November 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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





























The Best Lover by Laura Boss. NYQ Books. 75 pages.

The Masque of Marilyn Monroe by Matthew Hittinger. Goss 183 Publishing House. 59 pages.

Dreaming America, Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention (in English and Spanish), edited by Seth Michelson. Preface by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Settlement House. 109 pages.

Saint Torch by Emily Fragos. Sheep Meadow Press. 60 pages.

For Want of Water and Other Poems, by Sasha Pimentel. Foreword by Gregory Pardlo. Beacon Press. 105 pages.

Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer. Graywolf Press. 179 pages.

Talking to the Night by Susan Meehan. Day Eight. 32 pages.

The Color of Truth by Susan Meehan. Ex libris. 143 pages.

Plus, other poetry books on our BEST BOOKS LIST, and don’t miss Best Anthology, Best Literary Magazine, and Best Translation. Keep on scrolling!

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The Best Lover by Laura Boss. NYQ Books. 75 pages.

I want Laura boss to be poet laureate of the world so we can hear forever about her kindergarten lovers, her grown up husbands, their ex-wives, her snow-white doll, her angora hat. I want to live with her in an apartment musty with an old lover’s manuscripts that his family wants in the dumpster — an apartment where Gregory Corso might have left his self-portraits especially the black one. I want to go back in time where someone called her a dirty Jew and I want to polish her fingernails and tell her I am one too. But since none of this is possible in real time, I want to reread this book because social media was never this social, and Netflix isn’t half this outrageous. But the best thing of all is that the lady’s got craft — and meter. She’s got line lengths, phraseology, imagery, meaning, humor; and thankfully Boss is a poet who really lets us see who she is. She doesn’t hide in language. She bombasts it with felt life; and makes the world just as funny and weird and worth adoring as it really is. Thank you, Laura Boss, for turning on all the lights on this gray Sunday. Thanks for your self-deprecating Charlie Chaplinesque beauty. I was desperate to remember what makes poetry last. Now I remember — it’s letting the chips fall where they may, in carefully calculated and orchestrated delight.

Basic Training

Every man I’ve ever known

talks about how he hated basic training

that was the worst experience

of his life —

the 35 mile march in the dark or

crawling under barbed wire with machine

gun fire above

or a drill sergeant that seemed to be the son of Satan

 

Whenever any of these men and I have an argument

and he says, “I can’t take this”

I say, Remember Basic Training —

it could be worse”

And somehow he usually stops complaining about me.

**********

The Masque of Marilyn Monroe by Matthew Hittinger. Goss 183 Publishing House. 59 pages.

Who doesn’t care about Marilyn Monroe; and how many Marilyn’s are there? The answer is as many as there are writers invoking her. Hittinger is known for his ability to combine myth, pop culture and philosophy — and these come nicely together in this latest book. He uses a wide-angle lens. His Marilyn is once presented as an 80-year-old taking a sitz bath; and there’s a fabulous experimental poem, “Marilyn Munroe and Marianne Moore Monitor the Periodic Table of Monikers.” Elsewhere she cooks — preparing a “stuffing recipe.” “Em Dash” is a poem where the epigraph reads Marilyn rehearses a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie to the rodents of Central Park, 1955. You say whaat? I say read it. This poet does not need narrative to tell story. He comes at situation by way of tone, pointillism, and emotion. His individual strength is that he can make each poem a showstopper like the icon herself. Hittinger raises questions instead of making pronouncements — and as idiosyncratic as fame is, he gets that; and uses it as his template, always shape-shifting what Marilyn appears to be, seen through a poet’s Kaleidoscope. She becomes spontaneously a result of perception. This is done by using inventive measures on the page; then at times approaching Monroe from others’ eyes (Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, etc.), Marilyn Monroe is the subject here, but the book’s author is the star because of his epitomized poetics.

I Am Not a Myth

Marlene Dietrich remembers the night of the Marilyn Monroe

Productions Press Conference, New York City, January 1955

 

I wanted to be that trace of scarlet lipstick

when you arrived, tipsy, a bit chartreuse

a subdued platinum angel. A white mink

 

stole. I am at heart — Come up for a drink

a gentleman. You, a question here to seduce,

a pink thought traced by scarlet lipstick

 

a deer drawn to a salt lick. I am a brick-

back, brick-thrown widow of a caboose.

I lift my black veil. I drop my black mink.

 

To the bird, flown — we toast with a clink.

You created ‘the girl.’ “Their golden goose

is now a scarlet smudge.” Your lips stick

 

to the wine glass and all I can do is wink

out a song, the tricks of an aging chanteuse.

You call a cab and grab your white mink

 

while I play my saw, and all I can think

is I am not a myth a recluse who will recuse

you to remain a trace of scarlet lipstick

caught on the collar of a white mink.

**********

Dreaming America, Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention (in English and Spanish), edited by Seth Michelson, preface by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Settlement House. 109 pages.

This is the book you wish would never have to be written, and this is the book you’re grateful has been guided into print. Editor Seth Mickelson writes, “What ethos do we espouse, both domestically and geopolitically, by placing traumatized child refugees in isolation cells in a maximum-security detention center? What alternatives might we conceive?” Jimmy Santiago Baca writes, “They have endured what few Americans can even tolerate for a minute. Look into their eyes and see all the poetry of universe spinning like orbs of fire…”

There are no names attached to the poems which adds a chilling effect. One child writes, “I have liked to see my mom,/but she wasn’t good to me./She never told me I love you,/called me a street kid./I’d always wanted her to love me,/I want you to tell me I’m yours, son,/that you love me./But it won’t happen because she’s dead./And I don’t feel anything,/her life doesn’t matter to me…//In my room I always cry./My crying in my room is like heavy rain./At night I always ask God/to give me a mother that loves me…”

Here’ a poem called “Marriage”: “Yesterday in my cell/my pal asked, Man, /don’t you want to marry life/forever? And I/answered, Why/marry life/if I can’t divorce/death?

An untitled prose poem now: “I tried to kill myself six times without succeeding, /but I know that day or night the moment will/have to come when from a slip I’ll lose my life/and that’s why I don’t long to become a poet or/scientist or pastor or president or to be someone/prestigious because what’s the point of know–/ing so much if with a blow to the head I forget/everything unable even to remember my name.

And this: titled “If a man could…”: “cry without shame, ask forgiveness,/without our pride/or ego getting hurt, or if you could say/to yourself I forgive you because/you behaved badly, but/to yourself, because it easy/ to forgive people of importance to you,/the tricky thing is to forgive/yourself, to say to yourself I forgive you, because/one sees the defects of others,/but to see your own and forgive them/is very hard, but try, friends,/it will be easy in the end.”

AND FINALLY:

I Forget

Without reason to exist

I often forget that I am

real and this makes ache

the soul that I don’t have

or that can’t find me

as I wander

somewhere else.

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Saint Torch by Emily Fragos. Sheep Meadow Press. 60 pages.

Emily Fragos is one of our top poets and this book tells why. The poems are grounded in the present but have the flavor of another reality — one with castles and carriages rustic scenes and mythic characters. Here is “Boardwalk in Winter”: “The arcade paranoiac hoists a trophy of pulled-out/roots above his feverish head. /The shaved monkey braves hunger and the wind//for the gloved hand’s stroke. /The child performer in his starched white shirt/hacks at the strings of a frozen mandolin. // Bald Athena, shivering psychic, has a tooth that needs/pulling and hammer toes in pink slippers. /She stows rusty crown and files her nails grown wild.

And the book’s title poem, framed in a magic realism “At the Burning of Saint Torch”: “In my father’s fields, tired hands spread manure,/owlet’s scream in their nests, scaring the children//with the sounds of their wild lives, and the great,/patient oxen pull, pull…//A path is being cut through the throng for my cart/and the dancing bear with the ring through its soft nose.//His beautiful fur is wet and glistening./I enter the delirium like a child enters the play room,//deaf to the surface of things./With your last body, pray for the beasts,//to be yoked together with them, to stumble/with them, to be halted, to be rested.”

There’s reverence in this book for Chopin, Bach, and visual artists written with a lyric necessity. Yet I keep going back to the world Fragos creates which is not fairy tale, not every day life, but somewhere in between, overlapping, a place I’ve never been before. Calvino, Neruda, Keats are there with her other worldly lines and perfect craft. So much depends on the classics; and Fragos’ knowledge of art, music and literature draws from a deep well. All combined, the sheerness of thought shaping her poetic circumstances takes my breath.

19 Chopin Waltzes

Snow falls from rafters of pink, swollen clouds;

moonlight drenches the peasants’ fields.

 

The feathered flash of a fish, the Juice of the peach,

the silver rivers before we named them with color.

 

All the begetting: the weak limbs and soft bellies,

the faces elongated like the devil himself. The devil

 

himself! The ship that sales to dreams of Achilles,

the palace of the deaf, the murmuring in centuries’ rooms,

 

the crying of turtle doves, the fleet-footed dancing.

On earth as in heaven, beauty without reason.

**********

For Want of Water and Other Poems by Sasha Pimentel. Foreword by Gregory Pardlo. Beacon Press. 105 pages.

We learn more about male dominance in these poems than ever encountered before. We see this in the forms of love, grief, invasion, fear, and sympathy. But always with some of the most original writing you’ll find. Pimentel has mastered the gift of courage — to this add craft, imagination, honesty and innovation. How do you make music from situations harsh and frightening? The answer is with invention and structure. The body of this work is that of the Mexican border with more than 48,000 deaths, mostly innocent, and thousands more vanished because of drug trafficking. How can poetry come from this? It’s a miracle that a poet’s mind can comprehend so many levels, can forgive so many violations to tell her story. The geographic border is not the only one we find sacrificed to loss; and Pimentel explores our own ragged personal edges with exquisite care, as if she’s putting the poem on an altar of blood so we can better pray for its survival/our survival.

This is such an absorbing collection you won’t feel comfortable reading cover to cover even on a rainy weekend. Each word amplifies and therefore must be read slowly. Here, facts and truths are compliant — not at war with one another — they blend with evidentiary language that has no model I can think of. Gregory Pardlo’s introduction is erudite and illuminating. This is a terrifyingly brilliant book.

While My Lover Rests

Night divides from my pillow

as a man and a woman, one taking

 

breath, and the other, moving

to the pattern of his sleep. The soft

 

palate clicks as measure, and the dead

drip through the window. Here,

 

the plates of our women’s hips surface

from memory with my nakedness, like a body

 

and its reflection meeting at the point

of water, and I watch the man alone

 

in my bed curl, returning. In sleep

we are always aware of the presence

 

and absence of bodies, and he swims

in delicate ballet to the sheeted

 

center, knowing the lack of my weight

there. The wind buries herself

 

against the pane in this lovely, terrible

hour, and all the immigrants I know

 

of evening are coming to

gather themselves around. Tonight

 

I am swimming in this

Inhalation — exhalation — and the wind,

 

Larger than ever, is wailing, and his

throat relaxes, his uvula aquiver,

 

and I am listening now and learning

how little my need, in night, to speak.

**********

Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer. Graywolf Press. 179 pages.

Last night at my table a group of poets parsed translations of Pablo Neruda. Each offered different interpretations. Today in my hand is an incredible book of poems with translations and commentaries. But this is no ordinary book of translated poems. Each single poem, in its original language, is given three translations by three English speaking poets. For example, let me show the first line of a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke (1908) “Archaischer Torso Apollos”:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhortes Haupt…

This same first line is rewritten now:

M.D. Herter Norton (1938): “We did not know his legendary head…”

J.B. Leishman (1960): “Though we’ve not known his unimagined head…”

Robert Bly (1981): “We have no idea what his fantastic head…”

This book is an unexpected treasure chest of poets’ sensibilities in approaching the lyricism of another language; and after each presentation there’s a commentary by a notable literary figure. In the case of the Rilke’s piece, David Young analyzes the three interpretations of the poem.

Martha Collins, in her introduction, makes me think of W.S. Merwin who often said that poems are impossible to translate from another language, “Yet we do it,” Merwin added. She quotes Robert Frost’s wry remark, “Poetry…is what is lost in translation.” Yet, Collins does it, and with Kevin Prufer presents 25 poets ranging from the Greek poet Sappho (circa 620-570 BCE) to Felix Morisseau-Leroy (1912-1998). The commentators are among the best minds writing today, making up a great collection; a contribution to literature, crossing bridges to greater understandings, and expanding the bright art of translation better than ever before.

Returning to Fields and Gardens (1)

When I was young, I did not fit in

with others, and simply loved the hills and mountains,

By mistake, I fell into the dusty net

and before I knew it, it was thirty years!

The caged bird longs for the old forest.

The fish in the pond misses the old depths.

I cultivate land along the southern wilds,

and, keeping to simplicity, return to fields and gardens.

Then acres now surround my house;

it is thatched, and has eight, nine rooms.

Elms and willows shade the back eaves.

Peach and plum trees are lined out the front hall.

The distant village is hazy, hazy: and

slender, slender, the smoke hanging over houses.

Dogs bark in the deep lane, and a rooster

crows on top of a mulberry tree.

My house untouched by the dust of the world —

ample leisure in these bare rooms.

I was held so long inside a narrow bird-

cage, but now, at last, can return to nature.

translated by Arthur Size

 

In the end, there are things to admire in all of these translations, but

there’s no substitute for reading and experiencing the poem in Chinese.

Tao Qian’s rhythmical pulse, clarity of images imbued with Taoist insight,

spontaneity, and rigor are untranslatable. It’s a poem to return to again

and again.

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Double Whammy

Talking to the Night by Susan Meehan. Day Eight. 32 pages. And The Color of Truth by Susan Meehan. Ex Libris. 143 pages.

A poet who’s been otherwise engaged in a lifetime of public service finally gets her say at age 79 with two books of significance. Two books in one premier year! To read them is to know that vitality has nothing to do with calendars. In these books she explores her family album, eccentric relatives, the love of Ireland, philosophical ruminations, an ever-evolving/loving marriage; as well as many irreverent anecdotes. You’ll revel in the unpredictability of intense stories told lightly. She has too much poetic integrity for nostalgia or sentimentality; and prefers straight-ahead honest memory. By this she lets the reader in on emotional experiences and episodes that bring us more to life. This is not a retiree sitting idly in the sun – this poet has a fierce heart with charisma, nourishing and rich.

2 poems from Talking to the Night:

Dreams”

Brushing my hair in the moonlight

I smooth memories

plaiting them into a crown

to wear in my dreams

weaving their dark, rough skeins

into silk.

   

“Crows”

I must speak for crows

Let them flock around me.

I can learn from the tongue of birds,

Then from our cawing conversation

Can I not learn

The tongue of fallen angels?

**********

ALSO ON THE BEST BOOKS LIST

After God by Michael Whelan. Tintean Fein Press. 103 pages.

Leaving

this plain

June day, hazy and hot,

alone I plunked into the back

of Dada’s station wagon,

 

borrowed for the day,

a few boxes — books, photos,

papers, clothes — the little I carry

after 12 years as brother.

 

The last to be packed

is an afterthought:

the black robe on the back

of my door. Surprising myself

 

I fold it

with an ache

into the bottom

of my last box to go.

 

In it I fold away

Brothers,

Church,

Faith.

 

Let them rest, I think,

in the bottom box

of my soul. Tattered

from the soul’s first season.

 

**********

OTHER BOOKS ON THE BEST BOOKS LIST

The Unstill Ones by Miller Oberman. Princeton University Press. 71 pages (including translations and adaptations from Old English and Anglo-Saxon poems).

ROCKS

There were rocks. Huge, looming,

scored with caves, lunar. It was windy.

He pressed himself into a shallow

depression to light a candle

for his father, as was custom.

The sinking brief flare of the match

three times snuffed out, when,

sulfur-nosed, he lights the small

white candle in its jelly glass.

Makes a cave, hunching

of his body. Makes a cave,

diving, of his mind, singing

into the wind, bent

over the flame. The sun sunk,

the sky a fading blue, deep

violet. He can taste them,

violets, his body a yawn,

a gaping openness arcing

around the memory candle.

 

A black sliver of wick

drops into the wax pool.

The wind drinks the sound

in a long gulp. The wind

gets so thirsty. All that

blowing.

**********

Feet of the Messenger by H.C. Palmer. BKMK Press. 77 pages.

Section 1 from “Five Notes from War”

And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

  –William Blake

1.

The lieutenant bled out —

eleven units of plasma

& my friend holding

pressure not enough

to save him.

Near the end

my friend believed

he was transporting

to afterlife when

his fingers trapped

inside the lieutenant’s

congealed blood.

We soaked them free

with water

from canteens.

Now, when we visit

The wall, my friend

tries to wedge

his fingers back in.

**********

Radioactive Starlings by Myronn Hardy. Princeton University Press. 82 pages.

FAILURE

Leaves burn above our heads

yet our hair remains unsinged black

as jackdaw.

 

This crispness this air more

like quince. I have failed miserably.

I have failed you in this

 

season of colorful death.

How it falls in streets

pounded smooth.

 

In piles where I played as a boy.

Auburn joy now like

the burning of skin.

 

Who could have known me this way?

This failed man wandering after

the act after the explosion.

 

The parachute wide as wilderness dragging.

This wilderness where

I reach for you.

**********

Shatter the Bell in My Ear: Selected Poems by Christine Lavant, translated from the German by David Chorlton. Bitter Oleander Press. 117 pages.

From the section Art like mine is only stunted life

Then don’t wake up, send me every nightmare!

I can surely handle the difficult things,

They are tame in my presence and feather light —

Only my own heart gives me trouble,

It is like lead since you no longer desire it.

**********

Leaves Surface Like Skin by Michelle Menting. Terrapin Books. 70 pages.

To Skin Bare

The lichen sticks to bark grooves like skin, but dead,

dried, and peeling. Like damaged skin. Diseased skin.

 

It’s skin of another, and there’s a strangeness

in the act of stripping it. Almost shy. Almost

 

Aware of some kind of compelled intrusion. Wayward

intimacy. Compulsion to intrude right there

 

on a log of balsam. You peel. You strip. You take off

the skin of this other thing. Imagine it’s like peeling scabs,

 

not yours, a friend’s, a stranger’s. or taking off clothes,

not yours, a stranger’s. You can think these things in the woods.

 

In the woods, if you have a thought and then another

and another thought, but no one is there to watch you

 

weather your notions as you strip lichen off bark, as you peel

bark from tree, as you reveal the bare trunk and the ooze of sap,

 

does anyone sense your thought-quake? If anything

is moved — if anything shudders, if anything shakes —

 

It is only your own unheard heart, its wavering

wick, the dormant layers it beats beneath.

**********

Best Translation

Wine of Reunion: Arabic Poems of RUMI, translated and edited by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony A. Lee. Michigan State University Press. 91 pages.

Returning

Soon, I’ll be returning to my Master,

and soon I will obey his kind command.

He’ll buy me in the morning when he wakes,

and I will sell myself at his demand.

The hungry man devours his first meal.

I’m starving for his glance, you understand?

I will find him. Soon we’ll be together.

Did you think I’d be lost down here forever?

**********

Best Literary Magazine

LUMMOX, edited by RD Armstrong. Lummox Press. 191 pages. Featuring 192 poets (unless I counted wrong).
What can be said, after we say, “I Love You” for giving so much space to so many writers?

CUSTARD

by Hiram Larew

From this far away

The Civil War and Revolutionary War

Seem like custard to me

That’s not to minimize their horrors

But it is to say that I have learned to accept my aging face

And all the sweets that come like ghostings

It’s to say that I’ve been muskets along the way

And feel like ambushed sparks

I’ve also bandaged ooze and piped whistles

And even now I listen hard to whatever great-grandfathers growl from bed

Whenever they want to

I’ve held West Virginia close as any maiden aunt would

And I’ve tasted puddings

And cornfield fights

Nothing else surrounds my years as such knowing does

Nothing else silhouettes my insides as candles can

And surely nothing will ever race down my ravines

Hat in hand

Like these chills do.

**********

Best Book of Mindfulness Poems

Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson. Grayson Books. 199 pages.

Consider the Space Between Stars

By Linda Pastan

 

Consider the white space

between words on a page, not just

the margins around them.

 

Or the space between thoughts:

instants when the mind inventing

exactly what it thinks

 

and the mouth waits

to be filled with language.

Consider the space

 

between lovers after a quarrel,

the white sheet a cold metaphor

between them.

 

Now picture the brief space

before death enters, hat in hand:

vanishing years, filled with light.

**********

Best Nasty Anthology

Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane. Lost Horse Press. 323 pages. I think it's over 200 nasty poets writing “Unapologetic and Subversive Verse,” and who knows how many more there are out there?

IUDs

Dittrick Medical History Center, Cleveland

By Kim Roberts

 

Wheels, whisks, wishbones,

silhouette of a tiny pine.

 

Birds in flight and fiddlehead ferns.

The uterus is a magic place:

 

dark as a cave, it accommodates

any shape we insert:

 

circle and snakes, beetles

and bows, fossils and fleurs de lis.

 

Some are even shaped like a uterus

in miniature, amulets for warding off

 

miniatures of ourselves. Leaves

of a plastic ginkgo tree unfurl —

 

no end to our genius, its infinite contours.

On this scaffold we build.

 

a barren language in plastic letters:

expandable O’s, flying V’s,

 

X’s like antlers, and a range

of two-handled Ts, eager to get to work.

**********

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Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem” from the Library of Congress. She celebrates 40 years on-air. He latest book is a compendium of poems and plays, Other Voices, Other Lives (ASP Publishers, 2017).

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