February 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Cinder, New and Selected Poems by Susan Stewart. Graywolf press. 214 pages.

Andes by Tomaz Salamun, translated by Jeffrey Young and Katarina Vladimirov Young (afterword by Tobor Hrs Pandur. Black Ocean. 133 pages.

The Art of Dissolving by Donald Illich. Finishing Line Press. 25 pages.

Last Window at the Punk Hotel By Rob Cook. Rain Mountain Press. 156 pages.

300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. Graywolf Press. 90 pages.

Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest. Bloomsbury. 72 pages.

Conversations with Lucille, A Second "Voices" Tribute, edited by Michael S. Glaser. St. Mary’s College of Maryland Press. 137 pages.


Cinder, New and Selected Poems by Susan Stewart. Graywolf press. 214 pages.

The book is separated into sections: Pine includes new poems (2009-2015); Red Rover (2008); Columbarium (winner of National Book Critics Circle Award, 2003); The Forest (1995); The Hive (1987); Yellow Stars and Ice (1981).

The best way to describe Stewart is as a surreal naturalist. In Atavistic Sonnet, among new poems, Stewart uses the page as if an uncontrollable force might disrupt at any minute. It’s so imaginative, half fairy tale, half cautionary tale, in perfect sonnet. She’s not afraid of magic and, when contained in her well known forms, she can say and do anything and make it work. A poem may begin in a traditional way so that we get comfortable in contained complexity, and then it veers into experimentation. She can move the force of meaning with unexpected dexterity. "If you were one of the travelers, the guests" (also new poem) is strong; the beginning describes tragedy, then pointillistic on the second and third pages — words careen to make the experience happen — only to land, bringing the poem home, into sensible couplets. I think Stewart is seen for her equilibrium in using everyday language for fantastic circumstances. The poet is telling us we can cause an effect and create a condition traditionally and experimentally. A simple story is then spun into more than a tale; this way, it becomes a poetic solution to make experience happen, rather than being observed. I’ve always liked the 1987 book The Hive. There’s a memorable poem there, In the Novel. It’s an enchantment, beginning: "He described her mouth as full of ashes. /so when he kissed her finally/he was thinking about ashes//and the blacker rim just below/the edge of the ashtray, /and the faint dark rim that outlined her lips, //and the lips themselves, at the limit/of darkness, farther/and far more interior..." By every definition Stewart makes poetry worthy of its place in our lives.

The Knot
 
The problem was how to begin with the end
and then it turned out there were two ends:
the end within the continuing
that, continuing, enveloped
the end. You passed yourself
coming and going, went through
one loop, then another,
what was behind drawn
through at a
slide until
it rose
before you, sprung.
Tangle like a bramble,
like a rose. Start,
start again against
the tight-
ending. A knife
could give up
on patience, but you
were born among
the dull and
kind, who wait
for Spring, and
lightening
and lightning.


Andes by Tomaz Salamun, translated by Jeffrey Young and Katarina Vladimirov Young (afterword by Tobor Hrs Pandur). Black Ocean. 133 pages.

Salamun was born in 1941. He was a major European poet. In the introduction, Jeffrey Young speaks of the poet’s "mental energy" and I think it should be read with this in mind — much the way you read John Ashbury for the skeins of words connected in unlikely ways, creating a special event. The poem, Young says, is a survey of Salamun’s experience, but I see it more as entering his dream state. There are layers telling how a man can understand the world in its many differences, and these aren’t poems you dig into for "meaning;" you just have to move silently among them and glide through the gorgeous unpredictable imagery as if you’re having a delicious feast of words with Salvador Dali. Yet there are actual people here and names named. It’s amazing how much can be derived from a poem like "Breakfast With Him: "The tub is hot, /a beer swims inside it. //The sultan shuts his ears, /dives in. //A fish/split up my//ear, heart, and/belly.//I nibbled on cherries with my eyes. Wrung//the corpse of Ramanujan’s /father//still the fat dripped. /Into him. DAMN! If I don’t get a good portrait of what it felt "With Him" at breakfast.

This book’s translation occurred right before Salamun’s death so the collaboration was from a purposeful relationship. Salamun asked that words be said literally — cautioning us not to look for meanings — and I like one remark from the notes." It is the language itself that takes you into this world where rules of grammar and syntax can without warning fold in on themselves, reconfigure and like an enchanted origami creature take shape and fly away."

Horse Doesn’t Betray
 
Although I moved in pointers,
ehm, I gargled fluff. Although I rode
 
the mare, I fell. You said you are
unbearably bored. Go
 
naked on the horse. Lay yourself down on
a log. Put on linens.
 
Make corks wild. Eat up blueberries.
Tear soft branches. Do you
 
feel them? You grab, smell, show. Do you
shoot them? Don’t kill Marilyn
 
Monroe. Fix a drink. March among
trout. Forget the horse and return
 
to him. The moon will still be in the
sky. Only in another corner.


The Art of Dissolving by Donald Illich. Finishing Line Press. 25 pages.

This is a glorious book debut — a breakout performance — as clear eyed as an eight year old boy in the muscle of a Greek philosopher. Just as if I had the time for it, I read it twice. Every poem is brought home with the perfect line, sometimes slanting from the poem, but always connected by emotional impact. Each inflection is reasonably made and completely fresh, stinging with imagination and integrity. The ingredients are marriage, relationships, a government job — but the interpretation of these texts is so delightful — as magic as a children’s first storybook. This proves my theory that innocence is not a beginning but a return. Every ingredient fills the room with sunshine. Put Illich on speed dial because he’s one to watch.

 
 

It doesn’t have to be a crime.
You could replace
your spouse’s light yogurt
with regular flavored.
Or give someone wrong directions,
so she ends up
in the warehouse district.
Even set up fake store
where people can buy make-believe
products, each one
— horse jam, octopus wine,
butter
make of politicians —
more ridiculous than the next.
It can be a little trick,
a kind of misdirection.
Like love —
you can stay with a person
a full 40 years
and say at the last
that it wasn’t true.
All the joy and pain was plastic,
all the laughter and tears
were lies. Watch
your graves split apart.
Watch the sorrow
on the gravedigger’s
smile.


Last Window at the Punk Hotel by Rob Cook. Rain Mountain Press. 156 pages.

I’ve always been a Rob Cook fan ever since editor/publisher Paul Roth featured him in every issue of the Bitter Oleander magazine. He’s written six other books but this is the first collection I’ve seen. You have to know he’s an urban poet, for sure, writing from New York City’s famed East Village (La Bohème). It’s not surprising that there are many pastorals including: "Tenant Pastoral;" "Midtown Pastoral;" "Third Street Pastoral;" and; in "Whole Food Pastoral," "The produce unprotected/and violated/by soft radio rock: //the cheap mining of cauliflower back in the late twentieth century" "…When I say "thank you"/it means thank you//but from the employee named Ayanna/have a good day/means either/"I hope I never see you again" /or "don’t lose your way.’" here are evictions also in Sin City and Cook is some kind of genius with lines "the Buddha belonging always to a different minute…" There’s something like Hart Crane that sings out from the expansiveness of his understandings — the use of syntax to create sovereignty in every single poem — a kind of majesty built from the dregs of the garbage slingers. There are four prose poems that are terrifying with imagistic disappointments. All truth is bold; that’s why truths-by-Cook makes it something on the edge of a cliff right before crumbling. We die every day and Rob Cook won’t let us forget it. The poem "Tom Sanders" portrays a musician in demise, morosely beautiful. In "Nothing To Do With The Fear Of Spring" Cook ends, "… that one remains alone except for his clothes. /That one hides from the death–light/here, in the crushed/halls of a snail, //here, in the crushed days of Manhattan." Within the Nation State of poetry Rob Cook is holding a city on his shoulders and he never falls. He never falls.

Tenement Pastoral
 
Mid-September, the air cool,
but who knows for how long.
The exterminator knocks silently
on each door, and so another month
goes by, and the cockroaches survive.
 
At any moment the city could disappear,
the pigeons close all the wounds
they see through, but not to hurt their friends
the roofs and ledges and windowsills.
This week a family of Mets blankets moved
 
into the next apartment. Remarkable
how much noise a blanket generates.
But friendly also — a basket of waxed
apples left on the morning doorstep
with the rest of the trash.
 
Having escaped the pushcart landlords,
we arrived — with bed bugs and pet curtains —
one lost suitcase evening. And now we endure
the sky and its dynasties roosting in the cigar smoke
of Apartment 11 and listen to Herman and Asher
 
who can be heard most of the 80 year old
daylight fighting over a mistake in the month’s
bank statement or utilities bill or list
of cold cereals that can still be trusted,
and that can still endure their crumbling teeth.


300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. Graywolf Press. 90 pages.

"Perfect happiness is the privilege of deciding where/things end. But then you have to find a new happiness." Sometimes it’s a one-liner, "Inner beauty can fade too," and, "Bad art is from no one to no one"; "Perfection and beauty overlap but incompletely"; "For a little attention complain a little. For a lot of attention, stop complaining."

Manguso’s aphorisms are present day versions of "metaphysical wit." Her world is seen from her own geography and that’s okay because it overlaps with mine, and yours, and so ceases to be personal. Aphorisms are not poems. They’re nuggets of interior monologue; yet they speak across language as poems do. Also they’re surprising and fun. You can make a daily calendar of each page and see what may never have occurred to you — and how could it have? It’s inimitably Manguso, but, suddenly, wonderfully, universally, ours. One "plus" is you can open this book in the middle anywhere and you won’t have missed the plot. Finally, it will fit into your pocket just as those little pocketbooks from the 18th century were carried, and pulled out in the carriage to soften the ride. An aphorism is a tactical form of writing and also a bright piece of our art.

Some people will punish you merely for witnessing
their weakness. Even if they sought you out and asked
for help. Even if you helped. Especially if you helped.
­­­­_____

A woman I knew was so attached to the idea of hav-
ing a terrible secret, she told me the same secret three
times, each time as if for the first time.

_____

Some people care most about exhibiting how much
they care.
­­­­_____

Preferable to accepting one’s insignificance is imagin-
ing the others hate you.


Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest. Bloomsbury. 72 pages.

Kate Tempest is a poet, playwright, and rapper. She’s a performance artist who’s imagined a book-length philosophical  "Rap"  that covers bad beginnings, love really gone wrong, terrorists, the bad state of our world ruled by corporations , etc. — it could be described as complaints from an anti-establishmentarian;  or chants from the 1960s Cultural Revolution; but surprisingly, it becomes more. First, this is meant to be an oral piece and I believe could be a powerful Oratorio. In fact, it has been recorded in sound. Here’s the story line; "Seven neighbors inhabit the same London street, unknown to each other...The clock freezes…And one by one we see directly into their lives…Damaged, disenfranchised, lonely, broken, addicted.  A storm breaks...And offers them a chance to connect…" This feels a lot like Patti Smith here, in massive wordplay. The sorrows, loss, and rage are the same; and you have to admire the inner beauty coming to surface in serious ways; and more than that, applaud a young artist on a marvelous occasion for driving a dream to the fullest extent just for the flight of it.

Everyone reckoning
                  something is beckoning.
                                    Never a minute here.
 
                  Only forever.
 
Towering towerblocks
Scaffolding rattling
 
The Tube is battering ram
                  full of passengers
 
smashing its way into town.
                  We are scavengers
scrapping around in the sludge
                  for our sustenance
 
Paradise partylife.
                  Rubbing our shoulders
into the mould.
                  We do
                  what we’re told.
 
We’re Sisyphus pushing his boulder
 
The kids are alright.
                  But the kids’ll get older.
 
And so I’m moving on. I’ve got it all to play for.
I’ll be the invader
                  in some other neighbourhood.


Conversations with Lucille, A Second ‘Voices" Tribute, edited by Michael S. Glaser. St. Mary’s College of Maryland Press. 137 pages.

Who would not want to read what Lucille said in conversations with Carolyn Forche’, Li-Young Li, Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell and Michael Glaser. From Lucille’s’ talk to St. Mary’s College faculty: Glaser asks, "Lucille is a name that means light…You might be willing to begin by talking about your name, Lucille and what it means to you." Lucille:" When I was born, I was going to be called Georgia...My mother didn’t like that, her Mother’s name. My father decided well, we’ll call her Thelma (My Mother’s name.) My Mother thought, no she’s Lucille...Lucille was the name of my ancestor who was the first black woman legally hanged in Virginia. She killed a man who had raped her, a master who had raped her and by whom she had had a son...So I come from stock that not only is a light but has shadows in the light. I have written a number of things about Lucifer and what I try to remember and what I have said is that there is a Lucille in Lucifer, a light, and that allows me to remember that there is a Lucifer and Lucille...So I worked with the idea of light and of shedding light on my own life and my own history which is part of what this American culture is…"

Carolyn Forche’ and Lucille Clifton with Michael Glaser come together in a conversation titled "It’s Important To Know That I Might Be A Goose." The topics cover race, war, politics and insightful /personal remarks about teaching. There’s a wide angle lens where the poets tell their childhoods, then talk becomes intimate, unlocking puzzles in their lives. The chapter title comes from a poem, with the line ‘There are more geese…than people in this village/ and the geese know it.’ 

The theme of Clifton’s talk with Li-Young Li is about the artist’s role in the world and how poetry is central to our culture. In "The Importance of Unknowing" they explore the process of poetry and its esthetics. Reading this is understanding the act of writing; and the act of reading not as intellectuals but those interested in the public trust.

Chapter V: "It Behooves Us To Make It Accessible." This topic is between Lucille and Maxine Kumin. I can’t believe they’ve both left us. Thank God for their words. They have a long history of friendship. The length of their mutual worlds includes teaching in the schools, then –beyond mutual experiences — how the audience matters. This is about the democratization of poetry from the writer to the reader, and how going against the values of elitism is what they believe.

"Working on One’s Life and Working on One’s Poems Is The Same Exercise" titles Galway Kinnell’s conversation with Lucille. He too is gone now, his voice left on the page. They speak of political poetry, the source of poetry as a kind of drama, the attentiveness that needs a vocabulary, and Lucille quotes Keats in saying being a poet is not a profession but a condition. Kinnell ends with a Yeats poem: I am content to follow to its source/Every event in action or and thought; /Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot! /When such as I cast out remorse/So great sweetness flows into the breast/we must laugh and we must sing. /We are blest by everything, / Everything we look upon is blest.

Glaser and Clifton were the dearest of friends. They talk together in Chapter VII about Lucille’s biography, background, why she writes, etc. In this book Lucille Clifton reveals what is most human about poetry, but this diorama wouldn’t exist without close friends triggering her thoughts with questions. A large surface is compressed so we can know the scale of Clifton’s intellect and what she asks, and gives, of poetry.


Grace Cavalieri celebrates 40 years on the air with "The Poet and the Poem" now recorded from the Library of Congress for public radio. Her latest book of poems is With (Somondoco Press, 2016).

Review copies should be sent to:
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