June Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

June Exemplars

It’s wonderful to have a month to read, but I wish each month had more days.

Monthly poetry reviews by Grace Cavalieri

River Inside the RiverPoems by Gregory OrrW.W. Norton 124 pgs.

After Words by Shirley J. BrewerApprentice House, Loyola Univ. 25 pgs.

Selected Poems and Songs by Robert Burns. Oxford University Press.278 pgs, plus 200 pages of notes on the poems and songs.

Swenson, Collected Poems, edited by Langdon Hammer. The Library of America. 716 pgs.

Dogs Are Not Cats, poems by Terese SvobodaMadHat Press. 28 pgs.

Tipping Point, Poems by Fred MarchantThe Word Works.87 pgs.

Elvis Presley’s Hips & Mick Jagger’s Lips by Susana H. CaseAnaphora Literary Press.75 pgs.

Incarnadine by Mary SzybistGreywolf Press. 64 pgs.

The Cineaste, poems by A.Van JordanW.W. Norton.120 pgs.

My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn HejinianWesleyan University Press.141 pgs.

Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times, Selected Haiku of Basho, translated by David Young. Alfred A. Knopf. 106 pages.

River Inside the River: Poems by Gregory Orr. W.W. Norton 124 pgs.

You may think you’ve met Adam and Eve before in literature but Orr takes us to a place where they’ve been invented by someone more imaginative. The poem, “To No/To Know”: “God’s language/Lessons usually/ Began with “No.”//As if prohibition/Gave Him pleasure.////Eve liked to say “Yes,”/ which was all//Adam needed to know.” You will love them. These fallen creatures are like us—they were turned from a strong moment and, shivering with mortality, go forth.


In the second section, Orr in “The City of Poetry” turns poetry into the world that lives in us like stars that shine within and without: “…As I say aloud the opening line/ Of my favorite poem,/ My breath calms./ Soon,/ The sounds I make/ Set my hands dancing,/ And next my feet/ Begin to move.// Before I know it,/ I’m walking again/ In the city./ My stride’s jaunty,/ My legs feel strong.//I’m an old man/ Made young again/ By the poems I love.///Reciting them as I saunter along.”

The title poem is Section Three; it’s holy work. Orr takes on mortality and the beloved, the human spirit that is the breath of God in language that lives longer than we do:

The Book said we were mortal;

It didn’t say we had to be morbid.

The Book said the beloved died,

But also that she comes again,

That he’s reborn as words.

The Book said: everything perishes.

The Book said: that’s why we sing.

After Words by Shirley J. Brewer. Apprentice House, Loyola Univ. 25 pgs.

Stephen Pitcairn was a pre-med researcher at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, hoping to become a physician. He was stabbed during a robbery in 2012. Poet Shirley Brewer brings his death to life in this series of poems, in his voice and others, a young man’s lifespan of 23 years. The book is a crucible of love for someone she never met, making his death a mortality not only of a person but of our times. What is most moving is the poet’s ability to feel Pitcairn’s mother’s loss as if it were her own. The melodic counterpoint to death is art and this is a particularly notable work for escaping sentimentality. Brewer knows that a light hand makes us feel the touch all the more. This book is worth the message and the reading, for how can we change the world if we can’t feel something for its wrongs?


After Words  

– October 25, 2011

Cold autumn rain
blurs the landscape

The trial over,
a sentence handed down –

my mom returns home
her suitcase the lightest burden

she bears. Murder
leaves a heavy space,

the full moon
a circular loss in the sky.

Now, I appear only in photographs
I hope won’t wrinkle or fade.

My family and friends
will always weep.
I want to comfort them,
be my own ghost on Halloween – 

show up at their doors,
make them smile again.

Death can’t take everything;
I know I mattered.

After words, my heat
still warms the earth.

Selected Poems and Songs by Robert Burns, Oxford University Press. 278 pgs, includes 200 pages of notes on the poems and songs.

The reader will be relieved to know that although Burns experiments with voices, forms, persons and rhyme schemes, he is readable. It requires a little willingness, not scholarship. Burns’ 18th century life covered the times of the French Revolution, American Revolution; and his first book Scotch Poems was published in 1786, offered by subscription: “The work to be elegantly printed in One Volume, Octavo, Price stitched Three shillings.” The call produced a run of 612 volumes. This interesting book is here again in its original tongue, an amalgam of Scottish and English shifting from one to the other, sometimes from one word to word, sometimes between one line, one stanza. The poems preserve forms appropriated from all poetic forms known to him so it’s a good resource book for linguists who I’m sure can decipher some Celtic, Irish and Welsh lilt as well.


The book has poems separated into those in Scottish dialect, Kilmarnock 1786, and those from Edinburg, 1787. You can congratulate yourself for not getting scared off by contractions and punctuation, like many gnats settling on the page. But I swear there are no vulnerabilities of language, just dozens of styles that become more cohesive and musical by the inch.

I thought it would be harder to read but once you surrender, the flow goes in spite of itself and becomes hypnotic. And songs too! We all know “Auld Lang Syne” but what else do we remember by the Scottish Bard? The songs are unbelievably interesting. These, from the Scottish Music Museum, dozens of songs and verse which apparently took great liberty and challenged musicians to figure out the music, which Burns thought could be improvised here and there. Poems here published posthumously also; but what I like best are the “Contemporary Reviews” of his work and portions of the letters. Imagine that I, sitting in my home in 2013, get to know that Robert Burns had a stomach complaint in August, 1787… well I never get used to the privilege of such information.

From Kilmarnock, 1786 his lament for a dying animal is titled THE DEATH AND DYING OF POOR MAILIE , The author’s Only Pet Yowe: AN UNCO MOURNFU’ TALE

In stanza 3 we hear from MAILIE herself:

“ O thou, whase, lamentable face

Appears to mourn my woefu’ case!

My dying words attentive hear,  

An’ bear them to my Master dear,


Tell him, if e’re again he keep

As muckle gear as buy a sheep

O, bid him never tye them mair,

Wi’ wicked strings o” hemp or hair!

An’ let them wander at their will:

So, may his flock icrease an’ grow

To scoreso’ lambs, an’ packs of woo’!

And after 10 more stanzas of rebuke, the poem winds down forgivingly by old Mailie:

And now, my bairns, wi’ my Last breath,

I lea’e my blessinwi’ you baith:

An’ when you think upo’ your Mither,

Mind to be kind to aneanither

And  here from posthumous work, one of Burn’s verses titled LINES:



GRANT me, indulgent heaven, that I may live

To see the miscreants feel the pains they give;

Deal Freedom’s sacred treasures free as air,

Till slave and despot be but things which were.

Written in a lady’s pocket-book? Don’t we wish we had the back story on this!?


Swenson, Collected Poems, edited by Langdon Hammer. The Library of America. 716 pgs.

This is one for the nightstand so you can read it over time, published to celebrate the centenary of May Swenson’s birth. All her collected and uncollected poems together for the first time, with many surprises. Poems arranged as graphics on the page, visual works of art were new to me. She’s entirely playful even when she’s seriously enveloped in the poem’s mysteries. Her prose pieces are a MUST. Delightfully candid, listen to this, written in the mid 1950’s, speaking about ‘writing from first-hand knowledge,’ A Poem Happened To Me:


For instance, one of my first poems, called “Plea for Delicacy in Love,” dealt with the psychic play between man and woman in a coital embrace—being chiefly the attitude of the woman in contrast to that of the man. At that time I had had no sexual experience and was slightly, though probably erroneously posted on the literary information available on the subject, But years later my personal experiences bore out the philosophy of the poem—and I was quite aghast upon reading it the other day, wondering how the devil I knew all that then!

From the essay Poet’s Choice (1960:)

When I like a poem, I know what it does to my thrill-bone…its marrow is the unexplainable-A felt rightness and wholeness, a conviction that it is all there , a feeling that some prediction is coming true but you can’t say just what it is except in the words of the poem…

From The Poet As Antispecialist(1965:)

…The experience of poetry is animated with the insatiable curiosity of science. The universe, inside and out, is properly its laboratory…We must either master the Great Whirl or become victims of it…Art. More intimately, deals with, and forms, the emotional and spiritual climate of our experience. Poetry can help man stay human.

All I can do is give a little of Swenson and hope you’ll find the rest:

A Navajo Blanket (from Things Taking Place, 1978)

Eye dazzlers the Indians weave. Three colors

are paths that pull you in, and pin you

to the maze. Brightness makes your eyes jump,

surveying the geometric field. Alight and enter

any of the gates—of Blue, of Red, of Black.

Be calmed and hooded, a hawk brought down,

glad to fasten to the forearm of a Chief.


You can sleep at the center,

attended by a Sun that never fades, by Moon

that cools. Then, slipping free of zigzag and

hypnotic diamond, find your way out

by your spirit trail, a faint Green thread that

secretly crosses the border, where your mind

is rinsed and returned to you like a white cup.


Dogs Are Not Cats, poems by Terese SvobodaMadHat Press. 28 pgs.

In Svoboda’s new chapbook a fire hose is taken to language; dogs are the subject and the object. Svoboda is sweet and sour, classicist and modernist, but surprise is her signature quality. And sometimes, although dogs become mythic creatures, sometimes, she’s just plain impertinent:


The Dog with Glasses

The dog with glasses on her muzzle that make her look tired—

Well, she says, if it isn’t old so & so, chewing on my bones—

the dog faced dog, the dog that got away with everything, the

dog who turns her head away just like my mother.

Tipping Point, Poems by Fred MarchantThe Word Works. 87 pgs.

This book won the WORD WORKS 1993 ‘Washington Prize” and very nice that the reissue of a second edition came out 20 years later by the same press. A heightened sense summons Marchant’s poems as if someone turned a bright light on language, and suddenly reasoned thought becomes song. He’s a master of the many-sectioned poem—not easy to be constantly turning a subject while staying cohesive. He’s especially strong in his wartime philosophies and in father relationship poems.



In 1959 you were thirteen and rose

            earlier than you ever

imagined, knowing birds had nothing

           on you, leaving

on an empty stomach to deliver the news,

           ignoring your mother’s

sleepy warnings, beating your lathered

           father out the door,

to hop now on the company bike

           and ride to the station

where your Globes and Heralds waited

           to be folded and stuffed

into the wire basket, the canvas bag.

           Let everyone else go

fishing: you patrolled an uncharted

           city, a zone dawning

in headlines and traffic. You were

           losing baby fat and

saving money for school. The papers

           you heaved you imagined

grenades, and that the porches they

           landed on burst into flame,

sending the little girls out flying

           straight into your arms,

arms already smeared with the ink

           from the world’s bloody deeds,

your own war only seven years away.

Elvis Presley’s Hips & Mick Jagger’s Lips by Susana H. Case. Anaphora Literary Press.75 pgs.

This is an encyclopedia of rock ‘n roll in personalized poetic messages. These are flinty pieces reeling from the mean streets of the music business with youthful hope that the strength of a generation is in the glamour of the heat. In the early part of the 20th century, there was a mantra, “Mama didn’t allow no blues or jazz.” These poems tell what happens if she did. They are tough and live in the world of drugs and seduction; the relationships are unflinching too with the musical chords of discontent and misplaced love. The book is not a downer with all that; it’s elegiac and denotes a time and place in our culture where rock music thought it had trumped over age and dying. There are strong synergistic bits of heart and soul here of one poet addicted to a primal beat.


A Cathedral of Affection

Your cathedral of sound—

explodes only in my ears

in mono

in stereo

any noise will do.

The way you do it in the shower—

sing along with baby I love you,

the oomph of woa-oh oh oh.

I challenge you to hit the high notes,

give me some handclaps,

a little Leon Russell on the piano,

Darlene Love to back you up.

Sing with the feistiness of the Ronettes

—Their Washington Heights fight.

Your other fans don’t tingle on your lips.

You sing this way for me,

Your bad girl,

Your dancing girl,

Your girl to end all girls.


Incarnadine by Mary Szybist. Graywolf Press. 64 pgs.

It’s so wise for publishers to honor form. This book is wider than most to accommodate Mary’s long line lengths and graphic designs which make “white” a character on the page. The esthetics of Mary Szybist are as significant as the content— form and spirit are one– and if one of the poem’s chief enchantments is mystery, Mary plunders this with all her heart. We are rich with incense, the revelation of the invisible world, the marvel of our delicate connections. When I read her I’m sitting in the front pew of my life in a white starched dress with talcum powder and warm pearls. It’s the magic world we left of hope and dream and belief. The Annunciation is a silver thread through, and “The Virgin Mary,” perhaps, the alter ego of the poet. But she has one foot in this very immediate world as well, as in the poem Annunciation in Byrd  and  Bush (the sacred sometimes steps aside for a pun:) “The president goes on. The president goes/ on and on, though the senator complains/ the language of diplomacy is imbued with courtesy…// Who can bear it? I’d rather fasten the words/ to a girl, for instance, lounging at the far end of the meadow./ reading her thick book…” So would we, Mary. So would we.


Then there is Annunciation in Nabokov and Starr. (from The Starr Report and Nabokov’s Lolita) “I simply can’t tell you how gentle, how touching she was./ I knocked, and she opened the door. She was holding her hem in her hands.// I simply can’t tell you how gentle, how calm she was/ during her cooperation. In the windowless hallway. I bent toward her…” and the last stanza, a couplet that could break your heart. …”her body looked like anyone’s body/ paused at the edge of the garden.”

Annunciation: Eve to Ave, “The wings behind the man I never saw./ But often, afterward, I dreamed his lips,/ Remembered the slight angle of his hips,/His feet among the tulips and the straw…”

There are poems in here that defy my typing skills, so get the book and open to page 45, Too Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove, and then thank God or thank Buddha or your neighborhood cat, that imagination like this exists making this flat world soar above life and death and everything bad.

The Cineaste, poems by A. Van Jordan. W.W. Norton.120 pgs.

A. Van Jordan gives us a different set of understandings for cinema. What a brilliant conceit for a book, poems designed with intellectual appreciation and dramatic action about the movies. Each poem harks back to a specific film, mostly classics; and the circumstances of these films give the poet a chance to provide richer dimensions for the content, or tone, or controversy, or all. Each movie, then, is a palimpsest providing parallel or a paradox to the film. I’d just read David Thomson’s The Big Screen, finalist for the Marfield Book Award, so I was primed but had no idea what poetic riffs were in store from these bold delineations from a poet/film scholar. Wouldn’t this book be a great addition to any film study course. The poems are from every conceivable point of view: filmmaker, actors, critics, but make no mistake, the poetry elevates the film because every piece denotes feeling—and this is what moves us forward. There are some personal notes included in the book but mostly I’m grateful for the poems and a book like this where the poet is designated to interpret our culture. Here’s a straight ahead comment on a film:



(Jules Dassin, 1955)

They take as men are wont to do—with zeal,

like men who want more from the world,

which sounds like a noble endeavor

but when they plan, their plans involve

hurting others, if necessary, like men

will do when they desire. And every building,

every storefront window or locked door,

every vault with jewels or an open door,

or even a cop on a beat guarding a building,

forms a means to an end The world fills with men

who want more, which sounds ignoble when plans involve

hurting others. When men with an endeavor—

men with patience, with skill—can hurt the world,

they do. They take, as men are wont to do, with zeal.

My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian. Wesleyan University Press. 141 pgs.

I took Lyn to a doctor’s visit thinking I would read in the waiting room so I went early—and when they called my name I didn’t hear because I had to go back and reread places over and again—lines made from a magician. I’ll finish reading when I’m 90 and not before. Years ago, when Part 1 (My Life) was first published by pioneer Doug Messerli, I saw some of it, but what was the matter with me then? Too much in a hurry? With this poetry you’ll want to pace yourself, nothing seems more important: it happens in real time before our eyes. You can’t dream in a hurry, and you can’t rush this. Part 2 My Life in the Nineties, is a newer collection reprinted from a 2003 edition. How does she do it? Well it could be called (controlled) free association, and it appears on the page to be prose—entries are approximately the same lengths which tells me a lot about her energy. The first pieces are roughly two pages, later, longer. Sensuality is the connective tissue—sights, sounds and touch. She can find the taste of an artichoke and make it stay in your mouth. Most of this comes from her divine trust in readers and belief in our intuition. Hejinian’s intelligence is formed by visual and sonic remembrances. There’s always a take-away idea anchoring each piece, and there are material realities, people, characters and places. She turns them into holograms so we get many approaches to awareness: a horse or a grandmother is liberated from the sadness of 3 dimensions. Words, phrases and images are repeated and threaded like memory itself, and it creates a symphonic device of recurring rhythms keeping the whole together – this also serves to make us carriers of her thought, and part of her scheme. Someone could do a thesis charting the repetitive images and murmurs. Lyn Hejinian:

A name trimmed  

with colored ribbons

They are seated in the shadows husking corn, shelling peas. Houses of wood set in the ground. I try to find the spot at which the pattern on the floor repeats pink, and rosy, quartz. They wade in brackish water. The leaves outside the window tricked the eye, demanding that one see them, focus on them, making it impossible to look past them, and though holes were opened through the foliage, they were as useless as portholes underwater looking into a dark sea, which only reflect the room one seeks to look out from. Sometimes into benevolent and other times into ghastly shapes. It speaks of a few of the rather terrible blind. I grew stubborn until blue as the eyes overlooking the bay from the bridge scattered over its bowls through a fading light and backed by the protest of the bright breathless West. Each bit of Jell-o had been molded in tiny doll dishes, each trembling orange bit a different shape, but all otherwise the same. I am urged out rummaging into the sunshine, and the depths increase of blue above. A paper hat afloat on a cone of water. The orange and gray bugs were linked from their mating but faced in opposite directions, and their scrambling amounted to nothing. This simply means that the imagination is more restless than the body. But, already, words. Can there be laughter without comparisons. The tongue lisps in its hilarious panic. If, for example, you say, “I always prefer being by myself,” and, then, one afternoon, you were to telephone a friend, maybe you feel you have betrayed your ideals. We have poured into the sink the stale water in which the iris died. Life is hopelessly frayed, all loose ends. A pansy suddenly, a web, a trail remarkably’s a snail’s. It was an enormous egg, sitting in the vineyard – an enormous rock-shaped egg. On that still day my grandmother raked up the leaves beside a particular pelargonium. With a name like that there is a lot you can do. Children are not always inclined to choose such paths. You can tell by the eucalyptus tree, it shaggy branches scatter buttons. In the afternoons, when the shades were pulled for my nap, the light coming through was of a dark yellow, nearly orange, melancholy, as heavy as honey, and it made me thirsty. That doesn’t say it all, nor even a greater part. Yet it seems even more incomplete when we were there in person. Half the day in half the room. The wool makes one itch and the scratching makes one warm. But herself that she obeyed she dressed. It talks. The baby is scrubbed everywhere, he is an apple. They are true kitchen stalwarts. The smell of breathing shells seems sad, a mystery, rapturous, then dead. A self-centered being, in this different world.A urinating doll, half-buried in sand. She is lying on her stomach with one eye closed, driving a toy truck along the road she has cleared with her fingers. I mean untroubled by the distortions. That was the fashion when she was a young woman and famed for her beauty, surrounded by beaux. Once it was circular and that shape can still be seen from the air. Protected by the dog. Protected by frog honks, cricket circles on the brown hills. It was a message of happiness by which we were called into the room, as if to receive a birthday present given early, because it was too large to hide, or alive, a pony perhaps, his mane trimmed with colored ribbons.


Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times, Selected Haiku of Basho, translated by David Young. Alfred A. Knopf. 106 pages.

Below is an interview I did with Robert Haas (1995) when he was inaugurated Poet Laureate of the United States where he turns all he lights in the world on Haiku and says more than a “review” can do. It makes me appreciate the David Young translations with an insider’s point of view. Young is an esteemed translator of several languages including Chinese and Italian as well as Japanese. His book’s introduction tells us all we need to know to appreciate Haiku. Haas gives us additional insight into Haiku. (Hopefully transcription has not distorted punctuation of Haiku.) G.C.


A kind of wonderful example of a poetry that doesn’t quite praise or dispraise is the haiku form which I’ve been attached to for a long time. And I read some of these poems last night at the Library. Those are my translations of poems of Basho who is a 17th Century poet and one of the great initiators of the haiku form. The interest, Grace, of trying to translate these poems is to make their syntaxes simple and efficient as it seems to me to be in the Japanese, though I learned the only Japanese grammar I know from trying to figure how these little magical pieces work.

From the characters?

Well I just got interested. You know I read haiku as other people did and thought ‘God these are amazing and I wonder what they actually look like’ so I just went out and got Japanese grammars and dictionaries and started to try to

Break the code

Break the code, so I never really learned the language except the common vocabulary of these poems so I just set myself the task of decoding one a day to see how they were put together. And after awhile I accumulated enough of them so I thought it might make a book. Here’s Basho: Even in Kyoto/ hearing the cuckoos cry/ I long for Kyoto.

I don’t know if I should comment on that poem. The cuckoo is a migratory bird of course, and it visits the islands of Japan in springtime and for years it was the subject of poetry. You heard the cuckoo in the springtime in Kyoto and knew it was Spring. So the poems are really a kind of sentimental ideal of pure presence and Basho says the truth about human desire very plainly.” Even in Kyoto/ hearing the cuckoos cry/ I long for Kyoto.” Another poem. This road/ no one goes down it/ autumn evening.

This comes from a very early travel journal that he did. One of his forms was to mix bits of both casual and highly formed sketch prose with haiku and this just evokes, you know, an empty road and an autumn evening. He suddenly notices he’s the only one there and that’s one way of reading it. “This road /no one goes down it/ autumn evening.” Another thing that’s interesting about it… Once you look at the Japanese, you see that Basho, like other Japanese poets, with certain words anyway, has the choice always of whether writing the word in the phonetic symbols of the Japanese syllabary…The word for road is—-mechi—- so you can either use the characters for me and chi, or you can use the Chinese character, and in this poem he chose to use the Chinese character for road, ( mechi in Japanese,) is Tao in Chinese and it of course changes the poem visually. ‘Can’t do it in English. But you can do it by paying attention to what a deep metaphor any road that we take is. The American lonesome road from the blues will do.” This road/ no one goes down it /autumn evening.”

It’s all you need to hear about loneliness.

This is another one we talked about last night. All the Japanese poets of course wrote poems about Mt. Fuji, the great subject. Here’s Basho’s: Misty rain/ can’t see Fuji/interesting.

Was the word ‘interesting’ there?

Well let me read without comment a few of them. They’re very short. As for the hibiscus/ on the roadside/ my horse ate itThe oak tree/ not interested/ in Cherry blossoms.—Seeing people off/ being seen off /autumn in Kyso. This is very good sound. Let me find one of the better ones I wanted to read: Year after year/ on the monkey’s face/ a monkey face.

I guess this moves us into the inevitable and that is attention to the thing itself which is the image. It is the thing itself, instead of picture of a thing. I see the combination of the image and the imagination and I don’t quite know how to say enough about that relationship.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books, attn: Becky Meloan

311 Tschiffely Square Road,

Gaithersburg, Maryland 20878.


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