November 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Empty Chairs by Liu Xia. Graywolf. 118 pages. Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern. With an introduction by Liao Yiwu and a foreword by Herta Muller.

When The Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems by Terese Svoboda. Anhinga Press. 244 pages.

The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander. Ecco/Harper Collins. 561 pages.

Monograph by Simeon Berry. Univ. of Georgia Press. 102 pages. (National Poetry Series selected by Denis Duhamel.)

Unidentified Sighing Objects by Baron Wormser. CavanKerry Press. 80 pages.

Requiem for Used Ignition Cap by J. Scott Brownlee. Orison Books. 76 pages. Winner Orison Poetry Prize, selected by C. Dale Young.

Poetry; Interviews & Encounters, Conversation by Nina Cassian and Carmen Firan. Sheep Meadow Press. 131 pages. Preface by Andrei Codrescu.

On Gannon Street by Mary Ann Larkin. The Broadkill River Press. 34 pages.

Nobody’s Ezekiel by Christopher Middleton. Hopewell Press. 51 pages.

The Hollow of the Hand by PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy. Bloomsbury Circus. 225 pages.

Becoming the Sound Of Bees by Marc Vincenz. Ampersand Books. 90 pages.


Empty Chairs by Liu Xia. Graywolf. 118 pages. Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern. With an introduction by Liao Yiwu and a foreword by Herta Muller.

Liu Xia is the wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiabo.

Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese literary critic, writer, professor, and human rights activist who called for political reforms and the end of communist single-party rule. He is currently incarcerated as a political prisoner in Jinzhou, Liaoning. He’s in the 5th year of an eleven year sentence. While in prison, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. His wife, our poet, Liu Xia, is under house arrest, and has been since 2009.  This book is her premiere solo volume.

Now we have a complete book of selected poems from this Chinese poet, who is a political prisoner under constant surveillance. Each poem is a container that bursts with breath like glass. She calls on Kafka, Van Gogh, and other artists to bring changes to the poem and support her presence. Make no mistake. The words are delicately drawn, the perception is elegant, yet silk is stronger than steel and this delicate voice brings an immense capacity for a sense of self in an absurd world. She’s able to articulate all the things we cannot hold onto. There’s an essential seriousness in each line, even grief, but because of her inventiveness, there’s a fine understanding of language’s play as well.

This is a poet that would have been called to write no matter her circumstance. Language drifts from a heart that’s assertive, bold and sympathetic. From the poem “Days,”Our life. Like the calendar/ on the wall,/ presents a stale picture…At dawn our friends are suddenly gone/ like a breeze./ The sunflowers on the window curtain/ are crazily bright/ against the light,/ Cigarette ashes and beautiful fish bones/ are jammed own our throats./ Without looking at each other/ we climb into bed.” In an almost psychotropic beauty Liu Xia is sometimes fiery, sometimes ghost-like. We’ll never read anyone quite like her

We think of Marianne Moore’s words,” The world’s an orphan’s home” and here we have a poet orphaned in her home. In “One Night” she writes: “…Only the sleepless cat inside her/ cried out in her blood, its eyes beaming/ like snow./ The woman fighting nothing,/ in the end, was engulfed with her words by/ the nothing between her fingers…”

 Liao Yiwu wrote a gorgeous intro titled “The Story of a Bird.” He’s known our poet’s work since 1983. He writes now,”Liu Xia’s burden has become too heavy. Her heart is beginning to fail. In isolation, she can only stare at a tree through her window, a tree that only a bird can dwell in. She writes: “ When a bird is dying, her singing is sorrowful./ These are the only songs, the dying songs, of Chinese poetry/ since June 4th, 1989./ Escape, Liu Xia, I know you can./ If Liu Xiaobo learns about it from jail, he will support you — / your change from a tree back into a bird.”                                                                                                                                                                          

Silent Strength

Living with dolls, the power

of silence is omnipresent.

The world opens in four directions,

and we communicate with gestures.

In the shadows, in silence, an imaginary

red apple exudes a fragrance.

Do not open your mouth or the illusion

will disappear in the blink of any eye.

 

Darkness constantly falls around me

regardless of the time.

A doll turns her back to me

to stare out the window for a while.

The dazzling white of the snow

stings her eyes,

but she refuses to close them.

Love is so simple yet so difficult.

 

I’m moved by her

and my silence deepens.

I must guard these

small fragile things

as if guarding our life.


When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems by Terese Svoboda. Anhinga Press. 244 pages.

Svoboda’s work has been lauded by the Library Journal as having the chill of a dry martini. I would add, expertly mixed. There are three sections of previously published works and three new sections. There’s lots of history here, a survey of wars with facts that sober the page. But style is what startles, changes, and amazes the poem. Svoboda is the empress of non-sequitur but she’s careful to leave a silver thread of meaning so we don’t go away mad.

There’s a flashpoint in each poem, honesty and vulnerability in different dimensions. She accomplishes a lot. Svoboda uses debate, dialogue, message to show her view of a world, a world the poet’s traveled well, always teetering on destruction — swiftly saved by wryness and homilies of new language. This is a book of social thought even in personal family poems. There’s always a huge force from the poet pushing the outside world into a poem. Her deep looking is explaining something to us. She’s trying to pay the price for the world, off-kilter, setting it straight in a highly individual verse.

Eurydice Abandoned

In The Caves of Hades

 

You hire a guide. See several waterfalls,

a dock for the boat and why not a boat?

You rock to a shore where bats rise as gulls.

Or fall. Such silence. You keep your head low,

wade black pools, one for each of the senses.

You light a cigarette, unnerved, defenseless

in the blue of that smoke. You see the roots

of trees, your sisters’ hair unpinned, you see

what leads out. The sky! Then the guide rapes you,

steals your purse, and disappears. You really seethe.

Oh, god. Even Orpheus has lost it.

You can hear him through the rock, if that Shit!

is him shouting. You say, let the stones drip

their milk. You’ll sing louder, sing till you drop.


The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander. Ecco/Harper Collins. 561 pages.

This new issue is yet another translation of Homer’s The Iliad. (There must be dozens but this looks very beautiful.) And a good thing to have since most readers are more familiar with The Odyssey. This work, circa 730 B.C. was originally meant to be read aloud. So try a page and hear the song. If you have time to be on Facebook, you have 2 minutes to read a page aloud and swim in the lyricism. Truly the glory and the power of Homer. And the vibrations are good for the body.

Translator Caroline Alexander’s written for The New Yorker, Granta, and National Geographic. Her books include One Dry Season: The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty; and The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. She’s taught classics at Chancellor College in Zomba, part of the University of Malawi, from 1982 to 1985, as founder of that department.  .

"…Thereafter beginning from the left he poured drinks for the other
gods, dipping up from the mixing bowl the sweet nectar.
But among the blessed immortals uncontrollable laughter
went up as they saw Hephaistos bustling about the palace.
Thus thereafter the whole day long until the sun went under
they feasted, nor was anyone's hunger denied a fair portion,
nor denied the beautifully wrought lyre in the hands of Apollo,
nor the antiphonal sweet sound of the Muses singing…” 


Monograph by Simeon Berry. Univ. of Georgia Press. 102 pages. (National Poetry Series selected by Denis Duhamel.)

Berry has the gift of making us feel his thoughts and they are compellingly tart with a margin of sweetness. He’s the crafter of exquisitely brief messages creating relationships and situations seen through portals. The running theme of sex becomes a symbol of a symbol, and although the incidents are specific to the speaker, the wonderful touch is one of clarity carrying a shadow.

Went out last night with M.

in a lavender tie and a purple shirt.

Felt like a sexual racketeer.  Chandler

would have approved.

 

            M. says he is fighting every

night with R., who is triumphantly

agoraphobic. They both scream and

cry and threaten to flee the apartment.

Then they have sex.

 

            At first, I was frightened. Then

jealous. Then frightened again.

 

And another luscious report:

Argue with F. about the poem

where the speaker can’t sleep with

her husband without thinking of the

Ecuadorian woman with her head

beaten in by paramilitaries.

 

F. thinks this is a virtuous,

writerly act. I just feel sad for the

poet’s husband. Sex shouldn’t be

social work.

 


Unidentified Sighing Objects by Baron Wormser. CavanKerry Press. 80 pages.

Baron Wormser was once Maine’s Poet Laureate and there’s a definite feel and reference for that place. He writes of unheroic people, slurping tea, leafing through Year Books. Pop culture is also part of his style—colloquial, humorous—creating synergy that means he’s really writing about his readers. He gets at a searing simplicity living in each of us, a cocky vulnerability, We’re tough (you can tell by his language) and we’re funny, yet the overture is reminiscence and the commonality of memory — “Verde-poetry” green green green, the kind that survives celebrity.

 

Haircut (1956)

 

Men must be mundane,

                                      their virile vanity veiled

In crew cuts, critique

                                     of hair, head honed

To thin thrust

                          of follicles, fine flatland.

Extreme the empty edge

                                         but Bob the barber

Sharpened shears shook

                                           ample aprons, aimed

Tonic and talked TV,

                                    Ike, illness, invasions

Of countries by Communist killers,

                                                         while the wealth of weeks

Fell formlessly, the fix

                                    of lessened locks lightly

Combed, the cunning clack

                                             and whack whelming wavy

Sensuousness, Samson’s strength

                                                       beggared, bound, buzzed.


Requiem for Used Ignition Cap by J. Scott Brownlee. Orison Books. 76 pages. Winner Orison Poetry Prize, selected by C. Dale Young.

This Texas writer moved to New York, and brought some Texas dirt with him.  This is a big hearted uncomplaining book, sometimes biblical in its utterances; it brings to mind the definition of poetry, “breaking the frozen sea,” and Brownlee dives in, too, and writes of the undercurrent. There’s an expedition in each poem, sometimes rousing, never giving in, creating powerful heart bonds. Can a poet be revelatory without being overwhelmed by suffering? Brownlee can — and he’s good at it.

VII. The Fire’s Aftermath

 

Something living was here. Now it’s ash.

   It’s nothing: epileptic shock of the visible field.

I hate to say I don’t believe, but in this place

   I don’t. Looking up is an exercise more futile,

even, than praying. The stars aren’t proof

   of anything. What could ever reach then?

They are fading like me — gone like me —

    disappearing the same way I am.

I cannot tell you why. I refuse to do so

   on the basis of this excuse which I hold to:

it was never starlight I fell in love with.

   All that dark like the black diamondback

I found curled at my feet petrified in an S

   signifying nothing proved a better lover.

It seemed left there by someone or something

   like me. But not me. But not me.


Poetry; Interviews & Encounters, Conversation by Nina Cassian and Carmen Firan. Sheep Meadow Press. 131 pages. Preface by Andrei Codrescu.

Nina Cassian was an exiled Romanian poet who sought refuge in the United States after her poems satirizing the regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu fell into the hands of his secret police. Cassian is just becoming well known to a general American audience, thanks to publisher Stanley Moss. This book includes new poems by Cassian (recently dead, 2014; ) and vibrant conversations and interviews with contemporary Romanian-born poet, Carmen Firan. The “Last Poems” are translated by Cassian herself. Selected poems by Cassian have been published elsewhere and are translated by such luminaries as Richard Wilbur, Laura Schiff, and more. Andrei Codrescu in his preface, “The Kingdom of Goddesses” points to the terrific dynamic in these conversations.  “Her (Cassian’s) faith in the Communistic ideal and her refusal of any kind of religious or spiritual palliatives are firmly opposed to Carmen Firan’s spiritual quest and respect for traditional beliefs…” These are intimate conversations of personal and public values; you feel you’re listening with them at the kitchen table.

Purity

 

Amazing solitude.

Only me and my cigarette

and this tiny dragon fly

painted in Voronetz blue.

 

Nothing threatens me,

not even the sun.

The sky is an immense cloud

made of mother-of-pearl.

The lake is an immense cloud

of nacreous iridescence.

 

I am the mermaid of the lake.

I am an infinite melody,

her murmur in the rain.

 

And I am clean

like the poem I’m writing.


On Gannon Street by Mary Ann Larkin. The Broadkill River Press. 34 pages.

Gannon Street is a black neighborhood with a single white resident. These are the people who live there, inside poetry. 14 year old Marcus says, “Ain’t you noticed, Miss Maddie, / when the dudes come off the jail bus/ how toned they all are?” Harrington Jones wants Miss Maddie to stop “them boys playing dice in your alley. / They gonna be trouble.” Mr. Roseland polishes his “chrome-laden Chevy,” and in his presence, children do not fight. Ms. Bigsby prays at the feet of a plastic Jesus while Myrtle sits on the “morning porch” smoking her cigarette over the Bible.

These are the people we want to be with, as seen through this poet’s eyes. Miss Maddie is our favorite and she takes Marcus to the dentist when his “teeth yellowed.” The book centers around Maddie and her liberal spirit. Larkin’s language and customs are drops of humanity, a physical expansion of the soul at work.

Gannon Street

When Maddie locked herself out that first month,

Harry, the old cop, laddered up to her second story

and told her he didn’t want to see

no more unlocked windows,

or hear about no more lost keys.

Later, Ms. Peter’s cousin cut Maddie’s bushes

so the city wouldn’t give her a ticket,

telling her to thank Ms. Peters

because he used her clippers. And Mr. Bigby,

who looks like Zeus, left piles of yams each fall

on Maddie’s doorstep, and said, sure,

she could bake him a sweet potato pie.

Kwafo brought Maddie cough medicine

the same winter Big Joseph dug her car

out of the drifts.  Into springs

and on through summers, the children

made their paintings on the white table

in Miss Maddie’s sunroom.

and when Marcus’ teeth yellowed,

Maddie took him to the dentist,

held his hand the first time

he got the needle. In the spring,

as the ice cream truck chimed

through her open window,

the mourning doves returned again

to their ragged nest above her door.


The Hollow of the Hand by PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy. Bloomsbury Circus. 225 pages.

This is a keepsake. It’s one to hand down to the children. History and poems of such simplicity they ask for nothing more but to commune with the Gods. Photos are of Kosovo, Afghanistan, Washington D.C. Certainly James Agee and Walker Evans are on some astral plane praising this book. The photos are “real time responses”—the poems are a subset changing factoid to truth. I like the book’s title too; and the paper and cover stock, physical qualities that honor the content. The following poem is from the section “Afghanistan.”

The Guest Room

 

One grey dove circles the ruins.

A jet heads to the base.

 

A boy sings to the bird.

He carries a blue gas canister.

 

Where shall I go?

I have no home.

 

I had a place

but guests came

 

and they remained.

Where shall I go?

 

He leads us through the village.

One cockerel.  A pile of shoes

 

outside a curtained door.

We sit on orange cushions.

 

Children bring us tea and bread.

I wish we had brought gifts.

 

I hope we know when to leave.


Nobody’s Ezekiel by Christopher Middleton. Hopewell Press. 51 pages.

To visit with Middleton is to visit with Baudelaire, Chopin, Robert Herrick (and who writes of him these days.) Sappho, Cavafy, but mostly it is to be with Christopher Middleton, a thoroughbred now nearing 90 years of scholarship and poetry.  In “Smoke Over the Rose Garden” he says “…I went in search of the strange,/ of the original sometimes. Dawn/ would come there with a different light. / There would be time to admire the marvels…”  We can take this as imprimatur for his life and work.

I love this end stanza from “To Exult with the Fireflies.” It goes, “They brought us nothing/ of their universe, / but body with body, these/ complete with airs and graces, / were brightening, /they too, moment by moment, / abolishing shadow, you call for me, / the sparks go out, then turn me over, to exult with the fireflies.”   An extraordinary vision.

I gather from the book’s title that Middleton is saying he’s nobody’s prophet— but he is, by sheer virtue.

For a Minute

 

Unicorn, leopard in Ash Wednesday,

mole, donkey, lizard and dog,

relish me, relish me fast and soon;

I’ll sing of you, carp, to Poulenc’s tune,

parked in a pond or the Caspian Sea

beasts of my tiny time, make free

to relish me, feeling in life at home,

bite for a minute, close to the bone.


Becoming the Sound Of Bees by Marc Vincenz. Ampersand Books. 90 pages.

I’m not sure what Language Poetry means anymore and I’m not sure Vincenz can be labeled; but I’m pretty sure he’s brushed by — alternative to the conventional — bumping up against existing parameters — yet be assured, he’s perfectly understandable in all his vivacity. Here’s “WEIGHING THE BROKEN HEART,” first stanza:  Blessed the wind. Cantankerous, asthmatic priest/ in swollen robes & feathered headgear — / once oceanblue & redgold — not charcoaled…”

That’s a perfect description of a broken heart!

I can’t safely reproduce the line lengths of his thoroughly imagined verse; yet, I can share some of his sound upon sound. As in “DOWNRIVER” where he leaps in with,”Boarding the steamer, we reveled,/  you bejewelled, I befuddled,/ sky-figured and transfixed in blue,/ we: doe-eyed, steered by instinct,// you called it amorous intent, we trawled for nights churning up fish and weed…”

A peripatetic linguist, Vincenz prospers through travel like a psychoactive medicine man. Each poem is an open environment where anything can happen — a ceremony of advanced thinking — where a pilgrim of great altitudes accepts life’s vagaries. I don’t mind turning the book sideways as some poems are printed that way:  “We multiply best/ in open bodies/ with low mass indices/ swarm and flock/ cluster and conjoin/ in dances mimeographed/ by mysterious natural/ forces undeciphered/ faithless phenomena/ but orbed ringed…” (“CONTINUUM”)  Get the book to see how these lines are esthetically scattered.

Static

 

In that year

that was not a year

 

when the days

were not like days

 

& the sky was bird-

less

            we listened

 

for the sound of bees

& hearing nothing

 

but the wind box the panes

we began to hum & buzz & drone

 

becoming the grey matter

before words


Grace Cavalieri is producer/host of  “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” She’s been with the series on public radio for 38 years. Her latest book is a Memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage (2015, New Academa/Scarith Press).

Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books 

7029 Ridge Road 

Frederick, MD 21702

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