May Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- May 16, 2013
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
What to look for in a book of poems, it’s very simple — I hope for the feeling I had at ten years old — the realization that everything is possible through language. And that’s the way I still understand the world.
April Twilights and Other Poems, by Willa Cather, edited by Robert Thacker, Everyman’s Library Pocket poets, Alfred A. Knopf. 220 pgs.
The Oldest Word For Dawn New and Selected Poems by Brad Leithauser, Alfred A. Knopf (Borzoi) 234 pgs.
The Bitter Oleander: A Magazine of Contemporary International Poetry & Short Fiction, (Vol. 19. No. 1) edited and published by Paul B. Roth 132 pgs.
empire in the shade of a grass blade by Rob Cook, The Bitter Oleander Press, 113 pgs.
1001 Winters (1001 Talve), by Kristiina Ehin, translated from Estonian by llmar Lehtpere, The Bitter Oleander Press. 259pgs.
Beauty’s Pawnshop by John O’Dell, Xlibris, pg. 81.
Postmodern American Poetry, Norton Anthology, second edition, edited by Paul Hoover, W.W. Norton & Co., 946 pgs.
Speaking WiriWiri, by Dan Vera. Red Hen Press, 78pgs.
Poet Lore Vol. 108 1 / 2 Spring/Summer 2013, edited by Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller.The Writer’s Center, 146 pgs.
Of Special Note in May: SEE PROSE EXEMPLAR AWARD WINNING BOOK
The Marfield National Award for Arts Writing has announces its 2013 winner
There is something cleansing and sweet about poetry from the earliest part of the 20th century, especially the women poets — women so pure they thought Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry scandalous and bold. Willa Cather is famous as a novelist, but before that she was well known as poet; and two versions of her early book Twilight Nights are printed here. She revised the second. But more fascinating are her excerpted letters. I want to read them in entirety someday. My favorite is how she tracked her favorite poet A.E. Housman to his home in England to gain an interview, only to be treated rudely in a filthy dwelling:
“In London I battered upon the doors of his publishers until they gave me his address. He lives in an awful suburb of London in quite the most horrible boarding-house I ever explored. He is the most gaunt and grey and embittered individual I know. He is an instructor in Latin inscriptions in the University of London, but I believe the position pays next to nothing. The poor man’s shoes and cuffs and the state of the carpet in his little hole of a study gave me a fit of dark depression. I would like to tell you all about it sometime: I think he is making about the only English verse of this decade…”
There has been literary gossip about celebrity in every century and I have to say I love it all.
Brad Leithauser has five other collections of poetry to his credit, six novels, a novel in verse, two collections of light verse and a book of essays. He’s an intelligence in our field.
You can tell Leithauser is a novelist because he uses time, character, place and plot in his poems. Many of these are of lost days where he puts his best shine on things now gone. There’s a balance here. Leithauser also speaks of travel and philosophy— Kenya, Iceland, places we’ll never otherwise see perhaps; but what I like best is the geography of people in domestic places. For example: “Bad Breaks,” from his newest poems Inward Island, is a series of five tiny dramas, the final one of greater length and significance. These crisscross time: “1. Jen and Jason, 2007;”“ll. Louie and Christopher, 1998; “lll. Gerry and Sally, 1984; “lV. Ron and Barb, 1978; “XX and XY, 1952:” Readers never get over what makes a relationship absurd or great. Grace Paley said relationships were impossible yet she warmed over and over again to her own with a husband well into her late years. No one is better at this complication than Leithauser because his poems capture people walking without leaving tracks, camouflaged lives, the occupational hazard of any two things/feelings/ people that come together. He uncovers the logic in our fumbling love and loss, and is intellectually generous in its conscription to the page. What he sees, whether home or abroad, is developed from an understanding of our culture, its ideals and its myths. Leithauser is an American disruptive, (authoritative &witty master of conflicting ideas and he’s good for the health of poetry.
A frozen inland sea, and New Year’s Day.
Two forms of water – a white
lacing of frost, then ice, steel gray.
The year’s longest night
now stands a week behind us, the planet’s great
axial shifting begun,
ultimately to culminate
in a midnight sun
and a breeze-whitecapped lake, blue as a true sea,
though on this New Year’s Day
that firm eventualitylooks as far away
as the row of low white hills on the horizon
that lets the hiker know
miles of ice give way in time
to rock and snow.
Bitter Oleander: A Magazine of Contemporary International Poetry &
Short Fiction, (Vol. 19.No.1) edited
and published by Paul B. Roth 132pgs.
in the shade of a grass blade by
Rob Cook, The Bitter Oleander
Press, 113 pgs.
Winters (1001 Talve),
by Kristiina Ehin, translated from Estonian by llmar Lehtpere, The
Bitter Oleander Press. 259 pgs.
when you think you’ve read every poet who will enslave you, along
comes Rob Cook, I’ve been watching him in poetry journals for a
while and I really think this guy’s got genius. He tests the
psychology of the art and makes provocation a talking point. Without
his kind of thinking we cannot really truly know life. From the
Bitter Oleander journal,
his poem Erato begins:”
She calls around 2am/ when the clock is lost/ and the moon has turned
off/its uncharted neon, /painted over its locks and windows/ and
rolled into a child’s head for the night.//Sometimes her
conversation/ is in the violence of an unfed violin, //and other
times the dialogue/ a best-selling reveler wrote/ for a marriage’s
outdated survival…” I was glad to find him there and since the
universe has ears, in my mail arrives an entire book by Cook, empire
in the shade of a grass blade. Although the
Modern Language Association likes words capitalized, I don’t think
it will hurt Rob Cook’s reputation a bit. Here’s a poem from this
book which makes the world pause a moment.
A LATE GENRE OF BULLYING
a lip taken from her
a girl feeds
to a sapling-spelled linden tree.
unfolds a hall pass:
slut, if you want to find heaven
you’re gonna have to build it
the woods a brown bear
eats the berries ripening
on a noose.
planted by someone
who wanted to feed
leaves are mean to each other today”
the girls says where her voice
used to be,
though the breezes have not yet hatched.
scrapes away, scrapes
and scrapes with a grasshopper tendril
the spitting that belonged
to the girls
who continue as tall reptilian grasses.
from her stranded feather
the sun no longer looks
like the days ahead.
cannot remember which salamander said
it would be waiting here,
already blind on her body,
a quarry of billowing sunlight
from the last knotted curtain she wore
while it tightened and grieved.
I don’t know how Paul Roth relentlessly publishes excellence after excellence but earlier this year came a cri d’ coeur, literally, a cry from the heart, 1001 Winters (1001 Talve) by Kristina Ehin, translated from Estonian by llmar Lehtpere. I had to look up Estonia and now I want to visit Kristina. She writes: I am the big drowsy queen bee/ of a honeycomb universe/ who sleeps alone/ in her beehive-silent bed/ amid the dark of winter// I feel the restless lines in the hand of this universe/ I have crept through each of its black holes…” She’s a magical creature from some Shakespearean forest, illyria, perhaps, not Estonia:
from Woman of Gold
even now the fog comes to howl at my door
to wail to dream
and create us anew
the soles of the oaks reach far under ground
in a dream I saw two moons
one big sphere and another even bigger one
on that clear night
the first belonged to everyone
and the second was
my very own moon – the beautiful eye of a dinosaur
your vanished face
through which I saw into myself
John O’Dell is an Australian who settled in America, making a career of teaching English and French while pursuing his secret love, poetry. Here’s a sample from his newly published first book, emotionally fulfilling and musically precise.
myth of perfect penguin monogamy
fractures in a Christchurch museum;
stones for sex may deflect knifeblade cold
prying into every nest, offer a means
to insulate against unquiet death always there
to claw at or smash new life before shells
are even broken and Antarctic dawns begun.
often, for some of these chaste sisters,
the habit can not be thrown off so easily.
They’ll snatch up those strange beads
and flee back over the ice, favors withheld,
then, to all but the future. These faithful
will line their nests, say a rosary of earned
or stolen stones; surely, all are absolved.
Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence.
edited by Laura Madeline
Wiseman. Hyacinth Girl Press. 203 pgs.
Let us now praise valiant women.
The book’s “Critical Introduction” has tiny essays – more like trajectories — Poetry as Power; Resistance; Differential Consciousness; Breaking Silences; Raising Consciousness & Poetry as Witness; Disrupting Narratives; Sassing Language; Strategic Anger; Resisting for Change & Poetry as Action. More than 100 contributors tell how it is. “Recent events such as Congress’ failures to review the Violence Against Women Act or politicians’ ignorant statements about rape… all demonstrate the pressing need for continuing education about violence against women…” says Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy. We think of EDUCATION as a power point lecture in a study hall. Not here. Each poet spins an experienced reality with felt life. There’s a personal mantra I tell students: don’t write poetry unless you have to. These poets write for readers, but not because of them, with clear messages and great imperatives about ignorance and consequence.
In 1970 teaching poetry at Antioch College, I had a poetry anthology of several hundred pages with 5 women poets represented, so it’s with personal satisfaction that I hold this complete package of poems. Sometimes the poems describe great physical chaos, other times more subtle offenses, and often the wounds of ’love.’ Read Ann Bracken:
thin places, we become our more essential selves.”
Eric Weiner, New York Times, March, 2012
Ireland they warn of thin places
places with a sheer veil between this world and the next,
between bliss and despair,
between saved and damned.
the soft light of a Dublin morning,
I feel my husband’s hand
creep under my silk teddy.
feeling the thud of refusal
over the tingle of yes.
himself between my thighs,
You know it feels good, he growls.
I insist, rolling over,
I hug the far-edge of the bed
yanks off my panties,
unlocks my legs with a swift push,
shoves me to my knees.
brace. Then a hurried
When he’s done,
slaps my ass
Now, let’s go eat.
whistles in the shower,
I crawl out of bed.
Tug my jeans over shaking legs,
Paste on my smile.
thin place between love and hate –
I have crossed over.
Norton Anthology, second edition, edited by Paul
Hoover, W.W. Norton & Co. 946 pgs.
How do you describe a book of a subject that weighs almost 3 pounds of words on the bathroom scale? One way is to start with understanding what postmodern poetry is. For that I’ll pick some helpful phrases from the intro — consummate — if you read this you’ll know a lot: Postmodernism covers the period after WW ll, strongest from the 1950’s to present. “Broadly speaking the term suggests an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the sentimentality and self-expressiveness of its life in writing…” Then this: ”… A break with nineteenth century romanticism and early twentieth century modernism…” Those are the basics, along with the idea that postmodernism is influenced by modernism (or obviously it couldn’t be post.) Here are some buzz words we learn about—conceptual, cyberpoetics and proceduralism. “These work against writing as expression.” The book argues that avant-garde poetry refreshes language, making the case that all innovations, Dadaism; surrealism; modernism; Beat poetry, were disdained early on and apparently proved triumphant in changing our cultural perceptions. The self is taken out of (self) consciousness; I always felt that, ideally, language poetry can be seen as the most egalitarian of writing because the reader might not know the age, gender or race of the writer by what’s written. Of course there are many styles and so no one description fits all. Generally, PM poetry expresses emotion “out of the context” of personal expression, using metrics and sonic combinations to imply meaning. The physical matter, material, substance, of words = the palette. This continues to be a fascinating discussion of esthetics especially since the digital age has jettisoned everything we knew years ago. This book makes a lot of sense and is crucial to understanding where we’ve been and where we’re headed. Gertrude Stein figures as a progenitor and it’s stated that she was ahead of her time but, interestingly, she wrote “no one is ahead of his time.”
The book is a reissue from 1994 and I think it’s a good idea. It might have taken that long for the general literary public to warm up to it; and it will certainly satisfy college classroom needs with its fine encyclopedia of poets There are also essays from the works of Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Will Alexander, Leslie Scalapino, Nathaniel Mackey, Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein, K. Silem Mohammad, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Drew Gardner, plus.
A sample poem by Claudia Rankine (which has recognizable compassion I think):
Coherence in Consequence
them in black, the morning heat losing within this day that floats.
always there is the being, and the not-seeing on their way to –
days approach and their sharpest aches will wrap experience until
knowledge is translucent, the frost on which they find themselves slipping.
Never mind the loose mindless grip of their forms reflected in the eye-
watering hues of the surface, these two will survive in their capacity to meet
to hold the other beneath the plummeting, in the depths below each step full
of avoidance. What they create will be held up, will resume: the appetite is
bigger than joy. indestructible. for never was it independent from who they
are. who will be.
we ever to arrive at knowing the other as the same pulsing compassion
would break the most orthodox heart.
Speaking Wiri Wiri , by Dan Vera. Red Hen Press. 78 pgs.
Vera writes so we know how it was for him, and that makes us more alive too. He makes story link to poetry so that it matters to others. He allows the writing to evolve voluntarily and doesn’t push to persuade; letting people, sights, tastes, smells do the talking, as in Mama’ Makes the Local Paper: “Because Cuban food in South Texas/ is like dishes from Venus or Mars,/ a reporter is sent to interview Mama’.// She cribs the recipes from Cocina Criolla/ and is photographed with her plates/ in her nicest dress, and a bouffant/ the size of her pressure cooker…”
Dan Vera was born to Cuban parents in South Texas in the middle of a Mexican American community. The book is an exegesis on language and culture— Wiri Wiri being the elder Vera’s phrase for gibberish. Sustaining Cuba in South Texas is funny and sad; but bears witness to all of us who had one foot in two worlds while balancing our parents’ earnestness in a new country. Characters are at the center of this dusty landscape— from the child’s POV in, Lago De Mil Ojos: “My father would roll down his window,/ they would ask for his proof of identification, /He would smile and hand them his license, / they would ask questions, I would translate the answers…” Mr. Guzman is a tragic/comedian in Mr. Guzman Makes a Fool of Himself: “He told me about traveling with the pickers/ through the hot fields of Missouri and Iowa./ How when they got word they were coming/ the people would run for the buses/ while he emptied a bottle of whiskey over his head…” “… ignoring the laughter of deputies/ who’d throw him in jail to sober up while they called the Feds…” Another of my favorites, Norse Saga, begins: “Let us praise the immigrant/ who leaves the tropics/ and arrives in Chicago/ in the dead of winter.” and the last verse, “Let us praise the immigrant/ who dreams of the pleasures of sunstroke/ who wakes each morning to the alien sight/ of their breath suspended in the cold city air.”
Each tableau comes alive as a valuable record of the shifting patterns in our country. The book ends with a large statement:
The 2009 March on Washington for Immigration Reform
beats the surprise
on the faces of daily commuters
who looked on in disbelief
in every metro car in Washington
faces are baffled and alarmed
to see the ocean of accented voices
which swelled from the suburbs
of Maryland and Virginia
through the subterranean labyrinths
to rise in the heart of the capital city.
march past the office buildings
of the government that can not see them
that considers them a menace and urban legend.
they reach the national mall
a smile appears on every face
as if they have arrived to the knowledge
of who they are and where they are standing.
between the capitol and the monuments
a ripple of comprehension takes hold
and the dream unfurls again.
Poet Lore is the oldest poetry magazine in America (1889.) It’s an old friend who comes to call and brings every kind of voice, the Poet Laureate, the fledgling, the language poet, the narrative. I chose to highlight Marge Piercy because, frankly her experience is my own, and that’s what poets give us, the gift of ourselves:
THINGS THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN HERE AGAIN
remember hauling carpets out to the clothes-
line in the yard and knocking the dust out
in great cough-making clouds with wire
carpet beaters like diagrams of cellos.
the refrigerator required much
boiling of water on the stove and flat pans
into which fingers of ice fell. Every five
minutes they cooled and needed refilling.
coal truck came and down the chute
into the coal bin the black rocks
clattered and thundered. The floors
upstairs shook in a local quake.
furnace with many arms lurked
in the basement and every few days
clinkers must be removed, often still
smoking, and ashes hauled out.
the war we collected cans
and stomped them underfoot, handing
them in. We bundled newspapers,
magazines for distant factories.
miss none of this. They were chores
not pleasures, but still I remember
and my age hangs on me like icicles
that bear down the branches of pine.
Special Note in May: PROSE EXEMPLAR AWARD WINNING BOOK
The Marfield National Award for Arts Writing has announces its 2013 winner
The Marfield Prize is given annually by the Arts Club of Washington to nonfiction books on arts and artists. Now in its 7th year, it is the only award of its kind for writing about the arts; and equal to the Pulitzer Prize with a purse of $10,000. All books on the arts are judged: books on dance, photography, cinema, and music are eligible.
As one of its judges this year, I can tell you the conversation was animated, with the summary conclusion that this book was best overall, written about an art in a fascinating historical context, with moral issues and legal ramifications about the German appropriation of art in World War ll. But before that tragedy, a lush and detailed life of the art world in Vienna, impeccably written, readable, urgent, memorable, and lyrical, with information not before available.
Finalists for the Award: Michael
Dirda’s On Conan Doyle,
Princeton Univ. Press; Short Nights of the
Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward
Curtis by Timothy
Egan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; The
Big Screen by David
Thomson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Grace Cavalieri is a writer. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.
Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books, attn: Becky Meloan
311 Tschiffely Square Road,
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20878.