December 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews By Grace Cavalieri

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

 


DECEMBER EXEMPLARS 2013

 

Monthly Poetry Reviews

by Grace Cavalieri

May all our holidays be filled with books.


EXEMPLARS

Because I Am The Shore I Want To Be The Sea by Renee Ashley. Subito Press. 57 pgs.

New and Selected Poems by David Lehman.Scribner. 298 pgs. 

Shadow Play by Jody Bolz. Turning Point Books. 77 pgs. 

The Tales by Jessica Bozek. Les Figues Press, Los Angeles. 74 pgs. 

The Silence in an Empty House by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. NYQ Books. 92pgs.

Ancestors’ Song by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Bordighera Press. 95 pgs. 

 Each Day There Is a Little Love in a Book for Youa poem by Lily Herman. A Dryad Chapbook. 27 pgs. 

Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido. Alfred A. Knopf. 95pgs. 

The CRAFTY POET: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward. Wind Publications. 246 pgs.

The Lake Rises: Poems to & for our bodies of water, edited by Brandi Katherine Herrera & Lisa Wujnovich. Stockport Flats Press. 79pgs.  

Lummox # 2, edited by RD Armstrong. Lummox Press.201 pgs. 

Who Touches Everything by Peter Waldor. Settlement House. 66 pgs. 

TWO CHAPBOOKS from Laura Madeline Wiseman: 
Men and Their WhimsWriting Knights Press. 32pgs.
First Wife. HyacinthGirlPress. 35 pgs.


Because I Am The Shore I Want To Be The Sea by Renee Ashley. Subito Press. 57 pgs.

 

These are called prose poems but all I can hear is poetry. And you too will be swept by the rich layered world Ashley invents. Radicalizing poetry sounds as if it’s breaking the poetry machine—quite the opposite. Ashley puts it together with cohesive symbolism supported by unflinching/unsparing feeling/thought. How many meaningful interpretations can one poet squeeze out of life, death, grief, love, yearning. She winds these universals like a spinning top of conflicting feelings and comes out with a new language. Surprisingly her words become one with the reader; and we find ourselves knowing answers to her many emotional questions. Our thinking is changed by innovative thought patterns, sort of like that luminosity test that makes dementia go away.

 

She’s funny, she’s sad, she’s hip, she’s profound — an energy and Imagination cocktail made with the proposition that we can follow perceptions as well as linear thought. After all, language is a natural resource and if the writer can find ways to negotiate the heart as if it is the first heart, I say Hurrah.

Is Ashley a radical reformer? All you have to do is listen to all the humanoids on TV, every one of them saying. “At the end of the day…” and you know we’ve been co-opted and language has been held prisoner. Now we can praise the poet as anthropologist responsible for solutions to find new ways to make speech matter.

[my father is ashes]

We are electric I know our conductor He is a very sad

man We are not in a field of cosmos We are not in a

field I’m only telling you that when the message leaves

the body I do not know what to make of the world I

make you up from the little I know with almost with

soon Is it possible the thing I love most is guilt or that

you are gone? We are such pain and we are utterance. We

are a strange thing in the air. You are imperfectly dead.


New and Selected Poems by David Lehman. Scribner. 298 pgs.

 

Lehman is a combination of Mark Twain, Charlie Rose and John Le Carre with a little John Donne thrown in. Is he historian? Rabbi? Storyteller? Yes and more. I say, take the book on a cross country trip and you’ll find literary entrapment that keeps you from looking out the window— each page is a pretty good job of unexpected surprise. (How can surprise be expected, I can hear Lehman say.)

The book gathers poems back to the 1970’s a lifetime of commitment to intelligence in poetry. Why I Love “You” (for Stacey) is an exegesis on the pronoun, dedicated to the one he loves. This is in current 2013 writings titled Escape Artist. New Poems.

Among other favorites are historic consolidations: The Code of Napoleon, 3 pages and 10 stanzas; another winner (2005 poems, obviously a good year) is In Freud’s House, a truth-filled parody of the psychoanalyst, stanzas verging on prose. The title poem of that Section When A Woman Loves A Man is a witty look at relationships—a favorite Lehman subject—this, with just the right amount of dialogue and just the right dialogue to be dramatic, showing an urbane couple with a happy ending.

But wonderful enough are the “Journals” in poetry, years 2000 and 2002. I like the laser-like stacks that have interesting centers, each one a grouping that assesses the world and the writer in it. These are forms of classical modernism and Lehman pits himself and his commandments to poetic scrutiny. He shares knowledge of the patrimony of philosophers, jazz, and sports. David Lehman is significant and necessary, sometimes romantic, and often just plain lovely. From 1996 Valentine Place:

Dutch Interior

He liked the late afternoon light as it dimmed

 In the living room and wouldn’t switch on

 

The electric lights until past eight o’clock.

 

 His wife complained, called him cheerless, but

 

 It wasn’t a case of melancholy; he just liked

 

 The way things looked in air growing darker

 

 So gradually and imperceptibly that it seemed

 

 The very element in which we live. Every man

 

 And woman deserves one true moment of greatness

 

 And this was his, this Dutch interior, entered

 

 And possessed, so tranquil and yet so busy

 

 With details: The couple’s shed clothes scattered

 

 On the backs of armchairs, the dog chasing a shoe,

 

 The wide-open window, the late afternoon light.

Shadow Play
by Jody Bolz. Turning Point Books. 77 pgs.

 

 “We once loved each other. Where does that take us?” So we have the pre-text for writing a novella in verse, looking deeply into a former marriage-trying to understand—to relive emotional fragments and what each is worth. And nothing else but poetry could clothe this—the mourning, the questions, the shadows. From the difficult advantage of memory, Jody Bolz is forced to cope with thoughts that defy reason and tradition—her iterations are about fueled desire gone wrong—her clean clear lyrics attempt the move through desperation to understanding. What poetic policies are involved? Certainly ethics; this poet does nothing to sully past love. Another, is redemption, for what else could the past possibly be for?

 

 I read straight through this action/adventure story without a tea break because it takes place, at times, in exotic lands, with mood changes reflecting the landscapeBolz refreshes innovations of dialogue with inner monologue on her roadmap/ journey, a sphere of past present future. Poetry is our advocate with no time constraints on the heart’s changes. There’s a dignity here in finding out who “he was” in light of who “he is.” Bolz uses alternative narrations to establish abstractions and define her values. I find a beautiful charisma about this book for what could be more important than that we try to know the other, even in our impermanence. Poems are titled by first lines.

 


 

What do you want from me?

Except to see what’s true.


              What difference does it make?


Now that we have families?

Now that we’re both safe?


               Our story’s over

               Despite what we remember.


So forget it—or revise it.

But what if it survives us?


The Tales by Jessica Bozek. Les Figues Press, Los Angeles.74 pgs.

 

For some people adventure means bungee jumping; this book is what adventure means in poetry. Bozek’s protagonist is “Lone Survivor,” a soldier after the apocalypse. These small oblique units, like Chaucer’s, are a cornerstone of the time. The lead story (cluing us in) is The Revisionist Historian’s Tale, it ends: …”For Years afterward, people talked about the first/ soldier to fell a nation with bedtime stories. They/ wondered if it was better to be stilled into atrocity or surprised by it…” The first poem is a one-liner The Historian’s Tale : “The citizens covered their heads, sitting down to sleep.” Here’s another in that convention, The Diagnostician’s Tale : “Their own tongue killed them: They had too much tongue.”

The question for me, always is, HOW DOES A POET SELL HER TRUTH? Bozek trusts us. She knows the poem begins in us when her poem ends. She only plans its arrival. The message is here, all in a cautionary tale—telling that none of us will survive anyway, so, all we can do is tell of it; And remember language is the only vehicle we have. Le Fugues is an astoundingly enterprising press. One of the last issues was Cunt Norton. Oh yes. With variations on the theme.

Jessica Bozek’s notes on her own poems are worth reading— telling us what art, literature, news item etc. inspired her.

The Saving:

A Fairy Tale

The healer’s take

After archaeologists laid out the complete skeletons,

we read the stories of the victims’ lives in their bones.


Those who had been spiteful in their time lacked

cartilage and connective tissue. Their bones could not

be put back together.


But we stroked the clavicles of those who had been

mindful and mindfully ambivalent, and they came to

life once more. We gave each a pair of shoes so that the

wearer might cross a mile of ground with every stride

and never again be caught.


The Silence in an Empty House by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. NYQ Books. 92pgs.

Ancestors’ Song by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Bordighera Press. 95 pgs.

Two books by Maria M. Gillan this year! It’s my custom to read a volume of poetry a day, but I carved out several for these books. The Silence in an Empty House was difficult for me, having lost a lifelong marriage through death, and this, in not yet a year – Gillan’s book tracks the loss of her husband through a slow consuming illness. In the poem The Blue-footed Booby Mates for Life “… ‘Are you trying to drown me?’ you shout./We flail around you, soaking your fingers in ivory soap// like the doctor has told us to, because the blood/ has stopped moving through your fingers and you’re/ getting gangrene. “I need to sleep,” you say…

I need to get up between poems to bake a banana bread or pet the cat, water a plant…anything to breathe deeply. Each poem will squeeze the heart like no other. Maria M. Gillan’s writing is an even truth without artifice. She may singlehandedly maintain the health of the narrative tradition in American letters. Her identity is in every line—how many poets do we see like that? Gillan utilizes every thought, everything she hears said, all things seen. She values each with the same nuance W.C. Williams did, finding a poem in a piece of broken glass beside his hospital. Her discourse is the every day. Our attraction to her is that we need this.

Ancestors’ Song is a compendium of autobiographical poems in light of those who created the past. In The Strange House Of The Past, Gillan says “…We cannot smile or laugh,/ our faces crumble,/ What we want is too dangerous//to hold or touch.” The qualitative difference between Gillan and most others is that she’s like a hero who doesn’t look back to see what others think of her actions…or what she should be writing. Also intervening among her family stories are observations from TV, newspapers etc.—converted to poetry.

In order to complete others, the poet must “know thyself.” Maria Mazziotti Gillan does.

From The Silence in an Empty House:

What Animals Teach Us

On the Discovery channel, I watch a documentary

On elephants set in sub-Sahara Africa. The mother has given

Birth to a calf who is weak and unable to stand. Every time

The calf tries to stand her legs bend at what I think must be

Her ankles, if elephants have ankles, and her legs fold under her

And her body sinks. The mother keeps trying to help the calf

To stand, supporting the calf with her trunk, but almost immediately

The calf’s ankles fold under her and her belly hits the ground.

The announcer tells us another smaller elephant who joins

The mother and the calf is the calf’s older sister. She does not want

To leave the mother and the calf alone. This is what animals teach

Us about family, these elephants so huge they could crush us

In a minute, they teach us how to care for one another. The mother

Is trying repeatedly to get the calf to stand, until finally she is strong

Enough to drink milk from her teat, and then strong enough

To stand alone. Isn’t this what we want for our children. To carry

Them and lift them until they are ready to stand on their own?

The way I wish I could have helped you, the way I am

Struggling to stand today without you,

No trunk to nudge me up.


And from Ancestors’ Song

Summer Evenings Under The Grape Arbor

Summer evenings under the grape arbor,

My mother gave us tangerines

and homemade lemonade.

She had a juice squeezer made of thick glass

and a fat glass pitcher and she’d press the lemons

on the pointed top of the squeezer. The pits would remain

behind while the juice fell through the slots into the pitcher.

Then she’d add water and sugar and ice and stir and put it

in the ice box to cool. We’d sit in the evenings

at the oilcloth-covered table under the arbor,

and she’d give us a glass of lemonade and a tangerine to peel

and eat. The air was full of the tangy aroma of the tangerines

on our skin, and we’d play gin rummy and talk and laugh

until it was nearly too dark to see anymore, the air full

of fireflies that circled us like tiny falling stars.


 

Each Day There Is a Little Love in a Book for You, a poem by Lily Herman. A Dryad Chapbook. 27 pgs.

 

Some books fit in your pocketbook. All the better, I say, because this book is all you need to know about love in 27 pages—its hunger, its thirst, its expressionistic appearances when least expected. For to love someone is to constantly reclaim love every day; and among all the tools given us, the engine is still possession. The arguments for that sometimes look like contrition, uncertainty, certainty, surrender – and always reclamation. Love is a venture. Make no mistake about it. The poet sees it sideways. And love spoken in verse is only commensurate to the talent of the speaker. Herman has it. She is terrifyingly accurate.

An animal chases


the room until the room

is dizzy

*

In a night’s seizure

I swallow my tongue

and grab yours

and choke it down,

too

*

Drinking from the same

cup, we wonder

about fullness but

neglect taste

*

We regard only each other

*

My eyes are two

pieces, I cannot see

what you are telling me

*

The end is only

excruciating once

it reveals that it’s

the end

*

We could just carry on

beyond it besides

*


 

Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido. Alfred A. Knopf. 95pgs.

 

When I read Lucie Brock-Broido I say Thank you Language, thank you language’s dress up clothing, and on top of that, thank you language of heart and soul in dress up clothing.

Brock-Broido tells a tale that feels like something remembered from childhood fairy tales— this time told in shards—explored as if we were children, fully awake. Her impressions of the world show what a poem can do; her portraits use art to tell her secrets. Her techniques include a generous use of space on the page to move us along, with full knowledge that poetry is a system and must have compensations and rhythms. She knows the dance. The poems here are not revolutionary as much as evolutionary, for they show how far we’ve come to understand how much can be unsaid, and that nothing seems as it is, and we much show it that way.

There are solutions lying under her words but not conspicuously— thought is secondary to the real priorities which are sentience and image. Modernism began in the early half of the 20th century, Brock-Broido capitalizes on this, juggling hemispheres that make sense and do not make sense, just like all the hope and fear of the words that overlap inside us. And over the centuries poets have written a locution of the self; some fail and some are reliable— the degree to which readers respond tells the success of the narrative.

Because I miss the books of my childhood so much, with magic on every page, I read Brock-Broido and say something there was here, and after that kind of reading experience we will never be the same.

Salt Lick In Snow

That you would, one day, stop breathing before


My own breath was held.


Were I to wake, muffled through the balsam

Woods sent of myrrh and mineral.


Would that be tonight.


That we had conducted ourselves with no austerity all along.

Nearer then, a child was a child herself, thin thing


Offering a teaspoonful of civet to the likes


Of us. Beneath the low sky lowering, unclear this time

Of year, you cannot tell


The salt lick from the pale and mackerel


Air around it. That I did not promise. I will never sleep.


 

The CRAFTY POET: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward. Wind Publications. 246 pgs.

 

Here is a must for teachers of poetry, that means all writers– for that’s how we make our living. Lockward tells us this began in 2012 from her “poetry newsletter” with craft tips and model poems. Also, there is material from her poetry blog, kept since 2007. I would want this for the anthologized poets alone—but added to that are lessons on every aspect of the writing process. What a way to ease our students into finding their own toolboxes. 43 poets are here with poems that teach and enlighten.

Here is what I found besides a feast of poems and instructions: What a poem is; how it is part of a public debate; the series of decisions that lead to a poem; the immersion of the poet in the poem; the sanctioning and humanizing of language; the resonance; what poetry represents; the backlash from falsity; the burrowing in; the focused desire; the spirit unleashed; what things we cannot resist and what should be resisted.

The interviews are priceless. There is a hearty discussion with Nancy White about the use of a hangnail in her poem and why White used that particular. Now, THAT is talking craft.

As for making craft into art, only a dedicated obsessor can join up and live the life. And for that there is no lesson and no cure.

Along with a fulsome personal description about the below poem, contributor Linda Pastan (CRAFT TIP # 12: SOME USES OF MYTH.) offers Penelope:

Penelope

The sun is scarcely

a shadow of itself,

it bled into the sea

all last week

and now, bandaged away.

waits out with me the long, long

month of rain.


Grey fades to grey.

The horizon is

the finest seam between

water and water, sky and sky.

Only the tide still moves,

leaving the print of its ribbed bones

on the abandoned sand

as you left yours on me

when you moved imperceptibly from my embrace.


I must wring out the towels,

wring out the swimsuits,

wring my eyes dry of tears,

watching at a window

on one leg, then the other,

like the almost extinct heron.


 

BEST BOOKS LIST

Anthologies

The Lake Rises: Poems to & for our bodies of water, edited by Brandi Katherine Herrera & Lisa Wujnovich. Stockport Flats Press. 79pgs.

 

43 POEMS!!! About water. You think all we know is that it moves. Here is water in all its transformations, holy, humorous, and heroic. Water is so vital there is nowhere else it can go but to poetry. Buy someone a birthday gift.


 

Lummox # 2, edited by RD Armstrong. Lummox Press.201 pgs.

 

Poetry plus reviews. Over 170 poets in this issue. Where this editor gets his fuel I do not know; but the multiple viewpoints in this book give us a great way to understand poetry’s force. Armstrong’s commitment allows us complex and intimate understandings of thought and language through 170 other commitments.


 

Chapbooks

Who Touches Everything by Peter Waldor. Settlement House. 66 pgs.

 

This guy won my heart. With poems about 8-year olds in the shower, neighbors, grandsons, children’s laughter, bedtime stories, and of course the dark that sustains the light which is beneath it all; because here is a profound look at our daily God-given lives. Waldor is folkloric in the way metaphor belongs to all ages. It is good to read work that protects us; and Waldor writes as if life relies on how well we make it.


 

TWO CHAPBOOKS FROM Laura Madeline Wiseman

Men and Their Whims. Writing Knights Press. 32pgs.

 

First Wife. HyacinthGirlPress. 35 pgs.

You remember Laura Wiseman. She edited the Women Write Resistance anthology.

Men and their Whims is such a strange title, I thought it was a Cosmopolitan Magazine list of do’s and don’ts. Far from it. These poems, the afterword tells us, are based on the lives of the 19th century poet Matilda Fletcher and her brother George W. Felts, children of abolitionists. These are from letters and the best thing of all—there are UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY telegrams that move the story along with crisp factual message.

First Wife. The primordial story of sex in the city—our relationships and where they go. But this is underscored with art and history. A chapbook can be a think tank of human understanding, so here we have the distance traveled between two people—old story, with life-changing poetry. ”I tell myself again and again it was not my fault.” Lies Upon You: In Fragments is one terrific poem.


Grace Cavalieri holds the “Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award” for 2013 and the 2013 Associated Writers’ Program’s “George Garrett Award” for Service to Literature. She founded and still produces “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress distributed nationally to public radio, celebrating 37 years on-air, in two months. (re: Feb 1977).

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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