December 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

December 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship by Terese Svoboda. Eyewear Publishing, London. 78 pages.

The Crafty Poet ll: A Portable Workshop, edited by Diane Lockward. Terrapin books. 306 pages

Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November. Orison books. 70 pages.

Companions, Analogies by Brian Swann. Sheep Meadow Press. 105 pages.

Loom by Kevin Gallagher. MadHat Press 91 pages.

PLAINSPEAK, WY, by Joanna Doxey. Platypus Press. 60 pages.

Bringing Back the Bones, New and Selected Poems by Gary Fincke. Stephen F. Austin State University Press. 263 pages.

The Best American Poetry, 2016, guest editor Edward Hirsch; series editor David Lehman. Scribner Poetry. 202 pages.

A Poet’s Dublin: Poems and Photographs by Eavan Boland, edited by Paula Meehan and Jody Allen Randolph. W.W. Norton and Company. 148 pages.

L’HEURE BLEUE: OR, THE JUDY POEMS by Elisa Gabbert. Black Ocean. 86 pages.

To Stay Alive by Skila Brown. Candlewick Press.

Plus: The Best Literary Magazine


Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship by Terese Svoboda. Eyewear Publishing, London. 78 pages.

The Professor’s Air-ship (title poem) is an invention of desire and wish — a description of a relationship — desire and risk — but Svoboda has something no one else has to add to the book’s adventure — each poem a nasty woman cocktail that’s the best thing you’ll ever drink. Her multidimensional narrative is invigorated by lines set on edge, wordplay, carried and mannered, leading to a textilian space, her space — so rich with spit and wit and poetic rationale. How does she do it? First, self-awareness, then throw that away, and follow impulse — then find something meaningful to share about people versus people; and why it’s suddenly remembered differently from anything remembered before. You have to know that poetry is the way we defend ourselves, and Svoboda’s brilliant defenses surprise us as they become intimate relationships into her poems. She can’t keep us at arms-length because we breathe with our brains to understand her syntax and tactics. We don’t believe our eyes. Yes, this is a contraption alright, about relationships — a flying steam air-ship never seen before, perhaps the first thing imagined like this, made with the precision of a Bach partita. This thing will fly.


I bite instead and she needs salt,
a little more time on the grill.
Young men are coming,
they’ll want her.

Her head is an oyster
turned out of a shell.
She needs her rocks,
and wave after wave.

Dumbstruck, I crest
but her claws position me,
ready for the knife. But who
holds the light?

The young man laugh.
It’s a game, it’s fun, it’s every day.
I run across the beach,
a toll at last tolling.

Gulls rise with her eyes,
They shriek, night
iced under their wings,
its salt falling.


The Crafty Poet ll: A Portable Workshop, edited by Diane Lockward. Terrapin books. 306 pages.

Editor Lockward is crafty to produce a sequel to the original (The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop.) She knows the score, so we shouldn’t be surprised that she’s assembled 65 stellar poets to each give a poem — good move — pick the best. Then each poem contains an explication and a literal level of the piece, pointing to some particulars, and specific poetic tools; and, finally, “a prompt” to write a poem of your own. The contents of the book cover: revising, entryways into poems, choosing the right words, syntax, line spacing, enhancing sound, etc. — all the necessary stuff — but what interests me most is the individual way each poet presents his/her poetic instruments, and how cleverly the writing tips are annexed. Each writer could almost be seen to be answering the same question: whether the language solves the issue raised by the poem. Now that the power of poetry is a natural — not only academic — cultural reference in America, it’s the general public who deserves to have this book. It’s right on time to win hearts and minds of readers because it’s clear, smart and damn interesting. Let’s not hide it in the classroom when all literate readers deserve to see how to change emotional ideas to words.

Elegy for my husband

            Bruce Derricotte, June 22, 1928-June 21, 2011

What was there is no longer there:
Not the blood running its wires of flame through the whole length
Not the memories, the texts written in the language of the flat hills
No, not the memories, the porch swing and the father crying
The genteel and elegant aunt bleeding out on the highway
(Too black for the white ambulance to pick up)
Who had sent back lacquered plates from China
Who had given away her best ivory comb that one time she was angry
Not the muscles, the ones the white girls longed to touch
But must not (for your mother warned
You would be lynched in that all-white town you grew up in)
Not the same town where you were the only, the only good black boy
All that is gone
Not the muscles running, the baseball flying into your mitt
Not the hand that laid itself over my heart and saved me
Not the eyes that held the long gold tunnel I believed in
Not the restrained hand in love and in anger
Not the holding back
Not the taut holding


Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November. Orison books. 70 pages.

Not since Leffler’s Dryad Press editions have I seen such a significant Jewish-themed book that becomes universal with its reverent specificity. There’s down to earth wisdom and sweet homilies at the center. This is how November sees the world with beautiful references to his faith, family, children. He keeps the fire burning in us when the world news seems brutally cold. The power of story is nothing if not combined with an understanding of what is unknown, and then the wish to make that an essential experience unveiled, for the reader. November holds his own voice with simplicity and melody — he’s not professing — he’s not persuading — he uses his theistic beliefs to capture the spirit of the spirit, and he makes the difficult sound easy. Poets who begin with vital convictions make important verbal commitments; and to that, add the warmth of this poet’s voice.

Falling From the Sky

When we found out our daughter had gone deaf,
I did not question God’s fairness —
not out of faith
but because
my whole life
it had always seemed
that at the next moment
terrible news would fall from the sky —
as punishment, perhaps, for a particular transgression
but more likely
whatever you think could never happen —
must happen.
And in this way,
you know clearly
there is a world you do not see.


Companions, Analogies by Brian Swann. Sheep Meadow Press. 105 pages.

We can almost hear the images in Swann’s work — visuals so perfectly wed to sound. He’s a sensualist made all the better with his perfectly choreographed stanzas — couplets, tercets, narratives. This is the hand of a poet that lines reality with experience, because highly textured writing is a dynamic accomplishment, not for the “Sunday painter.” Swann telescopes life, whether cleaning out his mother-in-law’s kitchen, or brushing the suede of an inherited coat. Especially moving is the long poem “She Lies beside Me” about the impermanence, and mysteries, of relationships. Swann can do anything: take us traveling to countries in a brand new register; he can retool the past to the movement of a Sonata. Each poem is an emotional response made better by the range and scale of his expertise. These responses to life are impeccably written.


In the fjord town, bells from the wooden church
strike sometimes before, sometimes after,
sometimes even on the hour.
                                                A few days ago
I found a beat-up alarm clock on the street and stuck it
in my sock drawer where it erupts at random.
                                                                        Now I watch
drops gather along the lintel, plump up, fall and shatter at
an even pace. Through the cold mist I can just make out
the statue that has never been identified satisfactorily,
feet and hands gone. Pigeons fly on and off, on and off.

I call him Olaf.
                        Sometimes, writing at my desk, the room
fills with scent out of nowhere, rich as a Gobelin tapestry,
a Tallis motet. The place lightens like the time I stood
in Sicily, midwinter, alone above a nameless empty valley,
thinking summer, trees, and “limoni” I said. Slowly the word
suffused the air saffron as the sun that broke through, spilled
out, filling the valley, everything, with no time.


Loom by Kevin Gallagher. MadHat Press 91 pages.

Slavery and the U.S. economy are not an expected combination of terms. This book shows how New England exploited cotton as a central character with the “lords of the lash” (slavery) and “lords of the loom” (mercantilism). These narratives by white Americans focus on New England and especially the Boston area. In 1854, new states were allowed to vote pro-slavery. Immediately, there was a riot in Boston Harbor with abolitionists trying to rescue an escaped slave. The book’s preface states this was “pivotal to the course of American history.” Gallagher is a political economist and a professor of Global Studies at Boston University; yet this book was written by a poet gifted also as historian. Enhanced by original posters, portraits and illustrations, history is spoken in plain voices with poetic hypertension making larger points, correlating human tragedy and economic interests in New England. Incidents, factually reported, could be as boring as dirt, but Gallagher’s unblinking recitations are something we can’t turn from. A poem is usually a text with a meaning to be discerned; a poem can also be a central factor in delivering emotional information with accuracy and excitement. And although the acquisition of power will always be a source of drama, Gallagher manages poems with apparent simplicity. JFK was quoted as saying, “When power corrupts, poetry cleans.” This seems especially appropriate for this high-voltage history written in the natural tones of human speech. The skill-set of an economist, poet, and humanist cannot be understated. Here’s the soul of our country in the 19th century and the heart of its citizens brought together in an important historic epic.

Thomas Sims
            to the Boston Committee for Vigilance and Safety, 1851

As I was stabbing everyone I could
I screamed ‘I’m in the hands of kidnappers!’

Slave hunters snuck up behind my back.
I had no time to even think to run.

I will not be allowed to speak in court.
I go back if they prove I was a slave!

Edward Barnette said he saw me when I
dressed as a sailor at a blow-out ball,

and that is all it takes to send me South.
Southern planters possess some wizard art

unknown to the demons of former times.
You ask me to jump out of my window

and join the airy whirl of the free world.
Let the heavens weep and hell be merry!


PLAINSPEAK, WY, by Joanna Doxey. Platypus Press, England. 60 pages.

This is an exquisite book — eco-conscious, heart-conscious, page-conscious; an elegance of thought, art, distributed on the page. Is it magic or real life, this love of ice and land? But no — it’s about loneliness and change. From “A Forgetting”: “We are all misremembrance…” That poem’s about forgetting orange juice at the supermarket, but it’s really about the “grey through birch/ and sky.” Doxey writes the verbiage of echoes and memory: “I am really into the word sorrow. /So I have lost sight of it…” (The Etymology of Sorr(y) now.) I misread “sorrow” at first and thought she wrote “snow” not sorrow — and maybe she meant that, after all, because it’s all the same to her — the wind and forest are within her, forms of being. Her words are carried like the first and last flowers of the season to some dream of a grave that turns into a sky.

I fracture again.
Words are sacred to me and you take love away, leaving a husk of a
word. Within three weeks of depositing you in flat land and you fall
in love with a much younger woman. I tell you, as you leave me
between states — your voice so distant and close like sleep — that I
had never used the word “love” before. I wonder if, like the name
Glacier National Park, love would always stand for something that
had moved through it and disappeared. Would love always erode
into empty?


Ah, Men: New and Selected Poems by Nancy Scott. Aldrich Press. 106 pages

Nancy Scott is a favorite of mine, maybe it’s because she comes from my era — fringe bags, Al Hirt, Korean War, Vietnam War, Trenton High (my old alma mater). But I think it’s more than that: she’s funny and sad, and as the hip-hoppers say she keeps it real. That means, in any language, making art about your own (emotional) neighborhood.

This book is a parade of the males from her life — the entanglements — father, professors, husbands, sailors, lovers, sons, acquaintances; a journey perhaps fictionalized by poetry but one you won’t leave. You don’t have to read far to see Scott’s speaker is an adventurer who trusted man to be heroes and then puzzled it out from there. Also she liked men. What a concept! And she broadens their appeal with bold rumped up stories that add up to a novella. This book is an epic-scale-boyfriend-history with language of energy; each poem arched into a tiny drama. Some poets write beyond themselves, attributing their inspiration to the stars. Scott raises the standard by truth telling, making each poem a defining experience with her male mega-matter. Every page turned, I promise, you can expect good things to happen, even when memory rotates otherwise. Ah, Men. (AMEN, SISTER!)

That Other One

after Borges

Oh, days spent at the computer, typing emails
and reading incoming text that test the patience
of a single woman from the suburbs of Chicago
to whom time and lack of exercise have given
a body heft no man will find seductive
and a bad back and bad feet which limit mobility
and advancing age, a step closer to indignity
and love of young children and Afghan rugs
and practice of weaving long narratives
and Victoria silver with mother-of-pearl handles
and a lifelong nostalgia for England and Wales
and loss of memory for where things are stashed
and serendipity of finding old draft
and embracing the fiction as if it just happened
and white pear blossoms which flutter like snow
and cynicism for those clinging to God who has
never shown much heart for the poor
and politics of others who could care but don’t
and every year that catches us by surprise
and that worst of all habits — New Jersey
and heat of tandoori masala and habaneros
and homemade apple strudel so delectable
and a baby’s curl and an old wedding photo
and that an evening where the temperature
dips to zero be given over to such as this.


Bringing Back the Bones, New and Selected Poems by Gary Fincke. Stephen F. Austin State University Press. 263 pages.

I’ve been following Gary Fincke’s work for years, and now we have much of it all in one place, from 1998 to present day — poetry, that is, because Fincke is, elsewhere, a distinguished writer of fiction and nonfiction. Fincke’s personal concerns are human concerns. His creative practice, from “real life” — plus acts of his imagination — is the very bloodstream of America — from Civil War memorabilia to a strip club called “Climax” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We get to know the Speaker’s children as poetry’s desire to explain our intricacies; and the personal nature of momentary realizations. Minor anecdotes, in his hand, become theoretical and cultural narratives with unexpected refinements and exactitude. It’s not easy to describe Fincke’s unique qualities, but let me try by saying that he can crystallize the moment and expand its focus both at once. Also apparent, his sensibilities are visibly shown and viscerally felt, explaining where he’s been and where he’s going. There are always two things going on with Fincke: an undercurrent of a sorrow /joy mix; and then, on-the-ground-evidence/details: life crucially lived. These poems are impressive, because there has to be at least one topic of interest for any reader of poetry; it’s all from our own flesh and blood. This book is a milestone in poetry and in a writer’s practice.

The Fathers I Could See from my Room

The father who lifted sample cases from his car,
The father who carried a briefcase full of grief,
The father who tallied the pros and cons of spending —
What did they do in those offices where nothing
Was built, no customers to please? What changed
By their leaving early, by their sickness, retirement,
Or death? We had move to where one father mowed
His lawn in white shirt and tie; we’d left behind
The street of fathers who entered factories
And mills at seven or three or eleven.
I knew what they did because they detailed it drunk
On weekends when the world could wait for the things
It wanted. When Sputnik circled the planet,
When the Communists made something we couldn’t buy,
We watched, on the news, the melancholy arc
Of America’s latest failed rocket. The fathers
Who wore suits kept doing the work that makes nothing,
And one of them, while I slept over with his son,
Brought betrayal home at midnight, what we shouldn’t hear
About faithlessness. Below us, in the driveway,
His Lincoln looked like it spent all day in an office,
Like a woman had starched and ironed it. That father
Let his wife talk herself into leaving. My friend
Propped himself so long on his elbows I wanted
Something like mumbles to squeeze under the door,
Sounds so simple they could turn into regret.


The Best American Poetry, 2016, guest editor Edward Hirsch; series editor David Lehman. Scribner Poetry. 202 pages.

Edward Hirsch is the guest editor of these 75 poets, I think 75, I kept counting differently each time — Hirsch is a premier American poet, much loved; the series editor, David Lehman, is also a popular poet, as well as an esteemed social critic. So we’re off to a good start. Each editor wrote substantial remarks that are worthy essays. Lehman writes, “We who work on The Best American Poetry mean to honor the great poems of the past even as we celebrate the vitality of verse in our time.” Hirsch writes, “The commitment to the individual voice, an unauthorized testimony, an eccentric viewpoint, is still one of the things I value most about American poetry.”

Usually in any single author’s book of poems, I can count about eight poems I’d read again and again. Now I have the “best” culled for me. We can open to any page, and get a good poem. Start in the middle of the book, and see how a poem is entered, beautifully, in Thomas Lux‘s (“Ode While Awaiting Execution”). He begins, “Into the mute and blue /green marble mailbox my dust deserves to go, /though not for that which I’m going.”

Toward the front of the book, take comfort in Emily Fragos’ writing (“The Sadness of Clothes”): “When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived/their usefulness and cannot get warm and full. /You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back// as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket…”

Joseph Chapman and Laura Eve Engel make a poem by listing (“32 fantasy Football Teams”):  1. The Grackles/2.the Receivers Not Taken/3.A Season in Hell/… 26. First and Tender Buttons/27. The White Chickens.”

Major Jackson’s lyrical traditional (“Aubade”) ends, “… then let drop your sarong,/the wind high on your skin,/so we can test all day long/the notion of original sin.”

Suji Kwock Kim writes a poem epigraphed for Kang, /born in North Korea. (“Return of the Native”): “Better not to have been born/ than to survive everyone you loved //there’s no one left of those who lived once here, /no one to accuse you, no one to forgive you And then he ends, “…We hate you//because you survived. No. We hate you/ because you escaped.”

Anya Silver knits a fairy tale and a female hero to a cautionary tale: (“Maid Maleen”): “After seven years of damp walls, entombed, no more food,/ she and her servant knife their way through the stone tower./…”Eventually, the tale will be made right again…” “Rip out the last pages.” “…Once the smoke’s in one’s lungs, / it remains forever. The charred trees. The murdered bodies.”

A terrific feature of the book is that each contributor comments on his/her piece, with the bio. This annual collection has been produced since 1988. Four poets who’ve recently died are memorialized in this year’s edition: Claudia Emerson, C.K. Williams, Philip Levine, James Tate. It’s a perfect text to teach the breadth of the art at this time. Here’s a poem by Michael Collier:

Last Morning with Steve Orlen

“Last night I wrote a Russian novel or maybe it was English.
Either way, it was long and boring. My wife’s laughter
might tell you which it was, and when she stops,
when she’s not laughing, let’s talk about the plot,
and its many colors. The blue that hovered in the door
where the lovers held each other but didn’t kiss.
The red that by mistake rose in the sky with the moon,
and the moon-colored sun that wouldn’t leave the sky.
All night I kept writing it down, each word arranged
in my mouth, but now, as you see, I’m flirting
with my wife. I’m making her laugh. She’s twenty.
I’m twenty-five, just as we were when we might, just
as we have always been, except for last night’s novel,
Russian or English, with its shimmering curtain of color,
an unfading show of Northern Lights, what you, you asshole,
might call Aurora Borealis.
So sit down on the bed with my wife and me.
Faithful amanuensis, you can write down my last words,
not that they’re great but maybe they are.
You wouldn’t know. You’re Aurora Borealis.
But my wife is laughing and you’re laughing too.
Just as we were at the beginning, just as we are at the end.”


A Poet’s Dublin: Poems and Photographs by Eavan Boland, edited by Paula Meehan and Jody Allen Randolph. W.W. Norton and Company. 148 pages.

One of Ireland’s premier poets defines the city of Dublin in duo: Boland’s own poetry, with photographs by Boland’s own camera. It’s a documentary in black and white, capped by an interpersonal dialogue between poet (co-editor) Paula Meehan and Eavan Boland. Their conversation prosecutes the city’s past: its class system; political and cultural history; “the shifting ground” of women poets; a look at the 1960’s and “countercultural energies.” Always, we have the ongoing struggles with poets and artists attempting to show and tell their stories, connecting the tissue between cities and suburbs. The women share memories of literary legends: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Louis MacNeice, etc. But more than anything, the interchange at the book’s conclusion is about human-expression and the expression of monuments — the communion of literature and place. Dublin is restored by these poetry-plotters with their imagistic comments and personal discourse. No college lectern could offer as equal a tone of clarity and credibility as their shared history. The Boland poems and her city photography invest in what advances us as people. Poetry, like a city, is not transformed by trends. With a proportion of poetry to picture, history is interpreted through Bolan’s words, but walking it is her ground game.

The Long Evenings of Their Leave-Takings

My mother was married by the water.
She wore a grey coat and a winter rose.

She said her vows beside a cold seam of the Irish coast.

She said her vows near the shore where
the emigrants set down their consonantal n:

on afternoon, on the end of everything, at the start of ever.

Yellow vestments took in light
a chalice hid underneath its veil.

Her hands were full of calla and cold weathers lilies.

The mail packet dropped anchor.
A black-headed gull swerved across the harbour.

Icy promises rose beside a cross-hatch of ocean and horizon.

I am waiting for the words of the service. I am waiting for
keep thee only and all my earthly.

All I hear is an afternoon’s worth of never.


L’HEURE BLEUE: OR, THE JUDY POEMS by Elisa Gabbert. Black Ocean. 86 pages.

This is a pretty book. That’s not to trivialize. There’s something to be said about a beautifully designed cover and nice paper in your hands. The history of these poems is fascinating: A group of friends gather to read and discuss an original play, once every year; a “play” that finds it wants to be a book of poems. Why not? The characters are already there — the relationships — the struggles — the wanting. Let’s put them on the page and let them slug it out. There’s nothing wrong with simplicity and wisdom. Modesty too, in these aching and mystified thoughts.

I knew he would go.

And then, one day, he went.
In a way, nothing’s changed.

There is no risk now
of repeating myself.
In fact I prefer it.

My friends keep talking about
some celebrity death,
a controversial writer.
I can’t hide my jealousy.

All my life I’ve had this perverse
desire for what I don’t want —
I think of the worst alternative
and then wish for it.

Things have to pass through
the present to get to the past,
where they can be cherished.


To Stay Alive by Skila Brown. Candlewick Press. 275 pages.

Brown is best known for her Latino literature; and now comes this novella-in-verse designed for the young reader, but satisfying, as well, for any other. “Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Family” is part of its title, a book based on fact: the story of Mary Ann and her family of 12 others, leaving their Illinois home in 1846, traveling 1,700 miles in hopes of reaching California. In November, a snowstorm assails the travelers, lasting for days, far from the destination. Our hero sets out with others in snow shoes going or help. Thirty two days later one party member is found. But that’s not the story’s end, and it’s not the depth of it. Girl heroes were not the substance of our country’s history books when I was young, and yet there were many. Physical endurance and acts of bravery were attributed, idealistically, to young men who were, we thought, put on earth to save us. This is a gorgeously told story with character, plot, cadence and intelligence. In the comfort of our homes, the hardship of dreams and death is chillingly real. But before that, there is humor, detail, humanity and warmth.


Baby Harriet has
a cough — small, constant. She sleeps more than
she should.
Amanda asks Mother what to do,
Mother says, “Vinegar
would be good,”        but it’s all gone,
no one has any at all.

So they get some snow, boil it
all day, boil it down until it’s just a bit of water,
hoping it will become stronger,       powerful,
so they can make her drink some once it cools.

We all spend the day
the water
boil away.


Best Literary Magazine

The Bitter Oleander, edited by Paul B Roth. The Bitter Oleander Press. 125 pages.

Always a pleasure to see this magazine with its repeat standard-bearers like Alan Britt, Rob Cook, Ray Gonzales, et al. Katherine Sáchez Espano is the centerpiece this time, with an in-depth interview and 18 startling poems — a mini chapbook — where we get a totality, not a hint, of her talent. 31 poets featured — a month’s worth — one day at a time just for the invigoration of it.

The Fiancée

In tuxedos, roaches sort through my closet,
tossing sweaters with tags still attached
in the Goodwill bag.

A roach tries on
my wedding gown, fabric
billowing like rain clouds, informs me
I’m fat. I see
my pant seams divorcing.

All night the roaches have gathered in my living room, dancing
with scissors. My long hair
plummets. The roaches collect it

in a photograph album,
then dye my scalp black.
We celebrate the purity of my uncut toenails.
Drinking champagne, the roaches
promise to marry me

to myself. I admire the muscles I build
holding the trash can. The roaches vomit
my hopes, each one a preserved rose.


[Editor’s note: Review copies should be sent to the Washington Independent Review of Books, 7029 Ridge Road, Frederick, MD 21702.]

Grace Cavalieri founded and produces “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, celebrating 39 years on air, and now recorded at the Library of Congress. Her latest book of poems is With (Somondoco Press, 2016).

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