April 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.


Best Poetry for National Poetry Month


The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary School by Laura Shovan. Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. 227 pages.

Manual for Living by Sharon Dolin. University of Pittsburgh Press. 89 pages.

Crave by Christine Gelineau. NYQ books. 83 pages.

Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album by Philip Metres. University of Akron Press. 75 pages.

The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement by Diane Lockward. Wind press. 94 pages. 

Antigona Gonzalez by Sara Uribe. Translated from Spanish by John Pluecker. Les Figues Press.173 pages.

Rapture by Sjohnna McCray (winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets) Graywolf. 61 pages.

Receipt by Karen Leona Anderson. Milkweed Editions. 69 pages.

Easiness Found: Poems and Paintings by Fan Ogilvie. Fan Staunton Ogilvie Robin Enterprises. Tisbury Printer.231 pages.

Utmost by Hiram Larew. I. Giraffe Press (Iris Press). 33 pages.


The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary School by Laura Shovan. Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. 227 pages.

What took us so lyrically long? Finally! A book-length narrative in free verse for children. This is poetry that reads like a novel with real characters, real aspirations, true sadness and joy, and a genuine mission. There are 18 kids in Ms. Hill’s 5th grade at Emerson Elementary School; and the school is to be torn down to make way for a supermarket. And our plot (in verse) comes through the voices of the 5th graders, How to have a voice? What is civil disobedience? What color to paint my toenails? How will anyone get the Board of Ed to listen to us kids?

Author Shovan has found the niche for young consumers with a story of soul and heart. On each page a distinctive character tells his/her story. Shovan’s calculus is simple: get true blood in the veins of real people, then let them speak for themselves. Here are real life situations — the boy whose step-mother is mad because he left his candy out and his brothers ate it, but it was a gift from his real mom and cannot be replaced! Then there’s the best friend who used to play chess at recess with Edgar “Now he’s always with George Furst, / working on secret projects.” There are wishes, lies, and dreams, just the stuff poetry is made of; and here young people are connected to their words with emotional strengths — unifying themes within a strong plot. There are diversified kids, Latin, Arab, all races, and current topics; Shovan makes every risk a success.

Although the book shows young people with a passionate debate, we never forget they are 10-year-olds upholding the public trust of their school. And through this, they find out better who they are. You’ll buy it for your kids or classroom, and then you’ll read it twice, just for the delight.

December 23

Jerusalem

Norah Hassan

In Jerusalem my grandfather had a lemon tree.

Every day, we went to his house and picked lemons.

My sister squeezed them; I added sugar and soda water.

We said, “We are drinking sunshine.”

 

In my new country, I see bare winter trees. No lemons.

Every day after school, my sister goes next door.

She watches our neighbor’s baby.

Our apartment is so quiet, so small;

At school, I feel quiet and small.

 

But when Shoshanna sits with me at school,

I can’t stop talking. She wants me to tell her

about Jerusalem and the lemon tree.

Shoshanna has invited me to her house

during winter break so I can teach her

how to make fizzy lemonade.

 

I hope our whole class goes to Montgomery Middle.

If we’re sent to two different schools,

how will we stay friends?

I want to go back to Jerusalem one day,

and tell someone who never came to America

about my friend Shoshanna.


Manual for Living by Sharon Dolin. University of Pittsburgh Press. 89 pages.

Sharon Dolan can leap lines like nobody’s business. Her poems burst with energy from interior rhyme and rhythm and startling abruptions. The first half of the book is an actual manual with

good apparitions — poems are titled: “Pay No Attention to Things That Don’t Concern You;” and, No One Can Hurt You;” and, Everything Happens for a Good Reason” etc. etc. these are worth listening to, not as cautionary tales which we expected, but boundless acts of grace and style. The second half is “Black Paintings” (perhaps Ekphrastic). The third section, “Of Hours,” Is an arc of time: poems starting from 4:30 AM to ‘bedtime.’   Geographically, Dolin’s poems use space in a way that speaks to each word. She’s affiliated with the art world and this is apparent in form and content. Her meanings endure because of her jaunty and unique philosophical approach — Dolan writes decibels of lyric-driven poems that pay off.

Let Me Thrum (6 a.m.)

 

a new lay upon this lute for you

Let me hum the new day

of loose strife and lily

 

Let prayer plant and mallow

let heads and hearts        let heels

and thumbs         feather and fins

and all things fleet and slug

 

antennae and furred

all sing > all shirr > all rub and buzz

and fling their call to you

in song-light as the mist still clings

 

as the settled dew thins

as all the attendant things

 

in your rising yolk-red grin

unfolded and rebegin


Crave by Christine Gelineau. NYQ books. 83 pages.

Gelineau records all “creatures great and small.” The horse is a long-standing metaphor in her work and represents resiliency and strength. Also it’s the promise made for movement and power. Poetry was at her side as she watched First Born: “Last of August and she struggles into her separateness, muscles of/ unsayable needs and hungers…” And Second Born: “He develops his own lop-sided crawl/on hands, knee, and a turbo-boost/ from the other foot…” And there is music in her bone as she writes Ocean: “…Contrail of silver bubbles rises.  Arcing into the undertow/ she thins; one treasure is as good as another to the sea.” Personal context is her form with the body heat of felt life. The X factor in writing is to be present; and then to subordinate oneself to the poem, as in honoring a friend, in Paterson New Jersey (for Maria Mazziotti Gillan :) “ ..she sprints/ with her bundles and her pocketbook, /her keys bristling in her hand: / by the time the punk catches up/ enough for her to see the knife, her car door/ has slammed already and/ she is leaning into the horn/ and stabbing the key in the ignition/ like there is no tomorrow/ unless she makes it/ with her own two hands.” This is not to seek the truth but to see it. Gelineau is good at this. She has the will and the way. She knows if it’s organic, and of the moment, it’s real.

Backing a Colt for the First Time

 

It’s exactly the fact that you could die

that lets you forget you will die.

 

As separate now from the muck

of the everyday as you are from the ground,

even the mortgage, your son’s

calculus grade, or your husband’s mother

ebbing away in her hospital bed

 

replaced by instinct,

rhythm and sinew,

by unpredictability

and the quickness beneath you.

 

This suspension

in danger and pleasure is bodily,

pure

and compelling whole.


Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album by Philip Metres. University of Akron Press. 75 pages.

In  reviewing Metres’ previous book, I wrote: Sand Opera emerges from the dizzying position of being named but unheard as an Arab American, and out of the parallel sense of seeing Arabs named and silenced since 9/11.”  I naturally entered this book with preconceptions. Pictures at an Exhibition is an esthetic, not political, wonderland, although art by all nature is political. His blueprint is Musorgsky’s 1874 musical composition, and this leads us through a tour through St. Petersburg, Russia — visually and symbolically. His poems leap from psychic to actual sights, letters, stories, Russian words and sounds. He approaches a scene, a work of art, a character and equates a similar — but not exact — logic to the event, creating a virgin world to an existing premise. Strangely I came away with a strong feeling of what it is to be alone in another country, clinging to its artifacts and iconic rationales. Although I’ll never get to St. Petersburg, Metres improves the quality of my life by his gifts.

 
 Skin of the building, sloughing
 
Second. Gnomus
 
The king ordered the three greatest artists of the realm to paint his portrait.
He was badly deformed, his left eye having been gouged out and his left
leg maimed. The first artist produced an impeccably accurate portrait, down
to the socket of the missing eye. Outraged, the king had the artist be-
headed for his insolence. The second artist, fearing the fate of the first,
painted a healthy king, handsome beyond compare. The king had him
beheaded for his dishonesty. Now the third artist, after a sleepless night,
composed the painting the would save his life: in the picture, the king,
mounted on horseback, was pictured in right profile…


The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement by Diane Lockward. Wind press. 94 pages. 

Lockward is sassy and sweet and sad and funny. She writes of marriage, divorce, motherhood, the usual — but nothing is really that, by her hands. While Shopping at the Short Hills Mall she   turns her old husband in for a new model.” I walked in a store and bought a new husband. /The old one had conked out and was minus/ irreplaceable parts…for an extra $50, this husband would sing/ in the shower without restraint… My old husband was worried about the thickness/ of his heart…I worried about the hardness…” Lockward takes everything and turns it on its head. She can make tragedy beautiful and heroic. In The Two-Door Mailbox with Gin she finds a half empty martini glass with toothpick still intact, and speculates “whatever drunk/ had passed my way was gone/ leaving this fragile momento/ among the darkness, the bills, / and the pile of bad news.” She writes a soliloquy In Defense of a Cashew puzzled from a phrase from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, thinking what Bishop might have thought: “…What the cashew started her new lover/ completed, the two of them lost in the lushness/of Brazil, love ripening like an exotic fruit…” How I Dumped You, a prose poem sounds like an aria with every line alive: “…As a baby loses its first hair, the fuzz gathering like the tufts/ of tumbleweed, the mother getting use to loss in small bites I lost you hair by hair…” Lockward is awake, happy, angry, baffled, vengeful, loving. She makes room for everything within a single poem and I wish she lived next door.

YOUR BLUE SHIRT

Left behind like a cicada shell

it hangs, so incredibly

blue. I slip into it, wear it like skin,

the body I loved all over me

my breasts, my back, my neck —

your scent in the weave.

All day I breathe you in,

put off the final disrobing.


Antígona Gonzalez by Sara Uribe. Translated from Spanish by John Pluecker. Les Figues Press. 173 pages.

Sara Uribe was born in Queretaro and now lives in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Uribe is inspired by Sophocles’ Antigone. Her poetic prose is a series of fragments that are utterances against the war, grief, death, and brutality surrounding her and others in the wars of Latin America. Antígona is searching for her dead brother, Tadeo, who compares to Sophocle’s character, Polynices. Antigone mourns her brother, Polynices, who was killed and never allowed to be buried. In parallel, Uribe’s Tadeo has been taken and there’s no help for Antígona, no authorities to turn to, no surcease from sorrow. Victims are “disappeared” and abductions are never resolved, yet she searches. Antígona recalls times past with her brother, remembrances, memories, in a journey of questions with no end. It metaphors  thousands of others; and so the book is made up of news releases, quotes from articles, emails, testimonials from journalists, reports from crime scenes. In the Greek drama, Antigone is bereft with no body to bury; and author Uribe uses Antigone’s words “Will you join me in taking up the body?”

Here are some shards from this powerful book:

“…So as not to forget all the bodies without names are our bodies…”

“…Keep quiet Antigona .Don’t go after the impossible…”

 “…Some nights I dream you are thinner than ever. I can see your ribs. You’re not wearing a shirt, and you’re/ barefoot…”

 

“…Chihuana. Chihuana. April 17. / A four-year-old child was found dead. His mother/had

 reported him disappeared on April 6…”

 

“…No. Tadeo, I wasn’t born to share in hatred. What I want/ is the impossible: for the war to stop now; for us—for/ each of us wherever we find ourselves—together to/ build ways to live with dignity…”

 

“… I’m also disappearing, Tadeo… All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches/ for us, if no one names us…”


Rapture by Sjohnna McCray (winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets). Graywolf. 61 pages.

The portraits of Sjohnna’s parents are full-form and pungent — a crucible for the feelings we’ll find in the other poems. Sjohnna’s first poems are also strong predictors that the poet is a change agent in personal narrative. He drills deep to get to the truth. What a lesson to writers — how to frame iron filings to make the magnet. Start with tiny details. His work can also soar and fortunately does not escape his hand. Poetic form holds exactly the proper engagement wanted. He wants the reader to know someone’s in charge — that salience is measured; and governs a hotbed of emotions. We can trust the page. Sexual relationships are joyous, and frightening, speaking of union with a new language. Also shown is its opposite: cold singularity. That’s the magic of his story. The emancipation of loneliness. He talks without fear. He means what he says. Each line moves up the scale and increases the risk but Sjohnna doesn’t back down. He sweetens the ache of courage with craft. I think he has word power. I believe in him.

The Widower

 

The real test of love happens afterward,

the spin cycle over, plates rinsed,

the dish towel threaded through the door.

It happens when you’ve picked his best suit,

shined his shoes and had the right rouge

applied – so it seems he’s aged

without any kind of pock or blemish.

Belief in your own mythology –

the apartments, the toasters, and the mixers.

mismatched silverware and such.

Will it lead a man back? Will he come

when all the roads lay open?

Will he settle for the dusty light that shines

through all those kitchen windows?


Receipt by Karen Leona Anderson. Milkweed Editions. 69 pages.

The poetry gods are tickled pink with this one because of its playfulness and intelligence. Anderson writes about food and clothes — but the poems take on the character of a life being alone and not being alone. These poems have a personality stamped on them that make them the poet’s own, without danger of imitation. This is what I like about poetry, thoughts that are original and speak to a new generation about what can be done to tell a story. Each poem shows a different part of our poet and many poems are comments on a mercantilist society.

There’s some speed riff in balancing verbiage and Anderson shows the control it takes to give performance value without showboating. I hope we see more from this artist with her stylish ideas about society. She’s full tone and full tilt; and yet keeps centered in her emotional projections with the wonderful accuracy of language.

Pizza Night

Kale, local, wilting in on itself.
Organic egg: a frittata except
you have only a corruption of
conventional cheese. Something
that was asparagus; some oil
you built with pesticidal
spices. Olives full of black
holes. If you had made the right choices,
you’d hardly need to mix matter
with what doesn’t matter. Yogurt, plain,
but from a big box. You wouldn’t
use a faulty cog in your rocket,
so why this scattering of rotten
parts? Strawberries, unseasonable
and furred with silvery fungus,
a really bad mistake. Corn
cut from the same metallic cloth.
The cheese magnet-blue with mold,
gravitational. Or would you, did you,
unschooled and awake, imagine
all chemicals revolving inside
you, blame antimatter for how
much quicker it sucks in? There are
the mushrooms gleaming white
in the dark, collapsing and slick in the bright
air. All at once you are: needing to feel
full of the worst thing you can
without meaning anything: dark, a star.


Easiness Found: Poems and Paintings by Fan Ogilvie. Fan Staunton Ogilvie Robin Enterprises.Tisbury Printer. 231 pages.

If you want to read startling poetry and you respond to the stun of art, then you might as well get them both at once in Fan Ogilvie’s new coffee table book. “A table book for display” has the sound of faint praise. This is the opposite — I mean it’s simply a work you wouldn’t want lost on the shelf; and one you’ll want to pick up — to remind yourself what artists are capable of. The cover is a witty painting by the poet Ogilvie and the book is peppered by her bold works of art. The poems are of everyday life: countertops, Campbell’s soup, a trip from LAX airport. She includes quotes from luminaries who informed her energies, with remarks that show courage and will. I’m touched by the physical beauty of the book with its self-command, literary talent, and sensuality. The entirety’s a promise that the artist’s role in our society cleanses and inspires confidence. In this sad and sometimes corrupted world, we can choose to turn to moral fire — the artist as standard bearer of our culture.

 

All The Difference

Two hands on the keyboard go forth strike the keys without

knowing where is F or G or A or B or D or C

 

your fingers need to know where the notes are and what song

you wish to play as they say by heart but if the heart dies

 

in the middle of finger playing then what what to say or do

with no heart in the matter who or what will resuscitate if

 

such an operation is possible in this case or desired but oh

such a charged word would assume a heart to feel

 

it can not therefore be desire simply still form desiccating

sits deathly still waiting as patient at the keyboard.


Best Chapbook for National Poetry Month 

Utmost by Hiram Larew. I. Giraffe Press (Iris Press). 33 pages.

Is it possible that every page of a book can make us happy? This is nonsense I think.  I’d rather not say such a thing; yet I dare you to read Utmost and not feel the validation of every “…big…knobby knee in a fairy tale sky.”  Larew misses “… the rugs of my childhood…” He believes in “…clay huts and their importance… and …”To swell summer as apples do…” He wants “…To learn what’s what from older shoes…”

Buoyance in itself is not what makes light in poetry. It’s the philosophic underpinnings that change anecdote and utterance into resonance. I used to tell my children to find one miracle a day. Larew must have listened to his mother.

Your Life

 

Is not the top but the hillside

Not apples but their boxes

Not first or second place but the coming rain

Not eyes so much but far off voices

Not smart but smeary

Not wings but wooden stairs

Not the good silver but rather fog

Not a perfect circle but vines

Not seeds but open windows

Not completely true but some embers

Not forever but a dot.


Grace Cavalieri is the author of several books and plays, the latest a memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage (new academia/scarith). She’s founder and producer of THE POET AND THE POEM for public radio, celebrating 39 years on air, now from the Library of Congress.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books 
7029 Ridge Road 
Frederick, MD 21702

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