- By Barbara Quick
- July 9, 2020
In praise of poet Grace Cavalieri’s singular skill and generosity.
Poets are coming into their own again. Locked down — fearing, with good reason, for our lives and livelihoods — we’re craving the emotional distillation, the feeling of gratitude, the fresh view of the world, and the sense of perspective that’s part and parcel of the best, most accessible poems.
Newspapers are suddenly publishing poetry. Poems belong to the people again. All people.
Grace Cavalieri — the eternally youthful octogenarian host of the long-running Library of Congress program “The Poet and the Poem,” poet laureate of Maryland, and author of 26 books of poetry and chapbooks — has tirelessly worked to give us this gift that we need so much now.
Any writer who has ever met her knows that Grace possesses that rare ability to make others feel empowered without in any way diminishing the force of her own quite-considerable charisma. She’s not only a delightful and unpretentious poet, but also an emissary of poetry.
Like the poets of ancient times, she shares her love of poetry — as well as her compendious knowledge and appreciation of other poets — with her voice, through her interviews and podcasts and, if you’re lucky enough, in person, when she makes everyone around her feel uproariously funny.
I met Grace when she and some of her best friends, out of the blue, invited me to come to a writing retreat in rural New Hampshire as their guest of honor. I wasn’t famous. My second novel had just been published. They loved it. They wanted to meet me.
I’ve never been to Grace’s house. But I know that she’s sheltering at home now in Annapolis, Maryland, surrounded by the artwork of her late husband, the sculptor Kenneth Flynn, and indefatigably producing poems, plays, podcasts, and even paintings these days. (I follow her on Facebook.)
Her newest volume of poetry, What the Psychic Said, is filled with mystery, such as in the poem “The Octopus Has Three Hearts”: “colors never seen before,/—you just have to go deep enough—/pieces of wreckage, pieces of what may have been flesh.”
In “The Sound That Haunting Makes,” she writes, “I’d like some decisions from you, yet I understand—/as a passenger of time—you are beyond my reach./I need some help with perceptions, logistics—/teaching myself to live under the weight of visibility.”
“Dear tongue, breath,” she writes in “Dear Word Prisoner,” “Don’t leave me here alone with all this disappearing.”
There’s an indispensable introductory essay by Rose Solari in Alan Squire Publishing’s handsome compendium of Grace’s work, Other Voices, Other Lives. Every aspect of Grace’s oeuvre can be tasted here: poems, plays, and excerpts from what are rightly called her legendary interviews — in this case, with Robert Pinsky, Lucille Clifton, and Josephine Jacobsen.
“Most generous, ever-enthusiastic Grace Cavalieri, who has honored so many other poets through decades of thoughtful inquiry and deep listening,” writes Naomi Shihab Nye, “is herself the most astonishing voice. We listen with profound gratitude to her magnificence.”
In Showboat, a slender volume made of one long, evocative poem, Grace grapples with the oddities of young married life, alongside the fear of death, remembered from her days when Flynn was an active-duty Navy pilot. We feel the death he escaped and the death that inevitably caught up with him, as it catches up with us all, after their daughters were grown:
“[F]our girls stood at his bed…We are all so scared so numb/It feels like joy…Now I am alone as light/As the smell of lilacs/New roof new cat new fear/I can see everything from/Here.”
Refer to Other Voices, Other Lives for the compendious list of awards Grace has won. She may not yet have been declared a National Treasure, but she figures as a treasure in my life — and I’m guessing that there are scores of other writers who will say the very same thing.
I download an episode of “The Poet and the Poem” whenever I need a dose of inspiration and a dollop of Grace Cavalieri’s mischievous, witty, and altogether astonishing voice.
Barbara Quick is a poet and novelist based in the Wine Country of Northern California, Her fourth novel, What Disappears, will be published by Regal House in 2021.