April 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

April 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


When someone is brilliantly cogent, s/he’s called “insane.” If a performer brings a room to life, s/he‘s “killed it“ or “crushed it.” The highest compliment of high couture is now “gangsta.” I think we need some of Spring’s poetry showers to rinse off language.

Poetry reviews by Grace Cavalieri

The Last Troubadour by David St. John. Ecco/HarperCollins. 160 pages.

Every day I know I love poetry. Today I know why. Reading this book slowly on a long road trip, I found once again, as if for the first time, the responsibilities and consequences of energy and dignity when lined up at the right angles with the right words. We all start with narrative structure, one sort or another, yet St. John makes changes with evolving messages that startle us — “Hungry Ghost” combines a dying person and a ceramic bowl of strawberries. I dare anyone to read this and not experience something new about compassion. If there were a trophy for how a poet moves from one line to another with such comfort, we’d burnish it.  Let us study how to enter a poem. Let’s watch how he brings a poem home. Let’s teach our students the fullness of sincerity. No voice is like another and that’s why poetry is eternal; but if there’s such a thing as a natural-born poet, it’s St. John.


To Those Who Have Asked Anna
To those who’ve asked Anna how it feels
        to know she’ll likely die
Alone without her husband — meaning me —
         at her side for comfort as she
Nears some future ending which may or not
          bring with it some late solace
Though of course we never — any of us — know
        what awaits each of us alone
No matter who might stand by us briefly though
          I know as you might here in my faux
Venetian Village by the Pacific where for two
         weeks more exactly I’m twice
Anna’s age and yet young as I am to those who’ve
          asked Anna I have nothing to say
Not lit by a luminous certainty all be at peace
        only when those who’ve asked Anna
Are left at last alone & ripped by a silence bloody
          as August sky

Route 66 and Its Sorrows by Carolyn Miller. Terrapin books. 67 pages.

The author says, “The journey of this book begins and ends on Route 66, taking us from Southern Missouri to the California coast and back again and again...” But it also starts in the Ozarks where this author was born and who, from that time, fills our reading with every kind of flower, tree and light. Her relationships are lyric narratives. Lyricism calls for great insights — how the vowel is embedded in the word, a heightened sense of rhythm, using the right spacing as analogy for breath. Miller does all this with such trust in the nature of her poems that we believe, cherish and want her experience. This is a terrific poem.


Whatever happened to my Eisenhower jacket,
sized for a five-year-old, folded
in the mahogany dresser in the cold upstairs room?
And where is the white rabbit-fur muff
with a red moiré  taffeta lining
my mother kept in one of her dresser drawers?
I want them back, along with my mother’s
forties hats and sunglasses and her linen dresses.
I want the lamb’s wool sweater I wore in high school,
trimmed with pearls around the collar and the placket,
and I want that fur collar with velvet ties and pompoms
Beverly and Patsy gave me for my sixteenth birthday.
And still I am mourning my formal for the junior prom,
dance length and strapless, white with a red cummerbund,
but most of all I want the French heels that went with it —
white Springolators, backless and toeless, with a red bow —
that sprang me out of the place I hated,
the place I took with me when I left, the place
that stays with me everywhere I go.

Rowing Inland by Jim Daniels Wayne State University Press. 111 pages.

“Ah gasoline, Ah cut grass.” Jim Daniels writes from the memory of Detroit and the reality of Pittsburgh. He’s a man of the city with its middle-class determinations — the basement that his father nails together, the walls broken, the demise of a mother to blindness, family members to death — but first they were alive and vigorous, raising questions in Daniels’ mind that he answers in poetry. These characters in Rowing Inland are turning points in the speaker’s life — young kids doing wheelies, virginity offered and taken, a grandmother with candy so hard it breaks memory. Daniels exemplifies the painful joy of just plain growing up in history where he gets every moment and makes it dynamic. The kids on the block — the sidewalks leading to pick-up trucks, metal coffins, these images are stunned by the craft and form of his gravity waves. “We ate battery — acid oatmeal spiked with Tang/for good measure. We laughed in the surly face/of good measure.”(ll. Around the Block.) These are glandular poems, then universal, because Daniels is an American Standard for all who grew up in cement cities, but also striking out for everyone who’s watched family as part of cultural change. His language has impact. His words excite lines with plain speech “I sat on her porch or mine. /Kim and I kissed in the realm of first and foremost, /climbing out bedroom windows when we were 13. /But we never went to the church of full penetration…” (Rowing Inland). This poet is always in the middle of the action — ratio of poet closer to words, all the better. I don’t know but I think Charles Lloyd wrote this, “We come through here/ We sing our song/Nobody knows/Then we’re gone.” But Daniels doesn’t let that happen. His fidelity is to every bittersweet rite that died every day into something better.


My mother commanded her kitchen corner —
two casement windows cranked open
in summer while she steamed above
sudsy dishes, her five kids shot
into dusk’s after-dinner-space —
the street, and other kids like us.
Two potted violets from her dead mother
anchored the sills.  If you find my father
in this picture, please let me know.
We still look for him far from that tiny house.
My mother dried wishbones on those sills.
It was she who decided they were dry enough
to break.  She never wished herself.

Galaxy love by Gerald Stern. W.W. Norton. 119 pages.

In the poem “Grandfathers” he says, "…so I was only half crazy at the most, /for there was a little sanity in both of them…” This book is anything but insane, designed to be a little idiosyncratic perhaps, in a good humored way. Wouldn’t you love pastrami on rye with Gerald Stern to listen to him? That’s exactly what this feels like, minus the lunch, as if he’s sitting across the table from you softening the night of self-righteous poetry. He tells anecdotes sometimes all in one breath. In “Merwin” he begins, ”The way it was in the eighties/when we carried pockets full of quarters/to give to the destitute/and William ran a whole block south once /to give extra quarters because of the man’s dog/a second giving for him/and it was his own Chow he mourned/for weeks on end… 

And from the poem "Canticle": “’Don’t eat the luncheon meats,’” a friend advised me/but he was talking about his mother’s funeral/and not my plan to eat a half a hero at/Leopardi’s Pizza near the row of six/young healthy oaks and down the hill from the/larger unpruned tree whose shadow in the/bright March sun I walked and stood on the highest/branch although I was vertical, and the shadow was/flat and on the ground…” Poetry-talk is his gift; with the spirit and intent of the poetry gods.

The way it was in the eighties
when we carried pockets full of quarters
to give to the destitute
and William ran a whole block south once
to give extra quarters because of the man’s dog
a second giving for him
and it was his own Chow he mourned
for weeks on end and how
delighted he was — and shocked —
to see the Chow next door
with his characteristic blue tongue
and his proud and distant way
so that now in the time of no-age
that we share together though across
six hours of land
and six or more of water
I think of him writing in his room full of white light
as our friend Mary Ann describes it
where he’s loading his pockets
and he will run down the best he can
to give a second time to the man
with the Border collie though it’s more
like a third time now that I think of it

The Others by Matthew Rohrer. Wave Books. 229 pages.

What poet does not secretly wish to disguise him/herself and have some fun writing action-adventure, ghost stories, purple prose, sci-fi, pirate stories etc. on the sly. Rohrer does this in a book-length poem. Our Speaker works for HarperCollins as an editor and can read several books at work and home. Speaker is smack in the center of the action, always watching a watchful world as he “reads” (and Rohrer writes) his fictional stories. The over-reaching  real-life plot involves sexual harassment from his female boss, a wife at home, subway rides, coffee, friends, just like real guys. The dialogue tends from colloquial to hip. In the novels that our protagonist reads, language is quite different, accelerating its pace, pushing for change in new atmospheres and situations. This takes balance and instrumentation; and could’ve been a strange ramble but is not. We have, clearly, a poet’s incentive that systematically contrasts differences between poetry and prose in storytelling. There are no errors in Rohrer’s navigation between preposterous and ordinary worlds. I just want some of that elixir he keeps talking about in his manuscripts, because he keeps the fantastic going, tethered to everyday life seamlessly; and we want more. Here’s a page of the reality people:


“They’ll go away.” Again
the buzzer buzzed. My wife
sighed and pressed the button
to listen. “Who is it?”
“It’s Pearson, from Porlock!”
Cheery sounding even
through the tiny speaker.
“Pearson. OK. Let him
in,” I sighed, turning off
the TV show.
“Pearson,” we said. “Welcome
back.” He had some whiskey.
“Great, I’ll get some glasses.”
“Pearson,” my wife said, “why,
every time you show up,
do you announce yourself
‘Pearson from Porlock’?”
“Because I’m always interrupting
something, ruining it,
generally being
                        ”That’s not true!”

A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry by Robert Hass. Ecco/HarperCollins. 425 pages.


I mean it. This is the book you must have if you teach, if you write, or if you’re just baffled by it all. Hass is imagination’s child. He frames the world and his work with this fundamental force. Therefore, this isn’t only a text but a buoyant summary to orient the battered mind and shine light on our weary meters. The book’s introduction is a master essay, Hass lists four definitions of meaning; and there’s nothing wrong with loving this one: “The arrangement and relationship of basic elements in a work of art, through which it produces a coherent whole,” or, “The way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making.” There are further “considerations” from thinkers such as James Joyce and Thomas Aquinas. Hass quotes Lynn Hejinian from her “The Rejection of Closure": “Writing’s forms are not merely shapes, but forces; formal questions are about dynamics — they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, direction, number, and velocities of the work’s motion.” In this book, every poetic form has its own chapter. Just make this required reading for every student to experience the heart and soul, nuts and bolts of how we hold our art. This is an advanced course in poetry, made for the beginner as well. I’ll admit it’s going to take a long time for me to read it all; and although it’s said, “The road to truth is long and winding,” Hass makes it lustrous.

The Woods Are On Fire: New and Selected Poems by Fleda Brown, Introduction by Ted Kooser. University of Nebraska Press. 275 pages.

I’ve been following Fleda Brown since she first hankered after Elvis in her 2004 book; and now I’m glad to see poems selected before that time. The new poems are still a singer’s voice that never goes flat and are intricately storied. Some of Brown’s work, reinforced, include human interest poems, and careful observations of nature. Also historical portraits; In I Say Your Name, she’s talking about the ruins of history and the Syrian archaeologist  “who cherished the ruins/for fifty years, murdered, his body hung//in the public square…” Here Brown proves the poet is the bearer of culture. Also at poetry’s heart and mind are family and memory… (Poem for Record Players) “‘Oh What a Beautiful/ Morning,’ my father is singing,/  and my mother is singing in fragile/harmony with the one phonograph/speaker, all poured directly into/the palpitating rooms of my heart./This is it, Oh, no such bright/golden haze on the meadow, no such/corn high as an elephant’s eye.” 

There’s also a personal journey with cancer, de riguer embedded in a bigger subject. In the poem Silence, a lyrical beginning: “The poetic kind, fastened inside Greek light/and summer and birds brought to someone’s/attention…” Stanza two is the knot inside the writing, “…Another kind of silence happens when the baldness/ shows under the cap. As if the biggest thing /in the universe has been found. Oh!  It really has!…” Then the poem fans out again “…So big scientists say it shouldn’t exist/ Clusters/ of quasars 4 billion light-years across. Each/ pure energy surrounding a huge galaxy/with the super-massive black hole at its center./Nearly everything is a surprise at first,/and unknown at the core. Needles, tests. Then just/what it is: silence opening its dark eye, pointing. “This is called balance — equipoise — whatever you want. It’s a woman who can reorient the world with a graceful certainty.


Reading the Smithsonian Magazine
Stonehenge, and the recent discoveries using various devices
that can accurately map the underworld without turning one shovel
of dirt. Two long pits superimposed on the photos, a causeway
leading to the henge, those heavy-leaning hunks. How they once
stood, in a perfect circle, great nouns holding hands, balancing
their lintel-stones after much human struggle and death,
welcoming travelers from many miles, we know because of
the bones. Central as Mecca, it says here, but I read Astral as muses.
The doctor has not yet come in to tell me I am still free of cancer
as far as he can tell. We are outside the henge, we can’t get in
to find out what happened or why. It was not about our language.
That was me, thinking nouns, repeating that old story of the stones
walking the earth, of things being better, or purer, elsewhere, where
messages rise from the grass. I thought it was a waiting for something
the rough stones holding their news for eons, concentrating on how
to instruct us while the clouds go whitely by. But now here is the very
white coat of the doctor, towering over as if I dreamed him up.
Either he’s a ghost or I am, in my palely flowered skimpy gown,
feet dangling from the table like a child’s. I am arms and legs, pulse,
and my secret interior that has said nothing this time, nothing bad.


Fledgling Rag 17, edited by Le Hinton & Lisa Munson. Iris G. Press. 63 pages.


Twelve poets. Take it with you. And in 12 days you’ll have had a high-calorie-no-fat feast. Here’s a poem by Linda Pastan:

On Reading of the Death of C.K. Williams
It’s as if some serial killer
of poets
has been let loose,
has been paid
to bring down a whole
generation — Kumin,
Kinnel, Strand and Levine —
to banish them
as Plato did,
washing their mouths
of metaphor, consigning
their silenced computers,
their pencils and pens
to the graveyard
of typewriters and quills.
And my desk is littered
with torn-out
scraps of newspaper
like fallen
sullied snow.


Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth. 

Illustrations by Ekua Holmes. Candlewick Press. 40 pages.


Twenty of our greatest poetry icons apprenticed by 3 contemporary poets, plus their own poems, with glorious wondrous artwork.



FIVE MORE Exemplars for April just because it’s Poetry Month

Roll Deep by Major Jackson. W.W. Norton (now in paperback). 83 pages


OK Cupid
Dating a Catholic is like dating a tribe
            and dating a tribe is like dating a nation
and dating a nation is like dating a football star
            and dating a football star is like dating a new car
and dating a new car is like dating an air freshener
            and dating an air freshener is like dating a fake tree
and dating a fake tree is like dating silver tinsel
            and dating silver tinsel is like dating a holiday
and dating a holiday is like dating a black man
            and dating a black man is like dating a top
and dating a top is like dating a bottom
            and dating a bottom is like dating a Tibetan
and dating a Tibetan is like dating a dragon
            and dating a dragon is like dating a fireplace
and dating a fireplace is like dating a mantel
            and dating a mantel is like dating a picture frame
and dating a picture frame is like dating Martin Luther King with Jesus
            and dating Martin Luther King & Jesus is like dating a threesome
and dating a threesome is like dating a commune
            and dating a commune is like dating an unachievable idea
and dating an idea is like dating the Enlightenment
            and dating the Enlightenment is like dating science
and dating science is like dating a beaker
            and dating a beaker is like dating a pharmacy
and dating a pharmacy is like dating a dealer
            and dating a dealer is like dating a supply chain
and dating a supply chain is like dating a Republican
            and dating a Republican is like dating winter

Imagine Not Drowning by Kelli Allen. C&R Press. 77 pages.

Riding the borrowed cow back home
Do not expect me to court forgetfulness, not now
after I have allowed you to hug my grief under
more than a willow.  You slept all night
with every window closed and this perishable
body memorized the recklessness
of your stillness. We confessed so little,
but I found this poem in the morning,
and retrieved what pleasures
someone else might have wasted.
I am admitting that there are ragged
words for feeding. Everywhere we long
for some madness agreed upon
when we lost our fathers, when we thanked
night for coming back home, and remembered
too soon our friendship with ruined things.

Les Fauves by Barbara Crooker. C&R Press. 72 pages.

 The Bossy Letter R 

   phrase from my son, David, who has autism 
The bossy letter R will turn you crooked, 
just when you were sure your goose 
was merely cooked. Rouse you 
from sleep, ramp up the music, rev 
the engine. Sentence you 
to hard labor. Dice your zucchini 
into ratatouille. Reductive. 
Not afraid to be ridiculous. 
It can turn picks into pricks, pigs 
to prigs, bees to beers. Don’t look 
for recompense. Recreational 
drugs optional. Add rum.   
Relax and roll with it. But 
beware; on some dark night, it’ll 
hot wire your cat, tuning its motor, 
start it turning:  rrrrrrrrrrrr. 

Six True Things by Robin Chapman. Tebot Bach. 91 pages.

Six True Things

 –for Terrance Hayes
That poet whose father battered his way
into his mother, so that he can stand here now,
calling his lost father back to family:
who would abandon a child?
Mid-November, chipmunks still out
foraging sunflower seed. A sparrow
flies down the chimney, battering its wings.
I open the doors, set it free.
Next day it’s back, peering out of the glass.
And the next, and the next, possessed
by what failure or expectancy?
Still the long descent calls.
You out there: will you open the door?
Thirty whole dollars for four pounds of beets
so we eat retro creamed spinach instead,
equally weighted with butter and cream.
Gutters cleaned, mousetraps baited,
windowglass washed, the stovepipe
finally netted —
Will has readied us for winter,
but the grass shines green.
At midnight, I see a stone in the yard
move slowly downhill
following her pointed possum nose,
children curled in her pouch,
fastened to teats — butter and cream
is what they know.

In Which We See Ourselves by Eric Torgensen. Mayapple Press. 36 pages.

Don’t flog that weary paradigm again.
Make it new. You’re running out of time again.
You’re the blackbird whirling in the autumn winds,
just a small part of the pantomime again.
You’re looking backward through a tinted window,
trapped in the egotistical sublime again.
How sad to see you shouldering the guilt
for a life of alleged emotional crime again.
Why disillusion those who conceivably love you
by diving into that old pit of slime again?
I can’t believe I really need to remind you
that you can’t even remember your prime again.
Move it, Ignacio; soon you’ll be dead forever.
Blood on the sand, and break out the lime again.
Okay, we’ll settle for one foot in front of the other.
You’ll never be quick enough to turn on a dime again,
but now’s the time to show us what you’ve got left
as the poem limps toward overtime again.
Come on, Torgie, get it over with.
Nail down the lid on the old box of rhyme again.

Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of "The Poet and the Poem" for public radio, celebrating 40 years on air and now recorded at the Library of Congress. Her new book of poems is WITH (Somondoco Press, 2016).

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