joins them for this one and mild disasters accumulate faster than shells on the strip of beach outside their vacation cottage. Skye studies astrophysics and black holes and practices soccer moves. Jane, next in line, is a serious writer struggling with a bad case of writer’s block over her latest Sabrina Starr novel that deals with the perils of falling in love. Small problem—the author is eleven and lacks the requisite research to get past the opening sentence. Batty (Elizabeth) has given up the fairy wings she once wore everywhere but still drags her stuffed elephants along for the trip. She must wear a bright orange life preserver whenever she gets anywhere NEAR the water, which hampers her style.

Jeffrey is happy to have eluded his difficult mother’s summer plans and sets about having adventures with the girls. A neighbor next door is a musician and invites musical prodigy Jeffrey to use his grand piano for practice. Five-year-old Batty, who trails Jeffrey everywhere and intends to marry him when she grows up, displays a surprising musical talent. Love rears its unpredictable head among the lobster rolls. Aunt Claire winds up on crutches. The girls find out that errant golf balls from the nearby club are a boon to piggy banks. And a long lost parent surfaces, causing havoc for kids and grown-ups alike.

I like the Penderwicks books. They are innocent and fun; the writing is good; the characters are real people with lots of interesting quirks; the adventures are lively. I know a few young readers who devoured the first book and still like the series, even though they are older now and the books are middle grade level. Then again, middle grade is one of my favorite book categories and I am far from the target audience. Penderwicks at home—not so fascinating. Penderwicks up to summer mischief—a recipe for a delightful read.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette   Jeanne Birdsall | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

Just Kids – Patti Smith

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Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, is many things. It is a primer on how to follow an inchoate longing and become an artist out of nothing and nowhere. It is a testament to a bond so unbreakable it survived gut-wrenching poverty, sexual ambivalence, homelessness, hunger, and an assemblage of male lovers—some his, some hers.

The two kids who swanned around Greenwich Village, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel in their thrift store costumes fed each other, supported each other, used each other in their art, moved apart and came together from their earliest days in New York City to Mapplethorpe’s death at 43 from AIDS in 1989. Along the journey, Smith discovered how to merge her poetry with rock and roll and Mapplethorpe turned away from his Catholic boyhood into a fascination with hustling, S&M and a singular vision of photography. Her first album, Horses, with an iconic cover photo shot by Mapplethorpe, exploded into public consciousness. His evocative and disturbing photos, collages and drawings established him as a polarizing rebel who inspired love and hate in equal measure.

Smith writes description in poetic riffs that transform memory into dream. She has clear recall of telling moments with the pantheon of musical, literary and artistic greats who hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Horn & Hardart’s. Allen Ginsburg once supplied the missing dime that allowed a starving Smith to snag a cafeteria sandwich then, ever on the prowl, asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Smith once cut her long hair in the style of Keith Richards and earned instant acceptance from some hard-sell members of Warhol’s crowd. Mapplethorpe saved Smith from a dinner date gone wrong by pretending to be her boyfriend—and then he became her boyfriend. They were silly, naïve, intensely serious about becoming artists, worked on their art day and night, shared a single hot dog, a single museum ticket, a single room with a hotplate, a single vision that filled their empty bellies and warmed their unheated digs.

Just Kids is the “this happened” and “then that happened” and then “this is who was there” formula of celebrity memoirs that capture a rich period in time. But it’s much more. It’s the story of a connection that seems almost mystical to Smith. Mapplethorpe embraced his homosexuality but turned to Smith as his permanent muse. Patti Smith went on to marry and have two children. The last photograph Robert Mapplethorpe took of her includes her infant daughter, reaching out to him from her mother’s arms. When they were young, hungry and just starting out, a tourist urged her husband to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe at Washington Square Arch in the Village, a hangout for colorful types all dressed like impoverished artists. The husband surveyed the two of them, real artists deep in anonymity and still searching to define their art, and said “Nah. They’re just kids.” They were. But he missed a great shot.

Just Kids   Patti Smith | HarperCollins   2010

The Flint Heart — Katherine Paterson & John Paterson

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The Flint Heart is a fairy tale adapted from the work of Eden Phillpotts, a prolific writer who lived from 1862 to 1960 and told stories set in his beloved Devon county moors. Katherine Paterson, Newbery and National Book Award-winning writer, and her husband John, base this book-length tale on Phillpotts’ style as well as his imaginary worlds. It is a large, heavy, beautiful book with an amazing amount of white space, thick coated pages, and gorgeous illustrations by John Rocco who worked at Dreamworks on Shrek and at Walt Disney Imagineering and drew the art for the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

At first, the language seems very simple and the story very broadly drawn, as if it is carefully rendered for unsophisticated readers. But first impressions can be misleading and this one is. The Patersons have filled the pages with charming characters, captivating names—like Jacky Toads, a Zagabog and a Snick, a pixie who reads dictionaries and a philosopher fairy king who dispenses judgment based on Point of View. Small children will love the illustrations and the story. Older children—no limits on age–will love the clever wordplay and humor.

In The Flint Heart, the region of Dartmoor is plagued from prehistory by a dark magic encapsulated in a rock chip strung on a leather cord. Place it around your neck, or even in your pocket, and all the light and warmth and kindness goes right out of you, to be replaced by homicidal, self-centered, authoritarian, barbaric behavior that makes a shambles of your community and cannot be resisted. Shades of Tolkien and that cursed ring, although Tolkien’s ring was written after Phillpott’s work.

How a couple of brave and imaginative children, a badly injured German hot-water bottle named Bismark and the helpful fairies, pixies and forest creatures defeat the flint heart is the central quest of the book but the digressions are as entertaining as the story. Read it and learn why the tortoise really won the race and what actually frightened Little Miss Muffet. Multiply naughts to discover why you can’t be marked off for them on an exam. Enjoy the interesting vocabulary and a tale told in nineteenth-century language smoothed out to make perfect sense to a twenty-first-century child.

The Flint Heart is fun and it doesn’t dumb anything down for children. That alone is worth the book—no least-common-denominator, one-syllable-from-an-approved-list-of-age-appropriate-vocabulary words, as suitable for a chimp as a child, in this adventure. (Deep apologies to primates.) There is a moral to this story but it doesn’t get in the way. And the human, beast, hot-water bottle and fairy/pixie worlds live more or less happily-ever-after once the heart meets its ultimate fate—with a surprise twist. No spoilers. Grab a willing kid and The Flint Heart and settle in to find out for yourself.    

The Flint Heart   Katherine Paterson & John Paterson | Candlewick Press  2011