August 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Poetry Notebook by Clive James. Liveright. 234 pages.

*Dome of the Hidden Pavilion by James Tate. Ecco/HarperCollins. 143 pages.

Rel(am)ent by Jamison Crabtree. The Word Works. 91 pages.

Only The Dead Are Forgiven by Greg Kuzma. The Backwaters Press.126 pages.

Always by Julia Lisella. WordTech Editions. 83 pages.

Muse by Jonathan Galassi. Knopf. 253 pages.

The Complete Cinnamon Bay Sonnets by Andrew Kaufman. Rain Mountain Press. 73 pages.

The Father Of The Arrow Is The Thought by Christopher DeWeese. Octopus Books. 95 pages.

The Essential Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher. Harper Perennial. 418 pages.

Korean Sky: A Memoir by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. Shoulder Friends Press. 272 pages.


Poetry Notebook by Clive James. Liveright. 234 pages.

Every writer or reader of poetry will absorb this book with gratitude. James is one of the keenest minds of our time; his writing is pure liquid. His translation of Dante in 2013 was the easiest reading of all the translations because he’s a gifted poet and there’s never a breach in a line. Christian Wiman suggested these essays originally, to publish in Poetry Magazine when Wiman was editor. The essays have gone beyond that to other periodicals. James gives us intros he’s written for books and his interludes on the philosophy of writing. The subtitle of Poetry Notebook is Reflections on the Intensity of Language and is the most erudite commentary on poetry now on the market.

Notebook is an iconography of literature from Herrick and Jonson, Herbert and Donne to present. The great thing about this collection is that James knows popular culture and peppers the book with mentions from current TV and film, so don’t worry about library mustiness. He does a good bit on poets right after World War ll (Wilbur and Hecht his favorites;) and we’re introduced to some poets who are little known and under recognized, I didn’t know the scope of Michael Donaghy’s work in bridging the literature of America and England. There are also Australian poets whose names we may vaguely remember, but now will know.

There’s a no nonsense assessment of Pound here and a clear reverence for Frost. These are scholastic reminiscences from a lifetime of studying literature, serving as one of Britain’s leading critics. The essays are basically moral opinions textured with examples and fragments of poems. Luckily Larkin also is brought to life again for us and James takes us further than our circumscribed understandings. When a poet is introduced¸ every line is analyzed, tracking the poet’s eye. In 50 years of reading poetry, I learned as much from this book as half a century’s aggregate reading.


*Dome of the Hidden Pavilion by James Tate. Ecco/HarperCollins. 143 pages.

It’s a good thing when a new book is not the sum of a poet’s work but a completely new turn of events. I remember when The Lost Pilot won the Yale Prize and how many times I read it. I’d never recognize these poems as written by that same author although there is a flavored style of humor and grace. Also silliness, and the greatest force in poetry – the levels of imagination.

This is a writer who doesn’t look back over his shoulder at his reputation. He bridges over to the rhapsody of the new, the unthinkable, making a rhythmic frame of art to play. That he personalizes with his humor should go without saying. The requirement of poetry is that it has a unifying principle: These poems are all prose poems with characters, dialogue, supernatural possibilities and extraordinary outcomes. They’re really funny.

Part of the fact of Tate’s success then and now is the vocabulary of the truly free poet who flourishes because he knows limits are just something to push through. He doesn’t look back.

I Wrote Myself A Letter

I sat down and wrote myself a letter. And

Then I threw it away. I wrote my grandfather a letter and

I tore that one up also. I wrote my mother a letter, but

I kept that one. I was exhausted. Three letters in one

sitting……my father ran away

from home when I was three. My mother never told me why.

We never heard from him again. But I don’t think about

any of this. It was a beautiful day outside. Three little

mice tiptoed across the lawn. One of them had its arm

in a sling.

(Tate, a national favorite, (1943-2015) died before this book was released this month.)


Rel(am)ent by Jamison Crabtree. The Word Works. 91 pages.

Not since Franz Wright has a poet captured the dark so accurately and so profoundly. The book’s theme is the death of a brother, but this is no common grief. This is a howl of anguish, an unremitting cry of pain –a mastery of the many ways to snare and encapsulate the messaging of a broken soul. But the soul has not gone anywhere at all because, unexpectedly, as soon as we sonify into language, we can make art. This story of an unimaginable loss is not end-driven. This does not seem to be a poet who planned a chess game of grief. Each page unfolds as if no thought existed before. The poet lifts black veils, line after line, creating surprising combinations—utterances, lyrical and raw. It’s a living thing where the last line, the last stanza, is figuring out how to respond to all that precedes. Each phrase evokes the next and then the last is out of clear air. Real. Real. Happening in front of us. Crabtree gets the balance right. We couldn’t bear it if the poet didn’t know how to use page space and esthetics to calm the poem, and then to deepen meaning with murmur, before he pops it.

This is an emotional detective story. How is this page going to turn out? And how can the writer keep the momentum? Yet he does. He is available; He’s inspired; He has our attention but he does not care. He couldn’t care or he wouldn’t be able to keep going.

One life was gone. One life. And through the veracity of poetry that seems like the most important life ever lost. I could not stop reading.

Golem

IV.

Someone sings a love song

 

to the very river that drowned by brother three years back.

 

The seasons are vermin

sneaking solemn through the years.

 

He looks like you

so say.

He is quite handsome

so say.

 

softly. I am scared of the river which drowns each day,

scared of the thirst that draws me to it —

and to be scared is a sign

 

of a certain type of respect.

I remember him the way one might lay a wall.

 

Memorized him,

the way one might burn a field.


Only The Dead Are Forgiven by Greg Kuzma. The Backwaters Press. 126 pages.

Kuzma is the master of the long form. His creative imagination uses poetry as a good excuse for commentary — to connect — to evidence the rules of language as engagement. In “Small Talk” Kuzma reflects on his former mentality and spends a fluid six pages to build a new relationship with language and loved ones. Every poem is packed with incident but that’s not what Kuzma’s known for. He’s able to go along with very long writings to bring themes together within the facts of the poem. Try it. Try writing a six-pager and only then it’s apparent how, structurally, you have to pull on so many threads at once. Next, there’s a need to reenergize every 4th line or so, to keep presenting different insights to hold larger and larger meanings. The long poem constantly exposes new material to deepen the reading. Usually a brief poem expresses a single thrust. The marathon poem needs to have tiny dramas and a formed imagination to keep connecting dominant and subordinate ideas. Writing is a form of energy and Kuzma has the stamina to use the extended form throughout his long love affair with poetry, and to keep us interested.

The Place Where The Pheasant Bit Me

Did it call him

still? Beside him two more

angels lay in rough disorder of limbs,

lay where the dogs lay down

tired from their labors—and

brought him home this Sunday

as the sun set on the last day.

Look at my hands where his

spurs cut. See these scars to mark

me still when he is gone back

to dust. Here, a notch cut in my

knuckle, and then this scratch

along the heel of my hand, and

here, most deeply, in the web of

my hand, where the pen fits,

to hurt me as I tell his story.


Always by Julia Lisella. WordTech Editions. 83 pages.

It is not all that easy to write purely and simply. It’s not always easy and convincing to make the Saints seem palatable in today’s adversarial climate. Lisella invests in her beliefs, through poems that differentiate the virtues of myth from faith. What I like most is that the poetry flows from one sensibility to another and, although diverse in meanings, makes sense in a book of purpose. The poems are a path — a critical journey where the poet writes her way through a world of elevated thought. Lisella takes, in her hands, cancer, the death of a father, war, marriage, motherhood with poems of self-determination — not to endure, but to unlock the secrets of a life in service to gratitude for this world and the next.

St. Francis Begins His Journey

What color is the light in your head?

Yellow orange — the burning bush,

amber — the sun rising behind the glint

of the cave’s aperture?

Eating nuts, teas brewed

from plants brimming your ankles,

your wild, dirty hands

cupping morning’s pleasures —

you can’t stop knowing your body,

You pray in Latin for the moon’s rays.

You breathe pagan. You speak

Christian. You mark your path

with your scent. You know

you’ll have to return. You’ll

have to remember. You can’t change

the footpath, your legs’ stride, the frail

hold of your breath on the cave wall.

When the animals come,

and the women,

who will have their teeth bared?


Muse by Jonathan Galassi. Knopf. 253 pages.

One publisher says that publishing would be so wonderful “without all those wretched authors.” Galassi uses the world of publishing to construe a satire centered on rivaling publishing houses and a fictitious poet “Ida Perkins”. She’s loved and beloved by the literary world. “Ida was everywhere. Her work was read on the radio, quoted in songs and movies, imitated, discussed, debated.” The delightful parts of this book are that real authors, poets, and events are woven through so Ida is more than a metaphor. She’s part of the very active and exciting scene. (Those were the days when a poet could be a celeb.) Galassi lets us in on the particulars of the publishing world, with a side glance into the offices of the king/queen makers, and the life and times of Ida Perkins, femme fatale and bon vivant. “Her occasional stealth appearances in New York and San Francisco in those years was widely reported on… When Janis Joplin sang “Marginal Discharge” at Woodstock, Ida was reputedly sighted in the audience…” (Galassi must have had a ball writing this. He has Ida shaking a tambourine when Carly Simon and Carole King recorded her song.) Writers take a whacking too with the creation of Pepita Erskine refusing to be labeled “black or a woman writer, or a left winger, or a sexual renegade.

The letters and correspondences are terrific.

Dear Mr. Wainwright:

I want to thank you for sending Ida Perkins’s new book

THE FACE-LIFT WARS, which I have been nibbling at with

great fascination since its arrival. Miss Perkins is that

unlikely miracle, a Real Thing. Gertrude Stein, who as

you know encouraged Ida when she was a little girl, would

have been gratified to see how she panned out.

With Appreciation,

Alice Toklas

Ida’s final manuscript ‘MNEMOSYNE” is sent to a publishing agent not her own. (The poems are brilliantly awful and some come dangerously close to being poetry.) But Poof! They reveal a clandestine love affair with her longtime publisher’s wife. Surely this book must be published elsewhere! If you like books and publicists and literary characters and fake poets who marry several times and die in Venice what could be better? I read it at the beach and it made my vacation even better.


The Complete Cinnamon Bay Sonnets by Andrew Kaufman. Rain Mountain Press. 73 pages.

From police brutality, from the outrage, the handcuffs: “…the cell stripped of familiar presences/ more than anything I know how to write—the last loneliness, it just is, and it is, and it is…”

The poems move then into 47 sonnets entering the tropics — life in the lushness of natural beauty — but it comes from flashbacks that can never be resolved. “…when I half woke it was nearly dark — /far off, strange men argued and threatened/ and for a moment I was still in lock up.” Kaufman gives us a crown of sonnets where the last line of Sonnet 6 becomes the first line of the next so Sonnet 7 begins “For moments I was still in lock up…” This creates a mantra, a chant, a momentum.

There may be images in the poems- surf, pelicans, farmer’s fields, all the beauty of the earth, but braided through is the horror of old age homes, broken hips, confinement, danger in the cell block. When in the Caribbean the poet becomes historian endeavoring to give shape and meaning — appreciation, where cruelty burns a perverse memory.

The sonnet structure is essentially to make a unified whole because Kaufman wants to tie things up — the ugly and the lovely — in a language we can understand. Kaufman does this with personal ease using poetry as in intelligent conversation. This is a stirring book with more than one focus of interest. The sociological becomes visual with image.

The book is a reckoning of life experience. It notices what is wrong and, for that, the poet is an activist. But mental disturbance is not the theme. It is making beauty in real time data to replace the ugly past.

#14

These are the notes. But who might sound them for me,

to offset the nights I drift between reflection

and nightmares that are limned with a certainty

I can’t refute — like perjured testimony, sworn

 

by the police, gaining a life of its own, calmly

and poker-faced, once the defendant

has been beaten, cuffed, carried away, quietly

charged, then mocked and left in a holding pen —

 

packed like that formed by my failures, or with young

black men lying on cheap coats instead of beach towels,

their hands at their crotches at times, eyes closed, drifting

 

elsewhere. And like everyone here I keep swearing

I will recount what they did to me at some trial,

that I might find those notes and my bearings.


The Father Of The Arrow Is The Thought by Christopher DeWeese. Octopus Books. 95 pages.

I had seen some of DeWeese’s work but only knew the edge of it. Now, at the end of the month, my column is due, and my energy is spiraling so I took to my daily reading, not knowing what to expect. This is the thrilling part of my job — to be startled awake and refreshed by words, thoughts, verbal mannerisms some philosophers never imagined.

DeWeese titles each poem with a topographical label: Field, Valley, Tide, Pond, Lake Etc., but make no mistake, these poems are not confined to geography. In fact I’ve never seen a mind quite like this before. Behind the words is a human condition that is not LIKE the words but fully understood because of them. “The Harbor” begins:” There is no amusement/ a pier can’t do better, / I mean you could think of anything/ and then improve it/ by standing up / on some timbers/ above the mumbled water. / you could take your children/ and leave them there, / come back a few years later/ and they would all be interns/ of one sort or another…”

The poems are speculations, revelations, as if the writer has just been born and cannot believe his good luck; and what can be felt in the screwed up world. He’s a pioneer in his own consciousness. “The Swamp” starts, “The night is full/ of holes for breathing, / a box cuts through/ so stars can kill me. / they all point north/ like antique propaganda, / and when they fall, / something falls in me…” Each of his poems is uniform in line length and either 2 or 3 pages long. There’s harmony in his consistency but most of all I love the way he thinks. He attributes the trajectory of ideas to Paul Klee’s writings and quotes him several times. Here’s one:

Thought is the mediary between

Earth and world. The broader the

Magnitude of his reach, the more

Man’s painful limitation. To be

Impelled toward motion and not to

Be the motor! Action bears this out. (P.K)

DeWeese’s poems are immersions of his Being — breathing things — someone is coming alive in every line. The last stanza of “The Tide,” a 13-page poem (the only one of such length) “…I am here forever/ hungry in the changing light,/ midwife to a foul day/ that lowers its clouds/ so I might concentrate/ on the sleepless distance/ between where I am/ and who I’ll be/ once I hold my daughter./ I raise up high my badge,/ I deputize the rain/ to fingerprint this water…”

We are engaged emotionally because the writer is. He calls it out playfully and purposefully, tiny thoughts and cosmic truths. This guy lets us know his thought process as he constantly re-sees himself. So we know him, in this book, as well as he knows himself.

The Forest

The forest is never full of us

no matter how much

we grow ourselves out,

breaching the corporeal framework

our brains keep insisting

must contain a limit

when we smuggle children

through the wild nights

we have believed in.

When I was younger,

I was taught to hug anything

the storm washed against me,

to suck away whatever heat

emanated its tiny steam

from this world of lungs.

I received instruction

from what I found outside myself:

a million leaves

loving themselves to dirt;

a million families

doing exactly the same.


The Essential Ginsberg, edited by Michael Schumacher. Harper Perennial. 418 pages.

First a commentary:

I met Allen Ginsberg for the first time in 1976 after he’d been marching all night protesting the closing of Georgetown University’s progressive radio station, WGTB. I was taping poets coming through DC in preparation for WPFW’s launch on air in 1977. Ginsberg was cantankerous that day having been without sleep. He was with his partner Peter Orlovsky who tried, without success, to calm the atmosphere. I remember at one point Allen was so difficult I stopped the show and said, “Why would anyone want to be in a room with you for an hour?” He was shocked as if he had no insight that he’d been anything but accommodating. He then did a 180-degree turn, cooperating and answering questions about his work. Not long after that we became compatriots working together on Voice of America and other broadcast occasions. I have his last record album signed to WPFW. We played Ginsberg on-air often and he was grateful.

This book is truly the definitive Ginsberg and one thing that must be noted about Ginsberg is his impeccable intellect. Howl may look free flowing, but it’s the product of hours and hours of reworking. Ginsberg was a first rate scholar although he made fun of the Academy, “What do you do all day, sit around talking about Post Modernism…” he said at one event. Ginsberg was the brightest of his generation, a spiritual empath; and he sought to change the world to the good. The Essential Ginsberg is described by Editor Michael Schumacher in his introduction:

“… you will find a sampling of the range and topography of Ginsberg’s mental landscapes. Here are the long flowing lines found in Whitman… the prophetic voice of William Blake… the bop prosody of Jack Kerouac… dream notations, travel journals, autobiographical fragments, chatty letters to friends, details of his expulsion from Cuba and Czechoslovakia in 1965, photographs…” (He writes about his two masterworks, "Howl" and "Kaddish")...”and how his meditation practices informed and added texture to his work…” The book also includes Ginsberg’s testimony before the U.S. Senate.

This is American history seen/written through the eyes of a radical poet. The book is all you need know about how Ginsberg navigated his own literary movement in the 20th century.


NONFICTION of Note:

Korean Sky: A Memoir by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson. Shoulder Friends Press. 272 pages.

The past meets the present in the life-adventure of a woman born in northern Korea, who’s lived in America for half a century. When the US and Soviet Union divided Korean peninsula at the end of World War II, a child holds her grandmother’s hand, walking across the 38th parallel to South Korea for her father’s choice of democracy and America, only to live through the Korean War. In ever widening circles, that same girl eventually comes to Boston and becomes a scholar in religion and teacher. Then, she turns into a writer and filmmaker, combing interests in her art to increase social consciousness.  Along the way we meet characters in both cultures who transform the emotional infrastructure of this woman’s world. The author blends history, politics, and philosophy within a personal journey.  It’s only possible through “story,” with psychological action, and journalistic honesty. The author finally finds her “home “in a marriage with an Iowa farm boy who becomes a scholar and political figure. Vulnerability and strength return words to a very high order in this Memoir.


Grace Cavalieri’s latest book is a Memoir, “Life upon the Wicked Stage.” She produces and hosts ‘The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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