January 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

























BEST POETRY BOOK OF 2017

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver. Penguin/Random House. 412 pages.

At Blackwater Pond

 

at Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled

after a night of rain.

I dip my cupped hands. I drink

a long time. It tastes

like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold

into my body, waking the bones. I hear them

deep inside me, whispering

oh what is that beautiful thing

that just happened?

*****

No Voyage

 

I wake earlier, now that the birds have come

And sing in the unfailing trees.

On a cot by an open window

I lie like land used up, while spring unfolds.

 

Now of all voyagers I remember, who among them

Did not board ship with grief among their maps? —

Till it seemed men never go somewhere, they only leave

Wherever they are, when the dying begins.

 

For myself, I find my wanting life

Implores no novelty and no disguise of distance;

Where, in what country, might I put down these thoughts,

Who still am citizen of this fallen city?

 

On a cot by an open window, I lie and remember

While the birds in the trees sing of the circle of time.

Let the dying go on, and let me, if I can

Inherit from disaster before I move.

 

O, I go to see the great ships ride from harbor,

And my wounds leap with impatience; yet I turn back

To sort the weeping ruins of my house:

Here or nowhere I will make peace with the fact.

**********

BEST NONFICTION OF 2017

Where We Lived: Essays on Places by Henry Allen. Dryad/Mandel Vilar. 184 pages.

[…]

In my basement I have an ornate embroidered chair that stood at Julia Darmour’s dining room table. From it I summon up her house on Amity Street, Victorian boiled-beef gloom with horsehair sofas, antimacassars, beaded curtains, and steam radiators that knocked in dry air. I could try to find the house and conjure up its ghosts but even if the owners let me in I think I’d find the ghosts had long since been driven out by the glare of the eternal present.

[…]

When we moved to Takoma Park, Md., in 1977 — Deborah, Hannah, Peter, and I, (Nicholas was yet to come) — it was a shabby little town of chain link fences and tire swings hanging from Oak trees. People liked it that way. It was a town where you called the druggist “Doc” and the downtown skyline was full of phone wires, like in February or in an old photograph, the kind of photographs it makes you wonder why somebody took it.

[…]

**********

Reviews:

Street Calligraphy by Jim Daniels. Steel Toe Books. 90 pages.

The Middle Ages by Jim Daniels. Red Mountain Press. 89 pages

Ransom by D. Walsh Gilbert. Grayson Books. 41 pages.

Church of the Robin’s Ha-Ha! by Anne Richey. Epigraph Books. 79 pages.

Wrack Lines by Lynn Schmeidler. Grayson Books. 45 pages.

A Language the Land Is Inventing by Ann A. Philips. WordTech Editions. 86 pages.

Alma Almanac by Sarah Ann Winn. Barrow Street Press. 69 pages.

Addendum to a Miracle by Mike White. WAYWISER. 88 pages.

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. Autumn House Press. 86 pages.

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld. FutureCycle Press. 93 pages

To Be the Daylight by Charlotte Mandel. Kelsay Books. 101 pages.

The Moscow Poetry File by John Huey. Finishing Line Press. 135 pages.

Plus: Best Literary Magazine; Best Anthology; and Remembering Dolores Kendrick

 

**********

Street Calligraphy by Jim Daniels. Steel Toe Books. 90 pages.

The Middle Ages by Jim Daniels. Red Mountain Press. 89 pages.

What is left to reignite the fire but to read Jim Daniels? Each of his poems is a test of poetry’s conscience; liberating an unalloyed past; forcing wild beauty through the cracked cement and pocked streets; sustaining language because this poet knows who he is, and takes every liberty to show it. This sounds like a lot but it’s only the tip of the pyramid for Jim Daniels. He shares the poetic sphere with Philip Levine — authenticity of blue-collar life in the throes (at the end) of the industrial era. Every poem in each of these books is about remnants; and the message is that there’s no turning back to fix anything. Instead Daniels extends outward making a mythology of broken lives and fine hopes. Because each poem is a whole, biting and cutting against the grain of reality, each book becomes an epic. I read The Middle Ages book and then I couldn’t keep from reading Street Calligraphy immediately after. Vivid dramas, spatial thinking. This guy is a filmmaker as well as a poet/storyteller; open your arms to his work and you’ll see what a writer’s capable of — and why I’m a fan.

Changing the Name (from Street Calligraphy)

 

While his wife was at church

my great-grandfather let his son choke

on a chicken bone while he mopped out

his tavern’s Saturday night stink

 

then drank himself out of the bar, dying

in a freight elevator filled with Uniroyal’s rubber

stench. When I missed my plane in Grand Rapids,

too stoned to read the watch face, I had to stay

 

an extra night, lighting and blowing out

imaginary candles while my two babies

back home kept my wife up talking in tongues

about their stoned old man.

 

Great-grandfather Julius Danneels

got divorced, changed the name to Daniels,

gave away is pet monkey,

but nothing erased the boy turning blue.

 

I inherited the watch Julius won racing pigeons,

a fancy piece too complicated to fix,

yet I hear it ticking.

*****

Small Talk (from The Middle Ages)

 

I screw the legs on the new kitchen chairs

backwards. My wife and I and our two teenagers

 

struggle to hold ourselves up during dinner’s

weighted silence. No more sharing time,

 

silly silverware, or sippy cups.

We cannot force-feed them nostalgia’s poison.

 

Under the table, our feet brace us against

this new burden pressing us down toward

 

each other. No one mentions the obvious.

We’re on four failing rockets, nothing

 

to do but mumble last words to outer space.

They know everything, yet are descending

 

with us. I realize my mistake, but keep it

to myself. I grip the sides of my chair.

 

Well, I say. What did you kids do today?

**********

Ransom by D. Walsh Gilbert. Grayson Books. 41 pages.

I don’t know what it took to write this book but it’s terrifyingly excellent and disturbingly elegant. The subject is a love bridging the distance between a sister and her suicided brother. The sister’s compassion is the keynote as a brother tortures and mutilates small animals as well as himself. It’s hard to read and yet the poet manages to keep us away from danger — the same danger she’s unable to change — turning to sharp meaningful poetry. Gilbert’s own invisible wounds supersede what she’s witnessed but since art is a retooling of reality we come away from the theatre of tragedy to the victory of language — no small win — given what one overcomes to tell the truth when the bar is set so high. How do you uncover the soul? The poet makes peace by telling her story — limned through is a sense of helplessness in a damaged world. It’s good for the reader that these are some of the best written poems you’ll read this year. I can’t believe this is the first we’ve heard from such a talent — it won’t be the last.

Three-and-a-Half Stones

 

I grew my breasts back at 59 years old

or should I say, they reappeared,

having been buried under fifty pounds

 

and five years of feeling for my dead

with my tongue and lips, my mouth,

my stomach and my hips. I was sure

my loved ones fit inside my hips like

snowy pillows, bolsters, buttress, brace.

I finally kissed mom, dad, and Bob up to God

 

as if I’d dropped a cookie on the floor.

I let them go. I let the cookie go.

And my breasts (rebuilt in ’89

 

from silicone and plastic stitched onto

my ribs with nylon thread and blood),

those breasts softened by back fat

 

that melted and was shed like tossed

cremains, introduced themselves again

like long-lost friends who’d been

 

suffocated by an avalanche, and

suddenly uncovered, could breathe

fresh mountain air once more

 

even in the cold.

**********

Church of the Robin’s Ha-Ha! by Anne Richey. Epigraph Books. 79 pages.

Richey is a devotee of the 19th-century naturalist/essayist John Burroughs; and she keeps his legacy alive with poems dedicated/inspired by him. I’m glad because it sent me back to check him out from the power and enthusiasm of her poetry. Richey becomes ambassador to the natural world, noting its contrasting forces, using the care and preservation of language. The naturalist is a keeper of order in the world, observing formations and possibilities, the miracles of the earth. Birds are of particular interest with energy and passion here paying tribute. We get the feeling that Richey, walking in the Catskills, waited every day to write this book, and is now holding out her gift to us and the natural world. It seems most important — on a day when politics seeks to appropriate our public lands and reduce monuments — that poems like these restore the national conscience.

Speckled Trout

 

Be ye a seeker of trout, dark and obscure

but with wonderous tints. Thread your native streams

through the fat and marrowy places of field

and wood. Time yourself to their meandering —

stopping to gaze upon the spotted lily.

Blend with the trees and the shadows.

Mark the meadow brooks’ every glance

and dimple, how they burrow under the roots

of great willows, pause and pool at the foot

of moss-covered rocks — how the trout tarry

under high cool banks, half hiding to lurk

and spring for prey. Press on through brush

and briars, past the whistling wings

of the ‘dropping snip’ into the deep woods —

where the trout are black, and blacker still

the shadows under the hemlocks, all gloom

and silence. Savage, uncompromising.

Yield ye to the fascination, penetrate farther

towards the center of the mystery. Sit ye hidden.

Hunger whetted, bait your hook with the quick

and the fresh. Bait it with your heart.

**********

Wrack Lines by Lynn Schmeidler. Grayson Books. 45 pages.

A rollicking lustful loveful look at Cupid, and they don’t call that first thing a “CRUSH” for nothing. These poems fly off the page fueled with remembered hormones and spirited fantasies. Schmeidler’s words sing their way to the top as manifestos of indefensible emotions. It’s pure theater of unrestrained heartfelt life before real life grounds us. AND REALLY GOOD POEMS, reimagining the world with bright places. If Cupid has a favorite arrow, this book puts a golden point on it.

I Invented This Universe to Put You in it

 

I’m touching your sleeve when the sun breaks

through. Everything concentrates to the thickness

 

of one hair. Around you air is curvaceous

so I orbit. Any moment now I’ll become

 

noctilucent, my body will break open

and all the stars pour out. Every Monday

 

a new planet drops on my lap. I cannot

keep my body together. Oh beautiful

 

Death Star with your moony crags find me

in the forbidden room trying to return the rain.

**********

A Language the Land Is Inventing by Ann A. Philips. WordTech Editions. 86 pages.

We know dance is constant motion, but poetry can be too. Philips’ poetry flows and sometimes cascades through meaning, each line perfect for the one before, the one after. Feels just right. She writes of other countries, other people, other time effortlessly, all alive now. Although this is contemporary poetry, there’s a classicism that underscores experience. Every poet has the stated intent to make some sort of impact on the reader. Philips achieves this because her poems give us everything we need. You can’t fake honesty. Get the book. She had me at the poem “My Steven” page 38. If this is her first book of poems, I don’t know where she’s been all my life.

The Barker Promised

 

The people gone, the fairgrounds

are lush in smells arching horses

kicked up: sawdust, spent clowns,

manure, candy and lard.

 

Hot sugar spun up in clouds,

corn dogs, dusted funnel cakes,

pork rinds tossed from the crowd.

Echoing jangle and din, a heady

 

allure hangs in the arcade;

the games of chance, roulette still twirling,

bees drunk in the lemonade.

The barker promised extravagant pleasure,

 

thrills barred to ordinary

men. One Ferris wheel still turns;

the last lotus eater — unwary

mouth open — swallows the moon.

**********

Alma Almanac by Sarah Ann Winn. Barrow Street Press. 69 pages.

There’re some things in this book we can teach our students about symmetry and beauty. These are standards we rarely find so well defined in one work. Winn has written a book with a big personality because of its unifying elements. To the core of each poem is an essential piece of the entire book. The poems are like chord progressions that make up a symphony, all tuned up and showing its best. Is this Poetic Resolve? Talent? Luck? The lottery? When a poem can’t make the wrong sound? The images are visuals unreported until now, fresh and new, complexity simplified, relatable, achievable, approachable, easy for the taking and the liking. When you buy the book don’t miss the fabulous poem, “Morning Baking.” Page 12.

This book won The Barrow Street Poetry Prize, and I can see why.

A Bargain

 

There is a sale at the night market. We put everything on credit, and

spend more time than we’ve got, strolling around looking through

windows at mannequins wearing moments from the past, perfectly

posed. I ask the cashier about size options. About a discount hour

of sixteen again missing its tag. She flips a page of her magazine

without looking up, and tells me Venus will one day come again

between the sun and the Earth. She says I should wait here, in line

beside the jellies and glam rockers for the ‘80s to reappear out from

behind Mars. She says the moon is just an overflowing ashtray with

butts buried in the dark side. She turns the sign in the window off,

and goes outside for a smoke.

**********

Addendum to a Miracle by Mike White. WAYWISER. 88 pages.

I’ve liked this poet ever since I read his first Word Works collection. But this is the miracle itself — how few words do we need to turn the world upside down? Some of White’s poems are quick as a dancer’s pirouette, some are sun beams flashing on the wall — fast reading — giving us brevity that is technically amazing. What if every syllable were a valuable tool, with expert execution, proportioning meaning in tiny forecasts. All our lives are in minutes. White knows this and makes minutes into poems, each dramatic, each total. He takes a field of vision and wraps it up in a small sum. This poet holds out gift after gift to us time after time. This book is the winner of the Twelfth Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize.

Arms

 

Angels do not exist

Bombs exist

 

At someone’s say-so,

They fall from the clouds

They carry you off

 

You, who to them

Weigh nothing.

**********

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. Autumn House Press. 86 pages.

Alcoholism and drug addiction equal death. They follow in that order in this stunning heartbreaking fierce book of grief. No one should lose a son but if he dies after a light filled life it is tragic — if he dies after a life of formative pain and struggle, it’s disaster and tragedy. St. Germain provides a platform for the bitter headwind of a mother’s grief — of perseverance and lost reckonings. There’s no sea change for addiction. There’s only drowning. No poetic policies can set that right, but that this book could have been written at all means that somewhere a chorus of Angels is spurring the poet on — for no earthly ability could make her endure page after page of brutal tectonics. This book is epic in shaping a life and death where the coalition of drugs curse and ruin life’s every opportunity. This is penetrating mesmerizing writing. A star shines through the ruin and rubble — evidence that this boy’s spirit lives through his mother’s brave hand.

In A Church Two Weeks After Your Death

 

Christmas, it’s all lights and wreaths,

A life-size creche with a statue of the baby Jesus.

Above, a statue of Mary holding the infant in her arms.

 

I don’t believe, but here I am lighting a candle.

 

She lost a son too, I suddenly remember,

could do nothing

 

 for his suffering.

**********

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld. FutureCycle Press. 93 pages.

Making the complex simple is the gift of the great. Kronenfeld replaces facts that strangle truth with the images and insights that turn our daily actions into meditative practices. Jane Eyre says, “If I could behold all I imagine…” Judy Kronenfeld does.

Bread

 

Even the packaged kind —

twisty tie untwisted —

sends up its yeasty plume

to the nose, its celebration

of morning hunger…

 

And I think of truckers in a diner,

knuckles greasy, gathering up

the creamy yolks with a crust,

before each climbs alone into his cab,

 

of a student breaking a bagel

in half as she runs to an early

class to present her report, bits of garlic

pungent on her tongue —

 

all of us eager as a spaniel

under a table for that leftover rewarding

morsel of toast soaked in the perfume

of sausage or bacon —

 

how we take the new day

into ourselves, and it crosses

the barriers of our cells

and enters our blood,

how it may feed us,

or not.

 

**********

To Be the Daylight by Charlotte Mandel. Kelsay Books. 101 pages.

Mandel interprets every part of our humanity with human decency. She gives meaning to ordinary moments that would escape public attention. In poem after poem she writes at the highest level of awareness and skill, thus answering poetry’s toughest questions.

My father at Ninety-two, splitting the Days

 

It’s five minutes to twelve and the sun

glares in our faces — quite a phenomenon,

he says, to see the windows full of light

and everyone going about — at midnight!

The clock plays second fiddle to his brain.

An hour’s nap and he begins the day again,

washes, changes his shirt, and expects

his breakfast on the table. He respects

my worn explaining as a kind of busy

work, shrugs with courtesy. He is dizzy

with the earth’s rotation spinning away

twenty-four to the dozen, each brief new day

a clone to the last. Like a match burning

meridians, he strikes his shadows turn.

**********

The Moscow Poetry File by John Huey. Finishing Line Press. 135 pages.

Huey has written a fascinating account of time in Russia after collapse of the Soviet Union. With a journalist’s exactitude and a poet’s heart, we find cultural changes, peril, love, and intrigue as the writer finds his way to truth.

Borders

 

This time last year as we

made the final border we

looked one to the other

in disbelief.

Lost as we had been we

never lost sight of the

other and that strength

that went over with us.

 

Sometimes waivered or just waved

through we crossed resolute and

hid our fear.

Without the slightest doubt or

coward’s hesitation we

looked straight ahead and

right in their dirty eyes.

 

The spring trees burst their winter

tightened buds and waves of pollen

roared across those old

seized lands of war.

We surged as well and tightened our

grip and took nourishment and

moved smartly and correctly.

Beat them at their own games good and proper.

Got the hell out of there to home.

**********

Best Literary Magazine

Rattle: Volume 23, Number 4, edited by Timothy Green. The Rattle Foundation. 108 pages.

36 poets featured plus a 13-page interview with chapbook winner Diana Goetsch conducted by executive editor Alan Fox. The author’s bios are, instead of credentials, interesting comments on the writers’ lives. And here’s a poem by New Mexico’s Mary Morris:

Intimate

 

It’s the closest we have ever been —

slipping my jeans off, sliding into the shower

 

with my mother, washing the galaxy

of her back scattered with planets.

 

Once, she carried me behind that tumor,

emptied those breasts into my mouth.

 

The body remembers something primal.

I dress and feed her, tell her what to do.

 

She heeds me now.

 

It is late November. Outside,

three bronze leaves suspend on the ash.

 

My mother and I lied down, fragrant

with soap, wake with our bodies

 

spooned as lovers.

 

**********

Best Anthology

Forgotten Women: A Tribute in Poetry, edited by Ginny Lowe Connors, introduction by Marilyn Kallet. Grayson Books. 191 pages.

It’s not so much that the poems are about women unknown or unsung – the book’s beauty is because there’re so many women we simply forget to honor – and these poems do that. There are also women figures not famous, maybe family members, in poems by such notables as Rita Dove and Ted Kooser. This book is a treasure chest of great poems; it just happens to be about women known and unknown. There’s more talent in this book than stars in a jar, multiple voices representing the best of human values – each poem chosen is a well-made thing about a notable female. There’s nothing we can’t do with words, like bringing to life Susan Erickson’s POW Nurses of Bataan or Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s women in the factory ‘where my mother worked;’ or Vivian Shipley’s Radium Girls. The book is divided into sections: Hard Work; Unknown to the World, the World to Someone; In the Shadows of Their Men; Making Herstory; Happy Is How I’ll Look. I learned a lot about these women I should have known. And we love the book’s epigraph, said by Ann Richards: “After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

**********

Rainbow on Fire by Dolores Kendrick. Limited Edition. 124 pages.

Courage

(A Personal Message On Living Well to D.C. Youth)

My Dreams are on stilts, tall and pretty,

itching at their corners, one by one.

So I will lift them higher, whole and sweet,

from shadows, storms, and refuse from the sun.

 

Personal Remembrance: Dolores Kendrick/DC Poet Laureate
September 7, 1927-November 7, 2017

Dolores Kendrick was one of the great poets of our generation. Dolores was the first black woman to teach and retire from Exeter, a private New England Academy. She became Washington’s second poet laureate in 1999, and was our Aretha Franklin, Gwen Brooks, Versace, and Prada combined. Until almost age 90, she still wore “high heels” and went to Mass every Sunday. She was decorum and ceremony. But when we were alone, she was a girlfriend and great for swapping secrets.

My husband, Ken, and I asked where Dolores wanted to meet for breakfast one day, and she said, “The Mandarin Hotel.” She rented a suite there several times a year one mile from her condo, as a place of se­clusion to write. She took her meals there often. When we drove to the door, the parking valet started talking about a poem she’d helped him with, and all the staff swarmed around her as their personal ce­lebrity. I called her Washington’s “Poet of the People” and we tried to attend all her fiestas over the years. (That breakfast, by the way, was $150, and we thought maybe we’d pick the place next time — but maybe not. Such fun to be with her in the palace of her choosing.)

Dolores was on “The Poet and the Poem” several times, the most momentous was when her book Women of Plums was issued. That was the book of the decade. The poems are in the voices of women slaves, and the narratives were also set to music and mounted on stage. And it was worthy of the Pulitzer if anything ever was.

One time, in the radio studio at WPFW with Dolores, I had a number of things to accomplish before taping, not the least of which was to find my engineer, get release forms signed, and find her voice lev­els, and I thrust a paper to her in a hurry to get the signing done — and she stopped cold in the chair and said, “I will do THAT after I do THIS,” and then carefully and slowly took her time with each chore presented.

For the rest of our lives, when Ken or I would try to rush the other, the reply was always, “I will do THAT after I do THIS.”

She would call friends night or day. And if one didn’t answer immediately, they’d get rung up on another phone and they’d better have a good excuse for not being available. There’d always be classical music in the background as she spoke on the phone. Then came her intensity, her genius, her gossip.

She helped hundreds of poets toward actualization and confidence in her tenure as laureate. Dolores Kendrick was waiting for her new book of poems, Rainbow on Fire, a few years in the coming. It was issued the day of her funeral, November 29, 2017.

**********

Please send review copies (2018 releases only) to:

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

**********

Grace Cavalieri’s new book is Other Voices, Other Lives (ASP, 2017). She’s founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, enjoying 40 years on-air and now from the Library of Congress.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus