2005 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize
The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $25,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered jointly by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been Donald Revell (2004), Eamon Grennan (2003), Madeline DeFrees (2002), Fanny Howe (2001), David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996) and Marilyn Hacker (1995). This year the award goes to Anne Winters for The Displaced of Capital. Jurors were Louise Glück, Alan Shapiro and Robert Pinsky, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Poems New & Selected, by Marianne Boruch (Oberlin); Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002, by Sharon Olds (Knopf); Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf); New and Selected Poems, by Michael Ryan (Houghton Mifflin); and Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003, by Jean Valentine (Wesleyan).
Anne Winters's The Displaced of Capital, this year's winner of the Lenore Marshall Award, is a polymath's symphony of praise and revulsion, for a specific city and for civilization itself. The book is about the partly visible, largely unknown conduits and systems that connect things: poverty and opera, the aisles of Home Depot and the oak owl that witnessed the roundup of Jews in the Cathedral of Ulm, the currency exchange and the tenement, geology and engineering, injustice and the transit system.
Winters is free from expected political poses but full of political ardor. She finds the perfect terrain for her subject, actual and symbolic, in the city of New York, with its surface grid of streets, the vertical compendium of its buildings and its underlying net of cables, pipes and tunnels. The city also flows and changes--"America's longest river" in "Night Wash," from Winters's earlier volume The Key to the City.
In a characteristic move, her poem "Cold-Water Flats" at its conclusion makes the river literal as well as figurative. It begins by calling up student days in the bygone Little Italy of Manhattan with a few swift lines, relishing the jangle of consonants that invoke the physical details--bulbs and tubs, the zinc-lidded and the amber-bellied, the courtly and the court and the chord:
By the light of a dangling bulb, at their kitchen tables, the students
grind at history, mathematics, courtly love...
The zinc-lidded bathtubs in their kitchens swarm
with gravid, amber-bellied roaches.
Across the court, in a Met broadcast, Puccini
fails to make one chord of twenty cold-water flats.
This is not local color or reminiscence, nor is it nostalgia or a moralistic lament for timeless poverty. The poet has a subject, and the subject has to do with the infinite, multiple layers of causality, suffering and accomplishment that underlie everything. The last cold-water flats in the city are just one human layer of the world's much laminated history, pressured and twisted by the forces of time.
For example, on a personal level, when the butcher sitting in front of his shop tips his cap, there is a story behind the gesture:
Electricity: direct current. Water-closets
(unheated) at the ends of the hallways. Each May,
the grandson himself comes by with a white-papered can
for "The Bride of Saint Francis." I've seen
the grandfather sweep his cash register clean
for just such a can--for two plastic-corded fratelli. He it was
chewed me out when I coolly bought his "Ground Meat for Pets"
at ten cents a pound. Ever after I must submit
to the complex folds of his frown, his muse overweighing
of ground beef in shining carnets of wax paper. And then
all summer he'll rise, one hand on his sidewalk chair,
black-enameled, back-tilted among
the men's chairs as I pass
and touch his welt-seamed cap
not to me but to her
to Donna Povertà! barely tokened
in my ephemeral Village-poverty.
The end-rhymes "can/seen/clean" resemble the plastic belt cords of the monks or the black-enameled chair--pleasurable quick moments that compress what some kinds of narrative prose might prolong tediously.
More ambitious than mere narrative, concerned with more than that "ephemeral Village-poverty," the poem takes the "cold-water" of its title literally deeper:
...the super's wife
anathematizes the plumbing. Below me, even deep
in winter, the just-audible trickle
of Minetta Creek, bricked over
a century ago.
This is the underground stream that stands for Winters's sense of live, unseen realities that flow beneath what we see. At street level, in the winter snow, in Minetta Lane named for that buried creek, we see "ochre columns of smoke from the garbage cans." And then, a concluding vision makes everything actually as well as symbolically deeper, yet also plainer:
...And in the walls, from taps
in the sink and the tub, cold water. Its tang
of stone and metal, icy
at faucet-mouth, numbed lips,
unceasing arrival, the water
which later, I think, will seem to have been
most precious--being useful, humble, chaste.
The qualifications of "I think" and "will seem" temper the positive adjectives of the final line, make the gratitude for water and the wonder at it a little more tentative and reserved. But the qualifying, tentative phrases also reflect an important quality of skepticism in Winters's ambition: She reaches far, and undertakes large expanses, partly in order to convey the limitations of what can be known.
That principle infuses the narrative poem "An Immigrant Woman," a story of disaster framed by the witnessing account of a friendship inside the city, crossing boundaries of social and ethnic categories. The friendship is in some sense fostered by the challenges and ways of the city, then dissolved by them. The engulfing speed of life, the enormous systems of the city, reflect the even greater forces that make people mysteries to one another. The city accelerates fundamental intimacies and incomprehensions as it magnifies needs and alienations.