June 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

June 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God by Tony Hoagland. Graywolf Press. 88 pages.

The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With by Daniel Lawless. Salmon Poetry. 80 pages.

Night Farming in Bosnia by Ray Keifetz. Bitter Oleander Press. 64 pages.

Aileron by Geraldine Connolly. Terrapin Books. 102 pages.

All That Held Us by Henrietta Goodman. BkMk Press. 66 pages.

& in Open, Marvel by Felicia Zamora. Parlor Press. 90 pages.

Age of Glass by Anna Maria Hong. Cleveland State University Poetry Center. 88 pages.

The Miraculous Courageous by Josh Booton. Parlor Press. 80 pages.

Exclusions & Limitations by Jennifer O’Grady. MadHat, Inc. 100 pages.

Jack, Love, and the Daily Grail by Joan M. Howard. Kelsay Books. 482 pages.

A Way To Home: New and Selected Poems by Martin Galvin; preface by Richard Harteis, introduction by Rod Jellema, paintings by Ryan Bongers. Poets Choice Publishing. 318 pages.

Plus: Best Translation (Idle Lava by Lyubomir Nikolov) and Best Chapbooks (Choose Lethe: Remember to Forget by Carolyn Clark and Final Deployment by Ann Quinn).


Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God by Tony Hoagland. Graywolf Press. 88 pages.

In the title poem, Hoagland ends with this, “In Hollywood, fifty movie stars have pledged/not to use their swimming pools/until world thirst is ended.” That’s all you need to know as introduction to Hoagland’s rare optimistic cynicism that’s life affirming and can turn criticism into spectacle. (As poet Jon Welsh says: I’ll have my poetry on Wry.) Hoagland’s messaging assesses each singular problem with philosophical/humorous/sad connections, then turns it into one beautiful performance of words. We watch while he’s constantly choosing what language means, then throwing choice out, and opting for the improvisational; that’s why surprise is surprise, and why he’ll always be in special demand.

“Theater Piece” is a powerhouse poem about integrity and exploitation — two subjects usually not readable unless turned into poetry or art — he begins, “The good white people of the Triangle Theater Company/have decided they need a black performance artist for their autumn gala…” In the piece the playwright will make concessions to the board of directors, “but he won’t give unlimited shoeshines / to white millionaires with season/tickets to the Coliseum…” His buyers and sellers “sit at a table in a dizzy silence…” This is Hoagland’s full-frontal poetry. The decibel can be turned down a bit, as in “Legend”: “One day we’ll be able to understand the language of the whales and hear their epic song…One day we’ll be able to understand the nature of the broken grammar//we have spent our lives inside,/like words that have grown distant//from the moisture of the mouth./We’ll go back to the sea, walk in up to our necks, and begin to swim.//Even then, there will be topics that the whales/will not discuss with us: //those mountains underneath the surface,/those black obstructions that we carry in our hearts;//and that fear of open water/that drives us to wildness and violence.”

For all his analyses of our society and our humanness, we leave the book saying this is one honest broker for Hope. He comes at it sometimes as heartbreaker, and some poems are more confident about this than others; but every piece changes our understanding of what it means to look at death while loving life. He’s not a fairy godmother inspiring us to join the salvation army, the work comes from the Netherlands — knowing ultimate loss while elevating and enlarging it into reverence. I believe Tony Hoagland and I believe in Tony Hoagland — two different things and two good things — he takes us on a journey with his skill and capacities. He’s a major talent and worthy of greater recognition but, as we all know, you can’t hurry history.

Examples of Justice



crack cocaine,

the poetry of Keats;

Kathleen’s big beautiful face,

and The Communist Manifesto

— these are all pain relievers.


Death from cancer of the mouth

of the tyrant Joseph McCarthy;

the blue crow gliding over the arroyo, cawing;

the baby taking the lima bean from his mouth

and pushing it back between the lips of his mother

— these are examples of justice.


The moment when you step away from the party;

the sound of the eighty-foot spruce tree, creaking;

the hour in the waning afternoon

when the attorney stands beside her car,

removes her sunglasses, and looks up at the sky

— these are examples of remembering.


The metaphor that makes you laugh out loud.

The warm breast of the dental hygienist

pressed against your ear

as she leans to get access to your plaque.


The dream in which you find yourself at sea,

at night, with water under you so deep

you weep with fear. And yet the darkness

does not take you into it

— these are examples of fortune.


The Gun My Sister Killed Herself With by Daniel Lawless. Salmon Poetry. 80 pages.

From dark comes light, we all know that, and poetry makes life’s situations either better or worse, but never the same. And so, we read Lawless’ competing realities — about abuse, destruction, death, disregard — and we still come away remembering the book as bright spirited. “It’s all in the way you say it,” obviously, and Lawless has an effortless elegance with unstoppable energy coming from line arrangements, clever imagery, and rhythm that changes content. Enjambments are the true definition of craft and Lawless is at his best here. He turns on the fire and nobody gets burned, just a bit dazzled.

The poems are painful portraits and also an intricate look at the nests that hatch disenfranchisement; but they’re also about art and ideas, consequences, surprises, and a speaker who’s watching and telling — describing the soul he sees in each. Is he giving us something to believe in? No, not anything we can learn from life’s mean treatment — however we can believe in the transformation to art that makes everything (however sad and bad) undeniably good. Stretch your eyes and there’s an enlargement of what’s possible. These poems construct a different world from the one you may know and that’s exactly its poetry “capital.” These may be harsh subjects but there’s literary knowledge behind every word, and we marvel that good writing — really good writing — changes our perception of “harsh.” Finally, there’s something penitential in this book. That’s what draws us in; that’s the bright light; that’s what instructs us, and it’s why we read work that’s inimitable and courageous.

Natural Selection


In the frozen food section,

Each section lights up as I pass.

Blueberry mini-muffins, stout pierogis, little

Pouches of mauve fondant —

Like hearing one birdcall at a time.

All the vanished species

Of the earth rising up out of the ice

Again to sing into the clear untouchable air.

Darkness ahead, darkness behind.


Night Farming in Bosnia by Ray Keifetz. Bitter Oleander Press. 64 pages.

These poems ask that you open as wide as the writer. They ask that you feel the beauty that borders on hardship, and the pain that makes beauty possible. This could be called social realism but that wouldn’t be honorable enough to note the careful infrastructure of each piece, the way poetry shifts the center of truth’s gravity. These are amazing pieces, appearing simple on the page; yet they burrow deeper with reading. Keifetz has a long story to tell broken into more than 50 poems. After reading this book we’re left with the feelings we have after a dream — that’s what’s left — powerful feelings. It’s enough, until we return to read again to see why.

Children of the Middle Floor


We lived on the middle floor

between the neighbors above

and the neighbors below.

High or low

we never passed them on the stairs,

but at night we waited

for the whispers, for the call

of rustling vestments,

scrolls and icons blazing

up and down dark wells;

from beyond the wrath

and plaster

tuss of pale thin stalks

touching hems and golden slippers,

our dreaming dust

whispering back.


The starving hours,

the sodden prayers —

we lived on the middle floor,

too high to leap,

too low to soar,

where they deadbolt you in

for saying a Name

and toss you

like a milk white goat

into the flames.


Aileron by Geraldine Connolly. Terrapin Books. 102 pages.

Connolly writes in a way Elizabeth Bishop would appreciate — taut with detail and observation. There are fables here, and family, and intelligence in domesticity that dignifies women, writers, and poetry. Sometimes the book harks back to the child’s life, but there’s always an adult fashioning the psychological context, whether in kindergarten or a doctor’s office. If we want to know that every blackberry is worthy of a poem, read this book. Connolly’s poetry is sustainable — we can come back to this, year after year, to find the emotional register still true, and the stories always meaningful in spite of our own changes.

A Long Marriage


I was the rose and you were the bee.

I was a wolf, you were the bear.

You were the train, I was the tracks.

I was the apple, you were the teeth.

You were the bed, I was the blanket.

I was a riddle, you were the answer.

You were the toast, I was the butter.

I was the hook, you were the fish.

You were the fish, I was the water.

You were the water, I was the lily.


We floated the pond, we soaked in the wind,

soft white against soft dark,

the bones and the flesh,

the midnight feast.

We were the snow falling,

the leaves budding

in afternoon rain.

The fallen, the risen,

the fire and the ash.


All That Held Us by Henrietta Goodman. BkMk Press. 66 pages.

Every page is a perfect 14-line sonnet as occasion to explore a family centered around a mother, a father whose absence is always present, and an idiosyncratic aunt. Not only for what is done here — but how — the writing is sensational. The famous architect Louis Kahn once said, “Nothing matters [paraphrased] that does not show how well it was made.” Goodman is at the top of her game with precision and story. She can take a victory lap.



One absence filled, but if it’s true we try

to replicate, not remedy, the lack,

then that first boy, his thumbnails painted black,

his hair liberty spiked and streaked with dye —

a copy, not a prototype. He’d die

beyond my reach, the way he lived — soundtrack

of his own losses a loop of feedback

I couldn’t interrupt, a lullaby.

And yet I have the ordinary list

he sent — the yellowed envelope, his hand.

Why he loved me: I wore fishnets, sang well

(which wasn’t true), I smiled, I like the Smiths,

my mother cooked weird food, I drove a van,

had a blind dog, didn’t believe in hell.


& in Open, Marvel by Felicia Zamora. Parlor Press. 90 pages.

Zamora has many poetic virtues, and outstanding among them is her strong sensual understanding of the world. Word choice and tone give us strong sounds, smells and images. This visceral approach to life’s experiences makes us aware, more in touch; and more capable of looking inward. Zamora also takes good risks with form and allows concept to seek its own shape; but it’s her fluidity I admire most and the prosperous display of verbal texture.

Night undresses behind panes —

catches you. The snow globe

dizzies; a layer of white collects you

thunder heart in moiety of shadows.

Cover engulfs cover: duplicates

competing dark will take this too. This too:


Age of Glass by Anna Maria Hong. Cleveland State University Poetry Center. 88 pages.

The author tells us the book was 14 years in the making, and I believe it. Hong is so good she gives me chills. There’s, first of all, a complete faith in the reader to understand poems made of splintered glass. Next, she takes no prisoners: (She “keeps a husband in a little box” in one poem; in another, she says, “genies are mean outside the bottle”). Hong’s funny in a scary way because here’s a poet who knows the outer limits of imagination and dares to go there. She doesn’t care if you take her to court or sue her for it because she’s fearless, fanciful, wild, magical, smart, courageous — she crosses invisible bridges to reach us and she never falls in.

10 to 2


Raise the hour and the glass — there is

beauty in the braggadocio. I break

my heart for you. My fast is no lament.

I break my luck in two: one for you


and two for me. My rumored blood,

my dynasty. The neck keeps pace. The horse

and I retouch the sky on clipped, brown wings.

To tell, rehearse, recede.


I raise a glass to the hour

you took the box from me. I raise my voice

inside your throat; I hum a viral children’s

storyline, which has no native melody.


The arrow whistles through the weft. The watch

sets on a silver beam minutely attached.



The Miraculous Courageous by Josh Booton. Parlor Press. 80 pages.

Booton is miraculous and courageous. He’s compiled the life of an autistic speaker, a young boy, who sees purely and sees with wonder. Booton conveys this not with narration or from a high place, but by entering the psyche of a child these limitations are his gift. Booton’s poetry could go deep enough into speech to find the throbbing heart of language without ego or self-consciousness. The child’s obsession with sea creatures is a prayer of vision — there are also overt references to “Mom,” and how his shirt tag feels, etc. and many sentient qualities we find in an average child — yet all this is improved by a storyline that has free exercise within perfectly formed poems. Writing of any kind is to overcome comfort, and for Booton, to do this for another is holy work.


who knows why they’re called hands

they hold nothing don’t even

have fingers and how could you

hold time anyway a whole day

in one hand the night another

the light is light enough but impossible

to hold hold on mom says

but means wait not find a handle

I can handle it she also says

but mostly when she can’t when I

come home and she’s crying

saying it’s ok honey it’ll be ok

I just need a minute but always

I count to sixty and still she’s crying


Exclusions & Limitations by Jennifer O’Grady. MadHat, Inc. 100 pages.

O’Grady writes with compassion for beaten children, slapped children, murdered children, and I thank her for this — because the poet has power greater than all others; and lines can be remembered by phrase and clause more emphatically than found in op-ed pieces. Poetry shakes us awake and serves society as a whole. O’Grady excels in introducing new elements to the poem on the page. Her arrangements influence meaning and she navigates space without losing tempo. She’s also able to collapse all chronological ages into a single one where the young and the old seem to live together. It’s not only because of story but a vitality written by an author still alive with her younger self. This work, these poems, are strong and soft. A rare combination.



In twin chairs by the lakeside tonight

we’ve watched day’s last light


spread like a bright blush over the treetops

past the point where cabins stand


abandoned, sealed against winter.

In the middle distance the island floats,


fading. There alone the wild blueberries

hand like unmarked globes over water


separating shore from shore.

Why they grow there but not here


puzzles, like love or the coming bereavements

of autumn, or rumors of empty, drifting skiffs.


For now at least the island remains

part and not part of the unknowing night


as we are to each other

island and mainland, ship and shore,


a familiar place; a mystery.



Jack, Love, and the Daily Grail by Joan M. Howard. Kelsay Books. 482 pages.

Daily poems like prayers written consecutively, years 2000 to 2017, after the loss of a husband, prove that love endures as vitally after death as in life.


This Lover


This lover I’ve wed with innocent eyes

embracing with joy rare knowledges’ prize

and worked with his hands fine matters of wood

whom I’ve only known as generously good.

Some expertise lost when he had a stroke

no exquisite lathing his right side broke,

but cheerful in all work, disciplined, hale,

 a young man with cancer, now life’s final nail.


A Way To Home: New and Selected Poems by Martin Galvin; preface by Richard Harteis, introduction by Rod Jellema, paintings by Ryan Bongers. Poets Choice Publishing. 318 pages.

This is a big book in every way. It begins with new poems from 2007 to 2015 holding five sections. The following categories are Gallery I: “Creatures” from the book Sounding the Atlantic 2010; Gallery II is “Still Lives” from Wildcard, 1989; Gallery III, “Landscapes,” from Making Beds, 1989; Gallery IV, “Portraits,” from Appetites, 2000; and Gallery V, “Abstracts,” from Circling Out, 2007. A big book from a big life.

The significant feature of all Poets Choice books is that each one combines art with poetry. The poets chosen are world-class authority artists. In this case, the paintings were originally rendered on canvas and panel in combinations of acrylic, gold leaf, watercolor, and ink. It’s important to note that Martin Galvin, a Ph.D., spent his career in a high school classroom. A former student now accompanies these poems with his original paintings. Ryan Bongers comes full circle from student to fellow artist in a compendium of poems written over the years that are antidotes to our present culture of violence, cynicism, and corruption.

The poems are from pure thought, great humor, and a sweet spirit. They can be feisty and surprising, soulful and anecdotal. Galvin can also tell a good yarn. What is uniform is a clear recognizable voice throughout — not only a speaker but a real person is behind it all — a person of decency and integrity. Family members, characters, old friends, occupy the pages and each topic has the imprimatur of an individual who’s a poet we can trust. There’s no time for gimmickry or showboating here; that would not be Galvin’s style. He couldn’t fake a poem if we paid him. What he is shows through language, story, meter — all equaling craft. I call it “bringing it for real” — making poetry effortlessly honest. Good writing makes us heal if the writer is emotionally invested in art that makes us better. I believe Galvin is to poetry what Thornton Wilder is to theater — able to produce a full picture that lifts us up.

We can talk about cultural movements in poetry but when a poet, genuine and true, does the spadework, and produces materials that are humanistic, this is something we can take (not to the bank, of course) but to the schools, the neighborhood, the family. Careful tactics and a knowledge of poetry’s apparatus are assembled here for the reading; and the public good — and you can take that to church.


Safety Pins


Holding things together.

Gravity does that — and rainbows

And the man who figured out

That gravity needs rainbows

As much as the other way around.

Safety pins do that — if you happen

To have your trousers falling down

Around you, if you happen to be

A baby in the days before Velcro.


Mothers too. They’re safety pins,

The lot of them, holding things together

That otherwise would fly apart,

Putting back in shape the ripped and torn.

Bracelets too, the way they hold the wrist

At Peace, the way they add a little grace

To the hand’s need to give and take.


You find a bracelet made of safety pins,

Dressed in rainbow, bound by gravity,

You’ve got a thing worth hold on to,

An ornament to hold the day in place.



Idle Lava by Lyubomir Nikolov; translated by Miroslav Nikolov. Settlement House Books. 102 pages.

Nikolov was born in Bulgaria, and while his words are in English they still retain the salt and the earth of eastern Europe. Direct speech and a sharp vision parse his world clearly and beautifully. Nikolov’s minimal verse achieves resiliency and boldness — his phrases take on power because he knows how to compress form. Part of his craft is using space well, surrounding the work with white page; and that reminds us of Kay Ryan, whose poems the size of a pocket comb, say more than extended narratives. From the fields, the grapevines, from the rusted trains, from the cathedrals — Nikolov brings another world elegantly into ours.



To be awakened by silence,

to realize

that time,

time itself


has aged.



Choose Lethe: Remember to Forget by Carolyn Clark. Finishing Line Press. 40 pages.

Carolyn Clark’s teacher (1974) once said, “Describe what you know very well.” This book is a testament to her teacher made better by the currents of time. Having been trained as a classicist seems to assist Clark’s poetry for a bandwidth of language that electrifies while it focusses on ordinary events, memories, and unforgettable people.



I wash myself under

waterfall of sound:


thrush, wind, wood,

dreams swim away.


Clock resonance matches

the tick of thicket birds


while my new day’s gait

brushes grass.


Final Deployment by Ann Quinn. Finishing Line Press. 46 pages.

Ann Quinn is the daughter of a naval aviator and uses that as a matrix for the daily motions of life expanded to wider horizons. She shows in each poem that we are always beginning with each experience and that’s the secret to make it lasting.

Carrier landing


You have to learn to go against all

instinct, doing your utmost

to hook that cable while giving

your plane full throttle


Full speed ahead my dad would cry,

guiding his chatty female

family out the door; each of us grasping

at the strong cable of one another

even as we strove to take flight.


Please mail review copies (2018 releases only) to:

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

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” Her new book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publisher).

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