March 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


MARCH EXEMPLARS

Poetry reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Reunion by Richard Harteis. Poets Choice Publishing. 187 pages.

Blackjack poetry playing cards by Maritza Rivera. Casa Mariposa. Full Deck.

Madwoman by Shara McCallum. Alice James Books. 79 pages.

Burn by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. MadHat Press. 47 pages.

No Barking in the Hallways by Ann Bracken. New Academia/Scarith. 67 pages.

Apocalypse Mix by Jane Satterfield. Autumn House. 84 pages.

Afterland by Mai Der Vang. Graywolf Press. 89 pages.

PLUS Best Anthology, Best Translations, Best Prose and Best Literary Review PLUS Most Unusual.


Reunion by Richard Harteis. Poets Choice Publishing. 187 pages.

 

Richard Harteis blows my mind. Books seem to write him. Reunion is a rousing memoir/tabloid/photo gallery/poetry compendium/iconoclastic work, as if Hunter Thompson had been inspired by Edna St. Vincent Millay — melodious, hilarious, insightful and heartbreaking. There’s simply nothing like it anywhere on any bookshelf in the world. How is this? Richard Harteis is by nature a gifted poet and a prolific one which is also uncommon. He knows who he is in the world and claims it as his personal Monopoly board. Highly literate and incorrigibly mischievous, this is a masterwork. I love gossip. Here it is. I wouldn’t mind peeking in someone’s diary — no problem here. I’m crazy about literary celebs — the book’s packed with anecdotes. More than anything, Richard memorializes his lifetime partner William Meredith. Always and forever Harteis broadens out Meredith’s life for us to see and remember the legendary poet. He punctuates this “spiritual journey” with metaphysical wit, and lyricism; an homage to the ebullient past.


Blackjack poetry playing cards by Maritza Rivera. Casa Mariposa. Full Deck.

Marita Rivera says: “If necessity is the mother of invention, boredom gave birth to Blackjack Poetry. Back in 2000, I was a corporate trainer who traveled to Reno every three weeks or so. I was surrounded by slot machines, and other games of chance but I don't gamble. So, I started playing with words. It was a lot less risky .”

One role of the poet in our society is to be an originator. And now we have Blackjack cards with a poem on each. Tiny poems have to get to the truth; this means accuracy that inspires confidence. No lumps under the mattress. Entertaining and distinctly different, this set of cards has some swag. This poets got talent. That’s what I’m talking about. Write a poem with three 7-syllable lines = Blackjack. It’s a poetry form gone viral.

Here’s a few:

To protect me from danger
I wear the sacrifice of
my ancestors everywhere.

Brown spills onto the paved roads
like percolating coffee
with deliveries of brewing.

When is a tree not a tree
but a woman standing still
under a lamppost waiting?

The Joker says:
If at first you don’t succeed
write some Blackjack poetry.
You can gamble with your words.


Madwoman by Shara McCallum. Alice James Books. 79 pages.

 

In a major way, McCallum peels off the layers of what it is to be a woman. She jettisons poetic forms and can exact poetic norms without waiting for a reaction. What is the conscience of a woman? What country does this come from? What’s the historical precedent for women finding their past, fighting to make it worth making? Mad women are fighting for something they don’t know they can win. This is what turns the wheels of poetry making the old new. McCallum, with her sophisticated thought energizes the page. Her beat goes on, saying poetry is alive and thriving with truth tellers. This mad woman is a world-class star-girl.

Vesta to Madwoman
Was a time I thought to extinguish flames,
but blue tongues licked at the edges of sleep,

waking me to strike that first match.
So, yes, I was an arsonist.

But have you considered destruction
is kin to desire?

The ruined and those that ruin
require each other, the way fire

needs oxygen to light. A blaze
razes a field without thought and, I admit,

sometimes you were that field.
But, my girl, look what this has sown in you:

to know what is sifted from ash
is lit by the embers of disaster.


Burn by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. MadHat Press. 47 pages.

 

Burn” is extracted from part of an album/book; Streaming with music by Kelvyn Bell and Laura Ortman; and narration by the author. Burn details a devastating event taking friends and neighbors that perished in the Marfa fires. Hedge Coke sings as she writes. Her long line lengths are verbal expansions that vibrate on the page. Every aspect of the poet’s memory is in juxtaposition to the earth, sun, stars and physicality of language. She navigates the geography of the terrain in detail providing information while showing cultural aspects. A book-length poem needs acceleration in the right places. She does it, crafting fundamental forces of the land in words. She does it with fidelity to heritage. Hedge Coke matches innovation with the contours of her traditions. Illustrations by Chickasaw artist Dustin Illetewahke Mater, mysterious and iconic, each worthy of its own frame. A fragment on each page:

The East St. Louis child calling,
“Let me out. Let me out!”
as his grandmother’s home buckled inward
too far gone.

Twice prior, two cousins, sisters lost
in fires years before burn
strangling through the family, bit by bit. As if Missouri tornados

weren’t wet enough, the fires fueled there, still hardy, taking.


No Barking in the Hallways by Ann Bracken. New Academia/Scarith. 67 pages.

 

When intelligence and passion meet Reform — watch out, something’s gotta give. In Bracken’s case, it’s poetry about education. No textbook, this — these are real kids in real classrooms and Bracken’s in the center, optimistic, but with the reality of our limitations. Poverty and neglect have gotten there first. The system stretches everyone thin to get hallways wide enough for all. Unfortunately not everyone fits. Bracken tells her stories poem by poem about teaching with unintended consequences. She tries to improve lives with style and originality. Her personalities are her methods of address; and there are interesting dynamics that may wrench your heart. This poet does not pretend our failed classes are unfamiliar; she merely wants — with the High Definition of poetry — for someone, anyone — to read and join this important cause. In the meantime, let us marvel that this is not pedantic. It is real poetry.

Maxine the Hugger
When Maxine enters the speech room
she always throws her arms around my neck.
Today she pulls my face close to her cheek. Her party dress
is dotted with food stains, the gray-white collar frayed
and limp. Maxine smells like musty sheets
draped over furniture in an abandoned house.
Blond bangs graze the tops of her brows, thick lashes
frame hopeful eyes. As if to answer the question
I would never ask, Maxine tells me, We don’t have no water
in our house. She reads the worry on my face.
But Momma says not to fret
cause my Uncle Todd — he lives two houses down —
he’s gonna run a hose to our place.


Apocalypse Mix by Jane Satterfield. Autumn House. 84 pages.

Jane Satterfield delivers one revelation after another — from her own young life to a world view reflected in history. Each poem is a construction William Carlos Williams would be proud of — every line an arbiter. Satterfield unlocks the puzzle of life and death masterfully in an eight- page

 

poem about the animals of World War l (Bestiary for a Centenary). This shows a wide angle lens where unlikely subjects are honored in ways others would not find to do. What I like most is her measured means of expression. Intensity is called on when needed to change our sense of the real; and not to make dramatic selections. Satterfield is naturalistic with the materiality of our world; and yet exceeds expectations with her imagination that stimulates and transforms. Poetry is an illusion of reality and Satterfield’s is very good. First verse of “Bestiary”:

1.
No one recruited them with posters
of trips abroad, obligations to protect
honor, or the “golden opportunity”
to “earn as you learn”—but
they also served in convoys &
cavalry, in pigeon schools & camel
corps; on land, in sky and sea, as
beasts of burden, scouts and spies,
mascots & more.


Afterland by Mai Der Vang. Graywolf Press. 89 pages.

I don’t know of another spokesperson for the Hmong people. Laos, the land of ruins, is this unbelievably uncharted story. Mai Der Vang’s the historian of her ancestors from a burned world. She translates herself into the shatter and emerges as a goddess of history — painful, yes, but how amazing that language can savor to make awful things beautiful. Nothing is engineered or manipulated — line after line flow like a satin ribbon burning at each end with terrible truths. Mai Der Vang doesn’t have to “convince” us; her realizations — in unrelentingly stunning language — brings her story before our eyes, only inches away — there’s nowhere else to look. We already know history. We know horror; but until this book we didn’t have it so systematically illuminated in each poem. The global influence of the past is still with us. This writer makes it happen now with powerful indictments and reprisals in language where, after reading, nothing will ever be the same. This is a blazing book with lyrics that aspire to Mai Der Vang as a major luminary.

The Howler

The man howls in my head,
his stony wind

uncoiling in every crevice.

He howls like a sick ghost
plagued by the living.

An aged river of snakes
cascade inside his murky eyes.

He howls like old steam
bolding from an iron pipe.

Like steady illness rising at 2:30 a.m.

Puffs like a cloud in the shape
of a crab at midday.

He blares in my ear like a metal train,
its breath rattling underground.

He howls the clattering deceased,
whose keening voices I hear

in whispers that live,

whose cluttered faces I see
in embers of the book.


BEST ANTHOLOGY

The World Is One Place, edited by Diane Clancy and Linda Rodriguez. BkMk Press. 108 pages.

 

Native American Poets Visit The Middle East! What a great thought! And it happened and 15 poets tell us about it, not politically, but with information and respect for cultures. Native Americans always forgive landscapes with mercy, although their own has not been treated the same. I like very much Joy Harjo’s piece, “Work Notes,” giving us hope about dissentions that dissolve. And what I like best about anthologies: I carry this one in my purse, open it anywhere: read in DDS office, waiting in the pharmacy, petting a dog, holding a baby. What would you rather carry with you through the day? Here is one of the contributors, Kim Shuck.

Water to Water

I’ve splashed my feet in the
Jordan River and been answered by a
Fish who also splashed they are
Digging there up the road digging
Ancient things buildings this time we are
Taken from water to water this river the
Dead Sea the
Hospitality of tea we are taken to the old
Ruins and fresh mint tea I stare at the
Embroidery for too long shapes familiar
Shapes my fingers have made fall in love with
Rosewater and honey we are
Slow together we remember things but it’s
All tied together with knots of water with
Heart water


MOST UNUSUAL POEMS

Trump Sonnets by Ken Waldman. Ridgeway Press. 76 pages.

Anything you ever thought about Trump is here. And more. And this is only Volume 1. Good thing we have the First Amendment or this Dude would be an ex pat. Funny and smart though.

To Donald Trump, from Raleigh

Donald, the more I read of your strange ways,
the more mythic you become: you’re truly
rebranding yourself, making history.
Simple villain, you’re perfect for these days,
this absurd 21st century maze
of non-stop information. Look at me,
you roar. Or plead, Or, god forbid, decree.
Madman, swindler, con man. The names don’t faze
you, Donald. I recall an old college
acquaintance who tossed an empty bottle
at a group, then turned away as surprised
young men found glass shatter by them. Enraged,
the group shouted back. I asked the bottle-
thrower: Why? It wasn’t me, he replied.


Best Translations:

Intimate History of the Great War; Letters, Diaries and Memoirs from Soldiers on the Front by Quinto Antonelli. Translated from Italian by Siân Gibby. Bordighera Press. 306 Pages. (“The International Bridge Book Award” notes a book originally written in Italian translated into English; and one in English translated to Italian.)

 

Secret Letter by Erika Burkart, translated from German by Marc Vincenz. Cervena Barva Press. 80 pages.

 

 

 

 


Best Literary Journal:

Potomac Review, edited by Julie Wakeman-Linn. Paul Peck Humanities Institute, Montgomery College. 168 pages.

 

Photograph Taken By
An Ex-Lover

by Elizabeth Hazen

The question of the photograph concerns
your easy heart, the reckless optimism

that leads you to believe, with each new love,
this time will be different. The question

of the photograph is math that won’t add up.
The answer cannot tell you who you are

or what you really want. You recognize
the lake, your son’s hand in yours as you leap

together off the dock, bodies taut, bracing
for cold, caught mid-air by an invisible

finger’s clicking. You remember your son’s
sticky grip, his squeals, the way he reached for you

underwater. But the picture begs the question,
who was he who poised to snap and capture this

idyllic scene? Did he believe he could,
through preservation of this leap, preserve

his place with you? You remember the splash,
the shivering aftermath, but these details

change nothing. Who he was and what became
of him, the color of his eyes his version

of the story, his version of who you are —
these answers are irrelevant. The echo

of broken promises holds no more meaning
than the faint chime of bells on a closing door.

People come and go. Most often no one
is at fault. We try and fail and try again.

We do the best we can. To the question of
the photograph you must simply reply:

My heart was open; I was not afraid.
I held my son’s hand; I will not look back.


BEST PROSE

Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel; translated from the Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub. Mandel Vilar Press/ Dryad Press. 219 pages.

 

Translated from Yiddish, Blume Lempel unmistakingly carries the emotional experience of that culture — folkloric surreality, and spiritual connections, with Death often a central character. Lempel escaped from the Ukraine on the eve of Nazis Germany’s ruin; yet, her work is filled with the relatives she left behind. Ghosts play a central role in her messages, while her tone remains contemporary; Lempel lived in New York, so colloquialism mixes naturally with her lyricism and Jewish psychological savvy. The Yiddish writer’s story is of impermanence, texts influenced by poetry, and the speaker is mostly centered within the critical narrative. Lempel’s interior monologue is characteristic of Yiddish writing; and this a culture we’d easily lose were it not for Merrill Leffler’s continued dedication with his Dryad Press; this time along; with Thomas Mandel’s Mandel/Vilar press.


Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of "The Poet and the Poem" for public radio, celebrating 40 years on air and now recorded at the Library of Congress. Her new book of poems is WITH (Somondoco Press, 2016).

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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