Griffin Poetry Prize 2012: The international finalists

Finalists for this year's Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada's richest award for poetry, were revealed earlier this month. There are two shortlists, one international and one Canadian, and the winner in each category will receive $65,000. Winners will be announced on June 7.

CBC Books has already looked at the three Canadian books in the running for the lucrative prize. This week, we're surveying the four international collections.

You can win a complete set of the Griffin finalists by entering this month's poetry-themed CanLit Quiz. Go here for details.

Night by David Harsent

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This spooky, atmospheric collection is the literary equivalent of a scary movie, but with existential undertones. British poet David Harsent is also a scriptwriter, so it's not surprising that his poems are vividly cinematic. He's a master at hinting at the sinister without bringing it into full view (where its spell might be broken), in images like "the shadow-play in trees/the note of panic evening brings to birdsongs" and a twilit garden where the door "blows shut as you enter."

The genius of Harsent's work is that it gives a supernatural tinge to various forms of unease that haunt our everyday lives, from past regrets to anxiety about what the future will bring. "All the stones are old and blind/All the winds are ill/All the birds are silent/And all the fish are still," he writes in the creepy Ballad. That could be the description of a mythic landscape under an evil curse; but it could also serve as a prophetic glimpse of devastation wrought by climate change.

The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa

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American poet Yusef Komunyakaa describes the chameleon as "the alchemist's skin habit," which makes it the ideal emblematic creature for these elegantly crafted, contemplative poems exploring forms of disguise, illusion and transformation. Sometimes the aim is self-preservation, as in a poem about Jews hiding from Nazi persecution in Poland during the Second World War, or sometimes duplicity's purpose is predatory, as in a poem written from the point of view of a skilled pickpocket.

Komunyakaa's own silky sleight of hand is evident in memorable turns of phrase and imagery, many of them in the service of a deep-seated concern with injustice, past and present. "How many lamentations /bounced off these walls & kept traveling/beyond? I know this is how place & time/own humans," Komunyakaa writes in a poem recollecting a visit to Warsaw. What perhaps is most impressive about The Chameleon Couch is how easily this versatile poet slips from one voice and setting to another. As he puts it: "I am a black man, a poet, a bohemian,/& there isn't a road my mind doesn't travel."

November by Sean O'Brien

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There's an elegiac cast to many of the poems in November, whether urbane British poet Sean O'Brien is honouring deceased friends and family, or writing of a railway town gone to seed "in the silence/After the age of the train." The poems of personal loss are tender, as in O'Brien's portrait of his mother and her unrealized ambitions ("There was a book you always meant to write/in London, where you always meant to live," he writes, addressing her). But O'Brien also memorializes people and places left behind by the post-industrial economy, and in doing so mourns the social values of earlier generations ("a version of the public good/Unthinkable to those not largely dead").

The final long poem, modelled on Dante's Inferno, turns a night on the town in Newcastle into a surreal, darkly visionary tour of seamy clubs and bars, against a backdrop of urban blight. It's a superb bit of high theatre to close out a collection of polished, evocative work.

Sobbing Superpower by Tadeusz Różewicz, translated by Joanna Trzeciak

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Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz came of age during the Second World War, and he bears witness to his times — their lingering horrors, as well as fleeting moments of happiness — in spare, unembellished poems. His diction (as rendered by translator Joanna Trzeciak) is simple but resonant. Although he's not one for fancy turns of phrase, there are many memorable lines that deserve to be included in a dictionary of quotations. His wartime poems are particularly hard-hitting. In the desolate, blistering Lament, he speaks as a soldier whose experiences have left him spiritually bereft: "For six years/fumes of blood gushed from my nose/I don't believe in water turned to wine/I don't believe in the forgiveness of sins/I don't believe in the resurrection of the dead."

This substantial selection (more than 360 pages, including 50 pages of notes)ranges from 1947, when Różewicz published his first book, to poems written in 2008. "It's hard/ to be the shepherd of the dead," he writes in one of his later poems. In fact, this far-reaching, wholehearted collection shows him to be a valuable guide for the living.