Sunday, December 9, 2007

"Best of"

I want to praise good books book by book, and consequently I resist the reduction of end-of-year “best of” lists. The quantifying of quality. With winter comes the call for book critics’ favorites, a short list of top picks, an impossibly small number of books deemed better than all the others. I find this process painful and, in spite of solid critical criteria, arbitrary. It’s a game, a gamble, a shuffling of priorities and compromises. And so begins the reluctant dealing of the cards from a stacked deck, the required discards, the arranging and rearranging of the fanned hand in search of a winning combination, a feeling of being strong-armed, of bluffing, of hedging one’s bets.

I played this high-stakes game for six consecutive years as a National Book Critics Circle board member, seated at a long table with a large cast of passionate players. Now it’s a game of solitaire, but somehow I still seem to be facing a group, my various reading selves. The me that loves a poetry collection one day and finds it cryptic the next. The self that swoons over the pages of a novel, then, months later, realizes that somehow it is the response that is memorable, instead of the book. Or, conversely, my insatiable reading self who can’t bear to give up any of the year’s beloved titles. And the overworked editor who inevitably overlooks a deserving book. Winnowing down my true wish list of outstanding books to conform to a prescribed number is a form of editing, much like my daily sacrifice of prose to meet requisite word counts. Another surgical procedure, another steep climb in painfully tight shoes, another interrupted dream. But selecting the best is also an act of sharpening, of rigorous questioning, honing, pressing, testing. A study in necessity and essence. A test of time and resonance. A duel between the rapturous self and the critical mind. A letting go. A leap.

Here’s a poem from a collection I’ve chosen as one the “best” of 2007, Captivity by Laurie Sheck.

As when an otherwise opens

Now December strikes in with its own brittleness, as when an otherwise

Opens in the body, wrenching further into slant and hazard.

Past the covert operations of the state, past checkpoints and official access.

A crystal splits along the lines of its own cleavage.

Questions unshelter themselves harshly. Each war-zone of them flaring,

and radical with damage.

1 comment:

Francisco Aragón said...

Hi Donna:

We met at The Exchange, put out on by The Guild Complex. My name is Francisco Aragón. At some point, I would like to discuss The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007), which I edited, and for which I just landed a grant for a mulit-city, multi-author tour which launches early next year in Palm Beach, FL.