August 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- August 15, 2018
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
Enter Water, Swimmer by Mary Morris. Texas Review Press. 100 pages.
Also, most innovative, plus best chapbooks, anthology, and illustrated:
Lovebirdman by Stephanie Pressman, illustrations by Lydia Rae Black. CreateSpace. 62 pages.
Plus, four books not reviewed but listed as AUGUST’S BEST BOOKS for summer reading:
If kindness and love are advanced into poetry, time after time, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ted Kooser is probably the author. Now we have poems selected from nine books published 1980-2017, plus 49 new poems.
A new art can be made any moment where Ted Kooser observes human behavior, or nature, or a shift in the weather; especially when he identifies the harmony of inter-relationality. His voice is instrumentation that can be heard in every line, clear, crisp from a life rooted in the Great Plains. His structures are meaningful because the form matches content; and he sees no other reason for innovation and ornamentation. And so, Kooser’s welcomed into homes and classrooms as a poet who integrates daily life into elevated thought.
It’s a complicated world and Kooser knows this well so he likes to untie the knot of complexity and see how far it can extend to the reader. He comes from the material he writes — the poetry is from his blood, not from an intellectual debate. The postcard poems to his lost lifelong friend, Jim Harrison, are among my favorites; they stay with me after the book is closed because together they shared a big life — each an original talent exchanging the best of himself.
Kooser once said he had “a happy childhood.” That doesn’t explain everything but it may
contribute to the goodwill in these poems, lasting images, and writing that will not be erased.
(From Winter Morning Walks [100 Postcards to Jim Harrison])
The vernal equinox
How important it must be
that I am alive, and walking,
and that I have written
This morning the sun stood
right at the end of the road
and waited for me.
A great idea begins the book. Esperanza (Hope) Snyder writes a 12-page précis disobeying usual formats, to give us an honest conversation as context for the poems. This fine-grained exposition of a life strongly lived reads with energy lifting the page. Had this not served as intro, the poems might be appreciated as illuminations, but maybe more like fireflies that need a backdrop to be seen exactly.
What strikes me most is that this isn’t a dream journey as with many other poets. It’s a real journey from Columbia, Madrid, Italy, West Virginia — a strange progression you might think but you’ll see Snyder’s storytelling forms as barrages of truth. A poem is only as good as the poet, only as thoughtful, as meaningful. Snyder is an accomplished poet and consummate scholar, speaker of languages, on a constant quest for meaning. This makes up the tumult beneath each poem leveled by spices of earnest emotion.
Page after page, I kept going as if in a fairytale/drama — such an inveterate woman on her own, as child, as young person, as single mother and wife. How she delivers this true hearted passage is completely without self-pity. It’s a strong expressionistic commitment to tell each piece of the puzzle. The sensuality of place, taste, scene and color is a gift from the author and innate in her nature. I’m completely taken with this book, worthy of our best attentions. It’s bold and reaches deeply. Rilke says, “I was seeking who I was…” Snyder has found herself, handsomely, in this collection.
That year, I traveled five thousand years to Tuscany,
to live with a man from Fiesole who sold door handles
to Ferramenta stores. We went to Assisi, San Gimignano,
Milano, Ferrara, drove to Arezzo through cypress trees-lined
roads, saw Petrarch’s home, drank brunello, decanted
and slightly warmed. One weekend in February
we walked along paths on top of city walls
that Ercole d’Este commissioned in Ferrara.
From our hotel balcony I watched a woman bike
along the Po, her legs hidden by fog. I remember
her long hair, red bike handles, torso floating on clouds.
We hadn’t been together centuries, the lying had not
started yet, though I already felt like getting on an eagle
and flying home, except there was no “nest” for me,
not with my mother and her second husband, not
with my first husband and his anger. The lying
had not yet started, but part of me, like the woman
on the bike — felt invisible, polluted like the waters of the Po.
The book has several sections, but it’s section ll that fascinates most. Thirty-nine perfect sonnets of three stanzas with an end couplet. And, oh what she does with that form. The content contains (as form always “contains”) the end of a marriage despite the book’s tentative title. These are not exactly a “crown” of sonnets where the last line of one poem begins the first line of the next; although it’s in the tradition of a single theme spoken to a single person. These poems are some variation, where a word or more is carried from the last line to the next poem — making music without disruption. This is nothing less than a full dramatic monologue with innuendo, philosophy, interior soliloquy. The spectrum of emotions ranges from dispassion, to passion, to acceptance, to inquiry, and disbelief, and more. A lesser poet would have descended into pity but Ford will have none of that when, instead, she can build a home from a kingdom of words to live in and rule magnificently.
My room is small, but not too small —
my room is green, green, succulents and sea,
the green of a peony so red it pinkens
the comb-y light-string I hang now in my room.
Not cavernous and no space to fear:
No dank closet where someone may have died
(or buckled carefully her shoes, then died).
I make my bed every morning.
I don’t know where to start so I start with the bed.
Then I fall to my knees against it.
Without knowing what I’m falling to,
no mind makes it do it, my body just falls.
Cotton. How can book of nearly 90 pages address one word: Cotton. Hinton does, because each poem shows a stain on American history. Cotton becomes the antecedent for anger, the main character in a play; cotton speaks for itself; it’s reviled, described, and chillingly said. There are interviews with cotton, uses, remembrances — but beneath it all are the backs broken under scorching suns for an economy built on that breakage. Hinton lyricizes the mantle of what’s been endured — this element from nature that transformed a world. The true strengths in the writing are fact and fury. And, sadly, what still separates us in this world is cotton — how each of us, with unlikely connections, see the world differently through experience. These poems are words that work for Hinton. Passion and progress make up the only coherence we can hope for. The fabric of the past is a letter to the future, signed by Le Hinton
Uses of Cotton (Eraser)
When my brother tells the story,
he forgets to mention the sock, black
and worn. Mom darned it in three places;
Dad used it as an eraser.
I never leave out the part
about his teaching
us numbers. When to add.
How to subtract.
He set up a blackboard in the back-
yard and wrote problems on it. Even invited
the neighborhood kids. We earned a piece
of candy for each one we got right.
Four and five-year-old black boys
standing at the blackboard doing math
and hoping never to need the eraser,
hoping to taste a Tootsie Roll.
Back then I didn’t know the whole story:
How Mom and Dad sat at the Formica table
in our yellow kitchen as he counted his jobs
and the money from each one while Mom mended
the holes in our socks. We slept upstairs
and never worried or counted sheep
knowing they’d always fix the holes,
at least until we learned to do the math ourselves.
Blue Mistaken for Sky by Andrea Hollander. Autumn House Press. 96 pages.
We hear Hollander through the language she’s mastered. We notice she’s created the best possible titles for her poems — an art where few excel. We love her pathos and the truth of it. Each poem is an entirety, with reverent detail, tailored to hold emotion. The impact is sometimes unwanted, because it ramifies the credibility of the heart; and so it’s not without pain. The dignity of craft provides seamless control. Then there is the integration of sound and movement, color and sight. Some days, I think that hope is such a long way away, and then I read a poet like this — and life is in full gear. The book means so much to me. And will be saved to read again.
The Laws Of Physics
First from the porch, then the driveway
I shouted his name, its single syllable
a stone I believed I could heave
far enough to stop him
as he walked and walked
with that purposeful slowness
I’d come to recognize, his back
a shield against my voice.
At the end of the block he stopped
like that ocean wave in the footage
we’d seen together on TV,
its pinnacle pausing
just before it breaks,
before the wall it has become
swallows the shore, the houses,
and of course the people,
no matter how fast they run.
A stone is denser than water
and I hurled it at his back.
Didn’t I understand
the simplest laws of physics?
Throw a stone at a wave —
at its apex when it looks
most fierce — and the stone
will pass right through.
Enter Water, Swimmer by Mary Morris. Texas Review Press. 100 pages.
Morris’ sweet natural voice has already won her a fan base — fact and reason are turned to compassion and lyric. The impact of her work comes from a lack of adornment and artifice; you can trust every word. How does she do this? By allowing the thought to be the wellspring of language and not the other way around. In this way a pure tone is achieved contrasting itself into form. Morris celebrates existence even with its dangers. She finds the emotional differential to focus on in each situation turning the mere act of living into a matter of success. There are no elaborate outpourings or moral lessons here — just the privilege to pay homage to life under the banner of poetry.
In the Center of Night, the Heart Slips
Out of Its Socket
builds a nest in the solar plexus,
Now and then it dresses up,
ventures out, dances
to the music of vespers
and Latin guitars, or murmurs
with water under a bridge
in an ancient Chinese painting.
Sometimes there’s arrhythmia,
that erratic short circuit of loneliness,
but tonight the heart is an organ of joy,
of love’s circulation, valves opening
for tiny boats of happiness.
The Carrying by Ada Limon. Milkweed Editions. 120 pages.
“A Name:” When Eve walked among/the animals and named them — /Nightingale, red — shouldered hawk, /fiddler crab, fallow deer — /I wonder if she ever wanted/them to speak back, looked into/their wide wonderful eyes and/whispered, Name me, name me.”
Limon names everything in her poems from the red mailbox of suburbia to the satire of dining with funders. This poet can turn any subject into a lively presence — she can symbolize a tattoo to reveal a loving mother and daughter — nature is hers, also, whether it’s the muddy Mississippi or watching goldfinches. These different worlds are channeled into a fusion of voice that carries a distinct and individual force. It couldn’t be imitated for every page is a new picture with a special touch bringing it alive. She can speak of subjects where another would turn it to intellectual debate. But not Limon. The heart, not the head, is at the center of the line, and in the issues, and we can hear it beating.
Not to unravel the intentions of the other —
the slight gesture over the coffee table, a raised
eyebrow at the passing minuscule skirt, a wick
snuffed out at the evening’s end, a sympathetic
nod, a black garbage can rolled out so slowly
he hovers there, outside, alone, a little longer,
the child’s thieving fingers, the face that’s serene
as cornfields, the mouth screwed into a plum,
the way I can’t remember which blue lake
has the whole train underneath its surface,
so now, every blue lake has a whole train
underneath its surface.
The Goldfish Window by Lisa Beech Hartz. Grayson Books. 100 pages.
This book could be taught as an exemplar of ekphrastic poetry. Great paintings from the 19th and 20th century are memorialized in luminous writing with three-dimensional vision. Textures are felt and seen by an extraordinary poet. What Hartz adds is her own empathy, understanding and reverence that heightens the idea behind every work of art. We also have painters in their own words. Take this to the classroom and show them how to do it.
Georgia O’Keefe Recuperates in Bermuda, 1933
Her dreams are rashes of color, a heart
stream of crash and weep. In the pastel
morning she considers the banyan tree, naked
roots reaching. Last year, Camaguey
threatened to take the canopies off all the trees
in the Caribbean, but these are the knitted limbs
a hurricane couldn’t undo. The banyan,
that strangler fig. Ghosted host missing from its center.
Who lives there now? Black rat, feral cat. Soon
she will return to her body. The breezing leaves
are whispering. Soon the forsaken mind
will widen like an eye and the light will steal
its way in again. But for now there is the banyan tree,
the banana flower, the hot pick hibiscus, and in
the violet dusk the staccato sandpipers along the shore —
a bruising seduction back to the living world.
A gorgeous heart wrote this book. An exegesis of children, family, a dying mother, the ongoing wars, but how to make them new? Singleton does with a unique perspective of patience and lingual harmony. The poem “Thanksgiving” is unlike any other holiday poem although there must be thousands by that name, because the poet’s singular view is from her particular wisdom. To be this aware — interior world and outward life — is to be awake.
And the Two Shall Become…
Your tongue a spoon
my hips a cup your
fingers dip my
back an arch my
breast a dune our
legs a vine your
root my bloom my
sap the wine my
thighs a stream
your hands the oar
my throat a grape
your mouth the fox
my cry a pearl
your flesh the lock.
Most Innovative Book:
If you live between countries, you have to make up your own language. Jos Charles is a trans poet and expresses life with words invented to describe both alienation and freedom. “Bieng tran is a unique kinde off organe…/ I am speeching…” (XXIV). Chaucerian in appearance, the altered language, read aloud, still maintains lyric recognition and strong meaning. The story has fierce moments, for instance, with what the world sees and distorts as porn. Being trans is described as being broken horse (brocken hors) as well as horseman (horseman). The poems are about expressing/demonstrating/wishing to speak of experience as truly as possible, even if the only way is to manufacture hieroglyphs that are closer to the soul than the appropriated language that belongs to all.
next inn line
at the feemale
depositrie room / mye
inn a witen sack /
were that i were goldenne
mye rayte / the tayste off gold
inn eggs / cravyng a room
just emtied enuff
2 curl myeself
inn / thees the dreggs / the grl beguines
Punishment by Nancy Miller Gomez. Rattle. 26 pages.
Thank you, Nancy Miller Gomez, for taking us behind bars, for sharing searing stories relayed beyond guards — Lorenzo, we will never forget you — Thank you also, Gomez, for the essays telling how saving lives saved yours. “Growing Apples” in Cell C is reason for all of us to go on. How do we get this book to every appointed official? How do we get this book to everyone?
They used books as weapons.
This is not a metaphor.
Because there were no blankets and they were cold,
the men in cell block L threw books
with intent to do bodily harm.
They rained down from above.
Rained down from the cells.
Guards shielded themselves
with dinner trays and mop buckets.
The men tossed entire libraries. A rage of books.
Lobbed in high arcs like footballs,
or pitched overhand like grenades.
Hardcovers shattered on cheekbones
or exploded on the back of someone’s head.
Paperbacks spiraled down, loose pages fluttering.
Thin ones skipped across the shiny tile like stones on water.
There was mayhem. There was blood.
Words littered the floor. Guards ran for their lives.
The men had spent years collecting —
biographies, mysteries, histories, science fiction,
even poetry books, their spines fine and reedy,
or thick with free verse.
One man threw his grandmother’s leather Bible.
Inside the front cover in elegant script
she’d noted the date and time of his birth.
Now it lay face down, back broken.
Another man hurled his family album.
It fell from the third floor, the photos scattering
on impact. His wife, his son, his daughter
smiled up from the chaos.
“Wild” is funny and sweet. Fick has the gift for saving the finest features from an Italian American family with idiosyncratic and loving details. Epitome loves poetry and Fick knows how to stretch a glide so that writing is vivid and the growing-up experience is indelible.
An inverted triangle settles into place each night,
straight lines linking three divergent points
in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania.
Aunt Adeline, Aunt Bernice and me, each of us
swathed in flannel, each of us slanting back
into our leather recliners, cradling mugs of cocoa,
cider, tea, each of us are aligned with Jeopardy,
primed for the math teacher from Texas,
the musician from Maine, the physicist from Utah,
Evolved, high-speed brains crammed with data.
Not at all like us: scattered spectators angling
our remotes, holding on to what little we know,
making do with small, finite connections.
Ojibwe member Heid E. Erdrich presents 21 poets published after 2000, making this the only anthology of really new Native-American writers. What takes the eye right away is the amount of innovative poetry introduced here. It’s a startling array of every poetic form known, plus some not named yet. The authors’ bios are unintended works of historical significance for these poets wish to name their ground before stamping it with poetry’s pride. We have concrete poetry, language poetry, narrative, poetic prose, anecdotal and lyrical.
Gwen Nell Waterman writes in her own voice (“Theory Doesn’t Live Here”): My grandparents never talked/about theory, decolonization, or/post-colonial this or that./They talked about/good times and bad times./Their self-determination was/not a struggle against/colonialism affecting their/self-imagination./They worked hard to survive./They didn’t imagine themselves/through story./They knew themselves/through the stories they heard/as they sat under the kitchen table/listening to the old people talk./They didn’t need theory/to explain where they came from — /they lived it.
Layli Long Soldier shows every skill in a piece of long line extensions, first saying he doesn’t consider the six-pager “a creative piece” — yet it is, in spite of the disclaimer — describing the story of the Sioux uprising and the subsequent hanging of “The Dakota 38.” This poetic prose is followed by pictorial poems that use the page artfully. I call attention to show the latitude given the poets by their editor; and the merit of the word new poets — not only in chronology and lineage but performance. This book is a Republic of Truth with history via prosody.
Heart Butte, Montana
The unsympathetic wind, how she has evaded me for years now,
leaving a guileless shell and no way to navigate. Once when I stood
on a plateau of earth just at the moment before the dangerous,
jutting peaks converged upon the lilting sway of grasslands, I almost
found a way back. There, the sky, quite possibly all the elements,
caused the rock and soil and vegetation to congregate. Their prayer
was not new and so faint I could hardly discern. Simple remembrances,
like a tiny, syncopated chorus calling everyone home: across
a thousand eastward miles, and what little wind was left at my back.
But I could not move. And then the music was gone.
All that was left were the spring time faces of mountains, gazing down,
their last patches of snow, luminous. I dreamed of becoming snow melt,
gliding down the slope and in to the valley. With the promise,
an assurance, that there is always a way to become bird, tree, water again.
Best Illustrated Books:
I love crows! They’re as smart as our most advanced primates. They can be trained; they judge and assess us; they have great communication skills within their flocks. Caroline Guinzio has done something with her crow love/obsessions. Her words take flight not only releasing information but creating visual works of art with crow “verbiage.” Words swirl and lift and define their space like line drawings. Each page is different in figure and story. It’s entertaining, original and captures how imagination and reality make everything fresh with beautiful black crows. They bring thoughtful moments into our world with an interplay of poetry and art.
Lovebirdman by Stephanie Pressman, illustrations by Lydia Rae Black. CreateSpace. 62 pages.
This is a delightful combination: the present day, fairytale, folklore, and myth. At the heart of the details is a real sensibility and a bit of biography sweetly said — also, fantasy must be tethered in reality to be meaningful. Misery and loss are prevalent in each of our worlds but made better by imagination and a fanciful way of seeing. We’re never too old to wish for the magic garden.
Please send review copies (2018 releases only) to:
Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702
Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now from the Library of Congress. She celebrates 41 years on air. Her newest book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publisher, 2017). Her latest play is “Calico and Lennie” (Theater for the New City, NYC 2017).