April 2019 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

April 2019 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Playlist by David Lehman. University of Pittsburgh Press. 64 pages.

Missing Madonnas by Gil Fagiani. Bordighera Press. 142 pages.

The Tradition by Jericho Brown. Copper Canyon Press. 110 pages.

When the Pipirite Sings by Jean Métellus, translated by Haun Saussy. Northwestern University Press. 104 pages.

Native Species by Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press. 110 pages.

Woods and Clouds Interchangeable by Michael Earl Craig. Wave Books. 122 pages.

The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth. Terrapin Books. 102 pages.

Tomorrow Today and Yesterday by J.R. Solonche. Deerbrook Editions. 120 pages.

Swift by David Baker. W.W. Norton. 160 pages.

Brute by Emily Skaja. Graywolf Press. 72 pages.

Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy. Milkweed Editions. 104 pages.

Transformation - The Poetry of Translation by Barbara Goldberg (winner of the Valentin Krustev Award). Introduction by Myra Sklarew. Foreword by Richard Harteis. Poets Choice Publishing. 126 pages.

Enabling Love: A Poetic Tribute by Tom Kirlin (winner of the 2019 William Meredith Award in Poetry.) Paintings by Stoimen Stoilov. Poets Choice Publishing. 102 pages.

The Music of the Aztecs, edited and with an introduction by David B. Churchill. David B. Churchill. 138 pages.

Alcestis in the Underworld by Nina Murray. Circling Rivers. 82 pages.


Playlist by David Lehman. University of Pittsburgh Press. 64 pages.

Lehman, already at the forefront of our literary culture, writes a music retrospective inspired by his friend, the late great poet A.R. Ammons. In 1965, Ammons’ book Tape for the Turn of the Year premiered poems written on a cash-register tape. In these, he gave us permission “to say and du anything.” And so, Lehman does — chronicling jazz icons of the 40s 50s 60s — as well as film/TV stars. This book will break your heart for all that’s passed, and especially how tenderly Lehman revives it.

By identifying song and singer, Lehman traces this country’s cultural story and tells us what the past is worth, and why. And this is where you fall in love…the poet’s personal involvement…where he was the night of…what he was drinking…how he felt…not reminiscences, nothing so cheap as that, but actual shards piecing his own life together through music, day by calendar day.

What is the central issue of any book- length poem? With Ammons, it was claiming his right as poet. With Lehman, it’s a true devotion to the meaning and spirit of that great human endeavor, jazz — as well as classic pop culture. Lehman is knowledgeable about music’s traditional story, and he takes it out of the corner, away from music connoisseurs, to animate it for all readers. The passion and strength of the poet shape stories of singers and musicians, at times making song out of words. The writing fluidly connects 72 pieces, and the accumulation demonstrates the soul of innovation: i.e., film and music now become poetry. A man, obedient to “The Stars,” revels at the intricate beauty that’s given him such lifelong pleasure.


When I listen to “Ralph’s New Blues”

(Modern Jazz Quartet) the epiphany was

the music that remained when the melody

was removed — even for such as I who

can’t think of a better way to say

our love is here to stay than the song.


Missing Madonnas by Gil Fagiani. Bordighera Press. 142 pages.

He died too soon. Poet, essayist, short story author Fagiani was also a psychologist with great influence in addiction rehabilitation. But he’ll be remembered for his vivid portrayals of Italian life in New York. His vibrant characters, places, scenes — not equaled — burrow deep into the Italian cultural sensibility. He saw aggression in the world and named it; and, in his compassion and writing, changed it. The downtrodden and discouraged were transformed by poems, and the exhilaration and beauty of his people are documented forever. His poems teach us to notice, to look on every chain-link fence for the lock; to value the original language of our families; to remember the mores that raised him. These poems are stories — showing the way Fagiani saw the world: funny, unpredictable, sometimes harsh, and also kind.


said their fathers slaved all day

digging tunnels for New York’s subway,

then hustled to the Jerome Park Quarry

to lug wheelbarrows filled with

granite blocks to the Grand Concourse

to build St. Philip Neri Church.


After their back-breaking work,

the shamrock priests took control

of their stone Temple, mocked

their broken English, swaggered

at their feste like big-bellied lords,

branding them pagans for pinning

dollar bills to hand-carved statues

to Santa Assunta and San Antonio.


The Tradition by Jericho Brown. Copper Canyon Press. 110 pages.

One poem is better than the other, and the next page is better than the last. Certainly, painful recollections are hard to write, but this writing expands us to know what’s possible with fiction and honesty and recall. Jericho Brown’s comfortable relationship between his feelings and his words is consistent and effortless, and so we want to keep reading. I started the book and said I’ll finish in the morning and, of course, could not break the connection.

However heavy poetry’s emotions, they become clear within the reading — outside the book seems a labyrinth; inside the page, we know where we’re going. This is the way Brown guides us on the road to understanding.

The second half of The Tradition confirms that love is only for the faithful who can participate in the body’s daring cold and hot wars. He’s a writer with creative anger and beauty and power, so we have moral authority in every line. Or, to put it another way, nobody waters down his whiskey.

Poetry never comes to any real conclusions, and that’s its value, yet it is forwarded by psychological action and that’s exactly how this writer holds us to him. Remembering is one art, then the poem is another, hopefully repairing life’s damage. And if it’s true we are remembered by our deeds, Jericho Brown is in a good place with a good book.


A man trades his son for horses.
That’s the version I prefer. I like
The safety of it, no one at fault,
Everyone rewarded. God gets
The boy. The boy becomes
Immortal. His father rides until
Grief sounds as good as the gallop
Of an animal born to carry those
Who patrol our inherited
Kingdom. When we look at myth
This way, nobody bothers saying
Rape. I mean, don’t you want God
To want you? Don’t you dream
Of someone with wings taking you
Up? And when the master comes
For our children, he smells
Like the men who own stables
In Heaven, that far terrain
Between Promise and Apology.
No one has to convince us.
The people of my country believe
We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.


When the Pipirite Sings by Jean Métellus, translated by Haun Saussy. Northwestern University Press. 104 pages.

When you read Haitian writer Jean Métellus, you read all the praises that were given Walt Whitman — powerful combination of rhetoric and poetry in long lines, repetition, compression and expansion of phrase after phrase. To read a page aloud leaves you breathless with sparkling word combinations steeped in spirituality, lore, historic turbulence, and personal vindication. We’re grateful to have a good, comprehensive translation for all readers of poetry.

These poems constitute a mythic account of postcolonial Haiti. They rise with heightened language, grand visions, and a deification of nature. That Métellus was a physician, a neurologist, and theorist of the nervous system, fascinates us even more. Interestingly, there is no scientific neurological explanation for genius such as his.


My heart gives itself up to words
Confiding to them its distress

Come back, my courage
Come back in this season of abstinence and patience
In the middle of those hollow defenseless hours
Lift up my shoulders eyelids forehead
With everyday words, no flowers, no embellishments
Without those old sorrows, without those hellish memories
Without those grievous gestures and shameful affronts
Without veil, without insolence, without a frown
Without exaggeration, without change of heart
Come back, my courage, to live among words
And decode the long message rolling along the beach
In the elusive language of foam
In the salty rumbling that defies the ages
In the sun, rain, or rainbow
Question those tireless implacable waves
Clothed in anger every season of the year

Oh to understand the movement that rocks the sand
And polishes stones

                                                            (braises de la mémoire, 2009)


Native Species by Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press. 110 pages.

This is a book of reverence — reverence in naming a woman who is describing the milking of a goat to a deaf mother; the horror of abuse in a story about taxidermy; the beauty of “the raven and deer, the small speckled trout that swims in agreement with the ever-changing current…” It’s all here under Davis’ care. He owns the earth and everything in it by his connection to all creatures and all that grows around us. It’s not enough to call Todd Davis a nature poet, for that speaks of observation — his work is penetration, showing how the land is in us and, from its sorrows and brilliance, human stories emerge.

Lost Country of Light

                        But I am not trying to get to heaven.
                        I am trying to get to earth.
                                            - Christopher Camuto

June sun, so longed for in December,
paints a burning light upon my neck
as I hoe the garden or pick raspberries
along the ditches. By early afternoon
I’ve had enough and retreat to the trees,
into broken shadows dim as the back
of the closet where I put things
that shouldn’t be forgotten: the field
where my grandfather planted beans;
the last cow my family owned;
the hay rake that turned the cut grass
into windows; the bell on the back porch
my grandmother rang when she heard
her son had died in the war.


Woods and Clouds Interchangeable by Michael Earl Craig. Wave Books. 122 pages.

I’m grateful there are publishing houses like Wave that see the unique talent of a poet like Michael Earl Craig, who is brilliantly non-contextual. He turns words on edge like jazz. His juxtapositions are ludicrous and illuminating — fable, story, anecdote, joke — he delights that part of us which hungers for fresh stark originality and the spirit that lofts it. This writer rocks the world of writing.


It’s midnight and huge white rabbits
zigzag the snow-packed road.
I shock them along with my high beams.
In my mind I’ve lowered my window
and am thumping the outside of my door
with a ball bat. In my mind I recklessly
cut the cookie with the cheese knife.
What do white rabbits eat, I wonder.
And do they ever sleep, I wonder.
I had a problem and I solved it.
How I solved it is none of your business.


The Bones of Winter Birds by Ann Fisher-Wirth. Terrapin Books. 102 pages.

This is a testimony about how poetry can make immortal, and permanent, ordinary people in a poet’s life. Sometimes loss is the schema here, but not always. Fisher-Wirth brings to the page pathos of the heart and prolonged dreams. Each poet brings her/his own perspective on love, life and death. Same subjects, different words. But it’s the words that matter; and Fisher-Wirth paints a beautiful picture.

Vicksburg National Military Park

When they were my sons,
I pulled the covers snug
around their ears
and tucked them in,
smoothed their hair,
kissed their salty eyelids.
Now ginkgo leaves
make golden blankets
around the tombstone
of a boy from Iowa
and another I can’t read,
and another another
another another another
as far as I can see
scattered across the hillside
this autumn and every
autumn beyond counting.


Tomorrow Today and Yesterday by J.R. Solonche. Deerbrook Editions. 120 pages.

Solonche is productive and prolific, but that doesn’t water down his poetry. “Willow may be old, /but it hasn’t forgotten/how to make green green.” He can compress a philosophical treatise into three lines. He’s playful and profound — the more he writes, the more he seems to know. Beneath the Solonche simplicity are significant social comments, and his goodwill reinforces the best in us.


A student came to my office.
“I know what I want to say,
but I don’t know how to say it,”
he said. “No problem,” I said.
“Read through this for a while,”
I told him as I handed him
a fat anthology of contemporary
American poetry. “You’ll learn
how to say it sooner or later.”
Another student came to my office.
“I don’t know what to say, but
I have this funny feeling that
I already know how to say it,”
he said. “No problem. You’re
already a poet,” I said as I waved
him out of my office and down,
down the long, long, dark, dark stairs.


Swift by David Baker. W.W. Norton. 160 pages.

Read a poem a day. Turn away from the fighting and the dying we read and see, the abuse, the felony, and come here where the world feels written in modulation with your own heart. To be with David Baker is to be truly alive, “the hawk’s shadow,” “leaves waving.” Immerse yourself where every bird and leaf are reason for understanding our complicated and complex world and the people in it.

The book is eight sections: new poems, plus selections from seven books dating back to 1985. I always like to start with the new ones first; five poems among them are titled “Pastoral,” “Tree Frogs,” “The Osprey,” “The Wren,” and “The Sea” — basic and concrete titles where we find rich, meaningful storytelling created by nature. I am a birder by heart, and the lavish understandings in these poems bring the outdoors in.

These are poems to read slowly as a place for sitting — to escape into a daily meditation where the good and the beautiful are filled with surprise. Baker uses the page in new and traditional ways. These implications from the earth make clear our societal issues and our personal relationships, and you will be grateful that someone is speaking for you.


Here at the center        of a field          of green

leaves waving             center of a       grief I can’t

see far enough             to tell how       it will ease

it will not ease             it goes on         and on now

as yours does               in sunlight       and in the rain

holding hands with     her in the         last minutes

sky so vast                   hear the           wheat roar —


Brute by Emily Skaja. Graywolf Press. 72 pages.

“In defeat I was perfect…” Anyone who can put those words together can put together 74 pages of emotional exposure that stuns us. Skaja’s found the words that thousands of other women cannot sing. Violence, love, obsession, shame, self-hate, grief — how can these become shining subjects? It takes the right poet who feels she has nothing else to lose. This is the place where great and lasting art begins. The experiences of this writer are brutal — actually and psychologically — yet Skaja knows how and when to place quiet around the chaos. Her skill on the page is in phrasing and word placement, and the aesthetics of line and clause keep us reading, page after page, without weariness. Pain is pervasive but it takes on art head-first; and art does triumph here. The complexity of loving what one hates is made clear to us — and, like they say about the blues, “a good man singing about bad times,” well, this is about bad times written by a woman finding the essential goodness in words.

Brute Strength

Soldier for a lost cause, brute, mute woman
written out of my own story, I’ve been trying
to cast a searchlight over swamp-woods & parasitic ash
back to my beginning, that girlhood —
kite wisp clouded by gun salutes & blackbirds
tearing out from under the hickories
all those fine August mornings so temporary
so gold-ringed by heat haze & where is that witch girl
unafraid of anything, flea-spangled little yard rat, runt
of no litter, queen, girl who wouldn’t let a boy hit her,
girl refusing to be It in tag, pulling that fox hide
heavy around her like a flag? Let me look at her.
Tell her on my honor, I will set the wedding dress on fire
when I’m good & ready or she can bury me in it.


Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy. Milkweed Editions. 104 pages.

In the poem “Noise Falling Backward,” McCarthy says,” I’ve been told not to come here — to this toolshed of memory…” Anyone who could write this line could do anything. McCarthy resets the standard for courage, and as long as we have writers of such bravery that are burning to tell their story, literature is in a good place. To name cruelty is still the last outpost of language, and to press lyricism from misery is a mystical experience — maybe even a holy one. MCarthy reminds us that poetry can have discontent bring contentment, if written well enough.

There are no rocky roads on the pages. Hard subjects are thoughtfully approached, and sensationalism has no place where reality is so expertly presented without artifice and symbolism. A child as a prisoner of war is an unfriendly environment, but the war is won by this excellent book. He writes, “My mother had a silence for every occasion…” (Bloodmeal).


Rust and fumes form a dirge, a dune of umber in the falling sky,
falling every night like a drape across the broomgrass and wild straw.
Henbit sprouts from the brown rock and root-split concrete.
Scraps of leather and cloth hang frayed on the high fences,
wire-cut and pulled apart by thieves coming at night for copper scrap
inside the Pillsbury Plant and its hollow guts. It is abandoned
and we are the abandoned sons of fathers who look for work while talking
with their hands. Do you think we’d work here, I ask Seth, if it didn’t close?
We walk on the train tracks cutting through the iron-laid yard
where spare train cars halt and tilt on diverging turnouts waiting
for pick up by rail companies. This is the North End and it never changes.
I raise my spray can and ask what I should tag on the rusted railcar.
We’re both at a loss for words, already aware profanity doesn’t get anyone
to notice us. I push the nozzle down. I write my name instead.


Transformation - The Poetry of Translation by Barbara Goldberg (winner of the Valentin Krustev Award). Introduction by Myra Sklarew. Foreword by Richard Harteis. Poets Choice Publishing. 126 pages.

Goldberg is a master translator. Some people are just born to look beneath the word to see origins, history, and possibility. Fifty-three Israeli poets are featured here, and I don’t know another such comprehensive collection. Uncommon to most books of translations, we have here an author who tells how and why she does it. “Translators tend to adopt — to lesser or greater degree — two different philosophies of translation: formal or dynamic.…” This book is distinctive for its essays, from Goldberg’s childhood immersion in language to service in translations. This is an asset because the translator is usually like the Wizard of Oz, having great power but hidden behind a magic curtain. Translation is a matter of deconstructivism and then constructivism. It unlayers the matrix of words to intuit sequences of sound and inferences that make up narration. At every moment, the translator is the genealogist of the culture, so translation is both history and art — creating a new version of a poem with special aesthetic strategies. Poetry is always made better by the gifted writer, so Transformation is especially good reading.

When You Stay Here
         for Tuvia
by Chamutal Bar-Yosef

When you stay here
I weigh less.
When you eat with me
Strawberries and corn taste better.
When you come unto me
Mozart’s music on the radio
without interruptions
and on Friday the dangerous market
shouts laughs yawns
glittering in the sun
like a tarpaulin spread over a lake
when you stay here.


Enabling Love: A Poetic Tribute by Tom Kirlin (winner of the 2019 William Meredith Award in Poetry). Paintings by Stoimen Stoilov. Poets Choice Publishing. 102 pages.

Kirlin was a friend to William Meredith, a former poet laureate of the United States (at that time titled Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress). It’s a literary and personal triumph here that responds to Meredith’s poetry with Kirlin’s own harmonies. How does a man pay homage to existing material without imitation or persuasion? Poet Kirlin found the way with playful syntax, concrete language, and dialogic responses, as well as clear-cut narratives. This is to honor the form, then break the mold to create new form. And every time this happens, new energy is unleashed. Kirlin’s non-narratives are revolutionary because, with abstractions, all age, race, and gender are erased on the page. This seems appropriate; and, in wanting to memorialize his friend, Pulitzer Prize-winner Meredith, Kirlin wanted to draw not parallels but verticals for poetic ideas. Abstraction came into vogue after World War I. It’s not meant to sublimate the word but to radiate out from it. This is fun reading and adds a unique dimension to the Meredith canon by critics, scholars, and admirers.

Why The Soul Loves Catfish

 To William Meredith


let’s just say an elegant man

in a loose blue nightcap

with nothing, nothing on his mind

but the sky, surprised us

tracking game by starlight


shot you in the blind

made off with the lamps

of madness & climbed

scattering as ransom

this palpable absence


only time can refine —

swirling her honey head

making our bed, as constant

as taxes & crime…So welcome

if you can, ladies and gentlemen


an old roommate of mine:

a son of a gun — a hell

of a guy — a cat whose ass

rattles buckshot — the warden

 my soul, serving life, plus 99.


The Music of the Aztecs, edited and with an introduction by David B. Churchill. David B. Churchill. 138 pages.

This anthology features the poets of the D.C. Magic Theater Poetry Club. Churchill begins his introduction with “This book can change your life.” Sounds grandiose, but as I read, I saw a terrific piece of writing — an anthem — about poets and poetry. Eight poets are featured, with a good sampling of their works — sometimes from eight to 12 poems each — enough to know the muscles and bones, the work and words, of their contributors. We see the range and dynamics of the Magic Poetry Club. Here’s poet Ethan Goffman:

Taxonomy of History

The History of the Past
The History of What Happened
The History of What the Hell Happened!

The last, less respected than the others, is sometimes known as
The History of One Damn Thing After Another.

There are three even less reputable branches of History:
The History of the Future
The History of What Might Have Happened
The History of What Never Happened

Most historians don’t recognize these branches. Even some of
the more refined poets look down upon them.

Still they are thunderstorms, pummeling fields of cantankerous,
yearning weeds,
young weeds that sprout from drenched soil and spew outlaw


Alcestis in the Underworld by Nina Murray. Circling Rivers. 82 pages.

In Greek myth, Alcestis offers her life to save her husband, the King, so he can continue his rule. She’s restored to life through the mercy of the gods. Murray uses this context to detail her own journeys as a diplomat in Russia after her childhood years in Ukraine. Murray is much savvier than Alcestis, taking the world in her own hands rather than descending to darkness just to be restored by others.

airfield dreams

This is how a dream of the heroic begins:
with transport planes — two dashes in the sky,
a Morse-code M punched through the vellum
of air dense above the concrete
when they land, one, two, the rhythm so perfect
it trains the breath and stirs up a new hunger.

You watch the blur
of the propellers resolve into a slow church, discern
the tread on tires and understand these are
workhorse machines flown by people
who can find the strip
in mud, and darkness, and whatever else
third-world calamity. That’s when you tell yourself:
whatever faults we have,
we do purvey
a brand of well-orchestrated deliverance.


Send review copies (2019 releases only) to:

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

[Editor's note: Grace Cavalieri will appear at this year's Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 18th in Olde Towne Gaithersburg, MD. Click here for a full schedule of events.]

Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s poet laureate. She founded “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio and celebrates 42 years on air, now from the Library of Congress. Her latest book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishing, 2017).

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