April 2015 Exemplars: National Poetry Month’s Best Picks

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

National Poetry Month's Best Picks: 14 Choice Books
Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield. Alfred.A. Knopf. 112 pages.

The White Spider in My Hand by Sonja James. New Academia/Scarith Press. 76 pages.

Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust, winner 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry. Press 53. 114 pages.

Hive-Mind by Suzette Bishop. Stockport Flats. 79 pages.

Mr. West by Sarah Blake. Wesleyan. 106 Pages.

Favorite Bedtime Stories by John M. Fitzgerald. Salmon Poetry (Ireland). 77 pages.

The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie. Graywolf. 64 pages.

Honest Engine by Kyle Dargan. The Univ. of Georgia Press. 77 pages.

The Uppity Blind Girl Poems by Kathi Wolfe. Winner of the Stonewall/Brickhouse Award. Stonewall/Brickhouse Books. 36 pages.

Deflection by Roberta Beary. Accents Publishing. 25 pages.

Through a Garden Gate, poems by Charlotte Mandel/ photographs by Vincent Covello. David Roberts Books. 57 pages.

Vessel by Parneshia Jones. Milkweed Editions. 97 pages.

The Arranged Marriage by Jehanne Dubrow. Univ. of New Mexico Press. 55 pages.

Itself by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 97 pages.

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield. Alfred A. Knopf. 112 pages.

Jane is a beholder of things, ordinary things; she writes of magicians, eyes, handkerchiefs, mushrooms — then from the tensile of the real world emerges a deeper molecular structure —  complexity, animated ideas, a fine memory, a spiritual slant. Wisdom and experience are good qualities but to be of full import they have to come to us from clear language. Jane illuminates the surface of this life we share on earth with her illusion, philosophy, and imagination. Then life is very much changed. She does this with carefully liberated language, and a gentle hand. Restraint and elegance mark her line lengths; her phrases are balanced. She knows the value of everything she sees so she knows how valuably they must be offered. She makes us think poetry is the last thing left that’s incorruptible. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with reading Beauty for pure pleasure.


In Chinese painting, there are flowers with bones,

flowers that are boneless.


Also in trees, men, mountains, horses, and houses.


A calcium not subject

but angle

the brush is held by, minerals into.


Fox hairs are soft,

yet fox bones and fox teeth are in them.


Dragon veins, the space between mountains is called.


Lu Ch’ai wrote, “When painting a rock, paint all three of its faces.”


I think of the two Greek masks, one laughing, one weeping,

And then of the third he would have found missing —

mask-face of wonder? of anger? of rigor?

a child’s look before sleep?


Lu wrote,

There is only one thing to be said here: rocks painted fully are living.”

And then, of painting people,

Hands slipped into sleeves are warm, no feeling of coldness.”

The White Spider in My Hand by Sonja James. New Academia/Scarith Press. 76 pages.

The child is in the woman and so innocent that she could be writing from the Garden of Eden — everything new and wondrous — held tangible in the hand. As we grow, instincts don’t go away. Sonja James trusts this, turning them to images that spark the corners of the mind. It’s “magic realism,” or realism made magic through the glory of language. She writes as if she’s dreaming in a sea of silence 100 miles away and then suddenly! she pops up at your kitchen table. Mystical and immediate, both, she sees everything as it is in the moment and so do we. James makes leaps but there are no parts lost in the flight. A joyful and interesting poet and one to watch.

Never Ask a Cloud to Marry You

Shelter the dreamers

Jack Spicer

All day the salamander quivers beneath the mossy log

though because no one sees it or feels it,

you say I am making it up

& I say, “No, heaven is closer than that.”

This morning I touched the salamander twice

& it quivered then

so why wouldn’t it quiver

when I put it back where it belongs,

in hiding, beneath a mossy log?

I’m sure the salamander is quivering right now

& I’m not making it up though I am prone

to invent a thing or two, especially when it rains.

However, when the sun is shining,

it’s a different story.

That’s when I like to ask questions any idiot could answer.

Where is Plato?

What in the world happened to Jesus Christ?

A hundred years from now,

will anyone be reading Habermas?

How many characters are there in Middlemarch?

Did Emily Dickinson ever meet Walt Whitman?

You get the picture.

I know you do.

Just like I know it will make you happy

to discover that tonight I shall spare the life

of a beetle as it crosses the sidewalk in front of me

& if fireflies show off their fluorescent abdomens

at the same moment, so much the better.

Paradise Drive by Rebecca Foust, winner 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry. Press 53. 114 pages.

These sonnets trace the journey of a Pilgrim. Pilgrims, as we know, roam the earth as wanderers, but more importantly they’re on a quest. We could see them, then, as believers; and to be “a believer” means life must be examined to see what is of value to worship. In these commanding sonnets Foust takes her protagonist/persona from poverty in Altoona to the false gold of Marin County. The Pilgrim uses biographical detail to open fields of discussion about excess, greed, and a land without higher values. Foust proves the idea that philosophers see clearly what is and a poet sees what is and what could be. There’s a luminous quality to perfectly ordered sonnets, especially as they house smart stylish observations. Foust is learned, and witty, and so the Pilgrim is someone we come to love with her present day jargon, classical ideas, and a CNN precision in reporting. This book proves that the record of humankind will be found in poetry. She allows a comment on our culture with its gluttony and deprivations. It’s funny and compelling. It aches with truth.

Family Grammar

1. Diction

Oh what’s the use in tinkering, dialing

in each word, memory for desire

so the reader can share the feeling

without feeling lectured? Does the fire

care what phrase names its fierce thirst

or on which beat I break the line?

What metaphor can loosen the vise

closing the actual throat — not just mine,

but hers from an actual tumor —

Mom’s face under her sad, festive turban

while she chose the clothes and shoes

to wear for her cremation? There’s no use

here for words, the vaunted largesse

of English, or any language. Not for this.

Hive-Mind by Suzette Bishop. Stockport Flats. 79 pages.

A whole book about bees so highly imagined — all the many nouns and verbs attributed to bees make up literary content. But bees inspire — and tucked within the economics, history, ecology and folklore is imbedded a family’s travail with its layers of disappointments and rejuvenations. In poem numbered “IV Best Wishes” a two page poem (beautifully designed) has telegrammed headlines : U.S. officials concerned about the economic ramifications of bees dying off and then,“...My mother doesn’t kill my sister and me; she doesn’t kill herself. She doesn’t get/ a bus ticket and take us back to New York City, where she was from, The scenarios I /wonder about ,now. She goes away for a short while, a few weeks, perhaps a month, / my father is home more.” Then a non sequitur: “I have had your dear letters in my hands for some weeks, and I cannot describe the pleasure it gives /me to receive such lovely long letters.” The page is then laced with headlines of bee problems before we return to the story,“...And she returns, But not healed. She gets my sister and me to school, ballet, / handing us our lunches as we leave…” This is heart tearing humanity in contrast with a massive bee die-off. These two pages contain emotional trauma, disassociated responses, and bee news. Every page has a different order of design. The factoids are in bold type — and in between — in varying fonts, an array of chilling life detail. All this is so original it’s a miracle it got published.

Vanishing Hum

You are the dreaming man asleep

in a brown and purple haze,

you are an oboe asleep.

Purple mist rising off the mountains

and you are here, sleeping,

your dreams lifting like mist

from a mountain.

What are you hearing?

Dreaming man, man asleep near his oboe,

are you dreaming of it whole again?

Making reedy sounds like bees evaporating?

Mr. West by Sarah Blake. Wesleyan. 106 pages.

Blake writes a sweet oration about a pop star, using social media, biography, news sources, TV and a pharmacy of gossip to memorialize Kanye West. Poetry may make him better than he is ---before we knew him through sound bites and tabloid headlines. Along with Kanye’s thoughts, fears and triumphs are Blake’s thoughts fears etc. about her ongoing pregnancy during poetry-making. I like the way she gives us her memories as well as West’s, sharing this royal family album fraught with bright lights and dark thoughts. This is not, however, People Magazine. The subject is pop culture as baseline but there’s a true spirit behind its author, the singer/songwriter, and the fetus whose bones shine through the story.

Who is worthy of biography? I love that Sarah Blake draws no line between what is divine light and what scintillates the world. You could cut your finger on these poems; so awakened, intimate dramas, little chamber plays from the unlikely intimacy of news clippings and “the cloud.” We all reach for heroes but Blake instead epitomizes contemporary obsessions with West as her centerfold. It takes a daring literary will to create literature. Blake relentlessly imagines and adorns a man she never met and makes him “lived and felt.” This is a good natured book with an extraordinary range of writing from a charged reactor about a (made) personal relationship. I’ll bet it’s the most faith, loyalty and love West will ever know in this fantasy tribute to creativity — his life and Blake’s own.


The world’s on the back of a turtle, on the back of a turtle, on the back

of a turtle,

on the back of Kanye.

Eve gave Kanye the apple — after Kanye was formed of dust from the


Kanye was raised by a nymph and not eaten by his Titan father.

With a giant axe, Kanye separated the murky Yin and clear Yang.

Kanye once grew from the ocean and reached the clouds in the sky.

And Kanye almost died in a car accident,

so he became a star.

Favorite Bedtime Stories by John M. Fitzgerald. Salmon Poetry (Ireland.) 77 pages.

There’s definitely a lilt to the Irish/American poet and more a European diction than an American accent. This is seen is by word choice and tone, velocity of syllables within the line and his selection of subjects. We don’t know what this poet eats for breakfast or the neighborhood he lives in. He’s not interested in actual everydayness He places great importance on an aerial view of life with an almost biblical seriousness. His poetic issues include relationships, poets and poetry, the muse, chess (a handsome set of poems), ghosts, God and fairy tales. Fitzgerald is what he claims he is — a storyteller looking at human behavior from a high place. His careful stanzas, precise rhythm are products of a man schooled in the kind of literature that changed Irish and American cultures to a high form. In a way he’s an activist determined to preserve what’s best in speech to keep it alive.



Ceaselessly flick me with light.

I buzz ‘round in circles a one-winged fly,

will waylaid by sheer brute strength,

free to believe as I’m told or be beaten.


I remember all this when I hear the alarm,

and I’m so hung over yet have to wake.

I cannot stand that race again

but I am the meat to be eaten this day.


Alert, I take to trees

where serpents sing children lullabies.

Mothers decode their forbidden language;

Hush, the snake is on the prowl.


I stake out my limb and begin to nod

when my strings get jerked with their fear of falling.

A reflex from leftover monkeys, crushed,

at the end of a dream about flying away.

The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie. Graywolf. 64 pages.

Jamie is a nature writer making the natural world permanent in spite of its seasons and flights. As with all such observers, the landscape is about who is watching. In essence, then, the hawk, the cliff and the deer are really about self creation in their names. The currency in writing is the translation of subject and form to a textual spirit. The poem becomes larger than the writer and the topic. Her timing is perfect and her language makes new frontiers from common content. “The Gather’ is a 6-page poem about men at work “knocking their tea back” on shore awhile to clip “lamb’s testicles.” The poet shows no judgment in the poem but an honest look and then the men are off on a boat,”...they roared off at top speed, throwing us a grand wave.” The straight reportage here does more to evoke compassion for the animals than any editorial insertion could. The poet is designated to take care of man and creature alike and Jamie does this. She writes as custodian to the animals that she sees in her country. As a bonus there are a few poems for us in Scottish dialect.ROSES

for M D

This is the moment the roses

cascade over backstreet walls,

throng the public parks —

their cream or scrunched pinks

unfolding now to demonstrate

unacknowledged thought.

The world is ours too! they brave,

careless of tomorrow

and wholly without leadership

for who’d mount a soap-box

on the rose-behalf?

I haggle for my little

portion of happiness,’

says each flower, equal, in the scented mass.

Honest Engine by Kyle Dargan. The Univ. of Georgia Press. 77 pages.

The sounds of History are in this book. Dargan takes on culture’s standards with racial themes in a way that you almost miss his idealism — but it’s there. These poems are a touchstone for future readers about important issues — small public debates –an awareness of society’s demise. There are two separate hearts here: One; a criticism of our present state of affairs — a country struggling with oppositions—and two; a love for a country he cannot deny is his.

Dargan must believe art can change people as he shows first what is good and then what disappointment can come from the lack of it. It’s a form of social action we can call the Textual Factor in intellectual leadership — or writing as a moral force. The poet knows what’s at stake and we get that in Dargan’s measured emotion, and his careful word. There are terrific lines in each poem, stirring from spiritual sources and sadness spawned from anger.

Most of his poems are the same length 1 ½ pages — showing an energy pattern and a significant style. Because the poem is a place for ideas, the obligation of the poet is to be thoughtful first, then use sonics, rhythms and images to drive the thought. Dargan’s process — known interests, and sure hand — change social calculations to literary art.

He also gets the Exemplar gold star of the month for his attitudes about women.

The last stanza from the poem CORMAC McCARTHY AS TRANSLATION:

Everywhere — or the need to be

everywhere — has no middle


And yes, planet America requires

saving. Maybe that is why our stories


all begin with the world almost ending

here. That keeps us up at night, shatters


our sleep — which Xiao Fan can’t grasp

because he was never taught


our Pottery Barn rule: That if you’ve saved it,

then you’ve broken it. Then it’s yours.

The Uppity Blind Girl Poems by Kathi Wolfe. Winner of the Stonewall/Brickhouse Award. Stonewall/Brickhouse books. 36 pages.

We all know Kathi Wolfe from her articles in The Blade newspaper and Scene4 Magazine. She’s the clarion voice of reason, social justice while peppering and salting us with wit, and just the right amount of piss & vinegar. Kathi is the leader of the pack, for sure, but if you Really want a zenith moment, invite Uppity Blind Girl into your life. She’ll drink your margaritas, steal your feather boa, and fall on top of your spouse, but it’s all O.K. because there's no one you’d rather be with. Kathi Wolfe has broken the boundaries with a hilarious alter ego who may just change the world to the good. Wolfe’s persona stars in life’s theatrical revue playfully, and energetically. And of the evil people Uppity knows? Well, I’d imagine her saying, Let me write them a satire. And I’ll laugh them to death.

Pulp Fiction

All those lesbians you pal around with will lead into a blind alley, her

grandmother told Uppity. For the love of Sappho, Uppity thought, slipping on her

silver pumps, take me there! Bring me to this dyke-infested place where

Sapphic ghost kiss blindly in devil-encrusted glitz. Where forbidden fruit

ripens. Let me caress the shattered stone. My cane, a dagger, will slash the

heart of my ex who left me standing alone on the street after the midnight show

of Wait Until Dark. In a blind passion, my hands will stalk the crumbling wall!

Looking for requited love. Like a sightless idiot, believing it can be found.

Deflection by Roberta Beary. Accents Publishing. 25 pages.

Roberta is the mistress of the short form poem and known for her haiku. In Deflection she extends her reach with some of the most searingly truthful work I’ve seen this year. We can take a lesson here. Courage and truth in perfect line lengths that expand and compress so the poem makes a breathing thing, and yet can take our breath. When I’m afraid to say what I have to say, I’ll pick up this book and remember what keeps poetry alive.


We share an attic room.

In the corner in an old double bed

that smells and sags on one side. My side.

Late at night I hear my heart beat. Loud.

So loud he will hear it. He will think my heart

is calling him up the attic stairs.

His footsteps are heavy.

He smells of old spice

and cherry tobacco.

My eyes shut tight.

I know he is there.

I feel the weight.

Never on my side.

Always on the side she sleeps.

When the bedsprings sing their sad song

I fly away. Up to the ceiling. My sister is already there.

Together we hold hands. Looking down we see our bodies.

We are not moving. We are as still as the dead.


attic rain

the backyard swing


Through a Garden Gate, poems by Charlotte Mandel/ photographs by Vincent Covello. David Roberts Books. 57 pages.

This is a shared experience of visuals and poetry. The cultural terrain is nature’s beauty and the interpretation is spacious and calm. Two artists collaborate to interpret the world with a spectrum of views and poetic commentary. Reading this book is to enter a sanctuary of meditation, for it’s twice blessed with combined interests of what is natural and what is man created.

Japanese Fountain

Water trickles from bamboo


into a bed of raked gravel

Underfoot soft paths

Pine needles

wood chips


Musical sound


Vessel by Parneshia Jones. Milkweed Editions. 97 pages.

I never thought I’d use the word “heartfelt” in a review. I don’t want to be confronted by the Academy’s Poetry Police. But Parneshia Jones lets us enter her youth and life so willingly, we want to find and meet this poet we suddenly care about. Not all the times spoken here are easy or magical; they are, virtually, a reality with governable language and pleasure not always simple to come by. Black life is drawn “truly” with a membrane of honor between the words. If a poet does not know herself, who can know her? Jones does know who she is. She’s lived in the sun and the rain. There’s little wonder that she holds the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award and the Margaret Walker Short Story Award. And even though I’m Italian from Trenton, there’s universality here. I can definitely relate to the oversized speakers in the basement of the YMCA.


for Evanston

We came from histories,

planted centennial stories along freshwater coasts.

An earthly heaven of emerald lagoons

and godly oaks shadow the chiseled

trails of our arrival.

We are the northern folktales.

Copper-back ancestors, with cotton-tipped,

woodcutter hands —

the heirlooms that built this landscape of jubilant

churches and miniature châteaus.

A harvest of migrating hearts

tell our way back when.

We are porch stories, buttermilk aprons,

Lovers of Sundays and sailboats.

Land of dew-winged cardinals with chandelier

forests preserves our pioneers and preachers.

We are the long grass and anxious wind,

the generations, speaking softly, between

the lines of history.

The Arranged Marriage by Jehanne Dubrow. Univ. of New Mexico Press. 55 pages.

Violence and fear are subtexts in a set of prose poems interweaving plots with a nighttime intruder, an arranged marriage, and a Mother/Daughter relationship. These elegantly wrought poems are small scenes from an ill-suited marriage, plus other dominations/submissions. The recurring image of a knife conveys danger through several poems with its metaphor/threat of the cut, the split, and the actual tear of flesh.

These strong mysterious episodes take on the myth of marriage in opposition to its romantic celebration, serious commitment and repertoire of love. It’s a woman’s life changing through flashes of emotional brutality, and just plain wrong-pairing. The admirable part is the dignity that persists; but make no mistake, the frame of reference is mistreatment. Reconciliations emerge from Dubrow’s expert sensory abilities — the tropical scents and tastes, lush descriptions and her poetic determination to draw exact scenes. The mother/daughter relationship threaded through the story gives us faith in the future.

Although these are prose poems, luckily the lyricism in the line registers rhythm and motion. This is bold writing with visionary power and strong language. It’s like a detective story with heightened moments sorting things out. “Detecting” means finding the truth in a situation. I couldn’t stop reading it.

Café con leche

It’s ten thirty at night. My mother leans across

the stove to check the boil on the milk, whisk in

her left hand, a jar of Folgers in her right. Her

mouth purses in what looks like a kiss but is

only a little breath to stop the liquid from forming

a skin. We’ve been standing in the kitchen,

talking about marriage, not wanting to sit or fall

asleep. So she uses the recipe she learned as

a little girl. Sometimes, she says, what’s

sweetest and most flavorful comes from the

fake stuff. I watch her dissolve brown crystals in

the pot. It’s true. The coffee tastes like coffee.

With my eyes closed, I can’t tell the difference,

which has always been the problem for women

in my family—the way so many of us would

rather drink something instant, that bitterness

can be hidden with enough spoonfuls of sugar,

or how good it feels to burn our fingers on a

chipped ceramic cup.

Itself by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 97 pages.

Now that Armantrout has become a classic, who’s going to be Rae Armantrout? We finally vibe with her percussive words and sharp philosophical jabs. She’s biographically not to be seen but somehow we feel she’s like us and not “other.” This could be the fact that her poems are devoid of age, race, gender, and personal affect, allowing her to blend into whomever and whatever we are. Armantrout’s short phrases are restraining orders that embody very large ideas and there’s a trick to her melody — it seems to suit everyone’s dance step. She demonstrates that the less it is detailed, the more it’s global. Her poems have based their literary fortunes on this and it paid off. I, for one, believe she becomes more relevant with each reading.

Here is a rare “personal” poem:




Peace be upon

the transparent maroon curtains

and the chesty air-conditioning unit

spilling yellow foam from between its ribs,

side-swiped by sun

so that shadows

of the window bars around it

in the shape of two

Valentine’s Day hearts,

one perched upside down

on top of its mate,

can grow sharp.




In the next seat

a dentist tells her friend

she is reading Rent Boy to the Stars

and a book on reincarnation.




I’m all used up,”

I tell myself,

all gone”

Like that was some new

kind of luxury —

one I could afford!

Grace Cavalieri is the producer/host of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” Her latest books are The Mandate of Heaven and The Man Who Got Away.

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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