January 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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












Best of the New Year 2017

BEST POETRY

The Last Shift by Philip Levine. Alfred A. Knopf. 77 pages.

Point Blank by Alan King. Silver Birch Press. 96 pages.

Bluewords Greening by Christine Stewart-Nuñez. Terrapin Books. 83 pages.

Our Lady of the Orgasm by Nin Andrews. Plume Editions/MadHat Press. 41 pages.

Essential Bukowski selected and edited by Abel Debritto. Ecco. 216 pages.

Coming in to Land: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2015 by Andrew Motion. Ecco. 192 pages.

God the All-Imaginer: Translations of Sufi Master Ibn Arabi, translated by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 144 pages.

Six Dialogic Poetry Chapbooks, poems by Martin Bidney (Vlll in the series East-West Bridge Builders). Dialogic Poetry Press. 318 pages.

BEST PROSE

My Lost Poets, A Life in Poetry by Philip Levine, edited by Edward Hirsch. Alfred A. Knopf. 202 pages.

BEST TRANSLATION

The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson. Seagull Books. 84 pages.

BEST ANTHOLOGY

We Are You, edited by Alan Britt. Open Sky Museum. 85 pages.

BEST CHAPBOOKS

Peregrine by Tom Donlon. Franciscan University of Steubenville. 33 pages.

There Was and How Much There Was by Zeina Hashem Beck. smith/doorstop books (England). 31 pages.

BEST LITERARY JOURNAL

december magazine, edited by Gianna Jacobson. 192 pages.

**********

​BEST POETRY

The Last Shift by Philip Levine. Alfred A. Knopf. 77 pages.

Philip Levine has gone nowhere at all. He’s back with new poems, thanks to executor Edward Hirsch. However, this is his last shift and then we’re left with only his dialogue with his history. It’s all here, better than ever, the rust and nails of industry, the rough poetic lexicon made beautiful from the lower/middle working class — inner strength making a path he’d follow. Levine’s mandate is one that led the way for a new poetry, dragged off mount Olympus in a rough blue shirt with opinions exchanged on the streets of Michigan, Naples and Havana, plus others: (The Privilege Of Power) “but he is not a Dutchman, the extranjero is from America. ‘Los Estados Unidos?’ shouted the cop, visibly shaken. He turned to me, removed his gray office cap, half bowed and expressed his sorrow.” Levine’s poetry is an ideology of class, and work in poetry. It’s first the writing on the wall. Then, it’s a strategy to take down the wall with clarity and honesty. This is how Philip Levine changed America’s canon. Levine ends a suite of verses (A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One) “Oh// to be young and strong and dumb again in Michigan!” We wish it, too.

History

In an old photograph, you can find me picketing outside Breslin’s
Plumbing & Plating. Spring, April 12, 1951, lilacs are in bloom on the
divider strip of the Outer Drive. After dark I’ll cut a small branch to
give my mother. She loves both the color and the bouquet. She still
lives in the only house she ever owned. The house, the lilac bushes,
the perfume of the blooms, her joy and sadness as she places them in
a cut-glass vase my father gave her the year before he died, none of
this is in the photograph taken from the Detroit Free Press pasted
in her lost scrapbook. That photograph is part of history. It’s filed
on microfilm in the archives of Labor & Urban Affairs at Wayne
State and even now must be turning into dust, giving up its facts &
its faces.

**********

Point Blank by Alan King. Silver Birch Press. 96 pages.

I always marvel at how any of us recover from our childhoods and teens. If you’re black, Alan King proves there’s no recovery, just transformation. And if poets did not write their souls out onto the page, who would? Point Blank is a powerful, tender, redemptive work. King is a master of the sensual — visual and sonic, motion and mood; his subjects can hurt but their detailed rendering heals. The central principle in King’s new book is how people live and how life defines them, not always to the good. The Big Reveal is that, despite prejudice and mistreatment, there’s always strong ground to stand on — mercy too — and a poet’s illustrious spirit and senses refining tough situations. What are words for anyway, they’re just words — they’ll lie dormant until an Alan King makes truth graphic, raising the bar for poetry. There’s a quotable quote found in every single page. I want to share the sweetness of this love poem:

The Exchange
for Tos

Because the day’s threaded through hours
the way a skewer’s threaded through meat,
because I needed your whispers
wafting through the cove of my ears,
I look for you in a blur of blue jays.

I listen for you in the sounds of trees
brushing their crowns against a cold wind
hard and flat as cymbals.

I descend the stairs to touch your face.
Give me your skewered hours, the meat
and vegetables of your days. My mouth —
a welcome below a waiting threshold.

Hours roasting away. Your locks coil
like coral, your eyes bright as dawn above water.
I give you my mouth, flying to the light
in your dusk-colored skin. Your laugh —
the wind returning from Victoria Island.

Let me be the Atlantic, and you
a Lagos shoreline that hugs it.
Give me your face snug
against my neck. Here.
Place your heel in my hand.
I am your glass slipper.

 **********

Bluewords Greening by Christine Stewart-Nuñez. Terrapin Books. 83 pages.

It’s been often said that if the cosmos wants to inflict the worse possible pain on any of us, let something happened to one of our children. This mother, who is a poet, has been inflicted with her son’s heartbreaking diagnosis of rare epilepsy. Blueword is a technical term “of any given word spoken by someone with aphasia.” There’s a poem titled “Thirteen Ways of Understanding Blueword” that’s a poetic demonstration which surpasses clinical analysis. Verse 13: “It was midnight all morning./Seizures were spiking/and they were going to spike./The blueword lodged/in the back of his throat. These poems are organic efforts of goodness coming from the deepest recess of struggle, overcoming melancholy with elevated documentary. As the poet makes the intangible tangible, we understand, from soulful description, how sickness is humanized as if held in our own arms. Holden is his name. His changed brain shines like a diamond within profound verse.

Naming

I named my child Holden not
after a book character
or a soap opera hunk,
but because Holden sounds
solid and stable, because it
means calm and gracious — good
attributes for a man —
and because it stems from
a hollow in the valley
which summons memories
of camping between forested hills
along the Mississippi, of nights
staring into bonfires and stargazing
believing God was there — Infinity
in constellations and flames.

It wasn’t until Holden
was four years old that I typed
seizure disorder into a search engine
for the one-thousandth time
and was struck by meaning.
“Epilepsy: from Greek
leps-, stem
of lambanein
to take
hold of.”

**********

Our Lady of the Orgasm by Nin Andrews. Plume Editions/MadHat Press. 41 pages.

Nin Andrews is an American poet. She happens to be an American humorist. Put these together and we get Our Lady Of The Orgasm (I love writing that). Incorrigibility leading the way, poetry is a blood sport of great good will. Its “just cause” is explaining gender in the most original way imaginable. Its passion is beautifying the clothes of women — in this case, private parts— and making poetry an act of surprise in a holy trinity of mind, body, and spirit. These orgasms have poetry CRED. They owe a debt to a poet who can speak across body language, whose field operations must have included delightful research. Here’s to a world-class orgasm for all Nin’s fans.

The orgasm reads that she should email her fans
directly

if she wants them to know her or purchase her work. She should
remind them how much they want her. Tell them tidbits about
her beautiful and delicious self. But she’s a shy orgasm. She
doesn’t like to be too forward. Nevertheless, she begins to wonder
What would I say to my fans? She wishes she could ask them What
do you want to hear? Or, better yet, What would you say if you
were me? She imagines her fans as orgasms. Some would be small
and secretive like minnows swimming in the shallows. Others
would come in groups like schools of fish. Still others would be
sharks — the kind who give orgasms a bad name.

**********

Essential Bukowski selected and edited by Abel Debritto. Ecco. 216 pages.

Bukowski doesn’t seem as startling in 2016 as he was on 1969; but if there’s anyone who does not know Charles Bukowski, and who reads poetry, then this person’s probably in a convent or safe and secure in a Buddhist temple somewhere. Bukowski is a cult figure with an unvarnished life turned into poetry. His audacity is one of the great rewards in a backlash against “pretty.” His place in the world is not diminished, thanks to Editor Abel Debritto, a loyalist, who now issues Essential Bukowksi, because apparently there are some poems from C.B’s enormous output that aren’t to be missed. He wrote 35 books. Bukowski brings out the worst traits in humans in the best possible poetry. He processes the world from the vantage point of horse races and COLORFUL (ALL CAPS) people. He’s in your face, in your ear, and to be frank, I like him. I like his sense of theater, trying to shock us with obscenities, and I like the magnitude of his talent and the fact that he’s highly literate, and I like his humanity. Paramount to reading this book, you should be 18 or older; or ask your parents’ permission; who probably remember him and will say NO, before relishing it by their nightlight.

the loser

and the next I remembered I’m on a table,
everybody’s gone: the head of bravery
under light, scowling, flailing me down…
and then some toad stood there, smoking a cigar:
“Kid, you’re no fighter,” he told me,
and I got up and knocked him over a chair;
it was like a scene in a movie, and
he stayed there on his big rump and said
over and over: “Jesus, Jesus, whatsamatta wit
you?” and I got up and dressed,
the tape still on my hands, and when I got home
I tore the tape off my hands and
wrote my first poem,
and I’ve been fighting
ever since.

**********

Coming in to Land: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2015 by Andrew Motion. Ecco. 192 pages.

Formerly Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom (1999-2009), Andrew Motion now resides in Baltimore as Homewood Professor in the Arts at John’s Hopkins University.

I marvel at Motion’s ability to move from line to line, stanza to stanza — no one does it better. Teach your students this book to understand how enjambment (such a clunky word) can be made beautiful. Motion manages to be colloquial and lyrical in the same space. He has of course a lilting cadence, not sounding like American poets; and his pastoral scenes are like an English dream accomplished; yet the stories belong to every one of us. He says, “I want my writing to be as clear as water. I want readers to see all the way through its surfaces into the swamp.” An outstanding section is “Laurels and Donkeys” (2009-2015) where Motion speaks in the voices of soldiers he’s interviewed from Iraq and Afghan, adding other poems on war as well.

It’s his technical achievement that simplifies the complex. Styles in poetry may vary from time to time, but Motion’s voice will always be in fashion for its clarity, care, and attention, staying on track— behind every syllable is authority. Andrew Motion perceives and appreciates this puzzling world; his private obsessions become humanistic questions that deepen, and change in strength, as we read— meanwhile his stories flow on their flawless ways. We all know there’s an unconscious process in poetry, but it’s also conscious problem-solving, with lingual components. Andrew Motion’s choices are always the right ones. The writing experience has been his lifelong (very) serious enterprise; and his strain of poetry is a classic prototype that can stir and startle without radical or experimental methods. He just speaks without poshing it up.

Here’s a poem made from a soldier’s tale:

The Next Thing

My heart stopped but my hands kept working away.
I had a job to do. I threw the mortar down the barrel

and waited for the splash to come up, just waited.
It was bang on. The next thing was to extract our own —

but lifting a dead body from the ground is not easy.
The first must have weighed fourteen stone; plus radio

he was half a ton. I could not get him off the ground,
not properly, not enough to put him over my shoulder.

I thought, Jesus Christ! But I managed it. It is only right.
Later on we met some elders from the village to discuss

the bodies of the enemy; they were shot up very badly.
Two were dressed in black — obviously foreign fighters

with grenades on them and mobile phones and notebooks.
Their skin was strangely waxy and suspicious looking.

A third was wearing traditional dress with a red sash
and a turban that was off at the time; his eyes were sunk

and had rolled backwards, there was no brain left in there.
I dug a bullet out of the wall behind him with my bayonet

for a keepsake, and could clearly see the swirl on the casing.
Then I went down the valley to a stream with the other men

and we stripped to wash our hands and faces in the water.
After that we stayed firm and finished our clearance patrols.

**********

God the All-Imaginer: Translations of Sufi Master Ibn Arabi, translated by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 144 pages.

Six Dialogic Poetry Chapbooks, poems by Martin Bidney (Vlll in the series East-West Bridge Builders). Dialogic Poetry Press. 318 pages.

I don’t know any poet more prolific than Martin Bidney. He’s a translator as well as versifier, with a host of languages at his hand. He’s known to write/translate as many as six poems a day. Two of his latest books are God The All-Imaginer, and Six Dialogic Poetry Chapbooks.

Let me speak of the first: I believe God the All-Imaginer is my favorite of all Bidney’s many editions (15 books of poetry, in addition to other scholarly and translated works.) This book features 27 full-page calligraphies by Shahid Alam. The book’s subtitle is “Wisdom of Sufi Master Ibn Arabi in 99 Modern Sonnets.” There’s nothing like it in print today. Bidney, Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, Binghamton University, writes an introduction that taught me everything, for I knew nothing.

Bidney relies on consummate knowledge of western literature to contextualize Ibn Arabi’s writings. He references, Blake, Goethe and others to bring together east-west affinities. The theses central to all his work is “the continued life of the shared tradition of the East and West.” The fruit of this book, as in all Bidney’s writings, is the ability to place Islamic, Judaic, and Christian philosophies in “a comfortable familiar three tradition rubric.”

I cannot say enough good about the 50-page preface integrating Ibn Arabi into our literary canon. Here’s an explanation about translating Arabi’s “Three Mystic Odes.” Bidney said he translated them from the German work of M. Horton (1912) who rendered them from the Arabic originals (1240). Horton uses no meter but only prose with no line breaks: “I have made each verse a couplet of two alexandrines or hexameters with 12 syllables each, a form close to the one…used by the Persian-language masters Rumi and Hafiz. At the beginning and end of the central poem, I have made some three line verses to accommodate the unusual richness of thought and imagery.”

Bidney’s scholarship and devotion to the joy of music, and the richness of translation, appeals to our best instincts. In granular detail Bidney brings forth the abundant life of Ibn Arabi in 99 poems; taking us forward with a great reward ending the book: Three Mystic Odes by Ibn Arabi. We would never have had this otherwise.

(52) Ibn Arabi Tells of Adam

A prophet is a bezel or a jewel setting,
The talismanic Word of him a holy seal
Protecting heaven-treasure. You the Lord shall know,
Said Adam, insofar as you be effort gain

The virtue that will let you picture your begetting
By Him, the Manifest, Imaginer, The Real.
Unknown in deepest Being, yet to you He’ll show
His image in a way your nature may contain.

When Satan wouldn’t bow to Adam, man of clay —
Too proud, the fiery jinn — he failed to comprehend
That when we mirror God, polarities are gone:

The high and low their being share in a woken ray:
Of mud and water is the Daybreak Lord a friend,
As of the prostrate, pray’rful green we walk upon.

Another Martin-Bidney-recent-edition is one volume containing six poetry chapbooks. He’s a formalist and even writes in the meter of the Metaphysical poets, Romantics, and sometimes Biblical poets. What he offers us is the enthused line in a poetry portfolio that evidences a man who lives to write. He describes this book as, First: writing about fictitious taxi drivers; then, dialogues with 48 Magritte paintings; thirdly, a conversation with Francois Villon (1431-1463); Number Four, translations of his favorite Russian poets including a “neglected” Russian Master Afanasy Fet; Fifth, reactions to Franz Kafka; and finally, an updated tour of Dante’s hell, in 28 cantos. It’s correct to say Bidney has great fitness for the job as poet/translators/scholar. For us this writing is a source of information — for this poet, it’s his soul’s very music.

**********

BEST PROSE

My Lost Poets, A Life in Poetry by Philip Levine, edited by Edward Hirsch. Alfred A. Knopf. 202 pages.

“I was first schooled in poetry when it was read to me by my mother who — although she was an immigrant from tsarist Russia with a tenth-grade education in the Detroit public schools — had a genuine love for what she regarded as poetry.” And so we have A Life in Poetry. This is not a personal memory-maker; it’s more about associations with major 20th-century poets. It’s about a man with faith in what is beautifully crafted by decent people, about Levine’s faith in living poetry in a full way. He studied with Yvor Winters, Robert Lowell, was friends with John Berryman, Thom Gunn, many others, with terrific anecdotes. There’s a view of how the world of poetry works — its value and power — why it mattered to Levine’s life; and therefore, it’s a source of information about why poetry matters overall. There’s kindness here also; and intense strength, roughness, intellectual and moral leadership — and what poets are searching for, they may find here.

BEST TRANSLATION

The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson. Seagull Books. 84 pages.

W.S. Merwin said translation is impossible yet we do it. Carlson is a seasoned translator who has, with her gift of languages, translated René Char among others, and now premieres an African poet. From Waberi’s eyes we see his country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. His is a graceful presence allowing us into his consciousness via geography — his universe, his desert. (“There”) I live several leagues/from memory’s inland port/old silent structure/by claws of weather and time.” His poems in the section “Postcards” are not longer than those lines. The wars of East Africa are in the background; but in this poet’s commitment to poetry does not fully explore the obvious. It’s found within the expressionistic imagery of the natural world — such gentle perception — such careful depictions and messages — yet Waberi makes his points about the deepest questions of what is beautiful and what is violated.

1.
Between rubble and sovereign sun
all water consumed
all wailing subdued
since dawn
time
this land remains the same:
the open wound of Africa

**********

BEST ANTHOLOGY

We Are You, edited by Alan Britt. Open Sky Museum. 85 pages.

Poetry is an echo chamber of our hopes and fears. In Spanish and English this book is produced from a project fusing 21st century poetry and visual art. The content will stay with you long after you read it. Sylvia Scheibli writes of THE BORDER “On my left Mesquite bushes/crouch/float up the clearing/ and melt/In between cracks of boxcars.//Moving again, /Dim Amber lights flicker/& jolt/on the track.//River-like/I scanned the empty road.”

David Ray, “THE SLEEPERS,” writes of bodies of 2 illegal immigrants found near the Southern Pacific tracks. A majestic poem ends “As the two lie down in the night between tracks/ they dream of how soon they will pick oranges/or lay tiles, trim trees and clip hedges. But a train/not expected is sometimes the one that arrives.” Bina Sarkar Ellis writes in the title poem “…let the boundaries dissolve/ let diversity take a stand…”

And Lilvia Soto says we should build a wall in OF GUNS AND ROSES “Like our migrants/ they have grown at the bottom of the pile /picking up the crumbs their leaders scatter on the ground/and see no other option for their lives./Give them flowers, heal their need of guns.//Let us love our children, make them strong/so they won’t want to cross/to a land filled with fear/deprived of love…” These are poems of flying colors, placing a flag on top a mountain of discrimination.

BEST CHAPBOOKS

Peregrine by Tom Donlon. Franciscan University of Steubenville. 33 pages.

Why Tom Dolan is not one of our best known poets is (my theory) because he heads a large family, and just now getting to find time. Peregrine does not rest on imagination and memory; it galvanizes from everyday activity — a daughter with a broken doll, chemo in the household, with its uncomfortable realizations — the rhythm and silence of ideas from “Cleaning The Range Top” to “During A Sermon I think of Einstein’s Theory On The Speed Of Gravity” each given equal consideration. It’s best when poetry is a response to the moment and if there’s an abundant life there are many moments. Can we talk about the importance of craft and form: Form is just the way we hold our art and not to be noticeable or measurable in the reading. It’s the poet’s prerogative to say what s/he wants any way at all, but form is a great guide. Donlon is a first-rate poet. His poetic strategy is to find his way back to himself, and we’re all better for it.

I Do

For Lib

At the altar, you’re in love, stricken, buoyed on clouds
imagining the years together living your dreams,
buying your own house, raising kids, watching them excel.

“Love and cherish” bubbles up from inside. “For richer
or for poorer” sounds like music. You are sure
you can do this. How did you ever meet this person?

You don’t think forty years ahead after the fervent “I do.”
Your loved one is lying in bed terminally ill. Words
have ceased. You’re changing diapers, counting out pills,
collecting soiled linens. Is that hospice at the door?

When you say “I do,” you’re thinking of the honeymoon,
the hot nights on the beach. “Kiss me, baby.”

Maybe it’s a natural blindness, a hiding of the grimness
from youth. Who would ever say “I do”
at the inevitable breakdown of body and bones,
the wrinkles, the mind going?

That is you on the bed, in sickness and in health,
forsaking all others. In that face, you see your children,
the ones who comfort you now. You are one flesh.
Yes, of course, I do. I do.

 

There Was and How Much There Was by Zeina Hashem Beck. smith/doorstop books (England). 31 pages.

There are memorable characters here and women’s solidarity, although the poet may not call it that. There’re cultural structures, and rebellion, and revival from that. There are killers of the spirit; and customs as seductive as secrets, but all that wouldn’t matter if there were not storytelling. There’s never been a comfort zone for poets. All that can be done is show the alternative point of view as well as possible, and make the poem act on that. My favorite of several is the seven–page poem ending the book, also the title for the book. It’s surreal with a whole raft of incidents peppered with reality. It’s a combination of cinematic accuracy and dreamlike (hard) truths. What we see is a breakthrough book, with unexpected events, and reactions that inform and inspire life as a modern Arab woman.

Why I Hate Silent Movies

I hate the heat because it reminds me
of the first time he slapped my face.
We were sitting on the sofa and he said
he did it because it was too hot outside.
Later he cried and kissed my feet,
said he would never. I hate flowers
because after he punched me
he got me ice and five bouquets: roses,
lilies, carnations, tulips, and freesias.
I hate jewelry because he bought me
a diamond necklace when he took me out
of the hospital, said Love me love me love me.
I hate silent movies because they resemble
my pain back then — all glare and no sound.
I hate bird cages because no matter
how many times I opened them,
the canaries wouldn’t fly.
I hate nests because even years after I left
on that day when he strangled the birds,
my hands sometimes smell of feathers
and I still pull out straw, twigs,
and his voice from my hair.

**********

BEST LITERARY JOURNAL

december magazine, edited by Gianna Jacobson. 192 pages.

December is a class act literary magazine, and a public service to literature. The magazine has an unusual history: founded in 1958 at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was then moved to Chicago by Editor Curt Johnson who continued presenting established and fledgling writers. Some of our best known have been, and continue to be, published here. In 2008, at Johnson’s death, the magazine also saw its demise — that is, until the writer Gianna Jacobson single-handedly revived it (2012). December resumed circulation in 2013 and now we’re celebrating volume 27.2 (Fall/ Winter, 2016).

This superb publication has never lost its bloom even though Jacobson had to haul boxes out of a warehouse to bring it back to life. Now it’s a Super Nova with art, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry which was once the home of Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates and other pedigrees, and still posts the best of the best, many new writers. Its Mission Statement: “…nurtures writers and artists at every stage of the development. We champion the work of unheralded talents; celebrate fresh concepts from seasoned voices; and advocate for our contributors in the literary, artistic, and general communities.” If you get ahold of this journal you won’t miss Dawn Robinson’s 10 poems in this “revival” issue. Here’s one of her poems:

IMAGINE

it’s what Actors do
they don’t actually learn to play the violin
they learn to show what it looks
like when a master plays

the goal is not to learn how to play the violin
but to render the life of the violinist

this might be what poetry is capable of doing

**********

Review copies should be mailed to 7029 Ridge Road, Frederick, MD 21702.

Grace Cavalieri founded “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now recorded at the Library of Congress, and celebrating 40 years on the air. Her latest book of poems is With (Somondoco Press, 2016).

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