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A look at the National Book Critics Circle nominees - Poetry

In a rare example of agreement, the National Book Critics Circle judges have nominated two poetry books that were nominated for the National Book Award last year. Neither Sharon Olds or Harryette Mullen won back in November, but getting this second endorsement is the sort of boost poetry publishers dream about - or used to before $100 million fantasies made all other poetic dreams look paltry.

Despite the flashes of brilliance in these verses, the real fireworks at next week's awards ceremony are likely to fly over one of the nonfiction nominations: "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." When it first appeared in three issues of The Atlantic Monthly, William Langewiesche's story about the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 elicited strong protests over the author's description of firemen looting during the early cleanup efforts. Now that the book version has been nominated for the NBCC, critics have added charges of plagiarism to earlier claims of inaccuracy and fabrication. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the book's publisher, calls these charges false and outrageous and has supplied the NBCC judges with a detailed description of the book's fact-checking process along with copies of their correspondence with the book's most vocal critic. Calls for the NBCC to withdraw its nomination have been rejected by the board, of which the Atlantic's literary editor, Benjamin Schwartz, is a member.

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Our reviews of the nominated books in all five categories appear on the Monitor's website. The winners will be announced in New York on Feb. 26.

- Ron Charles

LEAVING SATURN, by Major Jackson, University of Georgia Press, $15.95

Small wonder that Al Young, in introducing "Leaving Saturn," calls Major Jackson's collection, "a debut album of a book." These assemblies of word, phrase, and line offer collages out of Romare Bearden, and their subtle meters have a musicality that conjures the back beats of an adolescence and adulthood in a Philadelphia stretching immeasurable latitudes away from the Main Line. For Jackson, the city's founding spawned a fallen place, where the prospect of "Penn's GREEN COUNTRIE TOWNE uncurled a shadow.../ that descended over gridiron streets like a black shroud." A darkness spreading more darkly into the present, inclusive of mainlining junkies, crack-smoking mothers, and daily sadnesses, such as those of Mr. Pate, who "swept his own shop/ for he had lost his best little helper Squeaky/ to cross fire." Still, there is resilience and vibrancy to this place and its people: grandmothers, musicians, break-dancing teens performing "Kangoled head spins," and people such as Mr. Pate, who endures, "gathering/ up clumps of fallen hair ... as though/ They were the fine findings of gold dust." Throughout, too, is the governing presence of the poet, whose "pen lifts like the blade of an oar/ out of cement.... You row for reflection as every action has an equal,/ the stamina of legends; rowing is vital." (75 pp.) By Reamy Jansen

EARLY OCCULT MEMORY SYSTEMS OF THE LOWER MIDWEST, by B.H. Fairchild, Norton, $22.95

The toughest men and women meet the most unyielding earth in Fairchild's welcome new collection. These poems are set in towns such as Snyder, Texas, and Liberal, Kan., and the characters in them are the machinists and roustabouts of the oil industry as well as the fancy women and saloonkeepers at its fringes. These people were forgotten before they even died, but now Fairchild's intimate portraits give them permanency. Here, the border between worlds is crossed in nearly every poem: "The dead in their stone sleep are roused into/ history," says the poet, while "the living pray into the earth and wait." The seriousness is relieved on occasion by stories such as the one about Elton Wayne Showalter - the "redneck surrealist" who tried to hold up a convenience store with a caulking gun - though there is an almost sacred tone to the collection as a whole, especially in "The Memory Palace." Here the poet walks through his father's machine shop, draping his memories across the now-outmoded equipment: a

frontier production of "King Lear" goes on the lathe, his Uncle Harry

dancing a soft-shoe on the drill press, and so on. The poem ends with the words "it is all beginning," a reminder that there's nothing more current than the past. (125 pp.) By David Kirby

SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY, by Harryette Mullen, University of Calif., $12.95

"[G]roping in the dark for an alluring word" in this deeply inventive collection, Harryette Mullen takes the dictionary as a playful accomplice. Not one but two of her poems rewrite a Shakespearean love sonnet that begins, "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun." In one she writes, "My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon," and in another, "My Mickey Mouse ears are nothing like sonar." Better than just cheeky or clever, her vernacular proves a faithful sidekick to Shakespeare's. In "We Are Not Responsible," Mullen skillfully parodies airport safety instructions: "In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on. Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments." Her attentiveness to words is both finicky and exhilarating: in "Zen Acorn," she takes just eight syllables and rearranges them in a deft theme-and-variations. In "Jinglejangle," her energy and long-distance endurance are startling; the poem is a compact encyclopedia of slang that surges with back-street rhythms. The words seem to speak vividly for themselves. But Mullen is speaking them, with an intense interest that might as well be called ardor. Her book is too much fun, like what happens when a big-mouthed lexicographer breaks into scat singing. (98 pp.) By Molly McQuade

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THE UNSWEPT ROOM, by Sharon Olds, Knopf, $15

In her seventh collection of poems, Sharon Olds is as honest, raw, and accessible as ever. Her free verse and sprung rhythms range from sensual to angry, from achy longing to tranquil joy. Her topical repertoire is familiar: memories of an alcoholic father; the terrain of sexuality; notes on getting older; awed reflections on her two children growing up; and fraught, tender glimpses of "the old nymph," her aging mother. The main sequence begins with Olds's birth - "That hour, I was most myself" - and continues chronologically. It pauses at the bed of a dying childhood friend curled amid Scotch tape and paper dolls, on the day Olds cuts off her eyelashes in the school bathroom, at her wedding when she feels "the silent, dry, crying ghost of my/ parents' marriage there," and along her journey as daughter, mother, and wife. In "The Clasp," Olds writes of a rainy, tense day when, as a young mother, she presses her daughter's wrist too hard, "almost/ savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing," and shocks the girl with the knowledge that "near the source of love/ was this." Here is Olds's finest realm: the shadowy chamber between love and wounding. She is, by turns, wistful, rapt, political, delving into memory with marvel, quiet fury, and penetrating grace. (122 pp.) By Christina McCarroll

WITHOUT END, by Adam Zagajewski, FSG, $30

Adam Zagajewski's newest collection marks a major literary event. Zagajewski is a poet of the world, and one of its finest. He is one of those rare poets who writes of art, philosophy, travel, history, and aesthetics without pretension or posture, with knowledge and understanding that is not labored but intrinsic. His work reveals an expansive and contemplative citizen, sober with learned yet compassionate wisdom. Everywhere in his poetry we find Western culture presented to us anew. Whether he's writing about Hegel or Heraclitus, Chopin or Schopenhauer, always he connects us to the beauty and sadness of our relationship to Art. His poem, "Death of a Pianist," reads, "While others waged war/ or sued for peace, or lay/ in narrow beds in hospitals/ or camps, for days on end/ he practiced Beethoven's sonatas,/ and slim fingers, like a miser's,/ touched great treasures/ that weren't his." It's an emblematic work, a short lyric version of the longer poems, presenting one of Zagajewski's great themes, namely: How do we find the beautiful in life, through the perception or through the creation of art? Zagajewski doesn't have an answer, but his struggle to find it is splendid and wondrous indeed. (240 pp.) By Eric Miles Williamson