August 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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




























A Doll for Throwing by Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf Press. 86 pages

Mira and Other Poems of Guyana by Stanley Niamali. Mountain Arbor Press. 84 pages.

Sorry You Are Not an Instant Winner by Doritt Carroll. Kattywompus Press. 30 pages.

Here in the Afterlife by Daniel Thomas Moran, translated by Lidia Vianu. Integral Contemporary Literature Press. 63 pages.

The Fawn Abyss by Adam Tavel. Salmon Poetry. 71 pages.

When Hollywood Comes to You by Vincent Guerra. Four Way Books. 58 pages.

Coming About by Michelle Gillett. Four Way Books. 59 pages.

Dipped in Black Water by Kate Peper. Finishing Line Press. 26 pages.

A Turkish Dictionary by Andrew Wessels. 1913 Press. 94 pages.

Natirar by Wanda S. Praisner. Kelsay Books. 64 pages.

The Wrack Line by Pat Hanahoe-Dosch. FutureCycle Press. 85 pages.

PLUS: Best Selected Poems, Best Elegiac Poems, Best Literary Journal, Best Poetry with Photographs

+++++++++++++

A Doll for Throwing by Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf Press. 86 pages.

When I read Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante where she included Stephen Colbert in her translation, I knew she was capable of anything — and she is. Genius is what they call her and I’m not sure what that means but I know she rocks the world with this unmatchable new book inspired by the “Bauhaus” movement.

The Bauhaus school of art was closed down by the Nazis in 1933 but has remained the major influence in 20th-century contemporary art, developing a philosophy of art and industry. The poems are permeated by a woman photographer of the time (Lucia Moholy), but the character that speaks through these prose poems is not a person but a construction of ideas. The Bauhaus provoked new questions and processes in art, therefore Bang writes coded messages that present perspectives not spoken exactly like this before. (I.e. Since there’s a current theory in physics that light knows when it’s being watched, we can get this poet.)

The unreality of objectifying objects and even motion — to create reality — is captured sometimes with the point of view from photographs, sometimes from a mirror, maybe the camera, etc. Bang cooperates with chance to show what inanimate objects feel. Language is the carrier; subjects are motivators for further thought. Bang allows herself great challenges so she can connect us to new sight, every which way — even upside down – if it’ll wake us up. These intriguing poems are sometimes pieces so we get the edge of a relationship, as memory works, or part of a prism. Breaking old forms to create new ones makes for robust writing. I’m not sure what the poet expected to do; but whatever it was she accomplished it — she’s bringing it — perhaps for the future of poetry.

One Glass Negative

We were ridiculous — me, with my high jinks and hat.

Him, with his boredom and drink. I look back now and

see buildings so thick that the life I thought I was

making then is nothing but interlocking angles and

above them, that blot of gray sky I sometimes saw.

Underneath is the edge of what wasn’t known then.

When I would go. When I would come back. What I

would be when. I was hard working but sometimes

being becomes a habit: I came on stage wearing a

lavender fitted dress with a stand-up collar. He looked

at me, he took a drink. A man examining a hothouse

flower. I clicked, then closed my eyes — the better to

imagine my upcoming absence.

+++++++++++

Mira and Other Poems of Guyana by Stanley Niamali. Mountain Arbor Press. 84 pages.

If you’ve never been to Guyana you’ll be there now, with crusted pots, turmeric root, curry, roads and rivers. But that sphere is just a backdrop for its humanity. Primary is the story of Mira’s life between 1935 and 1975, from age 15, hardships with a fiery husband, to the morality of her perceptions and experience. These poems are songs from the rough cloths of the dwellings to the golden light of the jungle. “Ribboned braids”; “two o’clock sun”; “wild cribbage cole, saltfish and hot rice.” There’s brutality here, insanity too, and death; yet, poem after poem, Niamatali turns life’s clock into a living heart: (the poem, R.I.P.) “Mia feels/ his soft lips, / closed / on her mouth / Confusion/ runs down her scalp,/ down her neck and into her spine //Mingled breath / Her first kiss / Their first kiss / their last. ” Poetry illuminates this culture.

Talking to Her Husband

 

Distressed with a crusted pot,

Mira is at the sink;

her tears mixing with suds.
 

Fifteen year old bride,

tormented by a crack,

stares at floorboards

as she sets the tea

before him and mumbles:

 

“Meh can see.”

 

Still chewing,

he grabs hair,

stands upright,

works the face,

flings the annoyance

across the kitchen,

sits and slurps

his sweet tea.

+++++++++++++

Sorry You Are Not an Instant Winner by Doritt Carroll. Kattywompus Press. 30 pages.

What powers the work of Carroll is bold truth, intellectual firepower, and emotional experiences that raise good dust — after the settling, nothing is the same. She’s able to articulate what affection should be and what it is not and she gets it right. High energy poems come from good narrative structure but it’s the tale told that makes for change in the reader. The marvelous quality of this warrior writer is that she takes responsibility for every consequence in every line. The meanings discerned here are of such natural strength we ourselves know more how to speak. This book inspires confidence in our art. It’s pedal to the metal writing I won’t forget.

love poem

 

i loved you back when my password

was Adventure before i changed it to Forever

then KeepUsPlease then SaveMe

 

i loved you when you were a portal

to another world and i whispered

our secret expressions to get in

 

i loved you when i told you what i didn’t want you to do

and you did it anyway whispering “oops i FORGOT”

and in the morning I did forget as if it never happened

 

i loved you through rugs that cats and dogs and children

got sick on chairs mapped with wine stains and sofas

we pushed off the precipice into the dump

 

where they hung for a moment

balanced like teeter-totters

and we weren’t sure which way things would go

++++++++++++++

Here in the Afterlife by Daniel Thomas Moran. Translated to Romanian by Lidia Vianu. Integral Contemporary Literature Press. 63 pages.

Only after seeing these poems selected from previous publications do we get the full scope of Moran’s faith in the world — rare and existential. I’ve been reading him for years and now have a new understanding of how a superb professional shows us who he is. These mental notes become positive vision that clearly and sheerly testify. And what is decoded for us? Revelations simple and true — childhood memories and then the child as father — all meanings intersect to tell us that living is equilibrium, energy is the force that controls it; and men of goodwill will describe glorious moments with dexterity.

Psychotherapy

 

No one ever,

gets the parents

they deserve.

 

Born as

we are, with

empty bellies,

filled with insatiable

hankering.

 

Our childhoods,

become a bowl

of broth

with no meat.

 

All of it

seasoned with a

touch too much

pepper and brine.

 

Then, desperate,

we squander our

lives in search

of butter,

 

For all the

bread we never

had.

+++++++++++++

The Fawn Abyss by Adam Tavel. Salmon Poetry. 71 pages.                                                          

Adam Tavel does many things in this book but none more heroic than the Esgate family history from 1833 to 1910. This porthole into one family fans out to historical detail, personal loss, and chilling endurance. There are other vectors of history — an Antarctic expedition, 1915; and “White House Séance 1863,” a stunning take on Lincoln’s death. What I like best about Tavel is his lack of doubt. He tackles the truth in every situation as if story were his own natural resource. There’s a measured authority in every line; and when he talks about the present time there’s a cellular reality, touched with hope, saying what must not be lost.

John Lennon Glasses

don’t imagine the chalk

outline of his body but saffron

handprints my nephews

etch on driveways, bright

beaks of duckling, the delicate

daffodil & peace we squander

because it feels somehow

false & simple like a coupon

& there’s no crimson thumbprint

swirled against the lens only

the Yes of a world

unfuzzed, having seen so much

poetry & terror which is

an accurate summary of our lives

on jackhammer migraine days

gusting hail when dynamite

roars through the sacred

guts of churches or just

poetry & terror in the cubicle

on days we crave sky after the subway’s

long claustrophobia beneath

gravestones & angled pipes & perhaps

you pass me in the crosswalk

as its timer blinks from green

to orange, only seconds left

before the red palm strands

all the leather briefcases

& you fumble yours, papers splattering

so together we gather what we can

while taxis shriek their horns

at two strangers on their knees

++++++++++++++++++++

When Hollywood Comes to You by Vincent Guerra. Four Way Books. 58 pages.                       

Poetic angst can be pretty funny and is actually our collective cultural history. Guerra lives in a world he’s trying to recognize with a different view of reality, each poem whether it’s depressing trinket machines or the ache of an Eva Cassidy song. Guerra shows poets can be sociologists giving voice to our crazy 21st century, trying to normalize with language by shape-shifting their own beliefs. Poetrymaking is gathering words to create a place we can understand; and Guerra’s inescapable humor and relevant despair somehow connects us to everything behind our control, and we love that he’s in charge of that. In his poems even dying people have potential, buying junk at Walmart; and his perceptions are a morality because understanding creativity takes the sorrows of the world and makes it raw material — a quaint survival skill. Ideas drive poetry, and when you can make fast moving rifts that are like no one else’s and search for meaning in a series of notes that never go flat, we’ll read twice.

To the Shopping Mall

 

This is what I’m asked to love. Of course

the sun is white and hot and indifferent.

It is saying, I present you, again, with this

unsparkling pavement. I wanted a pair

of shoes for all occasions and weathers.

I hiked along the road without a side-

walk and hunched under the boughs

that required my hunching. I didn’t care

if others saw me hunch below the low

branches, passing in their tinted cars.

The world was made for them. I saw a

woman approach from afar in a yellow

dress, who I thought was my reward, but

she too passed me as if she didn’t know

me, which she didn’t. Everything seemed

figured out, or, if not figured out, hope-

lessly confused. I wanted to ride a good

mood until it broke only at the end of

me, along my most uninhabited shore.

Only then did I want to be touched. I

could feel the cold air coming from the

north. Soon the sun would go, and there

would be mosquitoes. The air cluttered

with tiny wings. It sounds almost nice

put in those words. Tiny wings to lift the

blood.

++++++++++++

Coming About by Michelle Gillett. Four Way Books. 59 pages.                                         

This book is as good as it gets. A woman writes about the natural world making you think she’s the first person on earth — and she also changes her life in each poem seeking and finding who she is. Her lines are liquid gold, not a word out of place. So when you read a book of contemporary poetry that makes life more alive — and finish it only to find the writer has just died, it’s a personal loss because you’ve come to love her. We thank the publisher for this book where we’ll always know where to find Michelle Gillet.

Shortcut

 

Wood smoke blurs the houses beyond the school

where children glance from desks to see snow falling.

Those learning to tell time add hours into days.

Some are sounding out words, breaking apart syllables

to make sense of the world growing whiter.

There is more to memorize but the bell rings

and the girl taking the shortcut home with her brother

has already forgotten the names of continents.

Their boot prints are the first impressions

in the trail along the slope where snow erases

roots above the sheen of ice sealing the river.

When she stumbles he can almost reach her

but the ice doesn’t hold. For a long time,

the grown-ups find no body. Downstream

from where she fell — her little Mermaid backpack,

one pink boot. How many days went by?

The children at their desks can see the frozen river.

They are learning present, past and future,

how far things travel, how to count by twos.

 

++++++++++

Dipped in Black Water by Kate Peper. Finishing Line Press. 26 pages.

Kate Peper has many talents. In addition to her super power to navigate a story, I like her titles. A good title is the X factor that few poets nail; and beneath these signposts are the travails of a woman who struggled with a body she would not have chosen — a destiny to be without child. From these projections, the poet centers herself into strong choices to make something memorable. The promise made is in 26 poems where critical narrative becomes wonderful with emotional accuracy. From the ruins of sadness come optimistic melodies: good writing, a story we want to hear, a distinctly different talent holding the line.

Hearing My Master’s Voice

 

Some days, I am RCA’s terrier

cocking his head:

the needle spins on the wax disc

and out of the brass flower,

my master’s voice.

It sounds like Him,

but where is He?

 

Other times, nothing is shiny.

My legs try to dance a bit,

but they give up.

God is on His knees

washing women’s feet.

I think He forgot about me,

the dark thing in the corner,

 

but if I sit long enough,

a bell will ring in my chest.

Faint, then louder, stronger —

Here I am, you know me —

a voice that will not be unrung.

+++++++++++++

A Turkish Dictionary by Andrew Wessels. 1913 Press. 94 pages.

He’s not kidding. This is a dictionary, by definition:

A dictionary is a book or an electronic resource that lists the words of a language (usually in alphabetical order) and gives their meaning, or gives the equivalent words in a different language, often also providing information about pronunciation origin and usage.

Wessels writes that his purpose is to show “the vagaries of the poet.” He does so with translations, travelogue, and history; all items in alphabetical order; the book has three sections, Language, History, Faith, often intertwining eastern and western history. He uses 16 literary sources to anchor scholarship.

Some might call this “language” poetry because of the lack of “thought-walls” (logic); using space as a pointillist might — other times he’s didactic, teaching us ancient facts. Turkish history and sensibilities fascinate the poet — religious icons, eastern cities, etymology, philosophy and prophecy. But here’s what I like best — when Wessels gives us a full-blown straight-ahead poem. It’s as if he dissects rainbows to get words that we can intuit even if we can’t understand; this can be transformative. Wessels is lifting, lifting, lifting, the language, making us reach for it. The whole of the book is an unusual blend of imagination and documentation — aphorisms and prose — he’s unapologetically original; and I learned a lot about strange things that have been buried in the archives. This book is a new kind of country in the nation states of poetry. Wessels lives in both Istanbul and Los Angeles and translates Turkish poetry.

 

 Taniştirmak              ˸˸          To Introduce

is red with you in your palm. Where

the call to prayer is the paper dove

on the horizon. Where the sky

can be touched, where it presses down

among us, sliver of ghosts

piled among ghosts. We are old

meat thrown among purple flowers,

tomato vines, imprint of feet held up

against the sky. We are an indulgent strip

of heat across the balcony. This figure I see

closed and infinite in nature is the leftovers

the revolutions of our eyes

around the pupil, the iris,

invisible blood vessels. I passed through

the gateway leading out of the mosque’s complex.

The first words called me across the city. What it is

to know these words. Watch it grow the grass

the world that is full of when clouds break.

+++++++++++++

Natirar by Wanda S. Praisner. Kelsay Books. 64 pages.   

The death of a son, the death of a mother, the flight of birds — these are common images for poetry unless they are changed by an inimitable hand. It’s the concept, not the subject, that’s so handily managed because grief can have unintended consequences on the page — some mask with clever reasoning, others weep publicly. Praisner is like an elegant Mozart sonata — not too many notes — just core skill enough to make the reader feel what the poet feels. Death is the most relevant fact in our poetry culture. Its inescapability makes it central; and, in these beautiful elegies there’s is a major character that appears, unique and unforgettable — a son’s Memorial Bench in the park. These poems engage us on the most primary level of appreciation.

September Storm

 

Tropical Storm Hanna came

up the coast to New Jersey,

less a threat than expected —

mostly sheets of rain,

the North Branch bloated and brown.

 

Yesterday’s Star-Ledger

showed the storm making landfall

in North Carolina, a huge wave

hitting a pier in Wrightsville Beach

where my son once swam

far from shore. I made him promise

to use his college lap pool instead.

After he drowned at the school

that September, I flew home with him

up the coast to New Jersey,

a bird caught in the eye of the storm.

 

++++++++++++

The Wrack Line by Pat Hanahoe-Dosch. FutureCycle Press. 85 pages.                            

The emotional world has seldom been better described in a book about other countries and a drive across our own; and, she takes a social conscience with her, along with a literary talent whipping poetry clean. The unfortunate do not go unnoticed: the waitress who gets rewarded at the end of the day with a beer — the black boy with his arms raised high in surrender. Hanadoe-Dosch is a natural born poet with a command of lyric power that’s impressive. It’s not easy to fold social progress into a view of the pyramids or a lonely street in New Orleans. “Being present” takes on new meaning with this woman’s skill set. She wraps ideas in a personal context so easily the words seem to write themselves into harmony.

The New Game Theory

 

Lake Mead is shrinking into a crater, Hoover Dam

into cracked concrete, dead turbines.

Paved and confused, NJ and NY

are refugees from the swelling Atlantic.

Nevada is buying out of the entire country

because casinos own all the real estate,

that’s all. We’ll strike water eventually,

says the pundit on TV. The odds

are always in the house’s favor.

Improvisation and all things Jersey

must surely trump mass extinction.

From Las Vegas to Atlantic City, the stakes

are all just a lot of damn theories.

We’re all clamshells in the beaks of sea gulls.

Or at least mixed metaphors flopping around in a dry lake.

+++++++++

BEST SELECTED POEMS

Hose and Iron by Greg Kuzma. Stephen F. Austin State University Press. 100 pages.

Kuzma is an American classic. In the poem “How To” he begins “How to be, direct, again./How to speak words/straight and flat/right out through the hole in my face,/like chunks of rock…” Kuzma doesn’t have to worry because every word he speaks is true to his poem. This book shows that he goes big and always has. His long narratives are epics with each line integral, preparing high experience for the next. Not since William Carlos Williams has there been a poet who can take walnut shells, mirrors, feathers, clothes poles, spiders, and every broken thing to make them moments in poetry history. Page after page, Kuzma reaches to places never reached – strength, integrity, irony, sadness, humor; and language that fits. The poem “How To” ends “… how to be graceful / like leaves at the wind, hung / by a single nub, making a light / rustle, soon to go down into/autumn, making no issue/of it.” I think he did it.

The Pelican

I don’t know if he is rare on these northern lakes

where the wind blows in unbroken by a tree

and sweeps the water dry in any but the most tenacious lakes,

but there he is, in the picture of the water of Oak Lake

in the evening paper on the very first page.

The pelican, with his bill like a boat, with his hidden

habits and scary flight, comes to rest in the middle

of Nebraska ten blocks from my house.

He must be far either way from where he was

and where he is going.

 

I thought once I was a native creature, full of

habitat and little loves, unable to advance our evolution

by adapting, but stuck in the mud where I found myself

the very first time I ever “found” myself. The pelican,

with his rather accidental occurrence in my life,

makes me suspect I am like him, confused at least

in appearance, and apt to fly to anywhere out of dim

instinct, and who will let the winds blow as they will,

and be glad to be flying at all, and say so to

everyone watching by setting down in a neighborhood

like this one.

 

Tomorrow he will be gone from the lake and the news,

the way I suspect I’m likely to leave

this place and that, pushing my gift of a face,

the only one like it in these parts, before me,

glad to be flying.

++++++++++++++

BEST ELEGIAC POETRY

Migrating Through Mortality, poetry and photography by Jeremy Taylor. Mercury Heartlink. 110 pages.

Everyone should read this meditation on life and death. Words “Life” and “Death” may have lost their meanings from overuse: but thankfully are rinsed off and filled with the light of self- knowledge in these perfectly formed poems. Faced with a life-threatening diagnosis, Taylor rallied to design his ideas into musicality and meaning. These thoughtful moments, privately imagined, now deserve to be taken out into the world so that true hearted readers can see the fundamental forces, and courage, that shape poetry.

Incorporating Heaven

 

The void between stars

is in us too.

Some fill the distance

with dark matter,

Buddhists have the bardo,

Christians God.

Infants, feeling isolation,

find comfort in favored objects.

So it should not be difficult

to grant this emptiness

is just transitionality

brought down to earth.

Alpha and omega are revealed

as we become invisibly aware

that heaven sits right beside us.

We see the void for what it is.

Dark matter, bardos, God

each the inscrutable expression

of life, and change, and death.

Then we can incorporate them,

and, in so doing, release them back

into the space from where they come.

++++++++++++

BEST LITERARY JOURNAL – AGNI 85

In 1968 a prestigious magazine accepted three of my nubile poems. The journal was about 20 pages, a stapled, white-paper magazine. Even then it was heralded for its editorship; and today this issue almost half a century later is glistening like a Bible on my desk. 240 pages. Approximately 33 writers. Not the least of its offerings are two “essays” from humorist/poet Nin Andrews, and “Walk with Snowy Things,” a beautiful piece by Lia Purpura. But that leaves about 31 other terrific writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry (check out George Kalamaras.) Also an architectural adventure with photographs by Olalekan Jeyifous. Take it on vacation. It’ll be your vacation. Here’s a poem by Cindy Veach:

Martha Carrier Hanged August 19, 1692:

They said she brought smallpox to Andover.

They said she killed her father and brother

making her Queen of Hell, aka Land owner.

Neighbors testified it was none other

than Goody Carrier who haunted

them at night. They said she bit Sue Sheldon,

threatening to cut her throat because she wanted

her to sign the book. She stuck a pin in dumb

Ann Putnam. Killed Samuel Preston’s cow

for being very lusty. And there was that

black man whispering in her ear. Somehow

she caused the death of Allen Toothaker’s cat.

For these Complaints, though each one was a lie,

she was condemned by the Grace of God to die.

 

+++++++++++++++

BEST POETRY WITH PHOTOGRAPHS

Paterson Light and Shadow, poems by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, photographs by Mark Hillinghouse, introduction by Gerald Stern. Serving House Books. 87 pages.

When we think of Paterson, we don’t think of the movie first. We go right to Maria Mazziotti Gillan who put it on the map, building on what W.C. Williams left her. She’s not only a poet of prolific excellence but the founder of a Poetry Center; poets-in-the-schools; mentoring workshops; classes; book awards; readings; literary magazines and print materials that showcase the poets of this generation. But let’s start with her poetry. At the Dodge Foundation Festival in (circa) mid-1980s, I heard her read the poem “Public School No. 18: Paterson NJ,” and I was in love. Since then I’ve never missed a word she’s written or a portrait she’s painted. Now we have a multidimensional emotional experience of lasting value. History, yes, authenticity, yes, and art not calculated but true. Photos reinforce the narrative in chilling black/white photography designed so that even color can’t distort reality. Every page is exhilaration, bringing an American city from the margins to the center of our culture.

Jersey Diners
 

All the Jersey diners have vanished, those old silver

rectangles with their counter stools that twirled,

their neon lights, their metal tables and fake leather used.

After we’d go out with a crowd, we’d always end up

at one of those diners, each group wanting to stop

at a different one — West’s diner on Rte. 46 in Little Falls,

Libbie’s in Paterson, Madison Avenue diner near

Railroad Avenue. Looking back, I see our young faces

lit by the harsh diner lights,

 

and only from a distance do we know how protected

we were, how we’d mourn the passage of time,

the loss of so many we loved,

the vanishing of these diners, replaced by malls

and shopping centers, hotels, and big box stores,

the diners glowing only in memory, and their tacky

glory, and we, our faces still untouched by grief and loss,

caught and framed in the diner’s windows.

____________

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Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” celebrating 40 years on-air. Her new book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers).

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