Judging the National Book Awards for Poetry? Good Luck.

It’s not often I read all five finalists for a major literary award, but this year I’ve pocketed three of five among poetry’s National Book Award Finalists: Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, and now Carmen Giménez Smith’s Be Recorder.

I’d make a lousy judge on one of these panels. Probably I’d pull a stunt like the judges did for this year’s Booker Award winner: choose two winners when I’m under strict orders to whittle it down to one. But hey, both Margaret Atwood (The Testaments) and Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) are happy, and I would be, too.

Reason? The old Apples and Oranges predicament. Books are often good in different ways, so sometimes differentiating means asserting that one way is better than another rather than one book is better than another.

Giménez Smith’s Be Recorder is good in a different way than the first two I read. It’s more of a hodgepodge of themes, from the scorched-earth political scene of our times to memory to family to popular culture to identity to race. Hell, even Star Wars sneaks in for a cameo.

So let me choose one of the more conventional poems from the first of three parts in her book. The section is called Creation Myth and the poem is called…


“Boy Crazy”
Carmen Giménez Smith

The echoes of sirens and cicadas,
and the drunk boys who howl
into the trees at 2 a.m. infect
my window while I sleep,
and I’m pulled into a girl I once was,
calling for love into a sky transected
by power lines until sunrise when the town
tightened into itself. I prayed for a boy’s
wolf life, the dream of skulking along
streets with hunger and immunity.
I wanted to cup the moon’s curve
in my hand like it belonged to me,
that was how young I was.


It’s a straight-up identity poem mined from the speaker’s past, and it reminds me mightily of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, where the protagonist, Esperanza, struggles with issues of self and sexism.

Yes. The boys seem to enjoy a longer leash (or none at all) compared to the girls, especially in the city, but why? And the better question is, what does the young girl in the poem love more—the boys or their freedom?

That’s a good question to ask. The type of question screaming to out in a poem.