December 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

December 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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Augury by Eric Pankey. Milkweed Editions. 80 pages

Currents by Bojan Louis. BkMk Press. 58 pages.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter. Grove Press. 134 pages.

Whiteout by Jessica Goodfellow. University of Alaska press. 62 pages.

A Good Cry by Nikki Giovanni. William Morrow/HarperCollins. 111 pages.

Storm for the Living and the Dead by Charles Bukowski, edited by Abel Debritto. HarperCollins. 259 pages.

Further Center, Poems 1970-1998 by Yoko Danno, introduction by Gary Snyder. The IKUTA Press. 195 pages.

Plus: Best Translations, Best Literary Journal, Best Chapbook, Best Mixed Genre, and Best Gift Book.


Augury by Eric Pankey. Milkweed Editions. 80 pages.

Pankey repurposes life with each poem. Every word counts because he’s interested in textual truths — the bone, the rust, the heart. He’s an alchemist, for sure, as he sees the inner life of a prairie rattler, the rhinoceros beetle, dust, light, “a vine as it let go a wire.” How can this man see it all unless he sees through it all? This is a fine-grained view of our life’s landscape and Pankey walks among the gardens as if he can’t believe his eyes and will never believe its loss. This is pure strong writing with themes that fan out from the simplest edges of sight. The poet must dismantle before he can yield the benefits of everything coming together. The optical is his gateway. The image leads to the philosophical. A favorite poem in the book is this.


Like a fish trap woven from grasses,

It allows passage of the element

In which it is suspended.


Like the light at Lascaux,

It is transparent

And dissolves as salt does on the tongue.


A fragile filament of graphite

Or three Columbine seeds

Or a dime would tip the scales.


Rolled between your fingers,

It crumbles like a dried sage leaf

To fragrant dust wind disperses.


You wonder how such a small thing,

Removed as if a mote from your eye,

Could have caused such irritation.


Held in your palm, it is a smidgen,

And iota, a whit, nothing

A tear could not wash away.


Currents by Bojan Louis. BkMk Press. 58 pages.

Reading this is like the first time you heard Bach. That’s what you feel about its dark precision and oceans of meaning. This is when you recognize that beautiful is different from what we thought it was before. There are personal currents here, geological, and interrelational, all to tell one story. There are also some hard scrabble disclosures, where even the geography and weather disobey comfort and spirit. Yet, as Bojan says in the intro, he was “pulled out of concussion and darkness.” The result is good news for the future of poetry. Each time our troubles and cynicism threaten custody of the world, Bojan calls them out — redeeming — lifting to language.

xipe totec

I’m no cairn vulture’s circle.

Could say

I straddle birth and passing.


Bleeding men are what grow

the harvests for me — for you, with you.


Some, they scream and cry.

Drink Christ’s

blood. In frenzy, all forget


that the reason His life split

across begat

after begat was remembrance


of your pitiful life: sorry-ass sins.

Only earth

is more important than me — greater yet


than you and Him. An entity for war,

celebration of

the judged, enemy, and heathen.


The celebration’s a fraud, in the

pure and holy

sense. Look at the crowd.


I’m the small man whose wise kin

is missing;

a shawl warming an old woman;


the prayer, the prayed-to; the offering

and the offered;

the bent back and the harvest.


The End We Start From by Megan Hunter. Grove Press. 134 pages.

A curiously engaging book — not quite prose — not quite poetry — aphoristic, filled with plot, pathos, and psychological action. The story is about London being flooded while a young woman is giving birth to her first baby. They must seek safety as they move to unknown territories as immigrants in strange climates with dour circumstances. Yet the baby thrives. The nomadic experience, testing survival, is told in couplets and tercets, intercut with sections from mythological and religious texts. The layering works — in fact it’s essential to change a novella- in-verse to a testament about our universal vulnerabilities. The range and power of the story states a case for endurance.…

I am eating lime jelly with the boy in the crook of my

arm when I hear.


His hands circle in tiny, victorious fists. I feel that I could,

all things considered, conquer the world.


The news on the hour, 14th June, one o’clock. Tina Murphy

reporting. An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable.

A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast,

their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names

of children. Ours.


Whiteout by Jessica Goodfellow. University of Alaska Press. 62 pages.

What a voice. What a story. Goodfellow lost her uncle with six other mountain climbers in the Denali: “the uncovered body, the unknowable final story.” Yet Goodfellow won’t stand for death by anonymity. She recreates, dreams, memorializes and ritualizes the preparations, ascent, and decimation. Those present in the book are family members in grief, written with unpretentious honesty and intimacy. On an ideal day, climbers can reach their height. On an ideal day, poets can create a world that fills in the blanks, and includes the data that can only be imagined to bring home the dead. Every page intrigues us with new forms and new narratives. This is more a reverence to risk than to destruction. Goodfellow writes with singularity about a one-only-story. If death goes to heaven, these poems encapsulate hymns of accompaniment.


Either he burrowed under a skin of snow

that turned out to be the arch

of the foot of the storm.


Or the storm lulled, so he went for help,

stepping through the iced-over

skylight of the underworld.


Or he was wind-snapped like a bedsheet

on a clothesline, then loosed, then tossed.

Later his sleeping bag was found wrapped


around a pole like a seahorse, tail grasping at eel grass,

limbless against the current. Tatsu no otoshigo

that creature’s called in Japanese —


child dropped by a dragon.


A Good Cry by Nikki Giovanni. William Morrow/HarperCollins. 111 pages.

While making notes, I wrote the first line by accident, to say A God Cry. That works too. Is there anyone who does not know and respect this veteran world-class performer? And who has not seen any of her books throughout the years? Poetry, prose, essays, children’s books? Here’s what I like: Giovanni takes passionate beliefs and smooths them down to silky paths. She doesn’t go for fireworks. She prefers to tend the embers. Giovanni contours family, friends, her daily living, her loves, her race; and an extended devoted connection to the late poet Maya Angelou. She beautifies the dead with memory and memorializes simple acts of humble origins. What this poet is telling us is that the heart is a clock and every minute there’s something to appreciate. She captures this with a colloquialism that makes us feel we’re sitting at the kitchen table with a memory maker — whether in direct address or journal like entries, or poetic prose, she says this is my nation state of poetry — right here in my kitchen.

Summer Storms

The clouds

like my Grandmother

carry a load

they can no longer



Grandmother sang “Pass Me Not

O Gentle Savior”

The clouds though


their lightning and thunder


There are those who say

We should run

inside from the storm


But that would be

like leaving Grandmother

at the kitchen table

alone and sad


As she thinks

of her daughters


And it rains


Storm for the Living and the Dead by Charles Bukowski, edited by Abel Debritto. HarperCollins. 259 pages.

Bukowski was a pedal-to-the-metal poet, writing 45 books, five previously edited posthumously by the intrepid Abel Debritto. Now a sixth — who knew there were this many previously unpublished documents? And this is no disappointment as it’s a rollicking ruthlessly original possessed set of poems. Bukowski writes from the back of the heart. He comes on as a tough criminal in the meadows of poetry; yet, don’t underestimate this grumpy giant. His trained eye, and the width and depth of his experience, says: you’re gonna feel it whether you want to or not. He writes the way he lived — seemingly recklessly and driven by excessive appetites. But how much of this writing is alter ego, and how much autobiography? In truth, Bukowski enjoyed a felicitous long-lasting relationship with Linda Lee Bukowski, who made this collection possible. Nevertheless, he continues to wow the crowd with his epitomized personality and writing of authenticity and swagger. The sweet part of him shows up in his line drawings which are another kind of voice. He was a complex guy. He may be a case study but he’s a fearless writer.

1/2/93 8:43 PM


Dear New York Quarterly:

I am a native Albino who lives with a mother with a wooden

leg and a father who shoots up. I have a parrot, Cagney, who

says, “Yankee Doodle Dandy!” each time he excretes, which is

4 or 5 times a day. I once saw J.D. Salinger. Enclosed are my

Flying Saucer Poems. I have an 18-year old sister with a body

like you’ve never seen. Nude photos enclosed. In case my

poems are rejected, these photos are to be returned. In case of

acceptance, I or my sister can be reached at 642-696-6969.

 sincerely yours,

 Byron Keats


Further Center, Poems 1970-1998 by Yoko Danno, introduction by Gary Snyder. The IKUTA Press. 195 pages.

In 1993, a version of this book titled “Heading for a Further Center” was ready for production; but was stayed by the publisher’s problems. Now the manuscript is retrieved and updated. Yoko Danno, already gifted in her native language, chooses to write poetry in English as this allows her a more frank and honest conversation without traditional codifications. She has English braided as if every thread were common to her blood. Japanese, then, is a sub story of sorts as we can imagine her process of thought and transformation. The image must first be imagined before its supposed alternatives. Yoko Danno uses all elements of the natural world to make meanings that radiate outward to wind inward — appearances are reverently described but have seminal meanings. As we read more and more, the spare landscapes become radiant and rich. I’m describing the way spirit is — how it appears as tree, wind, water, and becomes the essence of thought and feeling.

Beginning with a monoculture, Danno’s work becomes a prism with Japanese worlds translated to English perceptions. She demonstrates how we struggle to understand each other; and to do this she must set her native Japanese language free. I love the flow of her flow, her well-crafted tercets, her experimentation with dialogue and other forms. Most of all: each page, each stanza is a consequence of esthetic space and thought. The Japanese landscape with its emotional resonances become a restoration from classicism to modernism.

(Part 1 of a 10-page poem, “Psychosphere.”)


a castle, a mirage, offshore

in the simmering air

on the sizzling waves

that crash, splash, on rocks


a pair of crows flying

over the wet sands

the deep prints of wheels

run parallel to the sky


the sea endlessly rolling

echoes back the harsh

cries; as the sun rises

flickering loopholes


in the stone wall without

an entrance evaporate

as in a dream within

a dream fading away


at awakening moments

a dayfly quivers diffusing

light on the white gravel

of the drained valley


Best Literary Journal for December:

The Bitter Oleander, edited by Paul B. Roth. 123 pages.

Where does Roth find these poets of national and international interest? I would never know of their existence if it weren’t for his dogged perseverance and passionate inquiries. There’s a fascinating 12-page interview (plus 21 poems) from Santa Fe poet Christian Gholson, more evidence of the editor’s ability to drill down until he hits gold. Other poets add to Roth’s poetry capital, altogether, making a bigger message. ALAN BRITT WRITES:


(For Caden the cat)

Like a midnight Sphinx moth, if I had tangerine rings

dusting bamboo sunsets as I entered the pheromones

of carport light, what a paradise — my birth canal to

another dimension — I’d swim one awkward universe

to another, all the while stuffing my gills with temporal

 pine scent from one stubborn dimension to another.


If I had time, inexpensive rip-off designer watch

time, as it were, if I had time, I’d find my way to you.


But time is temporal, fleeting at best, infinite at worst,

time measured by feline emotions as your smoky

tail flicks my forehead forcing ashes inside my ear.


& I know you already know this madness that many

consider nonsense since I taste your heretical dreams

as though they were my own.


Best Chapbook:

Harvesting Sunflowers by Dulce Maria Menendez. Goss 183 Publishing House. 22 pages.

Dulce, to many in the art world, is known as Didi — in my opinion the leading curator of 21st-century art. But the poet often stays home while the presenter is displaying others. That’s why this sweet, strong, honest bunch of sunflowers is a pleasure and satisfaction to see published. Sunflowers are tough and they prevail. These poems don’t waste time with artifice, cajoling, persuading, or manipulation, they prefer the arrow-in-the-heart school of writing. In this age of overabundance, this 22-page book shows us that complexity of experience influences us best when using poetry’s highest calling, simplicity.


I used to dance the discos in Miami.

Now I ride my bike down the blocks of the Midwest.

I pass the good ole boy’s house with the confederate flag.

I look the other way to the playground with children playing.

The sun is hitting my eyes and my photochromic lenses turn black.

I turn around the golf course but it is too hot for the bankers, insurance

salesmen and brokers. Cars are filling up the local dive as I turn past to

the houses with recently mowed lawns and the buzz of air conditioners

while the scent of lilacs still lingers in the air, my headphones filled with

Spotify 1970’s stream starts to play Van Morison’s Moondance.

I start to bop my head like those little dogs in the back of Low Riders cruising

down Sepulveda Boulevard and I am back in Hollywood High as I sit across

the cutest boy in class and Mrs. Baxter is talking about syntax and I remember

how rejection pierced through my heart and although

the pang is a long distant ache, I continue back to my little

house filled with recently watered sunflowers as my

dog wags its tail when I open the door.


Best Mixed-Genre Book:

To Start With, Feel Fortunate by Peter Meinke. William Meredith Award for Poetry. Illustrations by Jeanne Clark Meinke. Poets’ Choice Press. 361 pages.

Meinke is Poet Laureate of Florida. He’s also an essayist, showing that the best of prose is when written by a poet. I saw the book as “The Poets’ Notebook” long before I found this was the considered subtitle for the book. There are dozens of contemplations here on everything from “Taxis” to “Japanese Bourbon.” When asked (seldom enough) about chapters, I always say “make them short,” and the one-, two-, and three-page expeditions we make with Meinke are, like, well, like shots of Japanese Bourbon. They’ll get you high — and you won’t get sleepy. The line drawings are sensational and the preface by Richard Haretis is a literary complement, making a total package. In the essay “Seamus Heaney,” Meinke remembers Dublin (City of Writers) but, patriot that he is, thinks Tampa and St. Petersburg rank right up there. He ends the piece with a list of his own area poets in the spirit of Heaney.

Poet’s Notebook 2013

Everyone here can bang the gong:

Riegel and Sukrungruang

Shomer Tokley Russo Wilt

A reputation’s being built

Mathews Morrill Curbelo Carroll


sip from the Muse’s sherry barrel

Though Tampa Bay’s not Dublin yet

the pubs are open appetites whet

the writers write we’re all in debt

writing together from Bay to Sea:

Here’s to Seamus and Poetry!


Best Gift Book for Anytime of the Year:

Poems of Gratitude, edited by Emily Fragos. Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets/Alfred A. Knopf. 246 pages.

I bought several for Thanksgiving gifts and now have to do it all over again for Christmas. I love this book. It’s on my desk and good for all moments in between other moments — say, while I’m trying to delete this new Facebook copycat, WAYN, or waiting for company, well — I pick it up and flip anywhere. I may get a bit of Mary Oliver or brush up against Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Shakespeare, or Ted Kooser, etc. I think the idea of the pocket-sized book harks from the 18th century, where the book could be carried to sample a page anywhere, anytime. This little book, without dogmatism or the didactics of preaching, demonstrates APPRECIATION. The poems are from the midlands of human life: marriage, death, memory, anything a poet has appreciated. As another poet once said, “a treasure of life and life’s yearnings…” I would add, without life’s chaos.

Rain Light (W.S. Merwin)

All day the stars watch from long ago

my mother said I am going now

when you are alone you will be all right

whether or not you know you will know

look at the old house in the dawn rain

all the flowers are forms of water

the sun reminds them through a white cloud

touches the patchwork spread on the hill

the washed colors of the afterlife

that lived there long before you were born

see how they wake without a question

even though the whole world is burning


Best Translations:

100 Villanelles/100 Blogatelles by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 201 pages.

Rilke’s Art of Metric Melody by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 402 pages.

Martin Bidney writes a book or two a year. I have a shelf full. His specialties are languages and poetry; and he combines them to bring literary figures into the present USING THEIR OWN FORMS. So we have two newly issued books. The Villanelles/Blogatelles is an act of creation and inquiry. Each villanelle faces a prose contemplation on the subject. And if you want to burnish your poetic form, this is the book to do it.

‘Dialogue’ is differently presented in Rilke’s Art. Form Faithful Translations of Rilke couple with Form Faithful Verse Replies by Bidney. Remember Bidney starts with Rilke’s language, translates to English, and then responds to his own translation with a new poem. A nice bromance. I say read one a day, and you’ll have a good year ahead.

From 100 Villanelles:

65 In growing old I readily forget


In growing old I readily forget

What I have done and felt, conceived and writ.

And is there benefit in this? You bet!


May whiskaway of past impression let

Old work resurface new, refreshed, re-lit.

In growing old I readily forget


What days of yore have shown me — and reset

Imagination-gauge, new times to fit.

And is there benefit in this? You bet!


A lyric when I’m favored to beget,

Beside-myself, ec-static am I smit.

In growing old I readily forget


How I’d been moved. Yet, frenzy now re-met,

Two more identities awake from it.

And is there benefit in this? You bet!


We’re child-like once again, my friend — a debt

That Time has granted — gift I cheered admit.

In growing old I readily forget —

And is there benefit to this? You bet!


From Rilke’s Art

(177) Stone Beetle

Aren’t they near you what the spirit sees

The stars? But then, why won’t your vision span

The fact that you carnelian scarabees

Have never comprehended, never can,


Until you will agree to carry, too,

With all your ardent blood, the space that on

The hardened shield must press; more near to you

It never was, more mild, devoted, drawn.


It on these beetles many centuries

Unused, unmarred has early lain and late;

The beetles, wing close-folded, doze with ease

Contained beneath its gently rocking weight.


(177) Reply

The burden of responsibility

Has lain on beetles pushing balls of dung.

His duty will the servant never free,

Fidelity by elder bard well sung.


He images the god who will the sun

Each day across the heaven duly draw;

And indeflectibly till task be done

He keeps the path, an ardor viewed in awe.


The laws of Ra must weigh upon his back

Till he the circuit-path at length has run

With holy lauding hymn that feels no lack,

For he the praise of deity has won.


Send review copies to:

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Grace Cavalieri’s new book is Other Voices, Other Lives (ASP, 2017). She’s founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, enjoying 40 years on-air and now from the Library of Congress.

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