July 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

 


May July sun blaze in the hearts of poets forever. July features the following:

 

The Exchange by Sophie Cabot Black. Graywolf Press. 71 pgs.

Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body by Tim J. Myers. BlazeVOX. 108pgs.

Night Garden by Judith Harris. Tiger Bark Press. 96 pgs.

Part of the Darkness by David J. Rothman. Entasis Press. 133 pgs.

The Late Parade by Adam Fitzgerald. Liveright (W.W. Norton.) 117 pgs.

Spells: New and Selected poems by Annie Finch. Wesleyan Univ. Press.204 pgs.

Red docby Anne Carson. Alfred A. Knopf. 164 pgs.

Night Fugue by Fiona Sampson. The Sheep Meadow Press. 109 pgs.

This Time Tomorrow by Matthew Thorburn. Waywiser. 89 pgs.

Belmont, by Stephen Burt. Graywolf Press. 93 pgs.

Radio In The Basement: Poems and Interview by Bernard Jankowski. Pond Road Press.83 pgs.

terrarium by b. morrison. Cottey House Press. 83 pgs.

Plus three books honoring Anno Della Cultura Italiana in America.


The Exchange by Sophie Cabot Black. Graywolf Press. 71 pgs.

The Exchange

This is for those of us who believe money is just energy
with paper tethering it to earth. Cabot Black breaks the code of the world of
finance by holding it against crucial debts of love and pain. As one can
imagine a poet who is capable of such alchemy is capable of everything; so she
interweaves illness, loss, love (those three tyrants) with the world of venture
capital. Wall Street terminology symbolizes more significant human
transactions. This is a book of spiritual practice, with biblical references,
about what we relinquish and what endures. The poems leap with imagery that
follows no scheme or prescription and is, yet, inherently disciplined. The
poems are each excellent, and if I may intrude on the author’s metonymy, the
whole is credit-worthy.

 

Closer                                      

(Abraham, after)

It was to figure out how far you would have

Let me. Not as the actual reason, but study

Of the gap between us. A trade on what

 

Might appear. The bet was how near I could get

Without changing. At the utmost no one else

And none watching. Except what develops

 

In the midst of how you might not be

What I want which means you could be

Even now. Pure profit. Eventually

 

You might be made. I keep taking you

Off the table and starting over. I once loved

What I brought to the market:

Now I just want to go home

With something I did not come here with.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body by Tim J. Myers. BlazeVOX. 108pgs.

Dear Beast Loveliness

Myers writes testaments
to love, aging, destruction (cancer, anorexia,) decline, and odes to the
lusty muse that taunts the body. Our embodiment inspires Meyers with a set of
ideas, each articulating a clear message about a moment in time. These are
unselfconscious poems taking us across the threshold of the abstract to the
living present of human form, never cynical although God knows the body gives
us room enough to joke; instead, the poet shows the direction that desire moves
us, and not always to the good. Love is in the now, and the rest is borrowed
from memory—this, about the most human thing, the flesh and blood that holds us
in.

 

Night Breeze

A night breeze stirring easily through the house

woke her somewhere in the darkest hours.

She turned in bed, moved her fingertips lightly

over his chest, his temples, his forehead,

trying to see their contours in her though—

 

because she loved the heart in the other breast;

because her finger knew and loved his body;

because she knew a time would come again

when she would have to trace it from the dark.


Night Garden by Judith Harris. Tiger Bark Press. 96 pgs.        

Night Garden

Judith Harris remembers things for us. She’s the warm blanket of
childhood, rent with impending losses. It’s not for want of the past she writes but to dramatize the idea that daydreams will reach your heart
and take your heart with them when they go. The family and its shared life are
never simple and Harris’ job is to make the impact comprehensible. Poets and
novelists try all the time and the bar gets higher and higher— how to define
delicate connections—Harris takes everyday circumstances: the mother folding
laundry, the father mowing grass, and creates mythology with mastery over
experience. Individuals appear at first personal, then from a distance
archetypal. The negotiations are silent and lasting. There’s no ego in work
which is about finding that the simple things we love hold inevitable sorrow.
Why this must be puzzles philosophers and intellectuals forever, but because
the poet is the resource, and the place where angels touch down on us and cruelly
float away, then it is the poet that must ask the right questions in the poem.
Harris shows how to find a mapping for our stories. There are cancer poems, a
suicide, introspection on marriage, but what takes us is not only poetic content
but a Keatsian melancholy/joy. The book is an eco-place for wonderment; the
through-line is an internal monologue of a woman’s soul.

 

Pain

Once, life was painless.

All the same, there were bruises

on the trees,

 

the downed branch, still hung

with its spin upside down,

 

the dead spots, in the leaves,

the color of clay, stayed

deep in the forest.

 

My clothes stayed

in the same drawers,

and I drank from the same coffee mug

at my unfinished desk,

 

looking out at the grass

waiting for some diversion.

 

And I didn’t feel pain.

But now I do.

 

And I think about those illimitable

things, nerveless and insentient,

if there is pain there too,

 

such as the sky’s, or the star’s—no—

that couldn’t be true,

they were meant to be beautiful,

 

but perhaps they suffer as we do—

by bearing their bodies

over and over again.


Part of the Darkness by David J. Rothman. Entasis Press. 133 pgs.

Part of the Darkness

We are aware that part of any darkness is light and that’s
what Rothman brings. Many of the poems are perfect sonnets with the classic
themes of bitterness, jealousy, failure, but so bright with goodwill they seem
desirable traits.  Ideas of substance can be made more enticing when held in
beautiful form. To write in exact meter means we have to hold back
something—the dross. Withholding, then, means what is left is fundamental,
clean and engaging. I respect the rhymes, each one wishing to be there, not
twisted into service. Rothberg makes love to his work, and never before has
thinking inside the box been more original.

 

The Question                                                                                                  

“Doc,” I said,” it’s so confusing now.

My life…my family…I can’t make sense…”

He stopped, looked up, all ears, a furrowed brow.

I went on. Had to. The pressure is so immense,

Words spilling out. “I mean, I’m 46,

And all my dreams, I don’t…”Took a deep breath.

No good. Began to cry. “I just can’t fix…”

Sob, “…anything, and so afraid of death…

So many things I never meant to say…

Mistakes I mean…and all the loneliness…”

Regained control and tried to laugh. ”Hey,

Not to mention the world’s a total mess…”

X-rays in hand, puzzled, he said” I see.

But aren’t you here to talk about your knee?”


The Late Parade by Adam Fitzgerald. Liveright (W.W. Norton.) 117 pgs.

The Late Parade

A debut is always noteworthy and this book is championed by some very good poets who know their trade. At the core of Fitzgerald’s poetry is mischief, sorrow and intelligence—there couldn’t be a better chorus line to hold up Fitzgerald’s limitless imagination and internal reality.  The reading is like living within some giant cultural eye that watches all great writers past to present, making poetry honorific. Fitzgerald has an addendum citing poems with words ”appropriated from” Elizabeth Bishop, Susan Sontag, Robert Hughes, John Locke, Samuel Johnson etc.—other attributions “inspired by” and “for.” I find this important, even doubling the value of the work. To say Fitzgerald needs anyone else’s words would be a lie. He’s got his own fount that pours freely to form; what he knows is that a writer holds the legacy of all writers, and that improvisation is the energy that governs it. These poems then are credo to a vanished time while creating a new world of words. Poetry thankfully will never reach a zenith because restoration is ongoing. The poet depends on, and incorporates, all that was thought before. What is unique is Fitzgerald’s kinetic vitality, artistic identity and bright literary vocabulary. And there is confidence in the line. A poet is just a person until belief in his poems reveals a greater version of himself.

Cathedral

To write about one thing, you must first write about another.

To speak of the death of Charles V,

you must first speak of the Ho Chi Minh Dynasty.

To understand the rotund ministries of, say, moonlight,

you must first be blind, and understand fencing.

 

As for me, I understand discomfort. It falls

in the pinched, early blue bowl light of dawn.

I speak often and only erringly about football,

racket clubs, and the general way of the world.

You go out for coffee. You come back another person.


Spells: New and Selected poems by Annie Finch. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 204 pgs.

Spells

Annie Finch is a formalist who holds a wild child in check.
Her world is one of consequence so every poem testifies to some integrity of thought
and invention. We are allured by her big boned ideas carefully held together as
performance works, sonnets, elegant couplets, and translations. The book spans
the years since 1978. Her new poems have the Finch imprimaturs: love of earth,
animals, trees, poets, and an appreciation of the esthetics in these. It’s as
if she looks at everything to understand how to define praise. It can be
intimidating to see the world with so much intensity and with feelings bigger
than we are, nevertheless Finch wrestles them into shape with schematic
precision. Her poetry comes from a different kind of pain—not romantic or
self-reflective—but wanting to take a purposeful experience and find the end
result; or taking problems out of the unknown by describing them clearly—a wish
to  make her reverence available to others. She is not a seller of ideas, nor
interested in literary fortunes; Finch achieves poetry’s highest standards. She
finds an area of inquiry and places it within a human context. She’s a poet,
but first a humanist.

 

Walk With Me (from Poems 2000-1990)

Walk with me just a while, body of sunlight,

body of grass, surface of trees,

head bending to the earth we have tasted,

body of death, surface of leaves

Sinking hooves into the river,

root of the live earth, live through my body.

Sinking body, walk in me now.


Red doc> by Anne Carson. Knopf. 164 pgs.

Red doc

There are characters named Ida, 4NO, Sad, G, M’hek—There’s a
dying mother, a shell shocked soldier (or a shell shocked mother and a dying
soldier;) there’s oxen, and(everything) more, it doesn’t matter if I list what
I read—what matters is that Carson, a classicist, a master of the art, knows
writing is illusion and that life is the cruelest illusion of all unless we
form it into something interesting enough to hold. She does this in various
(dancing) verse—predominant is a ribbon of words, exactly 1 ½  inches wide
which, believe me, contains every leap, emotion, shift,       surprise
imaginable within its tiny frame. How this can come though the body to    the
hand from the brain only the gods know.  You can read page after page of this
form; it’s greased lightning. There are several poems, centered, titled Wife
Of Brain
; and yes, a one-page play by 4NO,”Prometheus Rebound.” Carson’s spaces on the page and between words are statements, spontaneous pleasures,
alternatives. Obviously she writes with a need to interest herself and because
she’s read it all, she makes choices to keep her own soul awake, and sees
beyond the poem. If Carson were “working” an idea, I doubt we’d be so
fascinated but you can tell she’s not a blueprint poet; she is inherently
playful, authentic, natural— Her sensory world turns into theories before we
know it, liberated by unusual combinations. Ideas come alive like word puzzles
solved in front of our eyes. This gives us a literary passion from poetry that
other books never told us about.

 

…The doctor

is pleased. He’s drawn her

out  he’s done   a bit of

educating he’s inserted a

few  innuendos and this

only their second session!

Ida is pleased. Her grid

intact. Smart  grid. Safe

lovely shadows  chase

themselves brain across in

the thin particular light she

keeps there, Home light.

Watch that grid. You’ll

tell me is there is anything

you need    says   Pig Doc.

His hunger like a smell on

him she turns her head

away. But here   is the

holiness of mastery that

was taught her by her

father. It is to treat your

enemy as an honored

guest. Get me some paper

I’ll draw you some naked

she     says.    You     want

naked.   Pig  Doc  blushes.

Their time is up. Exit Ida.

Pursue Cézanne he notes

In his dossier.


Night Fugue by Fiona Sampson. The Sheep Meadow Press. 109 pgs.

Night Fugue

The best way to describe Fiona Sampson’s poetry is
neoclassical surrealism. She reminds me of Leonie Adams, an early poetry
consultant to the Library of Congress (1948,) whose intricacies are not as much
human interactions as rarified interconnectedness with nature, and an abstract
existence within the psyche. Samson’s points of reference are not from the
known universe but from some multiverse of druids and spirit selves. The
language of the text is a beautiful background of forest feelings that produce
a world that can be imagined but not lived. This is the best place to occupy
the told excitement of poetry because love of language transports us to a place
we’ve never been. Poems represent Sampson’s books of 2013, 2010, 2005, 2001
plus new 2013 poems. It seems sensibilities are the same throughout the books
but Sampson takes more opportunities in recent work to attempt mortal
understandings of existential states of being. She pushes against the
boundaries of reality and smooths it until it appears to be life as we know
it—but it is more profound—there are few direct human relationships (although
the poems are residue) but one poem has a strong Mother image. The poet seems
to take satisfaction in delineating emotions without actually knowing what
controls them. The work is effortlessly written and reveals Sampson’s talents
as concert violinist and philosopher. From Rough Music (2010:)

 


The Miracle Tree

The true Rood

is in the tree—

 

white

as rising sap,

the Christ-white blood

 

The true tree

is in the Rood—

 

red

as the breaking bark

where the yew bleeds

 

The Rood

holds up life

 

in blood-red apple

and bruised pear,

sweet fruit

 

The tree

holds up death—

 

ransacked body,

hunger and juice

The graveyard miracle


This Time Tomorrow by Matthew Thorburn. Waywiser. 89pgs.

This Time Tomorrow

Thorburn writes of his travels to Iceland, Japan and China, recreating his life in different countries. This poetry travelogue is news of the
day because the writer’s temperament allows us into his personal experience,
through people, food, and landscape. He’s the pointman for us, for every grassy
slope, every squirrel rifling through the leaves, every old man squatting in a
steambed searching for clams. This is what it takes to be the guardian of
detail within the challenge of foreign life. The best compliment I can give,
not having been to these countries, is that Thorburn satisfies basic curiosity.
What particular moments a poet chooses to pluck out of the daily scene is a
matter of judgment, and Thorburn has exceptional taste, brokering every
situation for the sake of the reader, making each poem a shared occasion. Old
and new worlds are dovetailed without abstracting them beyond recognition. The
book’s in three sections and in each he writes as if the reader is worthy of
his time and deserves exact dimensions of what he sees. I especially like the
poem A Year in Kyoto (from Part 3) featuring “Gloria’s” point of view
and her story of betrayal. Thorburn’s sense of adventure sometimes includes the
interior life, and he designs poems where life’s difficulties make for lucky
writing. From section “Haven’t Named It Yet:”

 

                       

Little Thieves

A golden scorpion

like a scrawny prawn—

that’s something else I said no

 

thanks to. In the all-night street

market- the streets still shiny

from the evening rain- a guy

 

flipped yellow-breasted buntings

on a charcoal grill. “Buttery,”

an Australian told me, taking

 

two. “Melts in your mouth.”

Also snakes skinned and milky

white, fried beetles, a vat of lumpy

 

horse stew. But I don’t remember

sparrows – either on the grill or in

the air. Were they ever reintroduced

 

there, after Mao accused them

of stealing grain and people

stayed up all night banging pots

 

and kettles to make them flit from

branch to branch to branch

till every tiny heart gave out?


Belmont, by Stephen Burt. Graywolf Press. 93 pgs.

Belmont

Artists are just people who got big but never grew up;  and
with Stephen Burt’s Belmont, we say Hallelujah. However to be
playful—or to be a player—doesn’t mean you’re irresponsible. Artists are the
most meticulous people I know. This poet meticulously and responsibly writes of
fatherhood, suburban land, basketball, rock bands and friends. To change the
ordinary lives we mortals live, Stephen Burt simply dings it with his
poetry/philosophy wand. He gears his writing for those who read slant, making a
chamber play with costumes out of the plain old street or park where we abide.
He knows how a poem is, oftentimes, but then he dislocates lines with
impossible irregularity in stanzas, relentlessly seeking to recreate the page
as if it were made of legos. Just when we think a poem is going to continue the
expected convention, then the apocryphal imagination intervenes and we awaken
to a new life. But Burt amazingly never loses the connectedness of intimate
dramas. He shows contemporary life glittered with soul searching—the literary
will solving its thought problems. This is good-natured writing encompassing
personal relationships with a sweetness that cannot be disguised. I like the
way Bert looks at the world with a set of choices then veers away to an
extraordinary range of other choices. Even in his long poetic line, I sometimes
feel certain tautness. He charges his language with image and thank the good
Lord, or he’d be a train with a man inside going by and how would we really
know him otherwise.  Burt likes the fun of being a cross dresser— does this
poem refer?

 

                                   

Stephanie

           An orange nylon collar, a scallop-shell A-cup, worn tortoiseshell

buttons that pop off a dress,

           my own..

 

           This world is too good for us, and would be intolerable

if we could not imagine another just like it

 

in which we could get, and reject, another chance.


Radio In The Basement: Poems and Interview by Bernard Jankowski. Pond Road Press. 83 pgs.

Radio in the Basement

If you want to know what it is to have a “voice,” read
Jankowski. We know on every page who he is, where he came from, what he did,
what he feels, and why—in his own conversational tone. Not every poetry
theorist values a narrative storyline, but I am saying,
if you want to know what it looks like, read Bernard Jankowski. We follow the
thread of his life as it intersects with the larger questions we all face. The
poet is a draftsman with compression as his first tool in his box, so only the
elements of one’s life that want to be there show up. No dross. And we’re
always grateful not to know where the poems will finally end up. We’re
also happy with paradox. We’re happy the poet takes time to negotiate in verse
what it means to be on a ball field or nodding off while listening to a
friend’s familiar woes. Complex problems are made simple by a no nonsense
command of words. Living life is one thing—the difficult part of the route is
to record it accurately without pretension so we can hear the “voice.”

 

Radio In The Basement

You can live,

sometimes function,

for months or a year

or years on end

and not realize

you’re existing

like the radio

you left on

in the basement

with the volume

turned off.

 

Thousands of tunes

went unheard,

but the radio’s red light,

like your eyes,

lied and held firm

and insisted

it was “on.”


terrarium by b. morrison. Cottey House Press. 83 pgs.

terrarium

What do we do with the time we have left? For writers there
is only one way—to harvest the past; and because poetry is more than a rational
process, its ramifications will last, long after the book is closed. Barbara
Morrison does what we all wish to do: say it clearly and make it beautiful—all
the old wounds that psychiatry leaves ragged and unfinished, poetry mends clean
and whole. That’s the most precious gift and that’s the strength of Morrison’s
writing. Childhood is a nightmare, even on a pretty street, and Morrison goes
behind the garden walls to expose its elaborately arranged inequities—what goes
on in us, while society all around us wears its party clothes. This can make
you cringe and say thank you all at once. Because it’s about being
connected—the poet to her past—the reader to its atonements. As Morrison maps
out disparities in family life we see the dreams of what is possible become
nightmares of what no one wants to find. This is her style, and poetry’s
breakthrough moments. It seems to me, the questions asked are, what is left
that is indistinguishable; and what are the opportunities we can find from its
remains.
And through these stories in Terrarium, because of
Morrison’s wellspring of talent, alienation turns into a safe neighborhood
after all.

 

The Bad Sister

The bad sister, that’s me.

The one who doesn’t share.

I take my book where no one

will think to look: inside

forsythia’s green umbrella,

fronds brushing the ground,

breaking the sun into soft

riffles of gold.

 

Later, okay,

after dinner I’ll get them all,

corral them in a circle,

Play Red Rover till dark.

But now? Leave me alone.

 

Just leave me be.

I’m not here

for you.

Not for anyone.


This is the Year of Italian Culture in America (Anno Della Cultura Italiana.)

Across the country art galleries and institutions have hosted events
displaying Italy’s culture in art, music, cinema, design, science and
technology. In Washington DC, events were hosted at the Corcoran Gallery,
National Gallery of Art, National Women’s Museum, Folger Shakespeare Library,
the Library of Congress plus others. LANGUAGE wants to be noticed in this
special year, also, and so I selected three very different books to signify new
publications.

 

Pioneering Italian American Culture by Daniela Gioseffi. Bordighera Press. 287 pgs.

The book compiles a series of interviews, reviews, essays by and about the author. Gioseffi has been an artist/activist since the 1960’s and now we have a book chronicling her life in the arts as dramatist, novelist, poet. She’s presently leading the fight in eco-politics to save the earth itself—no small battle—but she’s still going strong. If you want to start with her core beliefs, I recommend a personal narrative, a section excerpted from a book From Growing Up Italian edited by Linda Brandi Cateura (a William Morrow publication, 1987.) It’s not easy to fold a lifetime between covers but Gioseffi’s compendium shows the Best of Self in a life of service; and how being individualistic propels society to the good.


The Home of Heartbeats by Giampaola Seguso. Editorale Programma sri. 130 pgs.

The Home of Heartbeats

Poetry in a new environment! A breathtaking display of poetry engraved
on glass. Forty nine photos of glass sculpture, vases, works of art engraved
with poems. In 1956  on a trip to Sweden, I visited the home of Orrefors
Crystal, a camp of glass makers in a forest near Stockholm. I met the elderly
Edward Hald, the first man to ever engrave an image onto glass; he was formerly
a student of Matisse. I feel passionate about this beautiful book where a
glassmaker/poet talks of creating ‘a new substantial reality’ for words. Each
page is a visual achievement. On a shimmering golden/wine vase sculpture titled
FLOWER OF LIGHT, the following words:

 

Sun, why do you not know

that you are sun?

 

You dress your light

as a blazing flower

so that the darkness

vanishes

and you transform me

into stunned

and bewildered hope.


Sciascia Stendhal Sicily by Maria Enrico. Aracne Press. 66 pgs.

Sciascia

Finally, we
honor prose. Enrico explores Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989) one of Sicily’s most
famous contemporary writers, translating his writings about Stendhal, a 19th century
author known for “realism.” Interestingly, Sciascia attacks the veracity of
Stendhal, exposing false claims about his visits to Sicily. The book tracks a
scholarly journey, uncovering information about Stendhal, separating facts from
truth. There is much more, in history and mythology, about each author that had
never been discussed before; and since I knew nothing about either one—as we
say in America—it was a win win.

 


Grace Cavalieri is producer/host of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio— 2013 Winner of AWP’s George Garrett Award; and co-winner, 2013 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award.

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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