July 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

July 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.

Towline by Holly Karapetkova. Cloudbank Books. 70 pages.

Philadelphia Poems by Lynn Hoffman. Kelsay Books. 82 pages.

Falter by Marjorie Stelmach. Cascade Books. 84 pages.

First, Do No Harm: New and Selected Poems by Laura Brylawski-Miller. Poet’s Choice Press. 146 pages.

Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String by Jacqueline Jules. Evening Street Press. 30 pages.

Train Ride to Bucharest by Lucia Cherciu. The Sheep Meadow Press. 165 pages.

Bistro in Another Realm by Shirley J. Brewer. Main Street Rag Publishing. 73 pages.



Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.

Some art is terrible beauty. And this book is among the most beautiful. I’m serious: every line is astonishment. Each poem, a climactic moment. I told my friends once that the trouble with women is they don’t go where men dare to go. Women stop short on the page. Sometimes poems and plays are hampered by that last red line that we can’t (because of DNA’s conventions) cross. Here’s a poet who breaks the boundaries. She doesn’t care about taboos; she writes to the moon. She makes emotional connections magnetizing the body to words that reverb with sensuality. Every line can be seen, tasted, heard. Sanchez throws down poetry like a biblical chant from a religion she’s now inventing. I showed the book to students to show how much human capital there is other poets are not spending; how honesty is the climate of hope; how fiction, diction, sleight-of-hand, structure, benefit a new world of writing. Who could apprentice to her? How many are willing to take off their masks to see such truths? Can we illuminate where we are holistically — body, mind, spirit, intellect — so when crumbled and dragged through mud — everything shines? From the dark, this diamond is Sánchez’s debut book.

The Loop

The silences are copulating again. Look,

a woman so hungry her insides eat her other insides.

What are you crying about now? See, a black hole

of a mouth: eat, eat, eat. The cupcakes

are porno pink and they make you feel sexy!

It’s the everyday accretion

of desire — the American

glory hole. A boss-man yelping and yelping

in a corner. Who are the office harpies

and who are the buzzards? (So many

mouth-breathers!) Beelzebub flaps

his frozen wings and it’s getting chilly in here.

What has the television taught the girls to say?

With their lips all plumped with hot goo.

Pixel this. Pixel that. Pixel your ugly face!

Your silence is a sealed jar of water,

little pariah. Outside, men and women

carry pictures of dead fetuses.

The children hold them, too.

Every day, you say, I am a person, I am a person.

It’s winter and your feet are wet

again. You wave hello to the friendly rats.

Why do you flounder so easily in holes?

Do you suffer from cholera of the brain?

Check yes or no. The day goes on picking

the meat from its teeth.



Towline by Holly Karapetkova. Cloudbank Books. 70 pages.

I know why this book won the Vern Rutsala poetry prize; because the other competitors couldn’t match these poems of myth, folklore, and allegory — and couldn’t possibly make them relevant to present day as Karapetkova does. These are lifetime experiences drawn through new forms paying attention to the past and today’s culture at once. It’s a hallmark book gripped with poetic tension, and emotional immediacy, in a multiverse of time zones. The Story of My Father, “He spoke seven languages and was never allowed to leave the/country.//He’d gone to school in Paris, which made him an enemy of the people.//… The story goes that after a broken heart from losing many beloved things, the interpreter changed his translations during the Cold War to suit himself. “The diplomat said, ‘We will not stand for this! We have boats full// of heat–seeking missiles ready to destroy you. ‘He translated, /unwavering, / ‘We will send boats full of flowers on your country’s birthday. ‘/ The other party looked bewildered, ‘We can annihilate your half of /the world.’ / He said, ‘The mothers in your country are the most beautiful in the world.’ They decided he’d gone /senile, //retired him at 62…but it wasn’t about flowers or mothers anyway, and now a new/war’s on, / one he couldn’t translate for. He only knew seven languages.”

The image maker has to carefully control her environment or tools of the trade would mean nothing. Some of the poems are adapted from songs and oral folklore of a nomadic tribe that once traveled through reaches of Bulgaria and northern Greece. These are part of a strong political through line to the benefit of the book. The Electrician creates a narrative of barbarian tactics from cruel regimes in East Germany, Chile and Argentina and more. “In my previous life I was a torturer. /The electrician, they called me. /Go fetch the electrician, they’d say/when they were ready.… When I died with Alzheimer’s, I was greeted/on the other side by saints of five faiths. /They brooded over my spirit, wanted answers:/why had I done it, would I now regret it… They brought out the electrodes // and plugged me in. I knew the drill./I said, What do you want to hear?/They said, Apologies all around./I said, Sure, though I was proud of my career.// No they clenched their teeth, like you mean it./I’m sorry! I screamed in pain with every buzz. /I’m sorry! Finally, they got bored. /I passed out and reawakened in a womb.”

And there’s an unforgettable personality at the soul of this multifaceted book. Overseas ends “… Tomorrow you’ll grab//the towline of a single language/and ride it out to sea, counting the ripples//on the surface as the banks widen. / But tonight you drag your belly on the bottom, //knees and elbows scraping stones, /water entering every opening it can find.”

Wedding Song


A bride stands out on the high cliffs

looking for something down

in the clear water —


a fish, a glass shoe, the cow

stranded out on the rocks,

ships slouching like fat swans.


A bed waits on white sand,

metal frame rusting and peeling paint.

So this is it, she thinks,


and dives like a seabird, her white veil

billowing on the surface, floating

where her body will not.



Philadelphia Poems by Lynn Hoffman. Kelsay Books. 82 pages.

This homage to place is a “strapped in and write” victory for the city of brotherly love. Lynn Hoffman changes the landscape page by page, voice by voice, with every anecdote newsworthy and poetryworthy because of his powers of surveillance, wit, and humor; using his city slang as springboard for character studies. There are serious events since cities are human history, yet the feeling is buoyancy, even happiness in memorializing a time and place that can never exist again and can be compared to no other. Our poet achieves magic-making by visiting neighborhoods where time has left. There’s nobility in walking the alleys, a man crying in Washington Square, the vacant slotted benches in Rittenhouse Square. Sharp writing and lyrical patterns move us through carpenter’s woods, shucking oysters on Sansom Street, walking Addison Street, where vital information and loss pierce the page. What determines memorable poetry? What’s the key to making new ideas from old memories? This book will give another reason to love poets and poetry.



I was barking here before you and you

and youse especially.

When there was a room to hide

on downwind side of brownstone stoop

or in the alley by Carmine’s

where me and Eddie

doo-wopped, doo-wopped.

I owned the street.

It was wild then

feral, forest, lamppost trees

offa parking lot steppes.

and we were the wolves

or the pups anyway

and we feasted: red-gravy sheep

christmas geese.

and bitches-man, there was bitches.

There was gods here then,

the hydrants, mailboxes and mammas

it was like Easter Island and

everybody watched and nobody saw.

Now the Christmas lights on the Avenue

are all white and polite and there’s

nobody left to sniff the ground,

to bare their teeth,

to howl.



Falter by Marjorie Stelmach. Cascade Books. 84 pages.

The book begins with the poem Nothing, “ And if the Eternal/ stooped to you, swooped/down upon you, linking/ you, lifting you out of/your body,//or, no,/ if the Light/ came upon you, came/ into your skin — skinning you /whole, and insiding you/out — each cell perceiving/its singular purpose./And then, before/you found words/to speak of it,//what if/you felt it — /the shutter–click grip/of your consciousness,/slamming you/back into flesh,//and yet,/in that slimmest/ of interims, something/had slipped into your synapses,/staking/your future/…

All writing is from the spirit but not all writing is of the spirit. This is a book of faith, beautifully crafted poems that slow your breathing because you don’t want to leave the situation on the page. The poet observes the world of faith from a place of retreat; but this is not sanctimonious platitudinous writing. These poems come from a deep clear evaluation and perspective. The first poems cry for a vision — an understanding of what is holy in our material world. To be human is to struggle with crises of faith — and to state them as honestly as our speaker does, raises hope for the rest of the book. The middle section (bearing the title Falter) is from a silent retreat of reading and meditation. Pop culture would call it finding your “why.” The poems are a watermark for voices in our heads, sophisticated with intellect but only coming alive in a place of primitive naturalism. This is a moving collection as the writer never loses control of her own gravitational field of beliefs. Life and death are always close together, and to make such a significant statement in the interim is a contribution to sacred literature.


Monks pass mute in the churchyard,

dragging shadows across the stones,

            engraving a human stain

in the mortar of the chapel walls.

It is Ascension:

no one rises. All day, the unbending sun

polices the headstones; bells starch the ivy.

            Chiseled with unreadable names,

the sky’s only promise is distance


In ancient ceremonies at the grave, the living

passed their children, howling,

from hand to hand above the turned soil,

their terrified eyes a votive lit

against the dead’s return.

We expect so little. In our doubting hearts,

we know the dead stay dead.

            This day, too: we’ll rise from our prayers

with incomprehensible lines engraved

in the soft meat of our knees.

            And nothing will happen.



First, Do No Harm: New and Selected Poems by Laura Brylawski-Miller. Poet’s Choice Press. 146 pages.

The poet’s title comes from her experience as a physician’s assistant. Before that, Brylawski-Miller came to America, unable to speak the English language, having been raised in Milan. She now travels between homes in Northern Virginia and Bellagio. The book is an elegant travelogue, because imagination and reality can transform an ordinary life; and even more so when it’s from a cultured writer. Choosing a scientific profession assists the poems — Brylawski-Miller sees things as they are, representing and then purifying with images. These poems travel from America to Nepal; Lubeck, Germany; Cabo De Las Huertas, Spain; and Lucca; Volterra; Lake Como; Moterosso, more of Europe and much of Italy, etc. I love these places and now love to see them reshaped by aesthetic insight and elevated language. The evening news is depressing and we’ll find a better order for the world here — a lighter place from this reading, for good artistry is a kind of moral consciousness, choosing the highest instincts to counter oppression and denigrating language. Brylawski-Miller’s poetry is about vulnerability, vision and the senses. It’s also humanism and resiliency from a woman writing a life of self-creation, through difficult adjustments, believing confidently she can do anything. You’ll become involved because this poetry communicates clearly and passionately; and it doesn’t hurt, on a gray day, to visit magical places.

November 2nd


“He’s not here,” your Venetian houseman said

the last time I called. I didn’t know

you were dying in a clinic, in Rome. But today

on this beach swept clean of every hope of summer

I know how here, really, the dead are — they walk

in the void at my shoulder. If I turn around

I surprise only air, nothing moves,

but the dead are here. My father

walks out of the home woods

with his shot gun, becomes you

standing at the edge of the rice fields,

in other Novembers, unloading the shells,

while the dogs run ahead, cross down to this sand

nose to the wind, sniffing

the snows soon to come.



Itzhak Perlman’s Broken String by Jacqueline Jules. Evening Street Press. 30 pages.

Through poetry the poet renews herself by interweaving story, diction, and cadence. Jules writes of a certain time in her life. It’s about grief, and if done well this subject is one of poetry’s highest callings. We never find the exact deeds that inspired these poems but that’s not necessary. We have the systemic healing in clean verses that reorient reader to each page with a vivid reality transformed by metaphor. Each poem has an interesting dynamic, bending and refracting variations on the theme of loss. I like these presentations, not compounded by discursive editorializing within the poem, not calculated to make a certain effect. There are coherent trails blazed by truth and illuminated with granular details, investigating a woman’s interior world.

Handling Knives


To sauté onions, you must

peel and dice amid tears.

Apples don’t bake in a pie

with stems and seeds.

Even a bagel needs a blade

to separate halves and schmear.


If we want to cook,

we must handle knives,

expose tender flesh

to razor sharp edges.

Nothing worth tasting

escapes the risk of blood.



Train Ride to Bucharest by Lucia Cherciu. The Sheep Meadow Press. 165 pages.

If one were to ask what book to buy or gift today — poetry as meaningful as it is accessible — my first thought is Lucia Cherciu’s, I’m reading now. I like a foreign land that I may never see with people who are not really ordinary but in a fairytale reality (even when under communist regime.) This is a marriage of truth-telling and curiosities, quaint customs, quirky superstitions, heightened experiences. There’s a human face on every page: homeless Saghina, sitting on stones throwing away food given her when no one is looking; a school were children are punished by slapping each other’s faces; Mama Culita who washed her hair with lye “she brewed by simmering ashes”; (in another poem she rinses with petroleum;) Mama spinning wool, unloading carts of hay, saying, ”Do you want death to find me idle?” In Rusalie, the tale of fairies who select a young man but if he speaks of it “he will be paralyzed;” the mother who knits 50 cardigans to be found after her death; Father’s “sandpaper hands” from lifting crates of milk, etc. Who would not want to be among them, with their bitter cherries and plum-brandy? These poems touch us; connect us to fanciful and credible tales, from a poet/picture-maker sharing her history.

August Heat Wave


At twenty one I traveled across Romania

as an interpreter for two weeks, carrying


only a small duffel bag with extra clothes,

a long skirt with pharaohs that I had sewn myself,


stitched by hand, and a couple of books. I also

brought along a bulging bag my mother gave me.


When the American I translated for

saw it and asked what was inside, I unzipped it


in the parking lot in the secrecy of the open trunk:

twenty pounds of pears my mother had just picked


from our garden. She knew I was going to need them

in that fiery August — hard fruit she said would ripen


in the car during seven hours of driving every day

on roads with no names on the map, no grocery stores.



Bistro in Another Realm by Shirley J. Brewer. Main Street Rag Publishing. 73 pages.

Shirley Brewer excites. She dresses up a poem and sends it to a party, taking us along. It’s rare to find a poet who’s fun, truthful, vulnerable and entertaining — she makes “boring” just plain unfashionable; and as for sadness, her poems say, “Hang a look at this” then she makes it dance. This isn’t to say Brewer doesn’t shed powerful light on profound life yearnings and chaos. Yes, but she changes it to a good conviction that life’s worth the trip, transforming her finely tuned intuition to crisp metrics. Sometimes poetry has a game face; sometimes it wears glitter, but each of Brewer’s performances has an emotional connection that we believe with all our heart. Especially moving are the poems about family with their vivid portraitures. This is ekphrastic writing — not where one looks at a painting and writes a poem, but where poetry is so colorful and painterly, we could turn it to a visual art.



A goddess in gold earrings and a metal walker,

my feet stutter along hospital floors


while my mind conjures rhinestones stilettos —

my pelvis whole again.


I’d trade these non-skid socks

for silk stockings that shimmer in the dark.


When my bones heal,

I will shop for sandals with sequins, slingbacks —


sway and strut in six-inch heels,

pivot like a model dazzling the runway.


Oh, tango shoes with red satin straps,

lift me up, release me.




Perhaps Bag by Carol Rumens. The Sheep Meadow Press. 497 pages.



What I like about quotations

is their loneliness


what I like about loneliness

is seven and a half vodkas-and-blackcurrant


what I like about blackcurrants

are the sharp little stones inside their burst cushions


what I like about cushions

is their lack of backbone


what I like about the backbone

is its perfection


what I like about perfection

is academic


what I like about academics

is the way they curl two fingers when citing quotations





Sibylline by Marc Vincenz; art by Dennis Paul Williams. Ampersand Books. 43 pages.


vii. Light through glass in Annunciation



The lion, the divine love.


Spaces of unpredicted clarity;

the turbulent light

that emerges

through the darkness.


Across the altar

                        in the mass

as the glory

                        of angels

suffuses in light.


& in the down-glow,

dogs play

just enough


to convince us

to believe.


Marc Vincenz




To Each Unfolding Leaf, Selected Poems (1976-2015) by Pierre Voélin; translated from the French by John Taylor. 309 pages. Bitter Oleander Press.

Only Snow is Missing


The mild martyrs

those wounded by blueberries

those renewed by the breaths of stones


old men with snail-like eyes

women with weighty breasts

babies who die in their cribs

— the mutilated


May they now shamelessly

slip away and vanish

go in front of you Lord


Bear them away this time on a boat of snow


I sing with the thumbs of the cold

and the branches and the black of the bark


with the father’s handed-down voice


I sing and through my song invite

with flames at bay

to the table of snow




A Lover’s Art, The Song of Songs in Musical English Meters, plus 280 Love Poems in Reply by Martin Bidney. Dialogic Poetry Press. 409 pages.



We know the children’s honey of the written word,

The honey of the apple dipped, the autumn gift

That helps the coming year be sweeter and will lift

The spirit, amply to a gratitude bestirred —


But taste and see, O taste and see, the hymnal said,

The goodness of the God to Whom by love we’re led.

My harvest years are come: the fruits about me fall:

Your eye gleam, willow-wand-like hair — a silent call


Repeated fills the heart: I deeply breathing know

I’m where I want to be and where I want to go

At once: the root and height, the rising-fountained



Of you are Life and Being, deeper New Year truth.

O miracle and teacher, honey of my days,

I’ve tasted and I’ve seen, and in amazement praise.




December, volume 28.1, edited by Gianna Jacobsen. December Publishing, Inc. 217 pages. (49 contributors.)


3 A.M.


By Marisol Ramirez


I’m in this citrus skin again,

 itching at the thought of spiders.


So I shine a yellow light

down the underbelly of the sheet,


             talk to my insides

and compartmentalize. Brain, tingle.


The pulp of my calves peel and curl.


            How do you lay down

to your thoughts

 and not devour yourself?


 Seeded minutes spit away.


            I think about an apple,

            the way you eat your way inward


 past skin and fruit

to a single core —


 nothing shredded,

                        nothing really lost.



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Grace Cavalieri is founder of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now recorded at the Library of Congress. She’s celebrating 40 years on the air. Her new book, a compendium of poems, plays, and interviews, is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers).

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