September 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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































Best poetry for fall. Also, an in-depth look at releases from Four Way Books!

*****

Adrienne Rich, 1950-2012, Selected Poems. W.W. Norton. 496 pages.

Adrienne Rich, Essential Essays, Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, edited and introduced by Sandra M. Gilbert. W.W. Norton. 352 pages.

American Journal, Fifty Poems for Our Time, selected and introduced by Tracy K. Smith, poet laureate of the United States. Graywolf Press. 104 pages.

A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon. Ecco. 80 pages.

Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr by Husayn ibn Mansur Hallaj; translated from the Arabic by Carl W. Ernst. Northwestern University Press. 272 pages. (Winner of the Global Humanities Prize.)

Nin’s Poem by Shelby Stephenson. St. Andrews University Press. 70 pages.

The Unbeckonable Bird by Pamela Murray Winters. FutureCycle Press. 76 pages.

House of McQueen by Valerie Wallace. Four Way Books. 66 pages.

You Darling Thing by Monica Ferrell. Four Way Books. 88 pages.

No Small Gift by Jennifer Franklin. Four Way Books. 110 pages.

Human Hours by Catherine Barnett. Graywolf Press. 80 pages.

Longing Distance, Poems of Love, Lust & Geography by Joanie Puma. Finishing Line Press. 84 pages.

A Map and One Year by Karen L. George. Dos Madres. 86 pages.

Plus, six more on our BEST BOOKS list!

*****

Two significant books by a trailblazing poet:

Adrienne Rich, 1950-2012, Selected Poems. W.W. Norton. 496 pages.

Here she is in all her glory, over 60 years of work, with a stunning introduction that’s a must-read guide. The 20 books represented start with A Change of World (1951) through to Later Poems (2012).

“I Dream I’m The Death of Orpheus” is in the book The Will To Change (1971), written in 1968.

“I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain powers/ and those powers severely limited/by authorities whose faces I rarely see./I am a woman in the prime of life/driving her dead poet in a black Rolls-Royce/through a landscape of twilight and thorns./A woman with certain mission/which if obeyed to the letter will leave her intact./A woman with the nerves of a panther/a woman with contacts among Hell’s Angels/a woman feeling the fullness of her powers/at the precise moment when she must not use them/a woman sworn to lucidity/who sees through the mayhem, the smoky fires/of these underground streets/her dead poet learning to walk backward against the wind/on the wrong side of the mirror”

There’s no female poet who did so much for feminism and activism as Adrienne Rich. Each poem zings with personal liberty and total emotional disclosure. We identify the women’s movement with her poems confronting racism, politics, and inequality. She defined women as never done before with human stories, and obligations to the truth. If she wanted to reshape the world to put women forward, she accomplished this with her poetry.

The Uncle Speaks in The

Drawing Room

 

I have seen the mob of late

Standing sullen in the square,

Gazing with a sullen stare

At window, balcony, and gate.

Some have talked in bitter tones,

Some have held and fingered stones.

 

These are follies that subside.

Let us consider, none the less,

Certain frailties of glass

Which, it cannot be denied,

Lead in times like these to fear

For crystal vase and chandelier.

 

Not that missiles will be cast;

None as yet dare lift an arm.

But the scene recalls a storm

When our grandsire stood aghast

To see his antique ruby bowl

Shivered in a thunder-roll.

 

Let us only bear in mind

How these treasures handed down

From a calmer age passed on

Are in the keeping of our kind.

We stand between the dead glass-blowers

And murmurings of missile-throwers.

(1951)

*****

Adrienne Rich, Essential Essays, Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, edited and introduced by Sandra M. Gilbert. W.W. Norton. 352 pages.

I’m now reading Essay #2 “Jane Eyre” because that caught my eye; and it’ll take a while to “Poetry and The Forgotten Future,” at the end, but I trust that interesting writing will keep us in motion.

The essays are chronological:

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978; Uncollected 1964 and 1973; Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution 1976; Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985; What Is Found there: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics 1993, 2003; Arts of the Possible 2001; A Human Eye 2009.

By the time I left my marriage, after seventeen years and three children,

I had become identified with the Women’s Liberation movement.

It was an astonishing time to be a woman of my age. In the 1950’s, seeking

a way to grasp the pain I seemed to be feeling most of the time, to

set it in some larger context, I had read all kinds of things; but it was

James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir who had described the world —

though differently — in terms that made the most sense to me. By the end

of the sixties there were two political movements — one already meeting

severe repression, one just emerging — which addressed those descriptions

of the world.

*****

American Journal, Fifty Poems for Our Time, selected and introduced by Tracy K. Smith, poet laureate of the United States. Graywolf Press. 104 pages.

The book is about 6” x 4” — a tiny book packed with poets Smith feels are building poetry and influencing us. In the intro, Smith describes her poets “as people who love poems the way I do…” She presents the powers of personal identities in cultural collective. She honors Robert Hayden as the first African-American to serve as U.S. poet laureate and she exemplifies his contribution to Americanness. Fifty poets make up a cultural debate, cementing ideas, influencing our minds, reminding us of past centuries, attaching us to movements. You can be sure Tracy K. Smith chose poems meticulously crafted, and in Smith’s opinion, poems that rescue language to the good. Here’s a poem by Aracelis Girmay:

Second Estrangement

Please raise your hand,

whomever else of you

has been a child,

lost, in a market

or a mall, without

knowing it at first, following

a stranger, accidentally

thinking he is yours,

your family or parent, even

grabbing for his hands,

even calling the word

you said then for “Father,”

only to see the face

look strangely down, utterly

foreign, utterly not the one

who loves you, you

who are a bird suddenly

stunned by the glass partitions

of rooms.

 How far

the world you knew, & tall,

& filled, finally, with strangers.

*****

A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon. Ecco. 80 pages.

Yoon is having a very tough conversation with the reader and it’s hard to hear. Thankfully the lyric, poetic environment is the good news because art makes everything possible. Yoon’s talking about some of the most heinous acts in history and we pay close attention because she says it so well. A strong theme in this book is the Korean “comfort women,” young girls taken to Japan in the 20th century to “comfort” the Japanese soldiers, young girls tricked and kidnapped to become sex slaves. The truth is bared with its filthy violations, disease, and inhuman disregard for women. The interviews with “comfort women” are descriptions that will shock the world.

Dai Sil Kim Gibson has made a groundbreaking film documentary about the Comfort Women, “Silence Broken,” but I never saw poetry on this theme; and I must say the book will leave you shaken because of what each image tells us. The brutality could only be readable in form that’s controlled and carefully created. The facts are horrific, the writing is splendid. This book is not just history, story, and exposé, it’s an act of bravery on the poet’s part. It’s also an” enterprise” — a wish to establish a port for understanding, and acknowledgement, believing the more we know perhaps the less such violations can happen again. This book is an important step; painful, even while we admire a brilliant writer’s ability to frame events with gifted language and such a strong spirit.

Let Us Part Like This

On winter nights Koreans heard infant cries

from distant wood owls. An abandoned newborn

amidst black trees, unaware

that it may be a bird. Allow us

to be like that. Let us speak these words louder

than pines cracking in the snow. Walk far from us.

Mistake us for howling animals.

That’s ten of them, that’s a hundred of them that

we left behind. Maybe hundreds, maybe thousands.

*****

Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr by Husayn ibn Mansur Hallaj; translated from the Arabic by Carl W. Ernst. Northwestern University Press. 272 pages. (Winner of the Global Humanities Prize.)

Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj was born in the ninth century and became a major writer in the Sufi movement; he was executed in 922, his work is quoted by Rumi. This is the first authentic translation of this great poet and mystic. Rumi’s reliance on Hallaj’s work gives an important context to understanding the power of an ancient poet who wrote and died in sacrifice.

This is not a book you read from cover to cover, but one you’ll be glad to have to pick up, perhaps daily. Each poem has a precis that explains its origin or purpose. This is so valuable and gets our ear so that we can better enjoy the beauty of each piece. Ernst has lovingly prologued the poet’s life and work, paying homage to a poet we’d otherwise never have known. He advances the cause of Islam and poetry, illuminates the Qur’an; and dialogues with this poet about the meanings and manners of poetry held in a special time and place that’s now sustained as a living thing.

*****

Nin’s Poem by Shelby Stephenson. St. Andrews University Press. 70 pages.

This is a book-length love poem to a wife of a very long marriage, now confined through age and illness. “At 4:00 a.m. yesterday, December 3, 2009,/you sat bolt upright in bed/and said to yourself I am no longer depressed/ and I did not wait, but dreamed on…” Stephenson’s nostalgia is here, and anecdotes, reverence, tears, a remarkable comprehensive emotional history. Poetry is a short-term solution to life-long problems, and they are all here plus the actions central to two lives. Their lives stay in this book. “A fresh July morning / two bodies on the rock,/yours and mine,/morning swims. The sun/is peeping./I catch the trout and you fry them right there…” It’s such fine poetry and it’s enough to break your heart.

*****

The Unbeckonable Bird by Pamela Murray Winters. FutureCycle Press. 76 pages.

There’s nothing I like better than poetry that surprises. I like happy, I like sad — profound, too — but I really love surprising work. Winters, formerly a music critic of some reputation, gives us quick changes in the line, double chords, movements that cannot be imitated. We talk about having a “voice” in poetry: this is it, words no one else would use. “That ghost of the button that jumped ship/in the washer, and the tipsy string/where the tag once hung…” (from Exegesis of a Bootleg Tape of “Truckin”). and here, “Not for a ribbon of earrings, innumerable gold jars. Not for/ a lifetime of Richard Thompson concerts, front row, guitar side./Not for perfect knowledge, dark chocolate, the skeleton key…” ( from “Relinquish”), and note the way she enters a poem ( in “Two Texas Folk Films”), “How I was tumbleweed with a map. How I landed in Texas for a/conference, then played hooky after nightfall, took a drive on the flat/cheek of unknown Texas…” I just like the way she talks.

The emotional experience is only exhilarated by tools and techniques. The power of story must be coherent no matter how original the approach; so what does a poet do — she says publicly what she believes privately. Infrastructure’s what makes it possible. Winters reconfigures language, and when she issues her personal jaunty reports, we have a new normal. That’s the magic of making a Winters poem stuff that never existed before, new, with construction that allows surprise.

Relinquish

Not for a ribbon of earrings, innumerable gold jars. Not for

a lifetime of Richard Thompson concerts, front row, guitar side.

Not for perfect knowledge, dark chocolate, the skeleton key

 

would I give up the weight of this hand upon my thigh,

here in the sunrise of our senescence, on an ocean

that gets its blue from mystery, its salt from souls.

 

Not for anyone. Not for the softest sheets. Not for a face

That breaks hearts. Not for immunity relinquish

 

even the lamest of jokes, the oldest of directionless

secrets, a boast with a belch in the middle, if uttered

 

in the voice I first heard in my sleep and never forgot.

*****

House of McQueen by Valerie Wallace. Four Way Books. 66 pages.

Wallace says she read of McQueen’s death and became fascinated about a world she’d never entered. Fashion design. Wallace re-creates the life of Alexander McQueen with fantasy, interviews, and classic literature. Every poem underscores the creativity of a mind that used cloth and obsession to make prodigious statements. The only way to imprint poetry was to be as original as the famous dress designer, with words instead of threads, and to be as principled. What you’ll like most is the scope of the work where every poem is completely unlike the next; the calculus changing with new visions and heightened imagination. Wallace has found her feet and has advanced poetry with style.

*****

You Darling Thing by Monica Ferrell. Four Way Books. 88 pages.

If you think a book about “courtship and marriage” is about satin sheets and rose petals, you’re out of luck. If you want a smart piercing look at how women have been seared and stripped by love, this one wins the gold ring. Women speak here and women from history bare it all, and throughout, it is touched by love. It’s a theater where the players want each other but the “right here, right now” is somehow difficult and fraught, probably something left over from Adam and Eve. Someone once wrote that the real story from the Garden of Eden was that it was the birth of judgment. That’s here too but Farrell wants — with the liberty of it — real relationships. Poets are the first ones to wonder why in any given situation. Ferrell does and there’s a conscience at work here. It’s surrender and resistance, saying things that really matter, changing language and thoughts that don’t end when the book does.

Epithalamium

 

Night creaked about them like a game of chairs;

They looked for safety and again and again

Clung to the eroding island of each other.

 

Pale blue, their shipwreck eyes beseeched us

Like eyes of Christian martyrs at the circus —

Still, no one wanted to talk to the newlyweds.

*****

No Small Gift by Jennifer Franklin. Four Way Books. 110 pages.

“My tiny bottle of perfume/is almost empty. It sits alone…” What exquisite lines embrace loss and betrayal, the pain of motherhood, sickness and recoveries of many kinds. Franklin seems to say what others don’t dare, how hard is life’s architecture without love, and yet, pain is most beautiful when it’s true; and Franklin phrases her thoughts with a keen eye and delicate touch. Poets are willing to risk anything and thank God for that, saying what they want, the intention is to heal.

Still Life With Desire

 

Alone, in the Giotto blue

of my bedroom,

 

you still kiss the scars

on my neck as if

 

they were sugar,

as if they were stars.

 

Come back. Turn

this asylum into song.

*****

Human Hours by Catherine Barnett. Graywolf Press. 80 pages.

Having a mother who paints her way to identity; being a mother herself; having a father who’s losing his memory — these may be in anyone’s household — but in Barnett’s hands, they are not just anyone’s. She takes dour circumstances and somehow the beat is up. Her curiosity about her own circumstance lights the way to interesting rituals that turn into poems. Barnett is dismayed about our country’s demise and it seems to match each individual march to mortality, but there’s a measure of hope everywhere and a lot of sparkle in her stories. This book is a roadmap where a poet is trying to make sense of the woman she is, finding redemption in the slightest damn thing there is. She says it’s all a big adventure under a fabulous banner although we all know how it will end.

Bare Ruin’d Choirs (Sonnet 73)

 

It happens so fast I have to read it again,

the passing seasons, the spent day, the fire,

about to sputter away.

 

Shakespeare wrote the lament

but in it now I hear a contemporary cry —

civility, justice, the first amendment,

 

consum’d with that which it was

nourish’d by.

In ashes from the Constitution,

 

we (brief flashes)

have made our beds and lie.

*****

Longing Distance, Poems of Love, Lust & Geography by Joanie Puma. Finishing Line Press. 84 pages.

Once a staff writer for the New Yorker, Puma has turned to adventure and poetry. The through-line in her poems is freedom for all subjects. She’s unbridled and exuberant and makes every word significant, breathing life into relationships that are hilarious and would otherwise be just relationships. We need Puma, as arbiter of information, because she doesn’t find the nexus of the unusual, she makes it. What needs to be understood in this world is how batty it all is, and Puma — with humor and vigor — makes terrific poems, each one hinging on her awesome originality.

*****

A Map and One Year by Karen L. George. Dos Madres. 86 pages.

What I like about these small shards of “found poems” is that George is unafraid to put together disparate words to make new language. The bumping together of unlikely sounds has impact, and points to a trust that the reader can handle the ride. There’s an ardent urgency in compressed verse and sometimes the sound makes meaning, and even when it doesn’t, sound is good when artfully arranged.

 

Found haiku composed/modified from words in Tomas Transtromer’s

poem “The Clearing,” translated by Robert Bly.

Haiku

stones archive the dead

voices place the foundation

light steps in the net

*****

Also, on BEST BOOKS for September:

Green Midnight by Stuart Bartow. Dos Madres. 63 pages.

Long Time

 

It must have taken a long time of staring

at the stars to make plows and bears, hunters,

goddesses, heroes, sea serpents

and satyrs. Or not.

As a child I gazed into the vastness

and felt, concealed somewhere deep

in the sparkling scape, beings

more than us. It has taken

me a long time to see lions and twins

and teapots in the heavens. To catch

a hint of Andromeda, the chained

beauty, on the verge

of being eaten by a fiend, saved

by a guy on a winged horse.

*****

A stash of good reading from Four Way Books on our Best Books list:

Passenger by Tom Thompson. Four Way. 100 pages.

Mysterious Pulse

“Oh mysterious pulse!”    César Vallejo

said as he pointed      to his wrist.

It throbbed,     shackled as it was,

exquisite and corrupt.      He wanted out.

He wanted in.       Light and shadow

coupling. He pointed           not to the metal

but to the flesh     within the metal

that beat in time  with his heart

and his lungs   and his liver,

as it beats now           in mine, an echo

of what we know       in what we don’t.

*****

Blood Labors by Daniel Tobin. Four Way. 136 pages.

Gravity

After Rilke

 

Center, how you draw yourself

To yourself, with everything,

Even the flown, the blown away,

Winning yourself in return,

You, Center, the Irresistible.

 

Those who stand stand

Thirsting — and like a drink —

Gravity pours right through them.

 

But what falls from those who sleep

As from a cloud, dead-still,

Is the grave’s own gravid deluge.

*****

Dregs by Cynthia Cruz. Four Way. 68 pages.

Wild Is the Wind

 

Enter the diaphanous.

The ritual of rigging

 

Up your lame machinery.

Snow-blind of the mind.

 

Oh, my broken fox, my darling

Weak thing,

 

Lost in your dream,

Pretty, blond gamine.

*****

Forgive the Body This Failure by Blas Falconer. Four Way. 96 pages.

Passing

 

Our heads full of someone

else’s story, we

empty the theater

 

without words, and shuffling from

one dark to another, wander home,

the plaza dead, the bar

 

closed, someone crying in

the street. For what? To whom?

No one

knows. The doors

 

locked, we lie

in bed and dream

a language of

our own.

*****

The Arrangements by Kate Colby. Four Way. 96 pages.

Prospect

 

Ice caul over air-

locked puddles,

 

discarded trees

line the street.

 

Crowning sky

stars the night

 

before me,

clerestory —

 

of all windows

to see this through.

*****

Send review copies (2018 releases only) to:

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

Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of “The Poet and The Poem” for public radio, is now recorded at the Library of Congress, celebrating 41 years on air. Her latest book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publisher, 2017).

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