Anthology of favorites; The Pushcart Prize VII: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson. Wainscott, N.Y.: The Pushcart Press (PO Box 380, 11975). 567 pp. $22.
The current installment of this vital and distingished annual, while crammed with the usual abundance of excellent writing, seems a little less vigorous, less surprising, than some of its predecessors. Perhaps that's because the selections seem unduly categorical (more on that presently); drawn from too many academic-oriented journals too much like one another -- or maybe it's just that previous ''Pushcarts'' have led us to expect too much.
The fiction, for example, is very uneven. There's real wit and power in Edmund White's ''A Man of the World,'' about a homosexual childhood, and in ''Happy Boy, Allen,'' another of Mary Robison's deft, resonant portrayals of alienated young moderns. Yet a similar story by the equally gifted Jayne Ann Phillips seems predictable and tired -- and stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Guy Davenport, and Cynthia Ozick strike me as pale-mannered copies of things they've all done before, and done bettter. I did admire Barbara Bedway's ''Death and Lebanon,'' about the fears that continue to dog the lives of people ''saved'' from violent societies, and Barbara Thompson's ''Tattoo,'' a darkly ironic tale of cultural misunderstanding interwoven with self-delusion.
Domestic and familial concerns dominate the poetry -- though Rita Dove's ''Dusting'' and Sharon Olds's ''The Quest'' rise memorably beyond category. Real metrical ingenuity distinguishes Mary Oliver's ''The Gardens,'' Marcia Southwick's eerie ''The Body,'' and Stanley Kunitz's lovely, Lawrencian ''The Snakes of September.'' The choice item is Charles Wright's impressive dream poem , redolent of Whitman and Hart Crane, ''The Southern Cross.''
If there are too many essays lamenting the contemporary erosion of literacy, it's nice at least that these include Christopher Clausen's elegant ''Poetry in a Discouraging Time'' and Thom Gunn's moving tribute to his mentor and friend Yvor Winters. Even better are two long essays about the literature of commitment: Carolyn Forche's account of her eye-opening experiences in El Salvador, and Terrence Des Pres's admiring review of Bertolt Brecht's poems (for ''The Way They Stand Up Against the World in Which They Were Written'').
As you see, my reservations aren't that serious after all. ''Pushcart VII'' obviously belongs on your shelf along with all its companions.