August 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

August 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Standoff  by David Rivard. Graywolf Press. 78 pages.

Life in Suspension, La Vie Suspende by Hélène Cardona. salmonpoetry. 105 pages.

Partly: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2015 by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press. 233 pages.

The Stories of My Life by Michael Schmidt. Sheep Meadow Press. 112 pages.

Also Below:

Best Book of Translation, Best Poetry Periodical, and Best Chapbook for Summer reading.

 Standoff  by David Rivard. Graywolf Press. 78 pages.

If you read Standoff you’ll get a porthole into our culture at this time in history — which is like no other time, because no time in history is like any other — and Rivard knows that. In the poem “That Year” (circa 1976) he says his ‘teachers were wrong’ and ends the poem: "there is no code, / no use for the beautiful/ and ornate key they pressed so/ eagerly into my hands.” Well the key works after all. Each poem is alive, nurturing, and rich in spite of (or in addition to) its Rolling Stone tone.

The book changes as we read it. Sometimes we believe we’re in a comfortable position with the past, then the poem veers to an overview of timelessness. Sometimes we’re introduced to a crowd of ideas and then the poem becomes one face in the crowd. Rivard is diverse and eclectic and pretty much master of the surprise. I like very much the title poem which is, by turns, stylish and classical. I would recommend this book to those readers who’re looking for poetry that’s edged up and unleashed, then calmed down with craft. Rivard never loses control although he goes every which way before our very eyes, sometimes with a “poor head sick of duties/assumed at the remote behest of one bureacracy or another…”  Yet, he still manages to come to us with new emotions every time; and a sense of beauty that is forthright and structurally sound. I’m glad with thoughts like these that Rivard didn’t keep them to himself.

Freedom In The Mist

Freedom in the midst of necessity means us
to be less willful than watchful & alert
if following without complaisance the divining rod
of what is given — still, the fallacy of the self
insists that a change is gonna come, change
that lasts, & at home again forever then
this time we will be happy — happy, calm, flawless,
and complete — a mistake, but totally forgivable,
as most day blundering’s the whole human
story — like the terrible fact that you died
in a soft rain, having fallen (accidentally or not)
from the top of those tall soccer field bleachers.
I knew you 20 years, & didn’t, ever.
I like you, then didn’t...or else did & didn’t.
Now friends write me emails of felt regrets
pressing their dismayed & curious ears closer
to your death. What happened? they ask —
a question without an answer — our confusion
confusing itself further — an error that time
will no more reveal the purpose of
than clarify the wishes of your beautiful face —
as they say in the ballads, a curl-framed face.

Life in Suspension, La Vie Suspende by Hélène Cardona. salmonpoetry. 105 pages.

Helene Cardona wrote her poems first in English and then translated them, herself, to French — an ideal way to get an exact replica. The poems are a combination of worldly sophistication and fairytale. Cardona is an actor, and singer as well as writer, and her musical background speaks to how she lays her lines with subsets of rhythm. She chooses words that leave a lingering presence, line to line with a light hand, impressionistic, and yet exact. It’s how a singer knows to choose the right vowels and how to create patterns of sound. Cardona distills minutes and crystallizes images. Sometimes I’m reminded of Leonie Adams in tone and temperature for delicacy of theme; and in speaking to the present moment. Cardona’s poetry feels so far away from today’s rhetoric; there’s absolutely no social consciousness about the affairs of the day. It’s multifaceted with imagery and thought that seem removed from present chaos, and could have been written in another century. This is poetry with layers of complexity made of lace — a magic carpet ride, not like anything else around.


Time Remembered

Do you remember
when you were wolf and I fawn
when you were a fly caught in my web
when you were snake and I bear
remember how we enchanted
each other through centuries
devoured one other
became the other?
Do you remember
when you were eagle and I jaguar
when we were two dolphins kissing
or cougars in the rain
so that now we can’t tell one
from the other, our cells imbedded
in a tapestry of shared lives?

Partly: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2015 by Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press. 233 pages.

Slogans epigrams, prophesies, aphorisms. Rae Armantrout is back in town. She starts with 34 new poems and follows with poems from previous books: Up to Speed, Next Life, Money Shot, Just Saying, Itself. I always liked Money Shot best, and her new poems live up to, and beyond. She plays with text and context. Words are equipment, disassembled and reconstructed to not only make meaning but show processes of meaning. Call it modernism, postmodernism, constructivism, avant-garde, or a mix. What we encounter are minimalistic, fragmentary structures that make the whole by breaking the whole. The narrative is there, it’s just disguised as non-narrative. Let the words flow over you, Armantrout is funny, witty, wise, and philosophical. The book is a selfie of the mind’s kaleidoscope; poetics and diction don’t obscure story and sharp social commentary. Her poems are strategies and techniques that hark back to William Carlos Williams’ idea of building a poem. The page is ordered into cascades of verbiage — vertical conversations that compel you through space — she uses the white page well allowing us to absorb the commentary. There’s no down time. Armantrout builds and unravels at the same time; her mind is alive and animated with a poetry hustle — action-packed — perplexing and profound — nonstop. Grab some. And here’s a razor poem:


The models
in the Gentlemen’s Club ad
are posed
with pink mouths slack,
eyes narrowed
to slits.
Show me stunned resentment —
the way
the world absorbs
an insult
it won’t easily

The Stories of My Life by Michael Schmidt. Sheep Meadow Press. 112 pages.

The more knowledge a poet has, the more knowledgeable the poems. Schmidt’s stories are separated into sections: Twice Told Tales, Secular Poems, Archaeology, and Divine Poems. What he knows best — rich in language and history — is the memory of emotional experiences with Father, with his past, and his substantive loves. There’s a marriage of values throughout these poems of psychology and behavior; and every one, in its way, is a strong narrative, whether about Christ, Henry Adams, or Agatha, a child now in “Heaven.”

I really love the long poem From The Love of Strangers, each line magnifying the strength of the stanza. Schmidt has overtones of European writers, and most noticeably Latin Americans, in the scale of subjects and philosophical approach to imagery. This is a voice that presents itself flawlessly reducing complicated moralities to sweet lyrics. The intellect is always present, but doesn’t overtake the artist who knows ideas are best used in a rainbow of the right words.

Third Persons

If only he hadn’t answered the door when she knocked,
                  The phone when she called,
If when he started to write his most brilliant story
                  He’d expunged her arrival,
Choosing instead to introduce an easier lover
                  Or, in place of marriage, travel...
It’s chilling to witness her coming, her hand on the knocker.
                  He was older, maybe, settled.
She came with tears and charm and magic perhaps.
                  I don’t recall.  Startled
Into a posture of love, and grateful (she was, after all,
                  Young, beautiful),
He embraced her and for a decade, more, let himself believe
                  He loved her, even after
Her eyes turned, and her head, in so many obvious directions
                  And her laughter
Spread like pink blossom over numerous other lawns,
                  Spread deeper and softer,
And blithely she gave herself up to many surprises of love.
                  He could not finish it.
He could not close the poisoned chapter. He could not breathe.
                  He gave her the benefit
Of every single, every single doubt, resisting, yet at last
                  He threw the story out.


Handful of Salt by Kajal Ahmad, translated from the Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Mewas Nahro Said Sofi, Darya Abdul-Karim Ali Najim, and Barbara Goldberg. The Word Works. 103 pages.

Hajal Ahmad is a feminist and that’s not a place of comfort in Kurdistan; and for women anywhere in the Near East. I’d just watched the movie “The Patience Stone” before reading this book so admittedly the ground was softened but I was moved by the strength and flame of the work. Editor Barbara Goldberg’s Preface is essential to enter the land and the heart of Kajal Ahmad. Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse ‘s introduction, plus her essay on translation, connect history and process to poetry. W.S. Merwin says poetry translation is impossible “but we do it anyway.” We thank these editors for their global reach: If we can’t listen to others, how can we expect anyone to hear us?


A Fruit Seller’s Philosophy

My friend, you are an apricot.
I want to taste you, but
not your core.
My old friend, sometimes
you are a tangerine: all on your own,
you get naked. Sometimes an apple,
with skin, without skin, you end up
in my mouth.
You, my neighbor,
are a fruit knife.
Every time our family
sits to eat, there
you are. Forgive me,
I don’t like you.
My dear homeland, you
are a lemon: at your name
the world’s mouth wells up.
Shivers come over me.
Oh, stranger,
you are a watermelon.
Until I dig into your guts with a knife,
I cannot know who you are.


LIPS, 35th Anniversary Edition, edited by Laura Boss. LIPS Press. 95 pages.

Nearly 100 poets are featured in this handsome anniversary issue, and that many poets are published twice a year, in LIPS, since the mid-20th century. If there were a place in Heaven for publishers of poetry periodicals, editor Laura Boss would have a throne, a crown, and a hot tub; but she’d make too big a ruckus because she’d want to bring America’s top poets with her — as she has for years and years.

You Can Only Return to Where You’ve Been

If you paid me a hundred dollars,
Father said, I still wouldn’t read
one of your mother’s historical
romance novels.  If you read one,
you’ve read them all. A man
and a woman meet and fall in love.
The site is at the top of a hill,
where they’re surrounded by nature.
Their families make them break up.
The woman comes from money.
The man comes from nowhere.
Then, the man finds out he did
come from somewhere — he was
a bastard child. He inherits money,
and becomes richer than the woman’s
family. The lovers always return
to the scene of their first kiss.
They fall in love again, and they
marry and live happily ever after.

-        Hal Sirowitz


Bound Stone by Colleen Anderson. FinishingLinePress. 23 pages.

Anderson is a songwriter, visual artist and teacher as well as poet. This collection of love, loss, and nature may sound as if it’s a classic scenario for poems, but instead it’s a new world for these themes and a triumph for authenticity; a fresh voice, a modesty — sensuality in language, alive and awake.


When you love, you open your soul
again and again: a strange, spilling music
you think you hear. But who could believe
it is always there? Every morning,
again and again, a strange, spilling music,
over coffee, in the garden, walking —
it is always there. Every morning,
every night. It is with you now,
over coffee, in the garden. Walking
in the forest, you are no longer afraid.
Every night it is with you. Now
you listen to hear the veery sing its ode
in the forest. You are no longer afraid.
“Listen,” your grandmother says in a dream.
You listen. To hear the veery sing its ode
to grief! You welcome it inside. You
listen. Your grandmother says in a dream,
“When you love, you open your soul
to grief. You welcome it inside you.”
You think you hear. But who could believe?

Grace Cavalieri’s new poetry book is With (Somondoco Press, 2016.) She founded, and still produces, “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now from the Library of Congress, celebrating 39 years on-air.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books 
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Frederick, MD 21702

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