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Rae Armantrout, Hilary Mantel win NBCC awards

California-based poet Rae Armantrout and British novelist Hilary Mantel were winners in their respective categories at the New School's Tishman Auditorium on Thursday night in New York City as the National Book Critics Circle announced its winners for the 2009 publishing year.

Armantrout, a poet associated with the West Coast wing of what came to be called "language -centered" poetry in the late 1970s and 1980s won for Versed, her tenth collection of poems published by Wesleyan University Press.

Versed moves toward a deceptively simple, almost lyrical concision, but always in service of probing the dizzying discontinuities in language and thought. In its two long sections "Versed" and "Dark Matter," she writes unsparingly and unsentimentally on the occurrence of cancer (her own) not only as a physical ailment, but also as a crisis of representation for the language of illness, the body and the self.  The poet-critic Ron Silliman has described Armantrout's work as "the literature of the vertical anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical (and, often enough, sinister) possibilities.”

Mantel, who we've written about previously in this space when she received the U.K.'s Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall -- her 560-page historical novel exploring political intrigues in the Tudor court of King Henry VIII from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister and adviser to the king who orchestrated the Church of England's break with Rome, the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries, and Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn -- won the NBCC fiction award for the U.S. edition published by Henry Holt and Company.

 

The award in nonfiction went to Richard Holmes for The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon), an ambitious narrative that attempts to show how developments in the 19th century physical sciences contributed to the oppositional aesthetics of the Romantic movement. 

 

The biography and autobiography awards went to Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf) and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End (Norton), respectively.  The NBCC award criticism went to  

Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press).

 

For a complete rundown of the awards and more about the books and authors that received them, visit the National Book Critics Circle Awards Web site. To listen to a public radio interview with Rae Armantrout on Versed hosted by my former University at Buffalo classmate Michael Silverblatt on the KCRW in Los Angeles program Bookworm, visit Rae Armantrout - Bookworm on KCRW.

 

--R.D. Pohl

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