June 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry


Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric by W. Jason Miller. University Press of Florida. 216 pages.


 Let Our Eyes Linger by Hayes Davis. Poetry Mutual Press. 76 pages.

The Dead Spirits at the Piano by Carol Jennings. Cherry Grove Collections. 138 pages.

New and Collected Poems: 1975-2015 by Jay Parini. Beacon Press. 229 pages.

The Art of Forgetting by Andrei Codrescu. Sheep Meadow Press. 124 pages.

USA-1000 by Sass Brown. Southern Illinois University Press. 81 pages.

Elegies for Small Game by Shelby Stephenson. Press 53. 73 pages.

Call Her by Her Name by Bianca Lynne Spriggs. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press. 82 pages

As Sunrise Becomes the World: a Trilogy by Louie Skipper. Settlement House. 93 pages.

The Boundless and the Beating Heart: Frederick Ruckert’s “The Wisdom of the Brahman, Books 1-4” in Verse Translation with Comment Poems by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 252 pages.

The Banquet: New and Selected Poems by Gray Jacobik. Poets’ Choice Press. 402 pages.


Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric by W. Jason Miller. University Press of Florida. 216 pages.

I remember reading, in Daniel Mark Epstein’s book on Lincoln, that Abraham Lincoln had a copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman on his desk when he wrote the Gettysburg Address. Some assert that Lincoln’s cadences and phraseology were influenced by Walt Whitman. I just read that the Beyoncé lyrics from” Lemonade” are from poet Warsan Shire. And now as if we need any more proof that poetry fuels the world, here comes a book that details, chapter by chapter, how Langston Hughes’s poetry influenced Martin Luther King’s rhetoric. It says that Hughes, himself, believed his poetry inspired King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. To clear this up, the book was written, and you can read and decide for yourself. There are study charts with Hughes’ works related to King’s, thematically, by year, providing timelines that show the parallelisms. The book outlines, with illustrations and charts, and the chapters carefully track the order of Hughes’s words in relation to King’s words. I haven’t completed the entire reading but I must mention the extraordinary scholarship detailing, line for line, the work of two friends — one of America’s greatest and lasting poets; and that of America’s immortal great leader of freedom. This is one for the classrooms. This is one for the historians, and this should be, above all, one for the poets.


Let Our Eyes Linger by Hayes Davis. Poetry Mutual Press. 76 pages.

Hayes covers a good spectrum of poems from childhood to husband, father, and teacher. Through his poems of literature and race, Hayes becomes a theorist elevating the ordinary, showing us what poetry is made of, organizing his emotions so there is the right sound to heartfelt experiences. The poet connects to his words in a way that vulnerability becomes charisma. He images cadence, dialogue and dialect, but his strongest point is turning stories into optimistic melodies. There are some hard times noted — we call it shoe leather poetry — but the poems themselves are not hard. They chase the truth with lyrics that hold each line in place. Something special happens throughout this book — facts rooted in reality transform to a positive vision — fortunately born of confidence and strength in writing. Hayes is super precise with his vocal control. That’s why we believe him. Rhyme and accuracy are what make a poem solid, but true soul is what keeps it that way.

Make it Work for You

When I ask my daughter if she wants tacos
I get to eat one of my favorite dishes.
When I buy organic fruit strips for Zoë
and her infant brother, I get half of his.

We parents talk freely about bed times,
potty training, daycare situations, schools —
but I’ve never heard “Hey, I hustled my daughter
to read the book I wanted last night.”

The promise of ice cream after lunch
unfurrows the asparagus-affected brow,
guarantees the dulce de leche you’ve craved.
Raise your voice half an octave and bathtime
sounds exciting, brings bedtime closer.

A trip to Target after they are both asleep
is alone time — I blast the radio, or call
my mother, my west-coast brother.
Often I’m happy for the silence, so I
take it, each time, with less guilt. I take it.


The Dead Spirits at the Piano by Carol Jennings. Cherry Grove Collections. 138 pages.

The dead can be electrifying if presented in an interesting dynamic. These poems frame beautiful tonal registers and colors because a poet who is also a musician makes poems that can brighten the room with extreme energy. This comes from a true knowing and belief in its subjects, and familiarity with the lyric. This book may be seen as an elegy to great composers, to parents, past lovers, and all those who have become revelatory, and now are changed to verse. Jennings upholds her ancestry and testifies to it with poetry of the rich past which has gifted her. This is a voice pulling up stories of heat and light that honor her personal and intellectual heritage — words pulled up from the rich bottomland of longing and remembrance. She takes emotions to the top and shows her expertise and range in exact measurements.

Dust Jacket

Browsing at Kramer Books
and Afterwords,
my fingers catch
your latest work.
I pull you from the shelf;
your dust-jacket
stare startles me
as it did decades ago.
I have to take you home,
as I did then, though
I no longer need
your body or affection,
just your words in hard-cover edition,
a space for you in the oak bookcase
between Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
and Jong’s Fear of Flying.


New and Collected Poems: 1975-2015 by Jay Parini. Beacon Press. 229 pages.

It’s been 10 years without a new book from Parini, preeminent critic, biographer, novelist. And this book includes 50 poems not seen before in the first of four sections, West Mountain Epilogue. The book covers the present time back to 1975. Parini has immortalized Pittsburgh, Scranton, Lackawanna, Anthracite country, and Northeast Pennsylvania. These newly published poems are in a voice that hasn’t changed over the years but seems to have a deeper emotional iconography. There are poems personalizing father, grandmother, Mrs. Willoughby the librarian — and always with Parini, there’s reverence for the land. The subsections of West Mountain have well-chosen titles and show his warmth: “Ordinary Time” and “The Grammar of Affection.” It wouldn’t be Parini if we didn’t have a poem about Aristotle or Ezra Pound, for he’s forever devoted to his literary career as seer and scribe.

Someone asked me about the “theme,” yet how can there be a theme in a book of collected poems? Each poem is living in a different moment (what someone called the damn now), but we can talk about consistency and voice. Parini makes no apologies; he’s clear and takes the wheel easily to execute the well-structured poem. Every line is natural to him and there’s never a forced syllable. He also has a dimentionalized stillness and calm, coming from his word choice, cadence, and line lengths. These poems have good rapport with the reader because they appear as if each one is clearly what’s honest, important and true to Parini. He looks for quality in the world and then shares it with us. I chose a sample poem that allows us a common experience with an esteemed poet. Its simplicity shows the grace of Jay Parini. From the book The Art of Subtraction 1998-2005:

High School

Everyone must go there.
None returns.

One sees the boys get into line,
their first mustache more like a wish
above their lips. The girls stand
parallel and pure, some of them bleeding,
all of them afraid. They’ve seen
their older sisters taken. They have seen
their older brothers, too,
assimilated, saturated, swept.

The hot brick building is a kind of furnace.
They’re its fuel.

The hot brick building is a kind of maw
that feeds to frenzy.

Everyone must go there.
None returns.


The Art of Forgetting by Andrei Codrescu. Sheep Meadow Press. 124 pages.

Many of us remember Codrescu from his insightful and ironic commentaries on National Public Radio for quite a long stretch. We knew him as incorrigible, incomparable, and unique. For those who think poetry is a big snore, this new book will repeal boredom. He’s not reckless — never — he’s reckful, careful with language; and yet refreshing it with swag. Craft always counts and Codrescu masters a language that isn’t even his native tongue. Born in Transylvania, he rules in English. Listen to some of these first lines from the book. (And you’ll have to buy it to get the last lines.)

family matters: “i turned prudes into nymph maniacs /and nymphomaniacs into prudes/what kind of talent is that?”

mission impossible: “i was raised by Communists with ink in their blood and blood in their ink/i was a child of lead/ i had quick hands and awe of the heroic dead/the dust devils i inhaled were famous writers…”

new season: “spring is here! the bats are awake! //are there any holy sites like Jerusalem/on the internet/something we can really fight about?//nature is so exuberant!…”

the redhead at the piano: “is that the redhead with unruly hair/beating the piano like it was a bad kid/in the 1930s Alabama classroom?… “

Jews: “God created Jews to sing his praises. There are no bad Jews, only Jews who sing/ differently than other Jews. Is the pitch-perfect singing Jew different in body / from the unconsciously off- key Jew? And do the atheist and the blasphemer sing?…"

In an impressive 10-Page Poem Codrescu breaks down, and reconstructs, Isaiah 3:18:23 JPS Hebrew — English Tanakh.

Showmanship and entertainment hoist some very serious messages; and, as we know, humor is twin to tragedy. Hear this poem in its entirety: assisted living “my 92 yr old mother calls to apologize/for ruining my childhood/i fixed that I say I became a poet/she calls 20 times a day doing a pretty/good job of ruining my old age

advent of the parahuman

as in paramilitary
not the posthuman who was half-machine
but a posthuman indentured to the machine
in exchange for staying half-human

the parahuman works outside the machine
which has become smart enough
to overcome itself by employing
its unpredictable human half
to teach itself unpredictability

the parahuman is a mercenary
fighting for the enemy in exchange
for being allowed to be the enemy


USA-1000 by Sass Brown. Southern Illinois University Press. 81 pages.

Sass Brown has covered a lot of territory in her debut book, from childhood to poet; and pop culture is the frame for her remembrances. Radio, TV, IMAX theaters, Hallmark cards. This could be the voice for a whole generation, yet no one’s would sound exactly like hers. She shows her range in extended two-page poems that are testaments to weird things kids experience and the strange love big ones do. In a way, the book is a testament to American life for all, at all ages; we can relate to an exam at an eye clinic, or working in a store at Christmas time. What is flawlessly brought to the poem is a particularity that one in a million might not notice: the smell of the doc’s hand at the clinic, Christmas cards on sale with coded display slots. Each poetic line of inquiry reveals a longing or a wish. Poetry calls for immediacy and Sass Brown brings it and understands the strength in detail, almost as if the success of all poetry depends on her capturing a tiny essence and then making its meaning. The father figure is predominant in the work and it glimmers beneath each poem, said or unsaid. She addresses this, directly at times, with a fierce heart she may not even fully understand. That adds to the poetry. She is fully alive in this initial virtuoso appearance.

Disappearing Act

Outside, the bright burst of red
I know to be a neighbor’s sweater
bobs steadily down the street
until it could be anything: arc
of an umbrella, finch’s wing-flick,
even your latched satchel of papers.
From my window it’s what I imagine
hope must look like: vague shape
in the distance.
                                             Some things
my mouth knows without asking.
So every gesture — sweeping stray hairs
from the tub drain, turning down
the bed — becomes a story
of departure. Indoors nothing grows
but residue, until I am a wispy figure
at the window,
                                             shed as husk.
You can live with the others now,
my garden of moss-covered icons,
as if my desire made you disappear.
What lasts is what leaves. I watch
the sky dissolve into dusk, the trees
lose their sheen. And the heart
clatters on: battered, bold, intractable.


Elegies for Small Game by Shelby Stephenson. Press 53. 73 pages.

As I’ve said before I was raised in Trenton. So the country meant an occasional ride on the weekends. But when I read Stephenson, I’m from North Carolina, born and bred, right there with him where the “small farmers fields are fallow.” And “Indifference farms sprawling stands/ Of houses by ragged-hedged yarrow…” I’m there when he asks, “…O where has all the farmland gone?” I am with the dogs, the farm and fields; and with him in his Buster Brown shoes “this Sunday pair” when he was nine; and also “when they cranked up Uncle Walter’s Ford” on Thanksgiving. I’m there with his partridge berries and his blue-perfect air, his beaver dam, and the crotch of the apple tree.

Shelby Stephenson is, to the rural south, what Walt Whitman was to the Civil War and Carl Sandburg was to Chicago. He’s the spokesperson for water moccasins, barn yard basketball, and birds’ nests of purple martins, cardinals and bluebirds. Reading these poems, we live in the South in the 1950s, with Stephenson, and walk the roads of today — with only poetic change to mark time. This is evidence that a picture of life is the greatest wisdom when spoken with honesty and intimacy. Stephenson’s poetry is beyond talent. It vibrates with layers of complexities and subtleties, walking the path by “the possum-pocked/ Persimmon tree with myrtle waxed/ In trickles soaked from the spring’s mouth... “

Here is an encyclopedia of the rural south’s landscape; and life inside its kitchens. It glows with the shine of how things were; and rejoices in an ability to find remembrance in the hog feed room and fish meal in a dog trough. I never knew cow mire could be poetic; and I’ll pass, thank you, on eating doves (although a recipe is included). “The smell of rabbits everywhere” may not be found on Mount Olympus but it’s far better where Stephenson lives — it’s a sweet spot in a rough cement world and it’s an Amen to living things.

Black & Gray

We farmed Paul’s hill with mules until my seventh grade.
               The bus would let me off; the first thing I’d see,
                              If they were free of fields, Gray, scratching her neck
High on the barbed-wire fence in the chainey-tree’s shade
               The corner of the mule-lot popularized for me,
                              And where Black wallowed made a washed — out deck
I’d see doodle-bugs rolling over, dusting upper
               Waves in mini-huffs; I felt a real kinship when I grew
                              Strong enough to draw water; my hands ache
Now when I think about the knife-sharp chain at supper,
                                             Good bet.


Call Her by Her Name by Bianca Lynne Spriggs. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press. 82 pages

Spriggs calls out all the names for all women, with poems from pedicures to lynching. She calls out their names with metaphors and similes, each piercing with a story that comes to life. She speaks with strength, especially in the poem What Women Are Made Of; and ends with “…You want to/know what women are made of? Open wide and find me.” So, this is the invitation to her poetry that’s easy to warm to because it’s meaningful; and fills the stage with a big poetry personality. In our strange lingo of today where opposites attract: “sick” means “excellent,” and “crazy” means “profound.” Spriggs kills it. She is true to what she is, making us truer still, writing for her life.

Lynching Postcard

You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge
— Woody Guthrie “Don’t Kill My Baby And My Son”

I went to imagine that there is no rope hankering
for a brownwoman’s throat and the asterism
that was her voice. Next, that her arches rest
on something as firm yet giving as loam.
And there is no faceless mob. No ambivalent
tree line. No sepia stream below. No Proverbs.
No promised land — my God — what is left
for her but an absence of light? Whose ancestor
could she possibly be now? I went to reach
for her ring finger hand. I went to tidy her hair.
Button her sleeves. Smooth the wrinkles from
her dress. Set the angle of her head back to where
her spine has not yet given way to the pressure
of hand-rolled hemp and gravities blurred desire.
I want to open her eyes. Tell her one-hundred
years later that she should have been born a gust
of cobalt, a blue ember against the granite
swathe of sky, that she hangs on still as more
than a souvenir.


As Sunrise Becomes the World: a Trilogy by Louie Skipper. Settlement House. 93 pages.

This book is a perfect example of poetry as memoir. “…I know there is a flowing upward/of words from our lips/to tell stories about the clouds/above the basket of cut flowers,/the wind nearly golden, a body/of happiness…“ (Yes, Light). Skipper gives words a whole new life; he’s lyrical, musical, memorable, using all the best tools a poet has — there’s mercy here too in his Whitmanesque lines or his beautifully crafted stanzas. If anyone can read The Fourth Watch of the Night (an 18-page poem) without feeling what the poet felt, then some medical testing is called for. I’ve read a lot of grief poems and this one is about the loss of a wife, Stephanie, with each line under the weight of poetry’s true power. And in After (read below), Skipper says, “…the mother of my son getting up from her grave to fasten/the period at the end of these sentences.” Good poetry can tear your heart. Great poetry can break your heart, and put it back together again, because the words are bigger than the page, and we are grateful.


When I was a boy the grass rose thick and clean
while the gulfstream clouds seemed a kindness,
the greatest depth of understanding.

That was before all the dead,
when the deeps
were always upward into their ancient webs and soft continents.

I wondered what it would be to walk at night on the Sea of Galilee
looking into the clouds laid down by the west wind’s transparencies,
supernatural architecture

closing in, and, at the same time, too far away to touch.
I was still trying to accept what soul I had.
The territories of the blue-jay

ran up against the mockingbird in their formal diversity,
each in their echoing presences, going and beyond.
Amazed with what lives and why,

I heard the music with its luck and weather,
each in their echoing presences, going and beyond.
Amazed with what lives and why,

I heard the music with its luck and weather,
fire on the mountain in the rolling r’s of the Chilean evangelist,
always, it seemed, by the sweat of our brow:

Joe Namath throwing perfect spirals into the Georgia end-zone
in 1962,
the mother of my son getting up from her grave to fasten
the period at the end of these sentences.


The Boundless and the Beating Heart: Frederick Ruckert’s The Wisdom of the Brahman, Books 1-4 in Verse Translation with Comment Poems, by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 252 pages.

Let me explain this carefully. First Martin Bidney is no ordinary man. He’s a super intellect who translates great thinkers and poets and then dialogues with them with his own verse and poetic commentary. Last I knew he was translating Confucius. He’s unlimited with ability and poetic endurance. Ruckert is a German poet who lived in the mid-1800s; the master of 30 languages, and known as a writer in the spirit of “oriental” poetry. (Bidney also hosts many languages.) Ruckert’s work has been used by great composers and is said to be Mahler’s favorite poet. This book is a dialogue with Bidney and Ruckert, as Bidney translates each Ruckert verse from German to English, and then replies to each poem. As a musician himself, Martin Bidney is an equal match for Ruckert, who had such a profound influence on composers, they used his words in song and composition. Bidney ‘s able to shape his translations into gravitational waves that reach beyond the originals. He pulls from resources — from experience and the poetic lessons of a lifetime. He thinks he’s just doing his job, every day, in this poetry trade, but he moves the needle of world literature greatly, increasing its value. I know his work, for Martin Bidney blesses my mail with a new poem or translation every day, so I’m happy to share one from this book.

Comment 2.24 (in dialogue with Ruckert’s poem on this theme)

In fairy tale and fable speakers overreach:
With so much horror they a moral though would teach!

Of Hänsel and of Gretel, too, I have to say
The author of the tale, as well, had lost the way.

I’ve often had the same reaction to a dream:
“Disgusting, what appears upon my movie screen!

Whoever wrote that vulgar chaos ought to go
To school and study what to show and not to show.”

A generous approach I’ve also tried to take:
“A fear unquashed a big impression wants to make.

No perfect oneness, I at night am torn apart,
And rebel heart will scorn the niceties of art.”

The cub within would struggle with the ewe and lamb.
And we are all of these, and each proclaims, “I am.”

It isn’t easy, though: I’m queasy, and I quail.
I’d not quite like to hear another Aesop tale.


The Banquet: New and Selected Poems by Gray Jacobik. Poets’ Choice Press. 402 pages.

A banquet indeed. This book is the recipient of the William Meredith 2016 award for poetry. Meredith, former US Poet Laureate/ Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress, and Pulitzer Prize winner is kept alive through this prize; as well as art exhibits and international poetry events. These are hosted by Meredith’s longtime partner poet Richard Harteis.

Jacobik can write about anything and make it last forever. She’s versatile, learned, witty, sweet, and accomplished. She has poetic roots in traditional poetry, yet we can find every mode of transportation in this large volume. After a Mid-Morning Storm is a granular poem about a world rinsed off. Its couplets speak of precision and order. She can draw a character as well as a dramatist and gives a sharp look, making an intrepid worker into a metaphor (Like a Brick Layer). Drawings: Seventeenth Century Dutch Landscapes is a good example of an ekphrastic poem that goes deeper than the visual. She finds philosophical underpinnings in everything she notices; and, in the poem, Loneliness goes into the complex territory of the psyche. There is a terrific poem about Martha Stewart and Sylvia Plath (Martha & Sylvia) and there are three people in the poem, with the poet wonderfully center stage. Jacobik loves her environment in Connecticut’s spectacular finery and it’s found in poem after poem. This is another rich installment in Jacobik’s life. I saw her once 30-plus years ago before she entered graduate school, holding her first chapbook, now she has this banquet bringing new life to our culture. This poem shows another side of Jacobik:

The Guardians

I have felt their paws on me,
I felt the rim of tartar at the edge
of their teeth, felt their tepid
embraces — jowly white
middle- aged men, phlegmatic,
dogmatic. They’re plastic
wrapped in moral upstandingness,
sealed in a vacuous core.
They speak to their children
with acerbic wit, in the banter
that passes for talking with
love and guidance left to mother
and church. Quick to forget
their lapses, they are too terrified
to feel compassion for anyone
less aggressive then they
(having been raised, above all,
to be real men): chips off
the old block and proud of it,
hypocrites who sit in judgment,
guardians of the state.


Grace Cavalieri’s new book of poems is With (Somondoco Press). She founded public radio’s “The Poet and the Poem” from the Library of Congress and is celebrating her 39th year on-air. Send review copies to Grace's attention at the Washington Independent Review of Books, 7029 Ridge Road, Frederick, MD 21702.

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