June 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

June 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

The Best Poetry to Begin SUMMER

The Half-Finished Heaven, Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly. Graywolf Press. 118 pages.

Scribbled in the Dark by Charles Simic. Ecco. 72 pages.

Miss August by Nin Andrews. Cavankerry Press. 105 pages (with a kick-ass writer’s note at the end).

Resurrection Biology by Laura Orem. Finishing Line Press. 56 pages.

Inside Outside by Sue Silver. New Academia Press. 52 pages.

Waging Beauty: As the Polar Bear Dreams of Ice by Daniela Gioseffi. Poets Wear Prada. 38 pages.

Getting Ready to Travel by Llewellyn McKernan. Finishing Line Press. 33 pages.

Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton. L+S Press. 31 pages.

The Apollonia Poems by Judith Vollmer. The University of Wisconsin Press. 88 pages.

Plus: Best Anthology, and Seven Other Books of Poems on June’s Best-of List.


The Half-Finished Heaven, Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly. Graywolf Press. 118 pages.

In this present world of hurt comes a book of such exquisite work, we’re refreshed and we are cleansed. Tranströmer is a Nobel prize-winning poet translated and introduced by Robert Bly. It’s been a while since we’ve seen our veteran performer, Bly, in the headlines and no better time than now to present selected poems translated from Swedish — words right where they need to be — beauty and integrity. What of the poems? What mysteries do they tell? Writing about the island of Madeira, At Funchal, Tranströmer says ‘no man is an island:’… From what is inside/ that the other person can’t see./That which can only meet itself./The innermost paradox, the underground garage flowers, the vent/toward the good dark. A drink that bubbles in an empty glass. An/amplifier that magnifies silence. A path that grows over and after every/step. A book that can only be read in the dark. “

In Late May he speaks of tenacity and time: “Stubborn grass and weeds beat their wings. /The mailbox shines calmly: what is written cannot be taken back…” And always the accommodation of loss with something left behind that redeems, in Part lll of Preludes (a prose piece:) “The apartment where I lived over half of my life has to be cleaned out. It’s already empty of everything…The windows have got larger. The/empty apartment is a large telescope held up to the sky. It is silent/as a Quaker service. All you can hear are the doves in the back /yard, their cooing.

Simple things, personal items, come together with their own expectations, yielding the core of a man whose soul is on the page. We trust without fail his images because they are without guard rails — they stream and flow with thoughts that come and go. Allegro: “The rocks roll straight through the house/but every pane of glass is still whole.” Behind every word is a ghost — simplicity and grace — each word uncovers itself, then is gone, the light and shadows he suggests turn to snow.


December Evening, ‘72

Here I come the invisible man, perhaps in the employ

of some huge Memory that wants to live at this moment. And I

drive by


the white church that’s locked up. A saint made of wood is inside,

smiling helplessly, as if someone had taken his glasses.


He’s alone. Everything else is now, now, now. Gravity

pulling us toward work in the dark and the bed at night. The war.



Scribbled in the Dark by Charles Simic. Ecco. 72 pages.

Poetry is a halfway house where “the foul rag-and-bones of the heart” (ripping Yeats) are rinsed off and hung out in the sun. But first poets talk about the rags and bones. Charles Simic is the custodian who does this uniquely — when stars hit the ceiling, he pulls them back and sets them right — enough for us to see our way through, and this is what Simic’s poems are about. That Elusive Something begins, “Was it in the smell of freshly baked bread/that came to greet you out of the bakery? /The sight of two girls playing with dolls/on the steps of a building blackened by fire? /…In a crowd of strangers, feeling like someone/stepping out after a long illness/who can’t help but see the world with his heart/and hopes not to forget what he saw.”

This poet’s world is filled with voices breathing good will in spite of wars, and inevitable plight. Here’s THE BLIZZARD, an example: O to be inside a mailbox/ On a snow-piled street corner/Snuggled against a letter/Sending love and hot kisses/To some lucky fellow out there.” Also characteristic are darker observations: The poem, SCRIBBLED IN THE DARK,” A shout in the street./Someone locking horns with his demon./Then, calm returning./The wind tousling the leaves./The birds in their nests/Pleased to be rocked back to sleep./Night turning cool./Streams of blood in the gutter/Waiting for sunrise. And always something sweet shining, AT TENDER MERCY, “O lone street-light, /Trying to shed/What light you can/ On a spider repairing his web/ This autumn night, /Stay with me, /As I pushed further and further/Into the dark.

Simic is a favorite of mine because I don’t know anyone else with his exact combination of vulnerability and toughness. He’s courageous in showing himself, and his tiny essays have a higher power because they’re perfectly written: DARK NIGHT’S A FLY CATCHER,” Thatched myself/Over with words.//Night after night/Thatched myself//Anew against/The pending eraser.

There’s a song that goes “kissing strangers till I find someone to love…” Simic’s poems are like that — what it’s like to kiss the strange, to find the love.


Wagering one more thought

Against the universe,

The one about this moment

I’m living through

Being all that’s true,

With my heart leaping

To place another red chip

On this dark night’s

Vast and unattended gaming table.


Miss August by Nin Andrews. Cavankerry press. 105 pages (with a kick-ass writer’s note at the end).

Some poems don’t need an author. They just take off by their own selves making a world and populating it with their own vocal abilities. This book is about the south and racism. It’s told in three voices: Sarah Jane, and Gil — best friends from different social classes — and May Dee, “the maid” who serves at times as narrator. This is “Our Town” alright and it glistens with the quirks and superstitions of the 20th century world before integration; and an innocence that penetrates pretension and artifice.

In “Sarah Jane’s Swim Suit,” May Dee says: “the time I catch my Gilly boy in Sarah Jane’s swimsuit, that little flowered suit with ruffles like a tutu, I prays, Lawd, don’t let Mr. Simmons see this…”

The book has a terrific plot with prose poems that have the lilt and lift of an updated Huck Finn — I read one after another like eating peanuts — for the twists and turns of these young kids who take over their world. Apparently, poets, at least Nin Andrews, can pursue intellectual justice with keen humor, and literary strategies. The inner play of these characters is pure drama — dialogue and adventure. How wonderful to say the things you want to say and make the reader want to read them every minute.


(Sarah Jane)

One night I dreamt you was stepping out of the crick where we caught

crayfish as kids, your hair wet, slicked back, and you was grinning wide. I

was so happy to see you. Together we lay on the flat stone by the pawpaw

tree, the two of us, pale as ghosts beneath a full moon. I had so many ques-

tions to ask, Gil Simmons, but you said hush. I reached out to touch your

face, and when I woke, I felt the past on my skin like hot breath.


Resurrection Biology by Laura Orem. Finishing Line Press. 56 pages.

Illness, death and resurrection are not novel ideas. It’s only courage and conviction and craft that make them so. Poetry is a conversation and Orem talks clear and tough and directly with a voice that savors life all the more for having almost lost it. Sometimes in a collection, a poem depends on the one before and the one after. In Orem’s case, there’s a poetic totality on each page. Like all good writers she chides herself in the poem, At It Again, “What do you think you’re doing, /you there, with the pen? /What could you have to say, you amateur, /that hasn’t been said before/by people more eloquent than you?” but like all good writers, moves through that space to create. She can chill us with the beauty of those women who painted radium on watch dials, Radium Girls, “…Such pretty pixies, how we sparkle and dance! //In unseen places, we are cracking and crumbling. /Our bones shatter and burn.” And in Mea Non Culpa she can lace up her kickers, “If your balloon has burst, /don’t blame me. /I didn’t sour the milk/or poison the well// or forget to pay the cable bill… It ain’t my fault, buster,/if you’re left standing there/with a scrap of ripped latex and string./Who pumped it up with hot air?/...Don’t blame me for anything.” Orem quantum-leaps from a Revenge Poem (bad luck can make good poems) to a loving August Pastoral about her sheep. I admire the integration of moods, mostly hopeful, often funny, deeply marked by empathy.

Resurrection Biology

Bring out the dead the passenger

pigeon and Carolina parakeet,

the Tasmanian tiger, the dodo,

the mammoth still sleeping

in icy Neolithic dreams.


Unspool them in ribbons and splice

the shredded places with golden

genomic scrap, and if we are lucky

they’ll rise again, more substantial

than alchemy, more solid than ghosts.


Maybe a crooked wing, a halt

in the step, one blue eye where once

both were brown, but all the pieces,

new and old, must fit no gaps, no holes,

no places we could slip through

like smoke and disappear inside

their baffled resurrected memory.


For who said the dead regret us, our messy

lusts, the bloody coup d’etat,

or even the unweeded garden,

the dog unfed on the porch?


We wander through bedrooms slamming

empty drawers, through kitchens

to bang the utensils,

all the while wailing Tell us,

tell us you love us!


We want what we want.

We search for it in anything we find:

a sock, a poem, a bone, a tooth,

a strand of DNA like spider’s gossamer

twisted at the bottom

of a glass pipette.


Inside Outside by Sue Silver. New Academia Press. 52 pages.

First books have a kind of sizzle to them and fresh energy that keeps you reading. The chips are flying and everything matters. Silver is a New Zealander and she comes onto poetry with the love and lust of a pioneer breaking new ground. The many facts of her being show up in the many textures of outdoor life, spiritual healing, and her medical profession — all in language that harmonizes and humanizes the world. In The Ride she’s hand ventilating a preemie of 4 pounds “…I am concentrating on this tiny form, lifting the chest fast enough/giving the right amount of air, /watching her color. She is lying on a blanket on a tiny mattress. /I am sitting on a chair in the ambulance, she is my world.…” And in The Doctor Said she exposes child molestation “…In this small rural town there was so much that was/taken for granted, walked over, someone’s cousin, a friend, family.//Everyone knew them, nothing wrong there.…”

Then The Mother on Ward Three shows a nurse fighting against her forbidden attachment to patients,” …I was overwhelmed… The children/the children, ///I didn’t see her again.” Also, a professional photographer, Silver images landscapes and the natural world with color. We don’t have to reach the sky to touch it. She brings it with a strong loving vibrato to earth.


The dark waters, brown colored

in their depths, know nothing of my blood

running out from this deep gash

while fishing, this new knife unwieldy in my hands.


The kindness of strangers

asking if I’d caught anything

helping in my distress to bind my wound

stem the flow for all I know

the uncaught fish sallying for light

caught in a flash of reflection

watched me from beneath the pier

amazed at my ignorance, eating gladly

the bloodworm I dropped there.


At the hospital the nurses take such care

I am swept and cleaned and stitched

the lost light of this lovely afternoon

a picture past.


I visit again this windy pier

I do not cast nor attend to fishing gear

but walk and sit and linger in the cold

and ask the fish for another year.


Waging Beauty: As the Polar Bear Dreams of Ice by Daniela Gioseffi. Poets Wear Prada. 38 pages.

Gioseffi was marching, protesting, fighting and writing ever since people were painting pickets. She’s always used her ability to activate and stimulate. This book is no disappointment in her long canon of work. People need their history and Gioseffi has dedicated her life to making that an honorable one. More than ever, she shows that political writing is lyrical, imagistic and vulnerable. Far from the rant attributed to words that want to make change. Big Hearted, Witty, and Wide Eyed ends, “paint, sing, taste everything lawfully possible, /and help save the kids from Climate Crisis, /because you still have some hours left.” The poem Where Have All the Flowers Gone credits its folkloric origins in a high-flying poem that pierces the facade of a Pop Culture that kills instead of cultivates. In a standout stanza, “Where have all the young girls young boys — / gone? /In uniform/everyone?” Gioseffi proves her emotional connection to the future, in poetic structure, from a lifetime of good writing.

Carbon Summer or Nuclear

 Some say the world will end in fire
 Some say in ice…. Robert Frost

I look in my grandchild’s eyes,
watch his small hands grasp

his toy globe and spin it.

Earth’s fever rises. Glacial cliffs slide
into rising seas. Cities drown in flooding ports.
Climate refugees migrate into alien cultures

where religions clash in wars. Storms batter cities.

Forests cleared for greed rip species from the web of life.
Everyday, millions of tons of brain-damaging poison
are dumped into the delicate shell of Earth’s air
as if it’s an endless sewer up there.

Reservoirs dry, cities burn in thirst!
Vast droughts dry aquifers. Faltering farmers

lose their living. Pollinating bats, honeybees,
butterflies and hummingbirds die weakened by pesticides.
Amphibians and birds diminish to extinction.
People of the Arctic and Pacific islands flee ancient lands.
Wildfires force thousands from their homes and foul air.

Nuclear radiation spreads by tsunamis or earthquakes

as wars topple governments.
Where lies collide with eco-logic,
battlefields bloom with blood.

Warring fanatics urged to buy

weapons from profiteering dealers selling
guns, tanks and bombers guzzling oil.

I watch my grandson’s small hands spin

his toy globe, and realize there could be

no eyes, no ears, no hands, no art, no song,

as our dusty planet, home to our dried tears

of love and laughter — lost in endless space

with all our poetry — could rotate

frozen or burning in silent thirst. 

Some say the world could end in carbon summer,

Some say in nuclear winter —

but from what I’ve seen of carbon fire,

nuclear-winter ice is also great

and could suffice.


Getting Ready to Travel by Llewellyn McKernan. Finishing Line Press. 33 pages.

I wish Italo Calvino could read this book. He’d love it: folkloric, classic, present day — As if this poet had invented originality, she writes as if no one is watching, and in her dream soliloquy she has a reverence for form. It seems the work so gently constructed might unravel without it — almost every page of this poetic biography is in rhyme: end rhymes, semi-rhymes, consonant rhymes, half rhymes, syllable rhymes. This book-length poem also uses varied forms — couplets, tercets, eight-line verses and seven-line verses. I’m fascinated by the consistency in which McKernan’s powerful feelings are held. What does this say? First, the poet celebrates all that is available in expressing poetry; next, she’s highly accomplished; and above all, magically, her thoughtful moments can be expressed in thoughtful ways without losing story. And what is the story? An interior monologue which fastens the speaker’s emotional life to a fairytale all her own, and as an observer of the world in its spectacle. There’s whimsy here and a sweetness of being that’s made all the better by craft. Reading this is like catching butterflies in your pocket.

I make the beds. I set the table

for both the believer and the rebel.

I boil the water I take from the creek.

I work by the day. I work by the week.


I fill the pantry. I empty the pail

of whatever it is that I do so well.

I salt the real with the absurd.

I store the unseen with what can’t be heard.


Daylight and dark I break into crumbs

 that feed the birds, one by one.

 All the waste from babble and bile

I wash away, I wipe up with a towel.


I dust and mop, and shine and shower.

 What gleams for you I’ve polished

 for hours. This dull routine goes on and on.

Sometimes I like it but it’s never fun.


I have the dirty job of making things clean.

Once that is done, they say what they mean.


Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton. L+S Press. 31 pages.

A chapbook has the benefit of compression giving us an intensity that longer books may not. Bolton is a poet of place and uses geography to her metaphoric advantage; her poems are also commentaries on our time with nicely designed ideas. Since poetry ruins boredom, happily this book will, too.

Good morning, Sunshine

            Del Rio, Texas, 2012

Alone, I wake in sticky Texas six a.m.,

covers flung off. The ceiling stares

blankly back. A fight last night,

and my wedding ring doesn’t fit today.


I leave the house without it

for coffee. The young cashier

doesn’t know that a little wrinkle

is being born in her tan forehead.


Tired people rustle papers and wait

for caffeine, for change, for the shift

to end. I’m the only one reading poetry.

Fox News drones along, and Romney


won’t release his tax returns. I imagine

them as birds in a box, twittering

about percentages and off-shore accounts.

Good morning, hello, good morning.


The Apollonia Poems by Judith Vollmer. The University of Wisconsin Press. 88 pages.

This is a festive book because its driver is inventive which makes everything alive. Vollmer reshapes poems within the page capitalizing on physical space to shift energy and tone. This somehow makes it easier to enter her reality; for there are tiny trajectories on each page and we’re guided and led by these. All poems are persistent illusions and her family ones may or may not be reality – they may be something better. Poets don’t get to choose who loves them: all they can do is memorialize life as they know it, working it so it’s new to the writer and so to us. We can’t love the special events of language more than the maker does and so I’m happy to report Vollmer makes poetry worthy of its place in our lives.

The Great Lakes

Suckle the great blue swollen

lungs, many-breasted, multi-

graped clusters, now I know

joy is impersonal,

swelling makes me full, pausing

like a sleepy baby gorging

passing out from it. Gaze into

blue so viscous

though it has been oil-

streaked, set fire to,

dredged for ore,

shat into by the great ships

of Commodore Perry,

pissed into by me encouraged to do so

by my Baci who said in Polish

my mother translating,

“It is vast & clean & takes away

all germs from winter long.”

Joy impersonal

eyeball to infant cells

inside Erie’s

stopped-down gray cape of clouds

& heron, ceiling of feathers,

water over my 4-year-old head

unspeeding above me

it seems eternal though I have

no such language then.


Best Anthology

Gargoyle (Issue #65), edited by Richard Peabody. Paycock Press. 341 pages.

Prose, Poetry, Art.

The Loss of Beauty

 By Michael Daley

The way a face haunts us with its purity about the lips, within the eyes’ glow,

Its frank pleasure in being; we can’t exhaust ourselves with looking. All day

Every face gives everything it has to offer in the briefest encounters, but

We need to see this one face perform. More than stillness, the eye needs

its laughter, its calm trust, even savagery if we can withstand a sudden

Loss in one face out of millions.

                                    We cannot survive

                                    Hearts roam continents panting

                                    Over the wooden road.



Call Me When You Get to Rosie’s by Austin Lagrone. Bitter Oleander Press. 64 pages.

Material Witness

The Latino Retention Committee

meets just once a month

at a round table

in the hurricane shelter

beneath a ritualized Van Gogh

that seems to be confused

with Gauguin or Flaubert’s parrot.

I point out it is the year of the dragon

& the Mayan calendar is petering-out of soft applause.

No one mentions Donna & Benny

or the other nine students

that were caught


We keep to a small fire

without Rigoberta Menchu

& dream of a mid-town balcony

where we, as well, might lose our way.


Crossing Places by Ernestine Cowalton (Hongvan Nguyen). Infinity Publishing. 99 pages.            

Years I spent without a relative near,

Like houses without any roof and wall

Like aria with no accompanies at all,

Yet, it’s a song I’ve never got tired to hear,

And disasters I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Patiently I wanted a goal that’s so tall,

Despite all sadness from failures and falls;

I struggled ‘till all problems became clear;

All what’re planned to belong to a vision

That I wanted to see them well come true.

Nothing but swinging into some actions,

And bravery that pushed things to go through

Without unpreparedness or dereliction,

For wishes that I didn’t want to subdue.


Filthy Labors by Lauren Marie Schmidt. Curbstone Books, Northwestern University Press. 104 pages.                        

Never Too Late for Amazement

            In memory of Paul Schmidt, 1918-2011

The day before Pop died,

he turned to his son

and whispered, with all

the breath his lungs

could summon,

How old am I?


When my father replied



Pop’s eyebrows

arched their spines

as he shook his head

slowly, mouthed

the word Wow.


Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo. Circling Rivers. 102 pages.                                    

Venus Asleep

            Painting by Paul Delvaux

A skeleton and an

Edwardian lady meet

in Rome — she’s


a red evening

primrose. His grin


keeps the rowdiest

seed quaking under

earth’s stone hat.


Ambushing Water by Danielle Hanson. Brick Road Poetry Press. 52 pages.                                                

He Beat Her

And her back fell open

like a moth finding its wings.

He beat her and her back flew

open like a bird rising.

He beat her and her back

flew to a tree —

a tree was sketched

by the markings on her back.

He beat her and her back left

running so hard

it left its feet behind.


Pilgrimage Suites by Derek Gromadzki. Parlor Press. 63 pages.

Tarry tell of wayfare and the way of

Ware that asks not earnest notes but

Shouts of fair misgivings that fiddle

A rhyme and pray a palmer’s kiss

Kneel on hobnails and play at myths

With a bootstrap chorus of peddlers


Looking for Ireland by Laura Treacy Bentley. Mountain State Press. 43 pages.                                                                        

Beside the


Rushes line an ancient river.

A Viking dips his oar

into the dark.


Seagulls skim the waves.

White-winged salmon.


Sky for ceiling.

Nettles for doors.


Blackbirds seed the summer clouds.


Additional Recommended Summer Reading.

Amy’s Story by Anna Lawton. New Academia Publishing. 248 pages.


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Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now recorded at the Library of Congress and celebrating 40 years on-air. Her forthcoming book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers, Oct. 2017).

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