The Norma Farber First Book Award was established by the family and friends of Norma Farber, poet and author of children's books, for a first book of original poetry written by an American and published in either a hard or soft cover in a standard edition in 2011.
This year's judge was Dana Levin.
* * *
The Train Dreams It Is Flying
into its competing image: the river. But
the river can move faster and with more
fluidity than it. Both wish to be the most
dark, the blackest. No matter how hard it tries
the train cannot propel itself away
from the frozen water. The scenery snaps
in half and a tree rises up as silhouette,
briefly dividing the machines—
train and river. The train rushes headlong
into whiteness. So this is it,
what speed is. An outline. A broken branch.
To fathom: to get to the bottom of, dive into, penetrate, see through, thoroughly understand, according to the OED. Yet "understanding," in Emily Kendal Frey's The Grief Performance, is a precarious enterprise; destabilization its bane and hunger. "Affection is a dumb dog./Whoever said that/didn't own/me,/was not/my master" Frey writes in "Meditation on a Meditation of Frost," an archipelagic sequence where aphoristic certainty is undercut by sudden swerves in sense: "Death, my best and most/ insincere opponent,/I'm ready for you this time/with fists of sand." Wily, witty and weird, often haunting, sometimes heartbreaking, the poems in The Grief Performance dive deep, for all their individual brevity. They prove Hemingway's iceberg theorem, that a certain "dignity of movement," as he called it, comes with confident omission. We never get much autobiographical detail from these poems, nor are their assertions and arguments exhaustively presented; in this they stay true to the silences and gaps that confront us always in our quests for certainty and knowing. The closest we can get to knowing, Frey suggests, is to be like the lovers in "Love Letter," who each hold "a particular weight, carrying something" that they can feel moving in their hands. Feeling that movement, in The Grief Performance, is also a vivid experience structurally: it was exhilarating for this reader to move through the book's first thirteen poems, all very short, tonally cool and heavily enjambed, and then turn to the fourteenth poem and find a rushing, very long-lined two page poem in couplets, with intense emotional heat, linguistic and imagistic flare. Such sudden shifts in form, pacing, diction, and tone characterize this fascinating book and herald a brave strange virtuosic talent.