The venerable award turns 33 and gets a touch closer to its roots.
Some previous iterations of the annual Pushcart volumes have suffocated under the damp washrag of the writing workshop, staffed with the usual MFA mafia. Here, there are still one too many professors working under the influence of the easily imitated Raymond Carver, with this short-story snippet serving as a representative of the lot: “Frances drinks coffee and thinks about life as a long-haul driver, how uncomplicated it must be. How quiet.” (An academic who visited a truck cab would be surprised at how noisy the damn thing is.) Serving as a useful counterfoil, if perhaps an unwonted celebrity, is film director Ethan Coen, of bookish O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame, who writes of the sorts of things a John Goodman-like character might do with an evening, “nasty things till orgasm grabbed us and we yelled holy hell.” (Take that, postmoderns!) The poetry, as ever, is a mixed bag, including much too long, overstuffed, academic pieces such as Mary Kinzie’s “The Water-Brooks,” but also some fine, more narrowly focused ruminations like Afaa Michael Weaver’s rightly angry “American Income” (“black men know the gold / of being the dead center of things”). Among the nonfiction highlights are William deBuys’s sturdy reflections on the dead things found in deserted woods, some of them put there by the finder long ago; Harrison Solow’s account of the best singer you have never heard, who lives in a tiny village in Wales; and Floyd Skloot’s powerful, hard-wrested memoir of life after severe brain injury. Best title: “Mormons in Heat.” Runner-up: “A Berryman Concordance Against the Silence.” Honorable mention: “Chances Are, Lafayette, Indiana.”
As always, lots of bang for the buck: much good reading, much of it from obscure sources not often encountered outside these annual pages.