August 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

 

Scroll down to see the poets reviewed, and you may find one you like.

Ghost Girl by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Pudding House Chapbook Series. 27 pgs.

The Collected Poems of Philip LamantiaForeword by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. University of California Press. 413 pgs.

Hot Flash Sonnets by Moira Egan. Passager Books. 69pgs.

The Year of What Now by Brian Russell. Graywolf Press. 71 pgs. (Winner of The 2013 Bakeless Poetry Prize)

Tiger Upstairs on Connecticut Avenue by Elisavietta Ritchie. Cherry Grove Collections. 121 pgs.

de’range’ by Doug LangPrimary Writing Books. 107 pgs.

visiting hours at the color line by Ed Pavlić. Milkweed Editions. 140 pgs. (National Poetry Series winner)

Rearrangement of the Invisible by Gail Rudd Entrekin. Poetry Matrix Press. 90 pgs.

The Most Natural Thing by David KeplingerNew Issues, Western Michigan University. 87 pgs.

Singing School by Robert Pinsky. W.W. Norton & Co. 240 pgs.


Ghost Girl by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Pudding House Chapbook Series. 27 pgs.

This book will deepen your relationship with poetry. There’s an emotional range from funny to menacing but big issues are at stake—betrayal, longing, assertion, trust—and yet how stylish are the deliverables. The subjects are sometimes terrifying: rape, oppression, power. What a great conceit to have a Ghost Girl be the protagonist, the hero, the victim and the perpetrator; and she controls the action. Ghost Girl is a superstar because she goes to the heart of desire or danger with the discipline of fine writing. Don’t presume for all the pain she encounters, she will not be left with a feeling of triumph. Maybe being a ghost is a different way of being; and, that this poet can reinvent herself and create a poetic infrastructure shows she’s no beginner. The writer combines art and experience to make an otherworldly masterwork.

Ghost Girl Pursues the Want Ads

If you have experienced a death yourself

You will probably be an effective counselor.


The 32-hour training is required by state code.

If you find you don’t have emotional distance


from your own death there’s no reason to feel bad.


Self-disclosure lets callers know they’re not alone.


Be honest: our lives were not perfect either.


The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia. Foreword by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. University of California Press. 413 pgs.

Finally a book that tells us who Philip Lamantia is and his role in American Poetry. He’s been long out of the sunshine of attention, but he now receives some affectionate notice after death. Lamantia was not simply a human reactor to his seniors— Ginsberg, Rexroth, Duncan—he emerges as a significant voice, a balanced and intelligent poet, provocative and original. The floating assumption is that Lamantia was a drugged out beatnik wannabe poet. This book is a game changer. Together, these poems reveal a mind of intelligent poetic argument, inquisitive about language, sometimes lyrical, capable of peaceful conclusions. There is a beautiful long poem titled Mirror and Heart (from TOUCH OF THE MARVELOUS, 1945-1948,) a love poem that ends…” My love/ my gypsy/ among the fallen you are luminous/ you wander with those who are a mystery/ with a naked heart upon your breast.” His reliance upon classicism surprised me, and he is influenced by the Masters.

Lamantia was described first as a surrealist and certainly remained a practitioner. He entered the San Francisco scene as a teenager with a fake Englishesque accent projecting a mystical persona. He was in love with fantasy and pop culture. He associated with no less than Anais Nin and Henry Miller; Kenneth Rexroth claims to have discovered him and was his greatest mentor. With the S.F. Renaissance in swing, Lamantia fell in with Ginsberg, Kerouac, drugs, bebop, Catholicism, manic depression, jail, heroin, a radical lifestyle with a reasonable ability to hold relationships with women, one divorced, one long-lasting with Nancy Joyce Peters who helped edit this book. All combined, this life became poetry we can now examine. He is experimental, erotic, ecstatic, sometimes chaotic, but generally more lyrical than Allen Ginsberg, more surreal than Kenneth Rexroth, and more romantic than Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He uses graphics on the page effectively. It’s good to have all this work to look at over time from a poet deserving of recognition. From MEADOWLARK WEST 1986, the first lines of a 3-page poem.

Isn’t Poetry the Dream of Weapons?

The impossible is easy to reach

Who knows the way out of the labyrinth?

These are not rhetorical questions

the heart has its reasons though reasons not

                                                  Imaginary…


Hot Flash Sonnets by Moira Egan. Passager Books. 69 pgs.

Moira Egan’s triumph is here—a poetic victory for all, women and men—impeccable sonnets of classic frame containing the grammar of the day. This is prize writing. Poetry is a kind of behavior and Egan’s is mischievous, witty, wise, perceptive and just plain adorable at times, as she declaims the body’s progress toward maturity. She displays the many states of womanhood with the journey’s full potential, more interesting every page. Time and distance from youth are inevitable but a poet who expertly crafts menopause is fundamentally our spokesperson. The premise is aging. We shape our stories to match our lives and Egan lives hers with great good humor giving us the solace of her company. This language she speaks, it is ours.


Clarity

The way they do, this storm’s brought clarity

and coolness to the air, and seeming calm.

Hardly a day to muse on one’s mortality,

the sun this bright, the breeze faintly embalmed

with sage, rosemary, jasmine, and pine tar.

I think Monet, half-blind, would’ve loved this lake,

its morning jade, the afternoon sapphire,

night’s wavy onyx catching the moon’s wake


I know the alternative is cold

and darkly permanent and so despite

the minor aches of starting to grow old

I’m trying to fashion ways to celebrate

the scintillant of silver, each fine line,

the tiny crow’s-feet tracks that mark my time.


The Year of What Now by Brian Russell. Graywolf Press. 71 pgs. (Winner of The 2013 Bakeless Poetry Prize)

Maybe because I recently lost my Beloved, or maybe it’s Russell’s gift of seeing—but my heart beat fast with the first poem and through to the last. In every collection of poems we have organized information, emotionally true but somewhat imagined. The incident and experience must be true to the imagination to create a lasting reality. How does the poet face loss with its consequences; and how does he make coherent meaning from this. And, most miraculous of all, how is it unique to each poet? Finally, death and loss are only as good as the writer. Brian Russell works on the edge of guilt, resignation and silent hysteria—everything influx, trying to help—and sometimes distance–a dying spouse. His sensibilities are wry, bold, irreverent, even humorous, while verging on defeat. He lives all these in the suspension of days before his wife’s dying. The paradox is that the reader should shy away from suffering except Russell makes it a magnet. Everything is going away, yes, but how he looks at it makes it permanent. He restores. He fills the space as it is being emptied. I admire how Russell makes his visual partners memorable in an invented life from true circumstance. He puts a face on grief and how quirky it can be. In the poem Disgrace the speaker drives past the hospital where is wife is begging him to visit. He drives to the megaplex … "it was/almost empty that time of day what’s the least/ popular movie you’ve got/ I asked the girl inside the glass cage/ and she told me and I took/ my ticket and gave it to the boy/ who tore it in half and gave it/ back to me right then/ I was convinced/ you were going to die/ while I sat in the back/ of that goddamn theater/ I wanted so bad to have/ to myself.”

Only pain that comes from engineered intelligence will last in the mind of the reader; and although we know that trillions of years from now the stars will burn out, nothing at this time seems more important than Brian Russell’s take on death.

We Remain This Way

your hands were stained the urgent shade

of blood    when I found you

you held them out to me as if holding a gift

as if they contained something of more

substance    something you wanted

me to take    but I didn’t want this    I didn’t know

what to do with it    we remained that way

for centuries     two useless statues commemorating

an event that no one remembers    even now

it’s unclear which of us asked    what happened.


Tiger Upstairs on Connecticut Avenue by Elisavietta Ritchie. Cherry Grove Collections. 121 pgs.

Elisavietta Ritchie is a progenitor of Washington D.C.’s poetry culture, author of 18 books of poems and verse (since 1970;) editor of three anthologies— so we’re naturally eager to see what she’s up to. And we find a full palette. The collection is not thematic but it is cohesive for she has her own voice, cultivated over years. She’s eternally sensual; and sometimes enters canvasses of famous paintings to become the subject itself. (Camille Pissarro: The Bather Speaks; August Renoir: Lady with a Parasol in a Garden; Edouard Manet La Gare Saint-Lazare The Lady Speaks.) I love these—the way she plays dress-ups in another century, her great ability to occupy and vitalize a tableau. There are also elegies and remembrances for friends; she’s a rescuer of cats, birds, children. Each poem is in defiance of abstraction for her real stories are the durable sources of her art. Overall this is as much a gallery of life lessons as a book of poems; and, for its prosperity of wisdom I say “thank you;” for its systems of thought I say “intelligence is never boring;” and because life takes its toll on us, I say Ritchie rewards us with a set of propositions disguised as poems simply for the appreciation of having lived it.


Another New Year’s Morning

I know there will become a day

when you will be with me no more.

I would lure you with Turkish figs,

Grecian pomegranates, grapes from Provence,

Austrian chocolates filled with liqueur,

Chilean strawberries in champagne—

but by then you may no longer hunger.


So as New Year’s Days replace

one another with startling cadence,

I cherish this morning, and arrange

blood oranges from Haifa, clementines

from Portugal, blueberries from Maine.

For now, you are here. We savor each other

glistening sphere, sunrise- mirroring slice.


deŕangé by Doug Lang. Primary Writing Books. 107 pgs.

I first met Doug Lang as a jazz critic/commentator on WPFW-FM, early days (1977;) he’s written and taught vigorously since then and it’s a pleasure to see what’s on his mind. I would say Jazz is still right up there in the frontal lobe and maybe the reptilian part too. I think even those who do not follow improvisation and off-melody will enjoy the playfulness and mindfulness and sheer energy of these poems. I’m no expert on cultural politics but I think this book is. Displacement of language is counter to poetry’s ruling class. I’m afraid to label Lang as avant-garde for to label is to judge in a way and I’d probably be wrong; as there’s a tradition Lang writes from, showing up in the first decade of the 20th century. It is the non-narrative esthetic. This has something to do with the way dissociative language is formed in a temporal framework; this makes a sense of immediacy in all these poems. Also “discursive” poetry shows no desire for the reader, and reveals no strong emotion at first reading. Language does the unfolding, not meaning. The fact that Lang titles his poems “Sonnets” is a way of reclaiming poetry to a different organization and a different consciousness. Are there retrospective moments? Yes, on the title page Lang acknowledges “found material’ (Chaucer, Milton, Shelley etc.)” and a wide variety of other writing, usually rearranged and/or distorted.” The poems are fun to read, possible to decipher if you are into decoding, and they offer a refreshing series of innovations. They are fun—like Dr. Seuss for big people but with life/ death ideas.

I felt pretty good about identifying Stacy Szymaszek and Jesus in the following poem. It was difficult to type but the typing helped me appreciate.

Particle Sonnet

Not everything is in the script. Otherwise, why make the movie?”

—Nicholas Ray

                       0 Stacy Szymaszek

                                 0 Arlo Quint

                      0 Stacy Szymaszek 0 Arlo Quint

          SCIENTISTS CLOSE IN ON “GOD PARTICLE”


Feel like feel like sugar on the floor

                         Sugar on the floor

POLICE LOOKING FOR BABY JESUS

                     Sugar on the floor


                               0 Stacy

                                  0 Arlo

CRASH LEAVES POLICE CRUISER UP LIGHT POLE

                                          0


            BEAR FOUND ON GARBAGE TRUCK

sleeping in the evening. evening sun going down


visiting hours at the color line by Ed Pavlić. Milkweed Editions. 140 pgs. (National Poetry Series winner)

If we woke up one morning and there were no words around it would be because Ed Pavlić got them all and made a kaleidoscope of poetry. “Astonishing” doesn’t describe anything, I realize that, but that’s what came to mind as I read through. It’s what Pavlić does with the substantial amount of imaginative thought that he has. There are a few series of prose poems; verbatim ll runs 5 pages, about being a youth in 1979 where innocence, cruelty and lore come together. There is a 20 page play at the book’s end, where I feel Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter meet Ed Bullins through Pavlić—the ability to break free. The way to read this book is to forget blueprints but follow the poem where it leads you, its clues and handprints of deeper cultural conflicts will take you further than language can muster.

What is most important is the great certainty with which Pavlić writes; he is faithful to the world where he grew up; and layers that with courage after sight. Bright Blindness October 8, 1871: A Chant gets right up next to apocalypse – our vulnerability – the nakedness—The power of Pavlić is how different he is and yet how he exists in us. The title poem is in 7 parts. Here’s the 3rd:

iii (this poem continued in iv,v,vi,vii)

   You do James Sr.’s Blue Bland on the plastic

couch: “I know you’ve been hurt.


by somebody else. I can tell

    by the way you carry yourself


and waved down the metal hall

at his wife’s white sons,


           “I’ll take care of you.” Your smile’s unchanged, man.

I breathe it all back into the phone


and it sounds to me

      like “smiles unchain the man.” We don’t talk


     about that. Instead, the old drunk you heard

whisper at us. You : “had him his

     last nigger that night—I nod. “tried to hide in a phone


       booth?”—Again. Your eyes drill


  the glass, “believe that shit?”—And, again


Rearrangement of the Invisible by Gail Rudd Entrekin. Poetry Matrix Press. 90 pgs.

Entrekin’s story is of the cycle and growth of love and how it is amplified. The setting for many of the poems is living with a husband diagnosed and treated for leukemia. The book will mean a great deal to anyone who wishes to see the myth of our highest selves coming together in an actual marriage. With breathtaking imagery and phraseology, Gail Entrekin lives the seriousness of commitment with an unselfconscious humility. The poems are a serene daily practice of living with someone you crave to keep; and a household where children as young adults move in and out of the concentric circles of family with uneven currency. Some poets write what’s good for language—Entrekin goes to the motion behind every word, observant to every moment in a repertoire of change she cannot control. If I had a choice, no one would have to write of physical decline but when this results in poetry that cannot be measured against any other, once again art saves. It saves us all. Here, Entrekin paints a character portrait:


The Train

There is a hum at 3 a.m. of a passing train

down in the flats, along the Bay,

and the sound carries up to the hills

where a wife lies, not waking,

but dreaming of waking, dreaming

of faces out the windows of trains,

faces in the uncurtained windows

of unpainted shacks, alone with a single bulb

as the train crashes by, full of the lucky ones

who can leave.

                          There is the hum

of that train about to enter the station

as the woman in the burgundy hat

feels the platform vibrate under her Sunday shoes

buttons her coat against the wind ahead

of the train, picks up her brown paper bag

of old letters, yellowed photos, a hand-knitted

scarf, some baby shoes, a Milky Way,

and she waits there

to get on the train.


The Most Natural Thing by David Keplinger. New Issues, Western Michigan University. 87 pgs

David Keplinger’s poems are connotations saying this is how I see it—the restraint, the heroic, the crazy bald view of it—use it anyway you can. And what might Keplinger believe in? That the world’s slow turning asks that we surrender to it, and there’s nothing to do with its controlled recklessness but worship the allure of fantasy and language. In each poem there are stunning particularities—a teacher wipes chalk from her dress—a fat man pushes away from the table—the doctor’s face, giving bad news, is shaped like a valentine—a father sleepwalks and thinks he’s hammering—parents and grandparents emerge without glamour, distorted, but somehow more authentic—a mythical “Anicka” appears and reappears in different guises, a healer a muse. The world is a Fellini world of the imagination but the clowns are very serious and very very smart. 

In books by our very best poets, there are only about 6 or 8 poems we return to over and over. Check this out on your reading meter. You’ll find it’s true. With Keplinger every page is compelling—a  parallel universe for this life we cling to, with its dream states, and the body that holds it—a testament to wonder without sweetener. In a way, Keplinger begins his own golden age of poetry in this book. Each poem is 9 lines, almost margin to margin, which some call prose poems, but they are not prose, they are lyrical and each a prize work of architecture. The utterances and phrases are separated by spaces, as well as punctuation, telling exactly how to hear the poem. This is core competency from a highly developed creative power. Why do I keep thinking this is a resurgence for poetry! Poetry has not been dead. Far from it. But somehow this clever magical poet’s fervor brings to the page a splendor of humanism— the extension of wit, delight and cynicism. He’s at the top of the heap of the originals. When I finished reading, I said what would become of us without them.

The Right Brain

To activate it, strict codes of conduct were applied. John

Keats wore ruffles and a jacket, slacks with a ribbon of

satin, hemmed to his size. There’s Emily’s gown,

apocryphal, bleached, and Blake’s scratched boots, his

feet dunked in them. There’s Hart Crane’s weird drinking

blouse; the collar wound with an ascot; the cloak and 

headscarf of Marianne Moore; Pound’s shabby trousers,

the fly is down. It’s Saturday evening. They’ve had their

baths. They dress themselves in these uniforms. For this.


Singing School by Robert Pinsky. W.W.Norton & Co. 240 pgs.

My most favorite collector of favorite poems is Robert Pinsky. This is the book we’ve needed. It teaches how to learn from reading great poetry. Singing School presents 80 poems, each with a preface from poet Robert Pinsky. I wish I’d had this book a long time ago, but I can still make much of it and I know every classroom will benefit from its practical knowledge, looking through Pinsky’s lens at poems by the great Masters. A small précis before each poem serves as signpost and promise. It tames the poem. Pinsky shows the poet’s technical accomplishments and philosophy; he steers away from extravagance to assure the clearest possible communication. Pinsky’s brief summary sentences before the poems distill, without diluting, complicated thought. There is a reason each of Pinsky’s mentors has gained a legendary status over the years and his close look tells us why. With a striking proportion of history, and literature, Pinsky’s intellectual rigor and good humor make us the masters of our own reading. What the teacher knows, now, we can know equally well. 

The book has four sections: Freedom, Listening, Form, Dreaming Things Up:

Listening, Section ll, relates poetry to music and musicians, the harmonic structure of language. In its introduction, Pinsky has a wonderful 2-line poem by Walter Savage Landor: 

On Love, On Grief

On love, on grief, on every human thing,

Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing. *

*“Lethe is the river of forgetting in Hades.”

The art of this fifteen-word poem is beautifully considered. Then, in this same introduction, Pinsky turns to Emily Dickinson, and then on the very next page to an interview with Dizzy Gillespie about harmony and rhythm. The great variation with which Pinsky unpeels subjects will appeal to the general public as well as poets and teachers. Pinsky is known for the democratization of poetry, leveling Mt. Olympus so everyone can have a piece of real estate. His Favorite Poem project allowed thousands to share their poems in America’s Favorite Poems anthology. Singing School follows another essential book by Robert Pinsky, An Invitation to Poetry. However, I like this new one best because, each month, I read hundreds of pages of contemporary poetry—and Oh those Masters, how I miss them— and to my shame, I never would have found an unforgettable poem by Walter Savage Landor.

For a personal portrait/interview with Robert Pinsky, (Poet Laureate of the United States,1997-2000,) go to www.gracecavalieri.com. For audio of the poet reading and discussing his work, <http://www.loc.gov/poetry/media/poetpoem.html>

Grace Cavalieri hosts/produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio,” now celebrating 36 years on-air. She holds the AWP’s 2013 George Garrett Award; and the 2013 Allen Ginsberg Award for Poetry.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books, attn: Becky Meloan
311 Tschiffely Square Road,
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20878.



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