February 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Out From The Pleiades by Leslie McGrath. Jaded Ibis Productions. 73 pages.

The Richard Peabody Reader by Richard Peabody, edited by Lucinda Ebersole. Introduction by Michael Dirda. Alan Squire Publishing. 420 pages.

Really Happy by Jim Reese. NYQ Books. 76 pages.

Stonewalls by Gil Fagiani. Bordighera Press. 106 pages.

Streaming by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. Coffee House Press.132 pages.

Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales by Alicia Partnoy, translated into English by Gail Wronsky. Settlement House.59 pages.

Headwaters by Ellen Bryant Voigt. W.W. Norton. 55 pages.

Plus more Best Books of the month


Out From The Pleiades by Leslie McGrath. Jaded Ibis Productions. 73 pages.

A child was born into a fascinating and kooky family of seven aunts, who have unorthodox ideas about education, social issues, and diet. The dictionary (remember that antique?) or Google (easier) will tell us “The Pleiades are middle-aged hot B-type stars located in the constellation of Taurus.” There we have the answer, a template for Mina’s life with her siblings. But it’s Mina we care about - a little Heloise — and a little revolutionary as well. She suffers admonishments at school and home and is clearly different from the flock. We might even say a creative type, the most dangerous type of all. She pays the price early-on for being different that way, and as she gets older and older, elevates all possibilities beyond what can be defined.

Eventually Mina falls in love; and finally all the qualities eschewed by others are now cherished (for that is what love is) by her newfound partner. However the mate of choice is named Violet, who‘s in the Army and goes to war and does not return alive. Can Mina return to the Pleiades to find a kindred soul? Or are their core beliefs still so different that in moving forward the family left behind everything of value? Always unrepentant Mina makes contact with her origins…just get the book and see what happens. I’ve told you far too much already.

It may not be the story you care about as much as the way it’s spoken. McGrath is, in herself, a social media — she owns the page and broadcasts its vibrato in all directions. She’s sassy with a shiny patina, but beneath she’s an oral historian of the alienated. Picasso never painted a Madonna and McGrath never wrote an ordinary story. She has the courage to be herself, and never moreso than in this new novella-in-verse.

A bonus: Mina has a rocking recipe for Golden Beet Soup that I’m making tomorrow. Page 65.


The Richard Peabody Reader by Richard Peabody, edited by Lucinda Ebersole. Introduction by Michael Dirda. Alan Squire Publishing. 420 pages.

A “Reader” is a book featuring more than one form of writing by a single author — poetry and prose in this case. I’d read some of Peabody’s fiction in previous books; and was happy to see our favorite Peabody poems are here; but, the exultant and unexpected pleasures are finding each piece takes on a significance not seen before when read singly. It’s transformative to have accumulated writings by one writer.  I credit the book’s effectiveness to a careful strategy in the arrangement of the pieces. Putting together a large volume is an aesthetic tour de force because the whole needs to be a breathing thing, not a tombstone; the editors have arranged writings so we have an expansion and compression of form and tone. Considerable thought is put into this to make a sizeable amount of work communicated as well as possible.

The voices we hear within “The Reader” are:  1) a writer; 2) a husband; 3) a father; 4) a lover; and, 5) an anti-hero who almost get the brass ring before falling off the carousel. The work is plenty hip and edgy enough to reflect our recent culture but there’s a Charlie Chaplin-esque moment  here and there — to the good of the work — a slapstick of the heart. Our hero often finds a hole in his sock before kicking a field goal.

Peabody knows how to work the reader — moving us along a path, only to have the path pulled out from under us. This is skill. And the best part is that Peabody doesn’t rely on punchlines to a poem, or curtain lines for story — his surprises are delivered within the lines. It comes from a mindset of a writer who actually is surprising himself while writing; so all he has to do is make the footprints clear enough for us to follow.

The Richard Peabody Reader often personalizes “the young marrieds’ lifestyle” with all its understated turmoil; and beneath that, the promise of hope for a joyful recovery. What I like about Peabody is there are no fixed ideas. When we start each piece, it’s coming out of the blue, brand new.

Richard Peabody’s a long time steward of our writing community in Washington, DC, and has much to respond and reflect on as he holds this book (weighty on the bathroom scale.). He must now know there was good and sufficient reason for him to sit behind the computer all these years.

I used to take Peabody’s publications, Gargoyle, on trips cross-country to read the large volumes. This book offered no problem while waiting for one grandson at swim team practices and another at track meet practices.  And even if you don’t have twin grandsons, you’ll enjoy time spent with the “Reader.”


Really Happy by Jim Reese. NYQ Books. 76 pages.

Reese is a Professor of English, and Director of the Great Plains Writers Tour at Mount Marty College in Yankton South Dakota. He’s also a teacher/ NEA artist-in-residence in the Yankton Federal Prison Camp.

Whether writing about the classroom or listing bumper stickers in South Dakota, Reese changes this artificial world to a reality you wish would last after his last poem. Poetic sustenance comes from his kitchen, his drugstore; or on a local baseball diamond; and, somehow in these mundane spaces, he widens the opportunity for what a reader can feel.  Reese proves that words have charisma, especially when physically preserved into story. This is because our author is a dreamer and tactician designing a rational universe for us so we’ll love his world as much as he does. There are hardships, of course, mysteries, disappointments, object lessons — but the poetry impacts because it comes from a passion for life. Reese refines the muddy daily process and creates a trail for us to follow, exploring the limits of human behavior along the way. He’s not interested in the existential so much — it’s the actual that he wants to puzzle into poetry. These pieces find him dancing with his daughter, finding a needle in the crotch of his jeans, or more profoundly overhearing prisoners talk of sunlight; yet, it is never retail poetry. The work is observational, soulful, sweet, sometimes searing. He’s written for you what you could not write for yourself.


Stonewalls by Gil Fagiani. Bordighera Press. 106 pages.

In poems of childhood and adolescence, Fagiani is the adult watching over the child inside these emotionally dangerous poems. The “walls” in his title are symbolic but also actual walls in suburban Connecticut where it appears only the children have honest relationships, and even these are of undefined violence.  His characters are unforgettable: Aunt Tosca, (named after the opera,) who served fiery pickled onions : Dad, whose  “…solution to anything I asked was: / It’s whatever the market will bear; Mother’s embarrassing blueberry pie instead of birthday cake at a surprise party;  Father Vito and Father Kelly O’Brien preaching against temptations of the flesh and losing their battle with the audience. This taxonomy of adults means well, but as poet Sterling Brown said “do so poor.”

Fagiani adroitly takes near tragedy to near irony and often comedy. The emotional vocabulary is   popular culture in the 1960’s with song titles, films, TV shows and even the kind of candy that was thrown across the movie theater. He writes effortlessly, naturally, making us follow the action to where it leads us. His poems work because of an adventure in: “What Happens Now?”

Sometimes we wonder how we survived childhood. Deep conflicts underlie the carousing high-schoolers who fingerprint these pages; and some are painful to read — compelling stuff if it’s properly packaged, and smart writers know how to do that.

At the heart of exposing youth’s war zone is a humanis — one way of teaching people to be better is to write it. These poems say what the poet knows we can know and so they teach us that growing up is a story of change — but more importantly that the seriousness of poetry encapsulates even ugliness with its sweet humility. Fagiani is a psychologist as well as a poet and his life has been spent helping people and this book shows some of his transformative powers.


Streaming by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. Coffee House Press.132 pages.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke touches dimensions of Native American identity, mixed-race ideology, science, history and political events, botany, zoology, and geology. Where it leads us is to intellectual form where the poet becomes pioneer, noticing the unnoticed, then memorializing cultural connections into rhythm.

Each leaf and branch become a relevant view of America that changes like time, sometimes from culture shock, sometimes from natural events. The poems come toward us from a museum of abundance; but museums are filled with relics and this poetry is purely fluid.  Everything is moving, changing, and growing, disintegrating and rejuvenating for its own purposes. The poet chronicles the animation of the natural world and man’s unnatural behavior. Here is a life open to the Spirits where the material plane and the invisible become one interrelated in verse. Hedge Coke takes chances with form and presentation and it works for her; the book is a long song to the earth–at times reminiscent of Whitman in tone and scope. Her sweeping lines in Section 1V carry thoughts margin-to- margin. AALHC’s use of space is an homage to esthetics.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is a strong woman. She’s always written with great lyricism of the disenfranchised, the worker, the poor, the hard scrabble.  In this new book, losses — hers and the world’s — become phenomena of the natural world, changed to music.


Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales by Alicia Partnoy, translated into English by Gail Wronsky. Settlement House. 59 pages.

Alicia Partnoy is a survivor of the secret detention camp where approximately 30,000 Argentines were “disappeared.” After three years as a political prisoner of military dictatorship, Partnoy was expelled from Argentina and sent to the United States as a refugee, 1979.

When Partnoy’s first book came out, The Little school: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, we talked to her about that book which encapsulated the torn and disparate parts of her experience. 20 years later, now, flowering fires gives us an aftertaste. And bitter can be made beautiful.

I dare anyone to read “Lullaby Without the Onion” and not be emotionally changed:
Your mother isn’t in prison / your mother has birds in her blood, / grates and bars don’t detain her / nor padlocks, / nor is she in prison, / nor has she left you.

We need translated poetry because language surrounds the idea, so the poem creates a cocoon which allows it to endure.  Translated to new language, it is enduring again, in different form, the idea changed, and yet the same.

In luxurious thought and image, Alicia Partnoy invents exile by her  juxtaposing lines and  words that survive into sense the way a “disappeared” refugee survives — connected but filled with shock and surprise.

These are gentle poems with internal moderation as if the tears and screams have been left behind. Now there’s homogeneity, life to live in the heart’s new neighborhood, with inclusive peoples — yet integration does not explain alienation. That remains visceral. That remains in these poems. Every poem is emotionally credible; there is not a poetic device here with “a plan.”  What is spoken is a genuine murmur with humility — a prayer to literature.

Alicia Partnoy was Vice Chairman of Amnesty International.


Headwaters by Ellen Bryant Voigt. W.W. Norton. 55 pages.

No matter how much poetry I read — a book a day, often — it still takes my breath away when a poet can change grammar — unmooring our fixed notions and making better sense of them. Her subject meets predicate in a new climate. EBV reminds us words are not religious beliefs — she grounds her language in sweeping phrases, but never violating the logic of the poem’s memory — just placing the lines in fresh oration. And here is the kicker — the assemblage of her words is clear and sunny with no clouds on the horizon. To break new earth this way and not show the fissures can only be done by a master poet. EBV catalogs her beautiful environment of birds, trees, bears, geese, skunks, hounds, hedges and the mother who made this reverence possible. The things of this earth become an amalgamation of human interactions taking on great importance. Every living creature is a poetic issue and the core of her work is a chant of worship. The way Voigt cherishes her culture actually changes the culture because of our reading — it’s a kind of magic — a kind of activism. After reading this book you’ll know what this poet’s conscience looks like. She’s irresistible and emotionally fulfilling. She hovers above conventional poetry, and flies above ordinary thought, coming out ahead, winning hands down, by lyrical velocity.


Others on BEST BOOKS LIST

Hearsay by Christopher Ankney. Washington Writers' Publishing House.

Ankney’s brave book defines the valor of becoming a man without the fine-grained guidance of having a father — a time-honored theme in American literature — but I can’t  think of a recent book that breaks  poetry open to the heart like this one. The poem “Father Belongs to the River” gives us lasting faith in this poet.

Lost Among The Hours by Alan Britt. Rain Mountain Press. 85 Pages.

Baltimore’s Alan Britt is scintillating, unpredictable, beautifully sweet and will never be sorry he did not have his say his way. He makes “being real” on the page look so easy.

Ley Lines edited by H.L. Hix. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 228 pages.

Don’t worry about Wyoming. Hix has it under control, and this new edition is a feast of poets in process and verse — some 84 very fine poets including favorites Renee Ashley, Denise Duhamel, Nin Andrews, Evie Shockley, Jared Carter, etc.

A Cloud Inhaled Me by Dennis Silk. Sheep Meadow Press. 252 pages

An array of poetry, playlets, translations from Russian by U.K. poet Dennis Silk. SMPress is a Mount Olympus of unique poets from the 20th century who should not be missed. This poet is from the generation that shaped the world’s poetic canon.

Last Day of the Year by Michael Kruger. Sheep Meadow Press.275 pages

Poems in English along with German translations. SMPress compiles works by interesting international poets, who have startling poetic points of view and styles, who wouldn’t otherwise be available to us.

AND EVEN POETS LIKE ACTION ADVENTURE

Roughnecks by James J. Patterson & Quinn O’Connell, Jr. Alan Squire Publishing. 455 pages.

I must mention this book of fiction because it’s such a physically beautiful volume — the cover, paper, font — entire production — a pleasure to hold in the hand. At this time, when print is being threatened with extinction, along comes a small publishing house that shows us the finest aesthetics in making a book.


In 2015, Grace Cavalieri celebrates 38 years on air with “The Poet and the Poem,” recorded at the Library of Congress for distribution to public radio. Her latest poetry books (2014) are The Man Who Got Away and The Mandate of Heaven.

Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books 
7029 Ridge Road 
Frederick, MD 21702

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