December Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

December Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

It’s About Time by Stanley Moss. Hopewell Press.163 pages.

Olympic Butter Gold by Jonathan Moody. Northwestern University Press. 90 pages.

FAUXHAWK by Ben Doller. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 80 pages,

The Anchor’s Long Chain by Yves Bonnefoy. Translated from French by Beverley Bie Brahic. Seagull Books.112 pages

Beautiful Zero by Jennifer Willoughby, winner of the 2015 Lindquist& Vennum Prize. Milkweed Editions. 5 pages. 

In the Flesh by Adam O’Riordan. W.W. Norton. 49 pages.

Echo System by Julie Agoos. Sheep Meadow Press. 77pages.

The Man with Many Pens by Jonathan Wells. Four Way Books. 63 pages.

It’s About Time by Stanley Moss. Hopewell Press. 163 pages.

Beautifully autobiographical, is this new book by American poet, publisher, and art dealer, Stanley Moss, now in his 90th year. You’ll want to read, more than once, these poems culminated from a life of fine culture/art/philosophy, leaving  riches on the page. Moss has been a steward of poetry for most of his life; and at this time, is still publishing others. 

We take emotional excursions acquainted with a mysterious poet who remains nameless; a beloved sister, Lilly; a Mother vivid in memory; gardening and flowers; children; artists; museums; writers. I like very much the five-page poem “A History of Color” approaching death from several angles—It starts with a cheeky lilt and moves toward elegiac melody.

Moss also writes a letter to a fish; and of course, the fish answers with a letter. These assembled poems make up an epic life, creatively, imaginatively managed— luckily—a man getting to do what he loves.

Letter to a Fish 

I caught you and loved you when I was three
before I knew the word death—
it was a little like picking an apple off a tree.
At 20, I caught you, kissed you, and let you go.
You swam off like quicksilver.
The Greeks thought a little like that the world began.
You splashed and smacked your tail, made a rainbow.
Funny what drowns a man gives you breath.
Where are you, in ocean, brook, or river?
You suffer danger, but cannot weep as I can.
They say one God made the Holy books.
I offer Him my flies, spinners, feathered hooks—
not prayers.  I swim with you in the great beneath,
to the headwaters of the unknown, in the hours
before dawn when fish and men exchange metaphors.

Olympic Butter Gold by Jonathan Moody. Northwestern University Press. 90 pages.

Scratching, (or scrubbing,) is a DJ  technique used to produce new sounds by moving  records back and forth on a  turntable, while sometimes manipulating  a sound mixer at the same time. That’s what Moody does with words, making the sounds better than they were before. Rap and Hip-Hop are memorialized as uplifting America’s fraying fiber; and given a fresh coat of paint by Moody. In the poem "Hip-Hop" he writes, “Hip-Hop escaped a Jersey prison/ & received political asylum in Cuba,// is on hunger strike until Guantanamo/ Bay complies with Geneva Conventions…”   An art form becomes a resilient mantra of resistance and not only tells what Moody writes; but why.  If Rock and Roll was about sexual and cultural freedom, Hip-Hop and Rap become its maverick descendants –kicking it up an amp—fanning the fire of   political meaning.

There’s a terrific poem “Dear 2Pac,” where the speaker is teaching Byron and Tennyson to an indifferent classroom and suddenly introduces 2Pac. Moody uses this as an awakening, and a relationship to authenticity for students (He’s actually a high school teacher, as well as poet.)

He’s sharp, taut and skillful. In “Chasing the American Dream:” Every time/ I hold/ my rusty spoon//above the Statue/ of Liberty’s torch, / I struggle to find a vein.”

Moody ups the game of poetry, constructing a reality different from society’s perception of reality—a tough transaction—but that’s why we need him. He’s also funny: “ Choppin’ ” goes

like this, in its entirety: “Yo Mama/ so dumb when I asked// her to motorboat/ me she demanded// to see my fishing// license.”

Hip Hop

After Yasiin Bey (FKA Mos Def)

Hip-Hop escaped a Jersey prison
& received political asylum in Cuba, 

is on hunger strike until Guantànamo
Bay complies with Geneva Conventions. 

Hip-Hop’s survived codeine
overdoses but be strung out on Oxy. 

Hip-Hop’s a firefighter rescuing
gospel rap from burning black churches.

Hip-Hop’s turning blood money
into flood disaster relief, 

seeks sole custody
of all stars & spacecrafts 

chasing comets composed
of ready rock. 

Hip-Hop’s dropped from planetary
status to dwarf planet madness: 

too small to clear Cristal
bottles out of its path.  Hip-Hop’s 

the first female to make the FBI’s
Most Wanted Terrorists List.

FAUXHAWK by Ben Doller. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 80 pages.

If you can put a fox and a hawk together—or a fake hawk—you can do anything.  Doller’s work is complicated and fascinating; and what internal force it comes from, I do not know. Instead of story, he gives us clues for our own insight, and in this way we get to define the poem instead of having the poet do it for us. It’s not calculus and it’s not narrative but something in between. “Hello” is a 2 ½ page poem with 5 ½ pages of footnotes. And each line has a footnote; and each stanza is made of two word lines. (46 notations altogether.) Did you get that? Let’s try again. Two words make up one line. Two lines  make up a stanza.

Okay Stanza 3: 
                “is, garage,

                door lurch”    
“is, garage” = footnote # 5.
“door, lurch” = footnote #6.
Footnote #5 reads,” The mouth is a garage for storing one’s body.”
Footnote # 6 reads, “Our personal physiologies may well relate to the types of diction we are drawn to as individuals, especially in the case of verbs…” (It goes for 6 lines.)

I think this is a lot of fun to write and to read. Nothing actually fits together but nothing actually does not fit, either. 

The metadata is from linguistic exploration. The poetic belief is Dylan’s “…we may not get what we want; but we may just get what we need…” (sic).  Doller’s comments on language are intelligent, funny and true. But it’s up to us to find the truth for ourselves. 

This is writing from that rocky landscape where the forest meets the sea. That strip of land right there, a rare and exceptional place to visit. That’s what I’m talking about.

The noon just made it today
As the drone guy gets reamed
By the Republicans 

Perfect weather pierces the universe
In the city that disproves the climate plot 

If I stop working, I’ll sleep better
Since the work I click to the cloud
Like being dead but circulating 

Noonlight on Bruce Nauman
Finished middleclass and no neon sins
Til the sundowns 

But repetition makes another an other
You whose last customer collages her evals 

I’m rewriting Fanny’s book probably a gift for a friend
Or from her file I stole it from the faculty lounge 

My office is her office, maybe,
No one had opened it yet 

On Google Drive, the eucalyptus trees
sing Philip Levine 

behind the Korean

And I’m paid to complain
I don’t like the way this kid is arranged 

on the page. 

The Anchor’s Long Chain by Yves Bonnefoy. Translated from French by Beverley Bie Brahic. Seagull Books.112 pages.

 Bonnefoy was important to French Literature since the 1940’s. He’s poet, essayist and translator, (notably of Shakespeare.) I believe he’s still alive at 92 years of age. 

In “Disorder” he starts his poem with stage directions with 15 on stage, each moving forward to speak and then stepping back. The poetic monologues are of agony and love, leaving and storytelling. No voices are connected in meaning and the speech fragments depict the puzzle with pieces that cannot fit, however, eloquent.

There is a folkloric feel to this writing, As if life is a fairytale. The tone is theistic, and there’s always a narrative within the surreal. Yes, all this is Bonnefoy.  His prose pieces are sharp and clear while there are transgressions folding dreams within reality. In the prose piece “America,” he’s taking notes while walking down the California road watching children with balloons. When back in France, he sees his yellow lined papers hold no such words, so he must recreate.  His fascination with children is everywhere in his work.

Nineteen sonnets memorialize Alberti, Baudelaire, Ceres, Leopardi, Verlaine, Wordsworth, Mahler, Mallarme, Ulysses, A Poet, a Stone. A God; plus more . Who does not love  the French  —especially a poet who expands all capabilities in poetry. 

Tomb of Stèphane Mallarmè

Let his sail be his tomb, since no
Earthly breath could persuade the skiff
Of his voice to refuse
The river, summoning him to its light. 

Hugo’s most beautiful line, he would say:
‘The sun set this evening in the clouds’;
Add nothing, subtract nothing from water—
It turns to fire, and to that fire he is yoked. 

We see him over there, a blur at the prow
As his boat fades from sight, waving
Something our eyes here can’t make out. 

Is this how one dies?  Who is he speaking to?
And what will be left of him once night falls?
That dent in the river, his two-coloured scarf. 

Beautiful Zero by Jennifer Willoughby, winner of the 2015 Lindquist& Vennum Prize. Milkweed Editions. 5 pages. 

I read this for the first time with dilated eyes in the ophthalmologist’s office. Then I read it again with my new normal vision. Both times I could not believe my good luck—on a chilly grey day—to find such a reckless gem of a writer. It was more than I deserved. But I’ll take it. I’ll take the sideways entry into meaning; the ability to say “so sue me;” the demonstration that we have nothing to lose. She writes like that. She feels the “house is anxious” so she gives it a pill (The Universe Contracting and Expanding). She wishes she were “…a famous writer high on ketamine and Clairol…” (Losing The Plot); she is philosophical and in “Do Not Be Broken By The Day,” counsels, “Take it from me, Caroline, a crisis of faith/ is not as interesting as a dead pigeon/ in the cistern after a long winter, / The world doesn’t want to see you/ on your knees for one more minute/ when it could be inspecting a music/ box that knew how to fly…” 

Wouldn’t you feel better if you were Caroline?

Best of all are a group of 10 prose-like sonnets about/to/or inspired by/ Kaiser Permanente. Why hasn’t anyone realized this was needed—making the humanities and medical worlds to intersect? Willoughby gets out in front of language catching it off guard, creating striking thought systems under the skin. These poems are effortless formations of spontaneity— isn’t poetry’s true identity “originality?” This first collection of poems is a show-stopper.

Kaiser Variations 10

I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding Tolstoy’s
heroine, exalted first then broken by a
moment of happiness.  Marriage is waxed
with accident, contingency and birds that
seem to mean more than what we are.
I had just lost my hand building a makeshift
village for ideological people; you opened
your arms like a wound.  Easily triaged at
Kaiser Permanente, from my room we could
hear patients cheering the new president’s
motorcade on its way to the beach.  The night
surgeon placed a takeout order for some kung
pao shrimp and another prosthetic.  Hey kids,
he said, you want see some magic?  There’s
nothing we can’t replace with something else.  

In the Flesh by Adam O’Riordan. W.W. Norton. 49 pages.

 A debut collection and one with staying power. There’s something distinctive about this English poet; every once in a while there are word combinations that remind us of Dylan Thomas—not so ornate to be sure—but a backlight—something about the rich texture of multiple 

sounds that the English, Welsh and Irish  writers do, in a way that cannot be copied.

O’Riordan is a lyric poet; In “MANCHESTER:”  “Queen of the cotton cities, / nightly I piece you back into existence: // the frayed bridal train your chimneys lay/ and the warped applause-track of Victorian rain.//You’re the blackened lung whose depths I plumb, / the million windows and the smoke-occluded sun…” 

And hear this in, “THE LEVERETS:”  “That first winter, cooing around your pink face/ at the cradle, the purr of the wood-burner/ flicking its long tail out into the night sky, /

I was sent to the car for nappies and formula/ but froze when I saw it laid on the porch: /

The heavens condensed in its brown eye, / a frail bag of fur spilt a fine rope of gut…” 

And in “CULL:” “ He hangs in the quiet of the cool stone room,/the pendulum in a stopped clock./ His antlers are diviner’s rods,/their hazel sways above the pooling blood./ Upwind snows melt, streams quicken,/ birds flicker from bough to branch…”

You could read these poems aloud to lull your child. O’Riordan makes us believe in the safety of the hearth; the powerful bonds of family in different dimensions; and acquired knowledge of the world made beautiful to hear. 

The Edges of Love

I   A College Window, Cambridge 

The conference took you to Cambridge.
     An hour to kill you prowled your allotted room,
spare, perfunctory, like a cat dropped in a cattery,
      letting your tired mind tick over aimlessly;
imagining your mother’s bicycle as she freewheeled
      home down a nearby lane, head full of algebra,
how you might have spent your own years here.
       Then you see a figure crossing the field by your window;
from two decades away you recognize her, a palpitation
        shoots from heart to scrotum.  You want to call her name.
The sun is setting.  Back home in a bright room
        your children are being kissed and tucked into their sheets.
After a pause that lasts your adult life, you turn from her
       draw the curtain, dim the lamp, walk down to supper. 

Echo System by Julie Agoos. Sheep Meadow Press. 77 pages. 

Julie Agoos is that lucky combination of free-spirited writing and reader-comprehensibility.

She enters the scene like a suffragette releasing the craft from its time honored cage; and her phrases can hardly contain her thoughts. Yet she’s perfectly understandable. This proves one can be experimental and still offer words of public service. That’s a good way to summarize her themes: She’s political and has strong feelings about falsity and social values; yet, others have tried with big ideas and failed. Agoos frolics through the landscape of quiet cars on trains, flu shots, cash for clunkers—she’s very much of this world but turns it into Julie in wonderland, looking at our human limitations as if we are a different species only made possible when rendered into poems. She knows what the debate is every minute and that makes her writing relevant as well as pleasurable. Articulate, with clear messages, believe it or not, she unhinges language every chance she gets. Agoos is a witty and delightful iconoclast, and while turning over new earth, there’s no dissonance to be found. It’s tough to be a graceful language poet or a linguistic graceful poet but Agoos manages.

Reading of Lebanon 

The street now no entry
And tapered by rubble.
A sidewalk unpacked.
The schoolyard all inventory. 

500 chairs in the sun
And miles of linoleum flooring
Flecked by mortar; 500
Polished desks in open air. 

3 o’clock: eclipse
Of bells, a glitter of prayer
Through the hi-tech network
Of shells (wherever 

Legible), of windows
And doors still chalked
On the skeletal abstract
Of classrooms and halls. 

Oh Strict and Familiar Mother
Of Seasons such light
Scores the boards
With the ropes to be learned in the ceasefire there 

Between three and dinner!

The Man with Many Pens by Jonathan Wells. Four Way Books. 63 pages.

After I finish a book of poems, I have a sense of the overall tone of a writer and the shape of the person’s voice. With Wells I get a Solitary Singer, poetry not cluttered with multiple points of view, but a clear ocular look outward. Everything seen, heard, and tasted is from one personal source. (Love’s Body) “A crow is squawking at the sun/ and the screech itself is dawn./ Let me hear every perfect note./ How I loved that jasper morning.”

Each poem carries its own loss without melancholy. (Good Night) ”…My metal fingers/ drifted toward her who’d slept/ beside me until the final frame.”  And there’s a poem of sharp brilliance not equaled since Stanley Kunitz wrote of his father’s picture in “Self-Portrait“…She ripped it into shreds without a single word and slapped me hard. I/ in my sixty-fourth year can feel my cheek still burning.”  Wells writes in “The Forgiveness Orchard” “Concentrate on…the apple scented fingers/ summoning back the slap that spread across/ your cheek, gathering it in their seams of heat.// …Let the hand that stung restore you/ to the maiden grass you started from, a believer/ again in the eidetic apple beyond your reach…”

These poems are about the impermanence of romantic love, however much the world wishes it otherwise. Instead, Wells identifies love with awareness and rejuvenation. (Tinker) “…Seamstress of the fine nerves of the morning,/ suture them with your needle and vanishing thread./ Isolate the wound…Let the stitches melt into their magnificent cool skin.” 

Wells knows that beauty comes from disruption, and no sense holding back the sweet part of the heart. It’s a pathway. In “The Forgiveness Orchard” he puts the apple back on the tree. And in “The Future Is your Friend” he ends, “We owe everything we have/ to those who can make us happy.”

Four Shoes in One

The shoes of struggle and resignation.
The shoes of oblivion.
The shoes of sleep.
These are the ones I was wearing
when I was lifted to the loft
of chanting doves and these are
the shoes that walked me home,
eroded soles dying of friction,
the scuffed up leather toes.
The shoes of rescue.
The shoes of mourning.
Here are the great gestures
And the hidden moments
Lost within themselves.
Those are the great gestures
and the hidden moments
lost within themselves.
Those are the soft shoes
I wore when I tiptoed away
from the wading pools of silence,
the laces tied so quietly.
The shoes of patience.
The shoes that spoke.
Here are the pilgrim’s sandals
copped by roots and chiseled
by blades of stone along
the path of memorial
benches and crosses.
Here are the pilgrim’s feet.

Extraordinary Offerings

World class poet/scholar Bidney brings East and West together in a lifetime of books, most recently, in 2015, two named below. Author of ten books and countless articles, essays, and translations— from Goethe to Hafiz, Bidney proves poetry is the best diplomacy in braiding cultures. Previous works focus on Dante, Pushkin and other literary icons, but Bidney is at his best when he turns his passion and focus to help us understand Muslim and Christian theology through poetry. With unity, symmetry and beauty, Bidney creates his own poetry to awaken us from our illusions of separateness.

A Unifying Light: Lyrical Responses To The Qur’an by Martin Bidney. Illustrations by Shahid Alam.) Dialogic Poetry Press.167 pages.

Lyrical Response to a Verse in Sura 2 “The Cow”

 25.  And give glad tidings (O Muhammad) unto those who believe and do
good works; that theirs are Gardens underneath which rivers flow; as often as
they are regaled with food of the fruit thereof, they say:  This is what was given
us aforetime; and it is given to them in resemblance. . . .

What’s granted us in heaven but a kind resemblance
Of what we loved on earth and held in prized remembrance,
Continued in imagination unabating?
I’m feeling more than thinking, playing more than stating. . .
By this I mean:  from deepest ground to highest heaven
I levitated seem when lent melodic leaven— 

By music overswept with purifying breeze—
Within the holy moment, the beholder sees.
Who heard the chanting of the Allah Scripture first,
Entranced in raptured gladness, were trans-universed.
To laud the living-gift, elating one who praised,
Will make him feel on earth to higher light upraised.


Shakespair: Sonnet Replies to the 154 Sonnets of William Shakespeare by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 165 pages.

Final Thoughts:
On Proofing Shakespair 

A pile of a paper lies upon the desk
And cannot let me sit, but bids me move.
To miss an error?  Possibly grotesque
Effects of inadvertency might prove. 

The ‘prentice poet care may well behoove.
For who’s the perfect master of the craft?
Our thinking likes to travel in a groove…
But can’t perfectionism drive you daft? 

My manuscript I never can revisit
Without encountering corrections needed.
That isn’t really too obsessive, is it?
The call of caution can’t remain unheeded. 

I’ve got to check the rhythms and the rhymes
Or William will object a million times.

Rest of the Best   

Best Bilingual Poems:


Selected Poems of Salvador Novo translated from Spanish by Anthony Seidman and David Shook. Introduction by Jorge Ortega. The Bitter Oleander Press. 99 pages. 

Salvador Novo (1904-1974) was a leader in Mexico’s modernist poetry movement. Along with complete knowledge of classical forms, he embraced western poetic idioms and was liberated by Pound and other early 20th century examples. He also translated, into Spanish, Robert Frost; Amy Lowell; Edna St. Vincent Millay; and other poets, both lyrical and experimental. He’s known for his humor, satire, as well as a flamboyant lifestyle and personality.

Not of little significance was his defiant life as a homosexual, in a monolithic country, at a time when this was an unwelcome presence. Novo overcame alienation and avoided persecution from the Mexican Government because of his literary gifts which received recognition and respect.

First Communion 

I had committed so few sins,
I didn’t believe I deserved communion.
The Ten Commandments were too numerous
for a boy barely ten to break. 

Evenings the girls would walk out to the balcony,
seeking to greet their boyfriends;
and they would let me finish their art assignments,
so they could meet two obligations at once. 

This was both a favor
on my part, as well as a lie.
But I never confessed to it. 

ALIANZA: 5 U.S. Poets in Ecuador. International Cultural Exchange. Cypress Books. 95 pages.

Alan Britt and Steve Barfield are from Maryland; Silvia Scheibi from Arizona; Lilvia Soto, originally from New York, join forces with Alex Lima (Ecuador) to cross countries with bilingual poems. English/Spanish.

En El Dia de los Muertos-
            Nogales, Sonora, Mexico

Sat on a chair
At Pancho Villa’s Bar,
            Cappuccino kisses. 

Guests nodded
In her direction, as
Passers-by quickened
Their steps. 

En el Dia de los Muertos
In a low-cut gown
Was content
            At Pancho’s.

--Silvia Scheibi


Violin Smoke, by Alan Britt, translated to Hungarian by Sohar Pal. I J Kiadja Media. 77 pages.

Alan Britt has a foot in every country and he takes poetry with him. 

September, 2001 

September has thick, emerald hair,
a thin waist of traffic,
and a distant white dog
gnawing the first hour of late afternoon. 

September has seen buildings crumble,
grief worn like scarves.

The large body of October
already rises up
through yellow leaves
with tiny capillaries
slowed to a crawl
by a sudden Canadian chill. 

September leans on a split-rail fence
and watches yellow leaves
sail by in a swirling gust of ashes.
--Alan Britt

Best Chapbook:

When I Loved You by Judith R. Robinson. Finishing Line Press. 27 pages.

Poetry will never turn its back on domesticity and a woman’s experience, often seen in deflected light from the motions of our neon world. There will always be a metric system for this poetic source, consolidating  timeless themes of loss, children, friendship, and art. Robinson shows some leg tackling the classic reasons for why we write; becoming a better poet in the process.

another thing

opening a new white page
the machine says CREATE
& something in a back corner
of the brain shlepps
its weary self up
and announces: this feels
a little like buying
a lottery ticket!
yes for a few moments
there is this bright
red thing that jiggles
and giggles
but then of course
it winks & slinks back
under the old couch
with the stained upholstery
which is where it
often goes to sleep. 

 Best Anthology:

My Cruel Invention, edited by Bernadette Geyer. Meerkat Press.105 pages.

 50 poets interpret what “invention” means to them, Editor Geyer compares the word to the notion of great possibilities—with language this time. This is a wonderful array of imaginers telling their wild secrets and what they believe possible. There’s “The Happy Marriage Machine” by Gwen Hart; and Joan Bonin’s “Inventing the Clock;” Jo Angela Edwin’s “The Inventors of Pantyhose; “A Physics Haiku” by Keith Stevenson; a magical piece by Laura Shovan: “Eyes on the Back of My Head;” and so much more, telling you what you could not possibly know, or have invented yourself.


I forced a form of fears,
sewed seams from shame,
a Phillips to tighten terror,
molded my madness,
brushed it with blame. 

Not content with this golem,
spaded into my chest of clay,
digging deeply I discovered
something give, a softer side of me. 

Frankensteining my obsession,
piecing a monster from rancid parts,
I left out the beauty,
what is life without the heart? 

                        HM Jones 

Best What Will They Think Of Next Anthology:

 It’s All About Shoes, edited by Pamela L. Laskin with Lyn Di Iorio and Karen Clark. Plain View Press. 178 pages.

 Good writing though. “A Collection of Essays, Poems and Stories About Women and Their Unusual Relationships to Shoes.” 



Later, I remembered shoes.

“Shoes?” my aunt questioned
as I rummaged through my mother’s closet.
We had chosen a coffin with silver etchings,
then moved along the rack of chiffon dresses,
some garnished with pearls at the neckline
and cuff.  I thought of the wedding
my mother hadn’t lived to see
before buying a tea-length dress
in cornflower blue.  The rosary
I brought to her from Rome
would fall gracefully on the lace
gloves covering the incisions
made by the intravenous lines.  As I examined 

patent leather pumps, my aunt insisted,
“Haitians do not put shoes on the dead.”
It makes it easier for wandering spirits
to step over the offerings, the candles,
dried thorns and retrace their steps
to find the living.  I buy
silk slippers with a satin bow,
spray the white undergarments
with my mother’s favorite perfume.
Each time I visit her grave, I clear
sharp rocks on the path leading home.
Sometimes I crumble
pieces of the rum cake she enjoyed along the road,
sit under the calabash and wait to be found. 

-        -Phebus Etienne

Grace Cavalieri is producer of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” Author of several books and plays, her newest publication is a Memoir: Life Upon The Wicked Stage (New Academia/Scarith, 2015).

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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