January 2019 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- January 16, 2019
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
when you say you can’t go home again, what they mean is you were never there by Marty McConnell. Southern Indiana Review Press. 88 pages.
The Stella Poems: Astrophil & Stella by Duane Locke. The Bitter Oleander Press. 83 pages.
Any time a 97-year-old poet of great note writes a present-day version of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophal and Stella, I’m there. The original piece was about a lover (a star watcher) fixating upon his star (Stella) and so it is with Locke’s postmodern version. He has 57 poems to and about Stella — the love affair’s not linear nor chronological: in poem 54 the poet ends his six stanzas with a couplet: “At this time in my life, I had not met Stella, therefore there/Is no one to send my thoughts. My wife is a redneck Baptist.” Inspiration, not content, is what Locke brings back from the 16th century, 108 sonnets and songs.
Stella is alive, Stella is deceased, Stella has cancer, Stella leaves notes and letters. Stella’s lover/author uses the relationship to discuss philosophy and probabilities — all worth hearing — in his daydreams: “Stella, writing to you is stronger reality than/Thinking about you, and still a more stronger reality/Is being with you. See you this evening/At Florian. We will drink Campari in the place/Where Nietzsche wrote his poem about the pigeons of Venice.” Locke — poet, painter, photographer — lives the word.
While I was searching for my notes on Husserl —
Notes I did not find, I found
An old letter, my first letter, from Stella.
This epistle, like Apollo’s torso changed
Rilke’s life, changed my life.
“Phil, I dare you,
Dare you, yes dare you
To meet me in Italy.
Fly to Malpensa, rent a car, drive to Varese.
We can stay at an albergo that is built into the rocks.
It is a rarely visited albergo. It is mainly visited by Nuns,
Who believe some type of miracle took place here.
If you meet me here, a miracle will take place.”
Mao is a poet of conscience, passion, advocacy, and theater. Put them into the compression of poetry and there’s a power that extends outward and doesn’t stop when the poem is finished. Among her remarkable human testaments, are two sets of poems about the early Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong. The persona poems are where satire meets tragedy meets irony. The intention however is clear: to reveal what price is paid for celebrity without respect; to be almost invited to the party, but not quite. Poems showcasing this Chinese-American idol are real and surreal, factual, futuristic, imagistic, with sharp smart language unifying the core of each event. It’s holy work to create a character who will never be gone from these pages, a character spun from real cloth, now large, meaningful, a sector of Hollywood made permanent — for Wong’s longing and perhaps for her despair. But there’s bravery here, as well. And the poet sings her characters to the top with words that are alive — here to stay — a public trust.
I told you she was fearless:
The Death of Robot K-456
The robot opera sends us to space.
We look down. We don’t miss our lovers.
Instead, we’re nostalgic for gravity.
Permutations of ground: cement,
grass, parquet, soil. Premonitions
of sound: crash, pow, shriek.
Down on earth, we saw the tragedy —
the machine cracked under slow wheels.
His cords and his bowels, twitching.
The machine defecated on itself,
spilling all its beans. We looked away.
In another time, we would mourn.
But for now, we hover, above patrols,
above surveillance, above the borders,
like migrants to a black hole, a Xanadu
where no one dreams of finding us.
Even if we cut off a limb or leap over an edge, no eyes watch us. We are free.
when you say you can’t go home again, what they mean is you were never there by Marty McConnell. Southern Indiana Review Press. 88 pages.
When you read the opening verse of “when the time comes to be happy, you will be happy” — you know what you’ll get: “You will show all your teeth to the door/and it will open like the hole in your mother/through which you disgraced the air/for the first time. Everything is going to be//just fine…” Do you hear that crisp language, struggling dream, mission for a good life, talking to the angels? McConnell documents her time in history without cynicism: “We’ll live forever again/which is to say, until anything/that can remember/is dead…” (from the poem, “this world is going to end and it’s going to be fucking beautiful.”)
McConnell doesn’t look at the world to fix it or change its proportions or to challenge its pretty little morals and ugly hatreds — she barges ahead, into music and words without anger; and so, while calling the world out for what it is, happily, she sees us “drawn back to shore” most of the time. McConnell’s a social critic describing the versatilities of life in spite of death. Life is filled with shame, freedom and fear; and with the controlled energy of masterful writing it can come out in favor of every moment, no matter.
supplication with grimy windowpane
I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about the lost.
I sweep and sweep. The taxes are put away, and the hats
stacked brim to brim. The rubber ball on the radiator
just sits there. I’m alive, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
In the bath, my body is massive: thighs, big toes, every
pointy hair. We’re out of wine. Remember when the water
was a sanctuary? Come closer now. This is the part
where I tell you what’s behind the glass to which
I’ve pressed my entire body, pink
from the bath; this is the part where you tell me how many
of your teeth are dead, where you left the cowboy
hat you pinched from the head of your sister’s
outgrown doll. It’s quiet here now. Give me something
I can chew on, long into the evening. An architecture
for this salt house. This bony, birdless pen.
The hero of this story is the Chinese poet Li Bai back from antiquity to take an almost 5,000-mile ride from Massachusetts to Alaska. We see the world through the present-day poet’s eye alongside ruminations and observations by Li Bai. The Chinese series is in eight-line form used originally by Li Bai. There are additional poems where the natural world comes off the page to embrace you — starry skies, chickadees, birch trees, foxes, pears, rivers. Sexton turns his love for the ecosystem into the complexity of tone, rhyme, music — all a reverent presence.
Near Wawa, Ontario
On a trail through a stand of hemlock,
roots rising from thin soil like sea serpents
making their way to Lake Superior,
a trail I hoped led to a clearing where
years ago an Ojibway elder filled my hands
with blueberries from his coffee can,
I was looking for kindling to start a fire.
We devoured his gift in our leaking tent.
I tell myself the ‘60s are long gone. Thoreau
and Longfellow gather dust on a shelf.
That eagle overhead is probably a drone,
but when I reach a clearing that seems familiar,
I find a sea of small pink flowers beginning
to open. “I have more than enough,” he said.
Indelible by Becky Gould Gibson. The Broadkill River Press. 108 pages.
Gibson brings to life the story of Lydia of Thyatira, said to be among the first converts to Christianity. She creates an ancient text in modern language, each spoken simultaneously. “The Lydian woman” talks to magazines (Christianity Today and Ms. Magazine;) modernity is interspersed with biblical passages and gospel verses. It’s extraordinary when feelings become history and protestations are verbal action. The series is a study in sensitivity to faith with questions and insights we cannot prove. There’s commentary enough on the tests of time: (The Road-Stone speaks to the Pilgrim) “Then, we went all the way from Dyrrachium to Byzantium, /Durres to Istanbul…Now, cast aside for scrap, curiosity seekers. For tourists/ to gape at, flip out iPhones to take photos of. /One of the oldest roads in the world. Blah, blah, blah. / But I can tell you, once upon a time, we worked. / Felt every wheel, every hoof, every tail of every lash/ striking every back…” That Gibson can work with so many different levels of progress, text, spirit, history — all together — show us her God, via Lydia, a woman.
The Road-Stone Speaks to the Pilgrim
Then, we went all the way from Dyrrachium to Byzantium,
Durrës to Istanbul, if you’ve checked a recent map.
Now, cast aside for scrap, curiosity seekers. For tourists
to gape at, flip out iPhones to take photos of.
One of the oldest roads in the world. Blah, blah, blah.
But I can tell you, once upon a time, we worked.
Felt every wheel, every hoof, every tail of every lash
striking every back. I still love clear nights —
stars tossed like trinkets in the vast bowl of sky
when the young come to try out their bodies.
You should’ve seen me and my mates fresh from the quarry.
Pristine. Virginal. Straight out of that mountain.
Now everyone’s practically naked. Speak in fragments.
Ride bicycles, bring water bottles, roll strollers over us.
Scrolls in knapsacks. Books in backpacks, on Kindles.
You’d think by now words would be worn out.
Papyrus wears thin, paper tears apart. One blink,
the screen goes blank. What stands the test of time?
Stone. What you’re walking on. We’ll be here
long after you and your words are gone. Once we stones
were glorious, the weight of empire upon us.
We moved troops, merchants; odd gods, odd notions.
That tentmaker was not the first to talk about Jesus,
to spread the Word, as he called it. Nor the last,
that’s for damn sure. Like I’ve always known, whatever Rome
gets behind thrives. If anything on earth is eternal, it would be stone.
The way to heaven? Don’t ask me!
Two books from Quincy Troupe:
Seduction chronicles in verse, major figures of our time indelibly noted by the poet. He’s the voice of his culture from Harlem’s artistic world to the “wired” world of today, in vast epic passages that seem to say, if a man is what he does he’d better do it with majesty. Troupe writes beyond forgiveness or reconciliation: he’s done with discussing submission or surrender in our lives, he goes right to what emboldens. In “Poem for Jack Whitten,” there’s a story of a man steeped in the difficulties of a segregated culture but the poem sweeps to the world of art, painting, musicians, poets, jazz, surrealism — all the redemptions that art brings — this is a grand consummate poem about a man born in Bessemer Alabama taking us through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, documenting his pieces of art through 2015. You will know Jack Whitten all right. You will cross time with Quincy Troupe and you will believe this poet almost forgives the world if it can produce black artists who escape from violation to magnificence.
High Noon Shadow
eye looked in wonder as my shadow inked concrete
The behind me, it softened, then hardened its black shape
as if it were an amoeba trailing my footsteps
through the hot summer day filled with gaggles of people
at high noon in manhattan, eye listened to a sprinkling
of voices ricocheting around, airing intentions
murderous as mamba snakes, they troubled me deep down
inside my secret dreams, where eye often feel isolated
as my shadow snaking behind me, wavering over concrete
Troupe writes slave history re-creating voices not heard before. Troupe is orator and rhetorician as well as poet, starting 400 years back. Ghost voices are terrifying echoes of those in ships, those in search, seeking, surviving. Troupe’s massive speech enfolds as it tells, back and forth across time, making beauty, he shows what divides us and what triumphs.
& so each day the sun rises,
the morning mist of memory
we will all be reborn one day
these fevered dreams
anchored in history,
why these voices flew
like birds in springtime,
they took us there
because we only knew
to keep on going,
seeking IT we knew
to keep on going
Are these bubbles or words? Did e.e. cummings know he could be outdone? Freeing all the wild horses from the barn with consonants and vowels? Images wonderfully juxtaposed like your favorite dream?
(When We) “Stars on the fence just as we/How such long ago seemed like/When our eyes became as/When the moon was mostly/For everything about then was/And how we held much more than/As if shy might/As if backlit hills for once would/We knew more than/We felt all of/So how could this world be so/When if we might/More if we would/In almost then/On nights that/with fences of.”
Larew’s style is pure momentum. He folds lines with texture and buoyancy, everything’s alive in the center of his poem: it says, all of this matters, none of this matters, it’s just the cherries on a tree in Michigan, everything is just red and juicy and fleeting. The lighter the poem gets the deeper it becomes — I’m no quantum physicist but there’s some energetic bargaining going on here with tone, word placement, and rhythm. Words pump, they swing, they talk, they sing. Larew twists language into meanings it never expected. Language may never know what hit it. Hiram Larew can change the future.
I want my days to be smeared
and my nows blurred
I want the future and past
to kiss and make up over drinks
I want clocks to wink
and time to misbehave like it’s supposed to
I want long ago to burp like a baby
to start at the end
and to be completely behind when ahead.
I want everything to quickly slow
somehow like the hours and days of my confetti —
backwards but forwards up and down
true and alarmed.
Mostly I want to know what I mean
and to love whatever is mixed
I want luck to cheat at my poker game
while the dealer smokes and grins.
Best Literary Periodical
December, edited by Gianna Jacobson. December Publishing. 222 pages.
The 60th Anniversary issue! Begun in 1958, and after a publishing hiatus was restored to life by Jacobsen. This magazine is physically beautiful, bursting with fresh minds and writings in poetry and prose. The visual arts add color and energy. Fiction and non-fiction are accompanied by interviews — in this issue Robert Lowes interviews novelist Jesse Lee Kercheval. december is book, rather than magazine, flourishing with the seasoned Marvin Bell, Albert Goldbarth and Marge Piercy, or someone never heard before. Here’s a poem by Katie Manning:
The Book of Relation
All that remains of Revelation
name will be
as clear as
down the middle of the
the one who
This is called “The Essential Guide,” and I think ESSENTIAL is the key word. When is it early enough to introduce the poem as a friend? One who has thought what the child has thought, felt, noticed? Young people think they’re alone in their observations and impressions; what a gift to show that reading makes us less lonely; and everyone has the chance to write poetry for him/herself. There are great poems as examples, whimsical line drawings, some technical points, but more than anything — the permission. Teachers, you’re no longer at a loss in approaching this not-so-mystical experience.
If Neil Gaiman says, “Art Matters,” we can believe him because he’s unleashed some of imagination’s most magnificent marvels; and here, the best of cartoonists, Chris Riddell, joins up to visualize his call to action. Gaiman is the ambassador of dreaming, reading and making things up. I don’t know what age group this book is for but it works for me as well as my grandchildren so I guess our author is right: spirit can’t be measured, boxed up, and counted. Let it out. It’ll come back to light up your room, house, world. And what we like most is Gaiman always tells the truth:
The problems of success.
They’re real, and with luck you’ll experience
them. The point where you stop saying yes
to everything, because now the bottles you
threw in the ocean are all coming back,
and have to learn to say no.
It seems just a minute ago I was reading Viorst’s It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty… That was one of her 13 books of poetry (plus 23 children’s books, and nine “others.”) Well, by my count that was 60 years ago, and she’s stronger and truer and funnier, sweeter and sassier than ever. Laura Gibson illustrates these foibles of late love, impending knee replacements, putting car keys in the freezer…and each chapter has an epigraph by a great thinker or writer, adding heft to humor (sometimes much the same). These anecdotes strike at the heart of each moment, and beneath the laughter line we hear: “Goodbye Goodbye/please don’t cry.”
The trouble is I really love my stuff,
Especially the stuff that’s stashed in my basement,
Like that trunkful of 78s that I haven’t listened to in over seventy years,
When the Andrew Sisters rang “Rum and Coca Cola,”
And Sinatra sang “Full Moon and Empty Arms,”
And I forget who sang “Chattanooga Choo Choo,”
All of them played on what we called a Victrola
In the sun parlor — always my childhood’s favorite room,
Where built-in shelves held my Oz books, The Secret Garden,
The Count of Monte Cristo, the Nancy Drews,
All of them also safely stashed in the basement
Of the house I live in now, and am leaving now,
Except — how can I leave without my stuff?
Berwyn Moore is an elegant delicious poet. She takes the things of this worn-out frayed world and breathes sweet miracles everywhere. I love the way she can even write of rats and show what voice poetry is made of, the use of language, how it works, each line striking the right chord for the next. This book’s a keeper and Moore’s a new favorite.
let’s begin with twilight tweaker,
forest ranger, big city foot-courier,
ramekin washer, antique duster,
living mannequin (coiffed and windless),
peanut packer, hem presser, skeet shooter,
mattress tester, ash artist (portraits only).
I would have settled for egg flipper,
blue hair shampooer, hay stacker,
collector of pure (so many dogs)!
snake milker, mud-lark, barn mucker,
leech collector, sin-eater, tick tweezer —
anything, O beloved, O grandest dame —
anything but this: your thistle, your dread,
your thirst, the creases in your forehead.
ALSO ON THE BEST-BOOKS LIST:
West Virginia’s beloved Poet Laureate, children’s author, with a new book of poems.
Woman in Red Anorak
It was a small lake surrounded by black spruce,
but for a few seconds it blossomed
with a splintering of sunlight,
every soft slosh of wave flaming.
There floated a small stone island near the shore.
Upon it stood a man.
If you look close, you can see there’s a small puddle
from last night’s rain into which he’s been staring
As when a man is dreaming of war,
and the shells of thunder, and sweat pours
through the sheets and pools beneath him,
he is a fountain, and will forget the pain
long enough to fear
he has gone missing again.
He hears his mother shouting from the edge of the forest.
The flags atop the courthouse snap as sharp as gunshots.
He takes off his hat and wipes the sweat from his brow.
There had been a woman in a red anorak standing with him,
standing in the middle of a sea just before a storm.
Then came lightning, falling mirrors, the quiet after,
Dickinson scholar and famed author turns new poems.
Excerpted From “Five Poems Inspired by Five Paintings,” poem five:
On Rembrandt Van Ryn, “Self-Portrait”
Old man, I gave you my youth.
Warm summer days, and you repaid me.
I know your debts, fears, women. See:
Despite centuries, the tutored or uncouth
Stay, watchful, before your portrait.
The guards watch. The people wait.
It is yourself they wait for, what paint
Cannot do, they expect. And I, my taint
Of need so corruptive in my flesh,
I too, await your coming, coming
Down from this dark framing, turning
Toward me (as I dream it), solving
All my anguish you, your fresh
Hopes gone, your clenched hands burning.
To Those Who Were Our First Gods by Nickole Brown. Rattle Foundation. 44 pages.
Brown is a savior of wild creatures, a lover of animals, an angel in waiting, a rescuer, a story teller. Part One from the five-page title poem, “To Those Who Were Our First Gods: An Offering”:
To Those Who Were Our First Gods:
Samson, I admit it: I flirted with you
in Sunday School, crayoned tan your He-Man pecs,
picked the box’s best to dye bright
your Pantene-perfect waves. But even then, I didn’t touch
those kamikaze columns, left blank those two
marble pillars snapped with your sledgehammer fists
to crush a whole damn crowd. Yes, even then
I was a real red-letter girl
timid in the back pew, hiding behind the blue cloak
of the only one I ever felt safe enough to pray to —
HailMary, keep me from Judges
and every other book in the OT
gut-piled and slick as a slaughterhouse floor;
dear MaryMotherOf, save me from
those men like him who slit
the throats of lambs then struck
a pyre to burn the poor beasts, calling
what they’ve done a sacrifice.
Anyone who can write a poem about Lawrence Welk and make it pull with truth has my vote. She can write about horses, denim jackets, or Degas — poetry master of any subject.
Edward Hopper’s Paint Box
When you see Edward Hopper’s paint box
your first thought is tetanus, the rusted razor blades
for sharpening pencils, the painting knives
like tiny sand-blasted pie-servers, for applying paint
impasto, for working oils while wet.
You might stare happily at the scraps of sandpaper,
at the brittle-bristled brushes still flecked
with gray-shot yellows, with greens infused with blue,
but who, you think, would willingly take into her hand
Even the pencil, even the small cotton rag,
and risk what they exact?
Send review copies (2019 releases only) to:
Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702
Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s newly appointed poet laureate. She founded and still produces “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now celebrating 42 years on the air. Her newest book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishing, 2017).