Introducing The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2012, editor David O’Meara borrows from Rilke: “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.” The shortlisted poets—four international and three Canadian, whose work was judged by O’Meara alongside the eminent Fiona Sampson and Heather McHugh—explore, O’Meara writes, “the wreckage of history, studying our personal hopes and political failures, exposing the vigorous lives of our minds.”
British poet David Harsent, whose Selected Poems was shortlisted in 2008, seems to me the richest of the international contenders. Drawn from his recent collection Night, the poems included in this year’s anthology would deserve another phrase from Rilke: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.” Harsent’s work is bravely dark; dark of a sort many poets attenuate or ironize, fearing anachronism and angst.
In Harsent’s “A View of the House from the Back of the Garden,” the speaker, observing a woman indoors, addresses himself in the second person, forcing the reader to share his stance:
can you see how it seems, can you tell
why you happen to be just here, where the garden path
runs off to black, still watching
as she turns away, sharply, as if in fright,
while the downpour thickens and her shadow on the wall,
trembling, is given over to the night?
The effect, like the night, brings beauty and terror in turn. “Spatchcock” also mingles sensuality with brutality, as the effort to prepare a bird for the oven uncannily combines with the relationship of two lovers:
…[I] could tongue-up the ooze
of sweat at the nape of her neck: and this the real
taste of her, like nothing before, like nothing I ever knew.
You have to go hard at it, either side of the spine,
all the time bearing down against the sinew…
Not everything from Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch is so successful. Surveying history’s wreckage, Komunyakaa somewhat lazily invokes Auschwitz in “Poppies,” a blunt object unworthy of a poet known for his technique of “distilled insinuation,”[i] of expanding and talking around an idea. More convincing is “A Visit to Inner Sanctum,” which magnanimously questions a poet’s relation to the past and politics: “A poet stands on the steps of the cathedral, / wondering if he has been a coward in hard times.” Komunyakaa doubts his own fidelity to the ideals which “first calibrated his tongue,” sensing that his delight in life and lyric has cancelled the sobriety necessary for real political discourse:
To have laughed beside another sweetheart
in a distant land is to have betrayed the soil
of dispossession hidden under his fingernails.
Likewise, Joanna Trzeciak’s welcome translation of Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz sometimes offers a convenient critique at odds with the largeness of this poet’s mind. “Sobbing Superpower” was written before the shrill post-9/11 era, but on this side of the Aughts, its sardonic stance toward American culture has lost its lustre. Deeper by far is Różewicz’s meditation on evil in “Unde malum?,” in which he sceptically disposes of fashionable pathologies:
Where does evil come from?
what do you mean “where”
from a human being
always a human being
and only a human being
Of the Canadian finalists, Phil Hall’s essay-poem “A Thin Plea” from Killdeer comes across strongest. A scrupulous, sometimes searing anatomy of Hall’s own poetry, “A Thin Plea” evokes the image of the poet tweezing out his own traits, as in some masochistic game of Operation: “there has always been a hint of puppetry to / my whining,” he writes; and elsewhere: “I have populated / my poems with real people who would resent my use of them if / they knew.”
The annual anthology, as always, astonishes with its variety and strength. All seven would deserve the Griffin, but to stand alongside such poetry as this is surely laurels enough.
 (from “Notations in Blue: Interview with Radiclani Clytus,” in Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews and Commentaries, ed. Radiclani Clytus. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2000.
Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver.
Check out Arc online for reviews of this year’s Griffin finalists. The winners of the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced tomorrow evening, June 6.