September 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch. Alfred A. Knopf 78 pages.

The Girls In The Chartreuse Jackets by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Cat in the Sun Books.71 pages.

Underground: New and Selected Poems by Jim Moore. Graywolf Press. 296 pages.

Broken Cup by Margaret Gibson. LSU Press.74 pages.

Rome by Dorothea Lasky, Liveright (W.W. Norton) 123 pages


Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch. Alfred A. Knopf 78 pages.

 

Poets define poetry. With each new book, we find what poetry can be. Edward Hirsch creates an epic book-length poem changing death’s statuary to a living breathing thing. The subject is the death of his 22-year-old son, Gabriel, just reaching manhood. The story of Gabriel’s life and death is told in 78 pages of three line stanzas. We could call this Terza Rima, or Tercets, but there are no rhyme schemes. What we see is a form that’s excellent to contain the tumult and chaos within. Containment is necessary, even essential, for thoughts and feelings like hot stars that would cascade and collide, otherwise. The control allows the content, just as in technology, the hardware drives the software.

After reading this book about raising an adopted child whose brain disorder made him “Mr. Impetuous”— uncontrollable, immune to therapists, teachers, or any form of order—after reading Hirsch’s memorialization, I’m left thinking, ‘What A Remarkable Life Hirsch Was Given.’ It seems to me the greatest relationship is one where two people feel everything two people can feel in one lifetime, and this is what Hirsch and Gabriel had. Out of the rubble of human tragedy what haunts us is the odd coin of luck – that a father and son could have engaged on every level: fear, anger, distrust, betrayal, love, forgiveness, joy. The book, in all its painful narration, becomes a testament to this vital engagement. Sometimes, engagement works, sometimes it fails, but in Gabriel we are made complete with intimate understandings of the core of union – the way fate intervenes to shape its beginnings; what it means to be a disciple to another’s behavior; how the nucleus of everything we have can be fractured; how writing a life story is highly charged; and, how strange events and ideas can capitalize the poem.

A young man dies before the flowering promised by physicians, and awaited by his parents. Out of this crisis, how does a poet become a stylist— shaping painful, complex, and private episodes? Hirsch goes to his core because, by nature, he understands the world through poetry: His decision was to go spelunking into the cave of every human emotion that many others spend their lives avoiding. And forgive me for saying it in the light of death, but Hirsh shows poetic leadership. We’ve always wanted the truth from our poets. Now we’ve got it. In Gabriel, a boy’s life is held together in three-line stanzas. Chaucer, Byron, Shelley, Williams, Frost, and Plath used this form. Dante Alighieri held heaven and hell together. Edward Hirsch does this with the humanity of his ‘Lost Boy.’

I did not know the work of mourning

Is like carrying a bag of cement

Up a mountain at night


The mountaintop is not in sight

Because there is no mountaintop

Poor Sisyphus grief


I did not know I would struggle

Through ragged underbrush

Without an upward path


Because there is no path

There is only a blunt rock

With river to fall into…


The Girls In The Chartreuse Jackets by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. Cat in the Sun Books. 71 pages.

 

These poems make up more of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s rich mythology – growing up in Paterson, New Jersey with her Italian family—her initial wishes to be “other than”—her pride in what she finds as her true self, poet, teacher, curator. Now, visual artist. The “sense of self” is found in the writing with a directness and passion, but made better by paintings, water colors and mixed media, conveying a biography more nuanced and delicate. In both, her keynote is honesty, and a simplicity that can only come from a seasoned artist.

Gillan writes without judgment on the world, creating a sweet modesty in her figures sustained by a time and place in American culture. The gift Gillan has is her drive to capture the spirit of her characters and then show the spirit as gesture, in color.

Watching Gillan’s artistic endeavors, over the years, I should have been prepared for this new aspect, but I was unaware of her work on canvas—delicate, highly imagined, yet able to sustain a dialogue with her poetry. It doesn’t matter what an artist’s intention is if the delivery doesn’t modify our view of the world, or touch our fiber. Gillan’s capabilities expand, giving us the desires and whims of an American Humanist with her gift, ”Behold I make things new.”

My Dreams Are Full Of Women

(poem accompanying portrait: mixed media titled “Women in Bright Dresses.”)

My dreams are full of women and bright dresses; they swirl around

a room filled with bright lights and birds. Children are there, too.

The women look at me as though they want to tell me something.

We are alive, they seem to say. We are together on this campus

and our happiness is so real, you can hold in our hands. “Here,”

they say, as they reach toward me, “here take it. We want to give

it to you. It’s so sweet, isn’t it? So sweet, and we are grateful.”


Underground: New and Selected Poems by Jim Moore. Graywolf Press. 296 pages.

 

When he talks, we listen. His is poetry is an argument with nothing to lose. Underground holds samples from six previous books: The New Body (1975;) The Long Experience of Love (1995;) Lightning at Dinner (2003;) Invisible Strings (2011;) and, Twenty Questions: New Poems (2014.) I like the old poems equally as well as the new.

What we feel first is Moore’s great power of understanding about what there is to love, his comprehension of the everyday— complete with visual information so we know the details of what is visible to him. He can transform a waitress into a complicated and major figure as he shares a sense of everything he sees. Moore’s approach to poetry is classical narrative; he’s good with the literal as well as allusion. In every poem, there is an eye for poetic circumstance and a grand design for how to say it simply. What you take away from his work is how to be alive, clichéd as it is, and how to survive death through words, changing everything through poetic explosions. Jim Moore, in recent work, answers questions not asked. It’s almost surprising how loving and compassionate the poems are, and how we get hooked, to go from one to the next. What more can I say but he is present in the day and this influences the reader on a deep level. What other poets struggle with, Moore makes easy. He is at once frank, conversational, and wise.

From Lightning at Dinner is a poem of meaning in brevity: Christ Resurrected, “ The miracle is not that he came back,/but that he was willing/to leave behind such stillness,/so recently achieved.’

From the 2014 book, is a long poem with long lines, and here, a few lines of the 29 that took 3 years to compile:

29 Stillnesses

Prayer is a giving thanks for the stillness it interrupts.

Writing poems about stillness is like crying fire in an empty theater.

Even stillness will turn against you if you try to use it to ask directions.


Each time stillness leaves me, I feel betrayed as if for the first time.

Loneliness is like stillness, except for the fear inside it.

Stillness: the art of making nothing out of nothing.

Every stillness has a story behind it, and excuse for why it is so late in arriving.

Stillness: would I have traded it for a happy life?


Broken Cup by Margaret Gibson. LSU Press. 74 pages.

 

I expected to be unnerved by Margaret Gibson’s account of her husband’s decline because of Alzheimer’s Disease; and, since her husband is a poet, it strikes us especially hard to see language fading with memory. Yet, the book is strangely calming because its graceful and lyrical lines give perspective to tragedy. Sadness shadows the reading, for sure, but we are made better for being allowed in.

The poems bring forth the essential question of “self” between two people who have built a house of marriage together. The power of the book is in that (now unbearable) place where two realities overlap, making a third “relationship” – the connected self. That third space, once a clearing, now becomes a wilderness. Gibson, in the most difficult of all situations, knows what she wants to say and this is essential; otherwise, she couldn’t begin to parse such difficult words with such a worthwhile result. She spent two years care giving before returning to her work as a writer. The most startling moments occur when the poet’s husband addresses his wife as someone else, “I’ll go get Margaret. She’ll know where it is.”

We all live with ‘the invisible‘ like an umbrella hovering over us, not knowing when our names will be absorbed and lost – and breakage is always frightening because it signifies ”The End.” The Broken Cup expresses something profoundly different. It presents a graphic account of what one person means to the other, today, right now, without a future.

Last stanza of the title poem:

And if it is the cup of suffering,

drink it down—or better, may it pass from you,

and you live easy and go gently

where you will, or where you must. I’ll go

with you, grateful for plum-colored flowers

so close to bruising, coffee, sunlight, earth;

the journeys we took together—and the long one

left us to walk until we lie down near

clear water, shade trees, green pasture.

In that place, there will be nothing unspoken,

nothing forgotten or feared. Day or night,

whatever the hour, it will all be shining,

our whole and broken bodies full of light.


Rome by Dorothea Lasky. Liveright (W.W. Norton) 123 pages

 

Good art inspires and bad art makes you tired. The best thing I can say about any poet is that s/he makes you believe you can write. Because strong work is a virus that is catching. This is not because a work is easy to read, accessible, or even to “your own taste.” It is the buoyancy of the words, the great joy that springs each line, and bombastic love as the trajectory. Natasha Trethewey once said that poetry is for everyone and some professional writers merely use more elevated language. And what makes “elevation” but free ranging confidence? It is a knowledge of language, of course, but as important— conviction that what is said is okay– what is felt is authentic– and how to speak is to trust the spirit behind the breath.

This is a sassy, sad collection of poems. Love, betrayal, loss all is as brightly lit as Chinese New Year on helium. She sings, she howls, she roars; and manages to be wry, humorous, and even classical. Lasky is an example to show our students about how to be free within the frame of craft— to show that excellence never inhibits freedom. What I like, as well, is that Lasky can come out of the trenches and sing us a lullaby. She has all the aspects of soldier and nurturer. Here is a soft one:

Palm Tree

The last kiss I will ever take

Will not be with you

But with my child

I will feel the breath leaving me

I will feel not the endless circle of the broken one


And the green tongue they will place on my lips

Will be soft like breezes

Pillows and the orange flowers


I remember when I was born

Everything seemed really knew

I was blue

Then I woke up and I belonged again

To someone


Others on the Best Books List for September

Best Poetry As Autobiography

 

Sinatra, the Jeeperettes & Me by Susan Lembo Balik. Garden Oak Press.93 pages

A heartwarming youth, and a delicious “look back” when Frank Sinatra was just someone to date.


Best Small Pocket Poems

Remember the 1800’s? Well of course you don’t but people had small books that tucked nicely inside their coat pockets.

 

Steal Away by Shelby Stephenson. Jacar Press. 15 pages. A Homeric voice from the deep south.

 

open, save as, delete, 15 pages & like, don’t like, share. 39 pages (TWO BOOKS) by Michael Spilberg. The Ludo Press, England. These are described as “poems to respond to.”

Best Prose by a Poet

 

The Light On His Feet by Calder Lowe. Dragonfly Press.82 pages. 

Don’t miss the story “Thor’s Great Escape.”


Best Literary Magazine

 

VIA edited by Chiara Mazzucchelli. Bordighera Press. 112 pages

Essays, Prose, Poetry, Reviews including some of our favorite poets, Maria Lisella, Gil Fagiani, Dante Di Stephano ,etc.



Grace Cavalieri celebrates 37 years on public radio with “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress. Her new books of poems premiere this month: The Mandate of Heaven (Bordighera Press) and The Man Who Got Away (newacademia/scarith).

Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books, attn: Editor
7029 Ridge Road, Frederick, MD 21702

 

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