April 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry

April 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press. 88 pages.

Another City by David Keplinger. Milkweed Editions. 112 pages.

Onyx Moon by J.H. Beall; introduction by Richard Harteis. New Academia Publishing/SCARITH BOOKS. 84 pages.

Eye Level by Jenny Xie. Graywolf Press. 80 pages.

Wonderland by Matthew Dickman. W.W. Norton. 96 pages.

Pardon My Heart by Marcus Jackson. Triquarterly. 80 pages.

Working Class by Robert Stewart. Stephen F. Austin University Press. 88 pages.

Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller; foreword by Ilya Kaminsky. Orison Books. 104 pages.

Cenzontle by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo; foreword by Brenda Shaughnessy. BOA Editions. 112 pages.

Plus: books by Amy Barone, Jeannine M. Pitas, and Dona Luongo Stein.

And: Best Poetry Book for Teens, Best Anthology, Best Literary Magazine.


Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press. 88 pages.

Tracy K. Smith’s voice gets stronger each book with artistry and honesty. Her themes about race are both strong and fragile, for there are not scars big enough to heal this wound. The “found” poems about black soldiers in the Civil War come from a dozen letters unearthed by scholars, some written to the President by soldiers, others by husbands, wives, mothers. These bring the war right next to you with voices proud, so humbled, asking for the favors of small justice. This is another notable achievement for Smith. Any time we can turn the past into a living feeling entity we remember humans make up history. The whole approach of this book is to tell the facts, whether in nonfiction or in poems, allowing the stories to make their own historical judgments. Smith always controls her impulses, so we get clean writing, good decision-making and glorious moments. There are personal poems here too with the lungs of real life with real children, family and parents. At this time in our own history, it appears that poetry is where we find the moral leadership.

I Will Tell You the Truth About This,

I Will Tell You All About It

                                                Carlisle Pa. Nov 21 1864

Mr abarham lincon

I wont to knw sir if you please

whether I can have my son relest

from the arme           he is all the subport

I have now     has father is Dead

and his brother that wase all

the help I had                        he has bean wonded

twise he has not had nothing to send me yet

now I am old and my head is blossaming

for the grave and if you do I hope

the lord will bless you and me

tha say that you will simpethise

withe the poor           he be long to the

eight rigmat colard troops

he a sarjent

mart welcom is his name


Another City by David Keplinger. Milkweed Editions. 112 pages.

Visual images are the way Keplinger reveals that everything the poet sees is relative to something else: time, memory, scenes. There are cities here, and geography, and distance. There are people too, a father, a mother trying to cross distances; and also, iconic figures, Walt Whitman, Madame Curie, Houdini. Who are these people so impossible to forget they must be made into poems? In Another City the speaker plays tennis with a dead friend; a father comes home to a little boy in pajamas and the father immediately points him “up the wooden hill.” Keplinger writes of cities, travel, dreams, remembrance; and shows how history makes story; and with spirit and grace becomes poetry.

An emotional roadmap lights separate times and places, each exceptional for some reason, and for the very same reason shines of loneliness. Keplinger goes to the core of situations with sharpened senses to tell what is self-revelatory, making poems change in the light like watercolors, with varied tones so carefully made we feel writing is the most important profession in the world. In this book loss is not just something gone, but something that can be found somewhere else, say in a poem, this time made more beautiful. Someone once said we can’t teach insight. That’s not true. Here the poet teaches us — with fine-grained tactics, atmospheric language and sustained energy — that insight comes with craft.

My Carnation

In the city I’m traveling to,

awnings billow up in wind and light.

Winter is early. We are surprised

we are surprised. The waiters

in their tiny jackets pull their jackets


close against the sudden cold.

In the city I’m traveling to, I arrive

on the train, its only passenger.

A man in black clothes helps me down.

A constable is twirling his baton.


A servant bears my latched-up trunk,

but ruefully, ruefully. He is gone.

A certain old woman is waiting to sell me

my carnation: to offer it with one hand,

to cover her teeth with the other.


Onyx Moon by J.H. Beall; introduction by Richard Harteis. New Academia Publishing/SCARITH BOOKS. 84 pages.

Most poets look up at the stars — that’s what poets are supposed to do — yet, if you are an astrophysicist you may see more than others. James Beall, winner of the William Meredith Award for poetry, combines his elegant lines with his skill of precision to produce poems of lasting beauty. With the same timing where he provides software to down a dying satellite, he looks at his daily surrounds as influences. Space is comforting and terrifying and earth is an antidote if literature makes us heal or understand our relationships. Beall is a telescope that looks inward and denies nothing that he feels — He finds the shining star of poetry in the fire on a mountain, his books, white carnations, cicada sounds, and a red-winged blackbird.

There’s also a strong intellect at work: Beall teaches the classics at St. John’s College, and conceives poems of Francis Bacon, Pompeii, Derrida, Eumenides, the gods. A poet is always the carrier of information and the poem is the orchestration. There are few poets we can ascribe as Keatsian yet I’m willing to compare the virtue of Beall’s line to such classic lyricism. Read the five-parter “The Convergence of Meridians” to agree. There are photos in the book that augment his verse appearing as visual thoughts suspended from the heavens. The miracles of science are where poetic intentions begin. A rich life provides the rest.

Onyx moon


“He died east of here under an Onyx Moon”

in an older time. We have not seen his like

since. This is a letter from the Dark

Ages, of a place and time it is better


not to know. What is the wind coming to?

Or from? Which is the word that rises north

of a convergence of tracks, dark rails

shining, seeming to have their own light.


We know in our minds these thin strings, barely

luminous, do not meet. But what does the mind

know, really? It is the heart that teaches us

dread. There is a mist in the sky in place


of stars. What compass can tell us, we

do not believe: the false convergence of tracks,

the true convergence of meridians, the pale

skin of a girl we knew once, becoming flame.



Eye Level by Jenny Xie. Graywolf Press. 80 pages.

“…I’ve grown lean from eating only the past…”

“…Clarity is just questioning having eaten its fill…”

“I wake up one morning to find beauty suspect…”

“Wanting falls around me. Heavy garment…”

Perhaps it’s not fair to yank lines from their roots but if such phrases are found on every page, why would we want to ever stop reading? It’s true that Xie speaks prophetically and from a high place, yet she makes the page absorb tone with large airy spaces and varied line lengths. Her aphoristic poems could never be mistaken for rhetoric. They blossom with surprising life; and, just as Xie creates a structure, she dissolves it. I would offer a cliché here and call this Zen if I knew what Zen meant, but I guess if we knew it wouldn’t be Zen. Xie creates dreamy sequences then she lofts an idea or axiom. The reason this works is because she attaches no weight to thought. How do we follow a journey of dreams that bursts like bubbles? We can, because the poetry tends toward conclusion with a certain level of emotion, before it disobeys into expressionism. This is a brilliant construct for the rational to become metaphor. We see the Chinese lineage and cultural influences in Xie’s gentle non-insistent phrases. Xie likes conundrums and paradox and these are all notions without determined thrust, so we float through meaning, with meaning, into the gravitational field of feeling. This book is about the beauty of the inner world with its doubts and speculation. The last line in the book is “Nothing is as far as here.”



The black dog approaches?


I pry open the crooked jaw.




A heady odor, elemental.


And then?


I spin through my life again.


How so?


Slow and fast, fast and slow.


What follows?


Time, the oil of it.


What direction?


Solitude throws me off the scent.


And what lies ahead?


Even the future recoils, long as it is.


What points the finger?


All of my eye’s mistakes.


And what were they?




Wonderland by Matthew Dickman. W.W. Norton. 96 pages.

“The road to the truth is long and winding,” a great person once said, but Matthew Dickman takes a shortcut with his individualized technical infrastructures. It’s not possible to stop reading this book once you start, because it’s to the bone, every word, no window dressing, no artifice, no high-fat content. Dickman already has a big fan base for just this kind of writing. He writes the way people want to read — words carrying you through — sometimes his poems are lists and lists of phrases — but Dickman does nothing by accident and each line in the list is bolstered by the one before and the one after. The content is tough, recurring themes of his brother’s death, and, remembering the atrocities of a childhood or school without mercy, but all these conditions taught Dickman to believe in himself and to do it his way. This works for him. He apologizes to no one for pain or profanity. He knows that people know that he knows what poetry is, so he reaches deeply and creates his own patterns. Some of the poems are telegraphs; some have more width and depth, but every word on every page is from the back of the heart. His family album is dark; the social action is often bloody, but these are all the more influential, creating a new sense of beauty — a new American standard.


Minor Threat

A maple

in the middle of all of this, in the middle of what is struck

and who is doing the striking,

in the middle of stitches

and skateboards, of cement and tar and bark dust,

the quiet of its green leaves

greening out in the middle of the neighborhood, peed on by dogs

with jaws like cardboard boxes,

with owners like box cutters

drinking malt liquor, drinking RC Cola,

its leaves making the wind into a body that flies down the street

and scatters in the rusting front yards,

the roots

under us all, moving like medicine in the woody

dirt. The branches in any weather

are stronger than all the kids who swing from them,

who hang from them,

in the queasy Southeast Portland light.


Pardon My Heart by Marcus Jackson. Triquarterly. 80 pages.

Marcus Jackson does what only a great artist can do with narrative — he makes story vital, unique, powerful, soulful, move like liquid gold, keep facts intact; and he manages to crush your heart and bring it back again with last lines that are of service to the whole. I can’t think of another writer at this moment who has given the adjective its just due as Jackson has. He ends the ‘kill the adjective’ movement in poetry. He unsilences his adjectives to excite every line so they have a working relationship with his emotions. Jackson does not string them like ornaments on a clothesline: his descriptions are electrifying and clarifying. A black man’s experience is what Marcus Jackson writes about; and this is a highly textured life with unblinking honesty showing people the way they really are. The role of the poet is to notice everything — consequences of thought and action — and turn it out into the world. He gives everyone a voice even with its sorrow and ache because he gets close up to his words and believes in his characters. Jackson can really write. I think poetry’s future is doing just fine.



I stood in my underwear, the iron

clicking toward readiness. In yesterday’s

slacks and wifebeater, my dad smoothed a leg

of my Lees on the timeworn pressing board.

Steam seeped between the denim and metal.

I dressed, the clothes warm as a second flesh,

my dad finding some duct tape, wrapping his hand

tacky side out. He patted lint from my chest

and shoulders; my kidneys echoed when he tapped

my back. I left for a day of the first grade, light

sliding into our slim street like blade

into a sheath, my dad ironing his own clothes

before once more entering a town

keen on cutting the wrong men down.


Working Class by Robert Stewart. Stephen F. Austin University Press. 88 pages.

Stewart had me at his title. Then it was his enjambments I started to love. I developed a crush on the way he entered each poem, like someone quietly walking into a room without slamming the door behind him. Then I was caught up with the Speaker at Romanelli Grill; and then with Larry McNamara thrown off the job for drinking. I was with the Speaker when he fried eggs in olive oil; I was eating coconut bread with him, listening to coupe’ cloue’ “Baptiste Bakery”; and although the cheese in “Given, Rats” is from Costco that doesn’t keep the piece from being elegant because everything Stewart touches shines on Mount Olympus, even the dumpster where he throws the mattress, “20-yard Dumpster. “I like the way he shapes circumstances with ribbon-shaped poems that gain momentum, “To A Turtle” and “Day Lily.” I’m touched by the tercets in “The Second Lesson” where his characters wear a cross of ashes on their foreheads in church saying bless you. I’m glad the Speaker confesses his mafia heritage; it makes us all feel a little less alone; and I really adore the sweet faith this book holds up, the unblemished belief that something happens that is good somewhere in the invisible. I welled up at the poem where there was a divorce with a redhaired lawyer, but I was happy again to meet “a new woman.” Robert Stewart is a wonderful poet and his couplets even with brisk muscular content are delicately formed. If he lives the way he writes, it is, I’m sure, a worthy saga.

71 Hwy at the Moment of Change


I’d rather lose an hour than gain an hour.

I’d rather be passed than pass.

I see a sign for the Halfway Café,

too late.

I’d rather turn around than get home.


The one-biscuit order of biscuits and gravy

has two biscuits.

I swear it’s a mistake, but she says, No.

No mistake.

I’d rather be wrong than right.


I tip too much rather than sour

someone’s pumpkin pie smile.

Everyone has idle hands.

My computer at home has set its own

clock to standard time.


Think about what happens in the hour

that appears one morning.

The hour that flies around the city,

looking like a bellows.

I’d rather trust than know for sure.


The sky’s bright lanes peak through

chinks in a barn.

Water towers take to the top of the world.

Streets run to the high one-hundreds.


Thus, I discover I am behind.

I’d rather go to the seasons than they

to me.

I’d rather my computer checked before

it did things.


Ceremonial by Carly Joy Miller; foreword by Ilya Kaminsky. Orison Books. 104 pages.

Miller is not afraid. She molds the human condition with myth and magic. Her lover is a “Beast” — “Nothing delights more/than his horns… //Tragic, how ceremonies/bitter: my body a door//always closing…” This writer fearlessly converts the natural world to fairytale alternatives. Water is a big theme and elements of this earth become images in the poet’s hand that she alchemizes into mysterious circumstances and relationships (sometimes remindful of poet Leonie Adams). Love is a fable, she tells us, and she translates that into stunningly original poetry.


When water presses tightly to your ear

and your body seizes, do not panic.

I do not strike in the same place twice. Hear

how your breath staggers, turns manic

like the twelve-year-old boy who drowned

by the dock last March. His bones were not dense

enough to beat up from the algaed ground.

My voice is only as steady as the fencepost

cross that marks his jump. There would be nowhere

safe if I did not respect the living’s space

where the roots hit the edges of the creek.

I take one, leave two for grieving. Now slow down

your prayer, and carry this message: I’ve spun

his body into tulips, taught him to swim and speak.


Cenzontle by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo; foreword by Brenda Shaughnessy. BOA Editions. 112 pages.

“Poems before, during, and after crossing the US/Mexican border.” Castillo channels passion into elegy, ritual, lyric, song. His fervor is not man-made, but comes from centuries of suffering, loving, witnessing. There’s horror here and sadness but always muted with the elegance of a gifted writer, one who will be remembered after his time. His journey is in geography but not of geography; it is instead the seeking and searching for one’s very soul, with the recognition that the price to pay is great. One has to feel what no one has felt the same before to write like this, for the poet composes as if he imagines words from another world and births them into form. This man writes as if no one is listening, the best kind of imaging because there are no borders barring his imagination. Menstrual blood, chemo, life’s boldest most basic elements become holy charms. “And all of us in one suitcase that hasn’t been opened. // /I haven’t been opened.” (Essays on Synonyms for Tender and a Confession). I believe Castillo will be recognized among the great Spanish speaking poets.

Pulling the Moon


I’ve never made love to a man.

I’ve never made love to a man but I imagine.


                                    I imagine pulling the moon.

                                    I imagine pulling the moon out of his brow.


Pulling the moon out of his brow and eating it again.


                                    Eating and pulling his hair in silence.

A kind of silence when the moon gets out.


When the moon goes back and forth between us.


A kind of silence lit for only a moment.

Seeing for a moment through the eyes of the horse.


                                    Through the eyes of the dead horse

that burns slower than my hair.


My hair that burns the moon off.

My hair with a hand inside it.


No Such Thing as Distance by Karen Paul Holmes. Terrapin Books. 102 pages.

It’s rare to find a poet who can make you feel you’ve known her your whole life because she embodies the wit of your best friend, the sadness of your other best friend, and the sweetness of your oldest friend. And she might have been the smartest girl in the senior class because she’s gifted with language and makes it work for her to convey the most intimate and marvelous pieces of our beautiful broken lives. And don’t miss her recipes at the end of the book, although the “Zelnik” looks sort of hard. I’ll take this book on vacation with me. It’s that entertaining and moving; it wants to read twice.

Death Prefers Blonds


There was a wig mix-up

at the funeral home.


We had a chance to switch

back to the gray bob — it had suited

Mother for doctors and church

those last few months. But

we knew she’d rather dazzle

everyone from her casket

as a stylish ash blond.


She looked 70 not 87

with the wrong longer hair

and undertaker’s make-up

that reshaped her grown-gaunt cheekbones

into Faye Dunaway’s.


One catty mourner hissed,

It doesn’t look a thing like her

a boon to us: easier to let

that blond descend

into Madame Tussaud’s museum

while our real mother

joined us in prayers

carried on wisps of frankincense

past the gold dome of St. Nicholas.


The Light of What Comes After by Jen Town. Bauhan. 96 pages.

“She was raised in the Rah Rah School of frosting and first snows…” and so we have the tenor of a delightful mind at work. This book may just give poetry a good name and make poetry popular reading. Town proves that wisdom can be colloquial; and profundity does not have to make you sneeze with dust. This jaunty writing, full of good will and sharp observations, is perfect for Poetry Month. Give one to a friend. Better still, two friends. There’s no one who would turn away sunshine, when it has light as well as warmth.

The Lily Dale Psychics Promised You


Each day will be the soft susurrations of silk

against a window ledge.


All your cakes will rise bloom-like

over their cake pans and you’ll own

all the proper lawn care products. But


one day traveling through the landscape

of your birth, you’ll cup air

in your palm out the car window,


waving to where you left your childhood,

and under the colored glass

that has become your life, you’ll feel


unease — like smoke

from an unseen cigar. But that’s

all. You’ll keep driving. The days


will swallow you, and the many days afterwards, like coins dropped

into a fountain, with the ease of wishing.


Leaving Greece by Dona Luongo Stein. Shanti Arts LLC. 84 pages.

Stein has given us a multidimensional look at Greece from a personal loving perspective with history, archaeology, and legend. She seems to be seeing who she really is in a land ‘she waited too long to see.’ The order in each scene is one where time stops long enough for us to relish the view. But make no mistake, Stein does not write a travelogue; these are nuanced and intelligent assertions about a land that leads one to wonder. The poet is a vector who evokes the inner spirit of a place precisely engraved on the page. There are no lumps in this writing, for Stein’s capacity for style reveals the complex esthetics of what others might observe as a country’s basic beauty.


After Troy


Octopuses drying on the fence hang like newborns.

Emptied of rage I retreat long afternoons with no shade


Even in shadows. No disguise needed

The sea gray brown blue green


And best at night black with lights from the famous mainland.

Just to make sure before noon I went to the bulbous heads


Tentacles lined with pink circlets

So many mouths murdering mother. Once just to feel


What the wet nurse felt tugging at her breast. Tomorrow

And the next day then another —


He will come with his ax after the boredom to find

A hag living beyond use or beauty


His mother — toothless, squinting at the skates

In a basket, their sad soft skin like brown pelts, and rockfish lined


On a branch through their gills. What is it I came to do?



Thank You for Dreaming by Jeannine M. Pitas. Lummox Press. 58 pages.

If ‘the news’ makes you feel that the world is populated by schemers and charlatans, this book will restore belief that there are many more that hold a vision in the highest plane of human conduct. To turn that into true poetry is the trick. Without sentimentality Pitas recreates our society, verse by verse, with a tone of mercy you cannot teach. The book translates the world so that others can live in it. Her four-section prose poem “Pearl” presents the truth of the book. She reaches deeply, and because of the arch of each story, Pitas writes what people want to read and need to read.

To an Immigrant


I want to touch your life with mine.

To accompany you in the Halloween pumpkin carvings,

Thanksgiving dinners, the festooning of windows

with Christmas lights. Photographs let me glimpse you,

follow you down winter, summer streets

as your dark eyes reached to touch the camera’s light.

You’ve known the emptiness in a child’s cry, the

din of falling bombs, nights spent hiding in a desert village,

days crumpled in the trunk of a car before boarding a plane

bound for place you never thought you’d live.

I want to touch your life with mine, that’s my hand clasp

your pictures’ corners, rummage through dollar stores in search of

orange masks, baked October pumpkin pie, pour December

wine, help you transform this labyrinth

of ads and holidays into home.


We Became Summer by Amy Barone. NYQ Books. 92 pages.

Barone takes us back to the age-old pursuit for the “other” who can make life complete. This is an elemental fact in a woman’s life; and, finding the right mate is certainly a central theme in American life. Barone reveals that the wish is always evolving and the outcome sometimes less than ideal but always worthy of poetry. We follow, as if we are reading a novel, fascinating characters, identity issues, challenges, the elemental facts of the heart’s disappointment and jubilance. Everything is temporary, these poems tell us, but life would be incomplete if we didn’t have a poet to take us by the hand for a fascinating journey.


Safety doesn’t come in numbers.

Safety can be found in a single window,

framed with stark white sheers and outside

large granite stones, where happy families must live.


I once found safety in a Joseph Heller book called

Something Happened and grasped why

my English teacher mother had always plagued us

to line our homes with books.


That same day, I found solace in a quart of beer

on a beach in San Felice Circeo near Rome, abandoned

by Italian cousins who didn’t feel I was family enough.


I often found safety on the driveway as I sat perched

on my purple stingray, cycling in circles watching the world,

especially handsome males, unwittingly writing poetry.


Best Poetry for Teens

The Poet X: A Novel in Verse by Elizabeth Acevedo. HarperTeen. 368 pages.

This is the world of Xiomara Batista, a teenager in Harlem who’s caught between the conventions of her society, her elders, and the fire within inspiring her, leading her to write and perform. Acevedo has created a world, and populated it with romance, anger, conflict, humor, and true characters. Especially our heroine.

The Last Word on Being Born to Old Parents


You will learn to hate it.


No one, not even your twin brother,

will understand the burden

you feel because of your birth;


your mother has sight for nothing

but you two and God;

your father seems to be serving

a penance, an oath of solitary silence.


Their gazes and words

are heavy with all the things

they want you to be.


It is ungrateful to feel like a burden.

It is ungrateful to resent my own birth.

I know that    Twin and I are miracles.


Aren’t we reminded every single day?


Best Anthology

4 P.M. Count, from Federal Prison Camp Yankton (10th anniversary issue), edited by Jim Reese. 375 pages.

The prisoners are not inmates here; they are seen as students, creative writers, speakers in behalf of their own destinies.

Best Literary Magazine

Fledgling Rag, Issue 18, edited by Lisa Munson and Le Hinton. Iris G. Press. 55 pages.

 Multiple poems from twelve outstanding poets. Katy Ritchey is among them.



If we could identify its etymology,

hear its sounds or observe its natural behavior.


If we knew how to cage and keep it,

what foliage it eats, where it likes to sleep.


If we could find it when it runs away.

If we could coax it back to us,

bring it offerings —


the sweet fruit it holds

in its tricky mouth.


Send review copies (2018 releases only) to:

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


Grace Cavalieri’s new book, Other Voices, Other Lives, is a compendium of poetry, plays, and interviews. She produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” celebrating 41 years on air.

Love Exemplars? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!

comments powered by Disqus