March 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

March 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Fort Necessity by David Gewanter. University of Chicago Press. 80 pages.

Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff. Autumn House. 88 pages.

Shadow-feast by Joan Houlihan. Four Way Books. 64 pages.

The Getty Fiend by Ken White. Les Figues Press. 116 pages.

Beauty Refracted by Carol Moldaw. Four Way Books. 80 pages.

Blue Guide by Lee Briccetti. Four Way Books. 106 pages.

The Undressing by Li-Young Lee. W.W. Norton & Co. 96 pages.

Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah. Milkweed Editions. 104 pages.

And four more on the Best of March list:

Martha Collins, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Tarfia Faizullah, Lara Gularte

Plus, Best Chapbook, Best Collection, Best Children’s Book


Fort Necessity by David Gewanter. University of Chicago Press. 80 pages.

Gewanter’s previous books are among my favorites, and this book will join the others. Fort Necessity frames the personal and the political with alter-self poems ranging from irony to humor to sadness to surprise; and political poems that are the blade of the knife. Gewanter chronicles the rise of capitalism as exploiter of all it touches. He not only creates a poetic chronology; but with added insight places notes/sources from newspapers, oracles, history, plus the actual moguls themselves: Carnegie, Rockefeller, and a poke at Herbert Spencer.

This is a magnificent way to add dimension to ideas, when in margins we find quotes from Karl Marx; Death of A Salesman; U.S. Senate report (1989); the New York Times; Alan Lomax;; W.B. Yeats; Rockefeller speaking at Sunday school; Polonius; Bruce Springsteen; Charles Darwin; Emma Goldman, etc. Here is the originality of Gewanter — poet, scholar, historian. He interacts with his own writing tracing injustice in the labor force from the late 1800’s through America’s rise via industrialism, but in poetic terms never thought of before. What is wealth? The book asks, “What is labor?”

This work is impelling for its bold certainty and strong lyric — but also a platform for humanitarian arguments and a predicate for poetry as investigation. Gewanter’s novel approach reveals the underbelly of human exploitation and wealth’s indifference that might otherwise be erased from memory by our daily distractions — as many books as there are waiting here on the desk, I had to reread him — for paradoxes, for managing excellent poetry within a social context, and just plain old decency.

Birth Racket


Baby born for it. 12 hour workday,                                                            Mother Jones

seven days a week. Through the drum-skin                                               magazine

of its mother’s womb, it rocks to the whir

of machines: iron rain. Swaddled in


factory rags, toddling among forests

of spindles, the racket echoing

its natal home, till it casts off childish things —

at age six — and takes its place on the line:


a wage-man, a snuff sniffer, on whose shoulders

the factory teeters and grows. To speak of

child slavery is to set everyone else working:


mill owners send their lobbyists

to dandle toys before the legislature,

lawyers are sent to suckle the courts . . .




The animal is one with his activity.                                                 Karl Marx

The worker puts his life into the object;

Then his life belongs to the object.


Darling Nova by Melissa Cundieff. Autumn House. 88 pages.

I’m so glad there are organizations that publish and give prizes or Cundieff might never have been recognized. I would have missed a big moment, for reading this I felt something fresh; so involving that I read slowly, because with Cundieff you have to — tough and scary and unrelenting — language that tightens then loosens, undermining everything we knew as ordinary.

Her detachment from reality becomes an attachment to reality for she uses language to make quantum leaps and her imagery makes new suggestions. There are poems within poems — story starts as photography and awakens to a new narrative because she goes where it takes her. She turns words back on themselves so we see them as transcendent goods, not hard facts, becoming literal translations of pure feelings. What is the parity of thought to word? Cundieff lives somewhere in the middle with dark hours and bright fantastic ones all within the same lyric space. There are ideas too from all this intuition. In the poem about Adam and Eve, “Adam In Love,” Adam thinks he would like to fuck the fruit, and later we find Adam fighting time, “knows too much now…the risk of remembering is guilt, my friends.” The book has consistent ethos which is unusual for 70-some poems; and although death is a huge character, because Cundieff is Cundieff, the worms will triumph.


Starts a memory you in a yellow dress against the condition

of your kite string. Taut, it lifts you to the thinnest white,

unwinding, tethered to you, Like a conversation with in your fists.

This could be the beginning or end of everything. Surely I must be dead,

watching with hollowed-out joy, your physics reaping the late lawn

of its light. I want to give you my hand in place of the wide sky

the kite spread out against infinity, soundlessness telescoping

through distance. I’m afraid I’ll never be as I once was. Later,

when ready to change from your yellow dress, I’ll hear one,

extravagant scream. A wasp will fall from the sleeve, clean sting

in your armpit. I smash it with my hand as soon as it lands. You can’t notice,

in your screaming, my coming back to life.


Shadow-feast by Joan Houlihan. Four Way Books. 64 pages.

“Beneath our lids, other eyes,” says Houlihan in a stunning poetry array on the death of her beloved. The sections are Hers, His, Theirs. But every poem is about a couple that cannot be separated, and yet they are. The speaker avoids the ordinary and with perfect craft and words that behave just right, she creates new forms for loss — and loss is gradual here allowing the poems to track demise in the richness of its grain. Grief is unbelievable yet Houlihan has to believe and makes us handle it the way she handled the lathe, page by page. Critics compare her to Emily Dickinson and I think I know why. They each distill language and feeling to a crystalline state that never tells a lie. Reading Houlihan reminds me of why I first loved poetry.

DECEMBER KISSED the year goodbye and tossed us into winter.

I was behind, without you. You went ahead into the lie we kept.

And who knew the whole of it, minded us, cared?

I am hollow as it made me. I am walked and circled and startled.

Is this the way we leave it? Who will give me grit and will

and who will help me live it? It wasn’t sleep, it isn’t sleep.

I haven’t risen, I rise. No one told us, but I tell all.

Do you remember the last cure? It nailed your thinking shut.

Do you remember the ground, our root? All our feet were cut.

I remember how we huddled, shivering, clothes full of snow.

How you then, kingly, all in white, let go.


The Getty Fiend by Ken White. Introduction by Michel Du Plessis. Les Figues Press. 116 pages.

Les Figues Press is out to stretch me. Every time a book arrives I inhale, hoping I’m able-bodied enough. This time it’s Ken White’s exposition in L.A. of a “Getty Fiend” — as Michael Du Plessis explains, in the intro, the Museum surely lacked one. The opera has its phantom; Paris its werewolf; Notre Dame a hunchback, and now he claims we have “a contribution to museology and monstrosity.” He goes on to explain why it’s necessary — not the least of which is for excess. “An invention” is what he calls it and that’s a good term. Also, Du Plessis believes White “has reinvented camp” for our century.

In places, it’s a little like reading Chaucer (and I believe maybe pretty good Chaucer) and one cannot be afraid. Just start each page as if you belong to this exclusive club of linguists and something will happen; You won’t always be sure exactly what happened but it’s lots of fun, and the verbiage is intricate as lace. Since lace takes a lace maker, there must be a pattern. So it is with White. His salvation is craft for no matter how extensively he flogs language he arranges it very well. This is not Jabberwocky. This is art the I know when I see it art that may not have a name: part poetry, part theater, part pure lilt — words that probably have rarely been put together with such intentions. I don’t know what he puts in his water: embedded in the text are words and ideas bent from some of our great writers, plus Getty displays. Invention is what we started with and we’ll stay with that. I like this poem because it offers a clever yet literal meaning to the text:

Ext. Mullholland Drive and Topanga Canyon — Weeks Later — Night


Wilderness, L.A. County. WIND rakes brush, desiccated oak. City

glows over the rise. Down the draw, a wildcat SCREAMS. Community

sleeps the sleep of having a nationally-ranked school system.


THE BEAST trots onto a private full-sized tennis court lit by

Mercury Vapor lamps. From house the TRICKLE of infinity pool.


This Beast is lighter of frame. Darker of eye. Around her, scent

streams eddy byways like dry pigments spilled into a water vat.


FLARE of headlights. Car doors SLAM. CHILDREN’S VOICES.

The Beast skirts chain link, recedes into landscaped treeline.


Beauty Refracted by Carol Moldaw. Four Way Books. 80 pages.

Moldaw’s book is about travel, geographic and spiritual. The two are relational as Moldaw charts a course through marriage and motherhood with a responsibility to see the world as a teachable moment in poetry. The landscape is mapped in “loops”; and, with human responses, nature is a code for the spirit. Some people say the word interesting is a dead word. I disagree. Ii means of interest and, you will be engaged — as Moldaw in her highly intelligent way takes a small Odyssey — small, but hers. She sees and says impressions and signifiers in beautiful decibels that we would not otherwise imagine.

Loop: Pojoaque


A restless sleeper, the Pojoaque shifts

in its gravel bed and sighs, shrinks into itself,


secretes mud curls. I try to keep everything

I think in my head but each former thought


a new one displaces. By the time I’m home,

I forget them all. Owl guano drips down the


arroyo’s side. On the mesa, small precipices,

out-juttings. Horsetail, tamarisk, grow


where they are blown, root in river sand —

also the cow hoof, the plexi camper shell.


Blue Guide by Lee Briccetti. Four Way Books. 106 pages.

Checklists, revelations recognitions, studies, to-do lists, guides, recitations make up Briccetti’s roadmap. “I am a ghost/ in minor warehouses…” she says. And warehouses are good storing places for memory and sharpening the senses. Her showcases but not insular, have no walls; there she opens wide her arms to climb the world visually and sensually. Italy’s a major source for travel, and Briccetti hooks it as if all her life is in there; Manhattan, too. She lives the lyric by holding herself in a special “place” and then proves there’s nothing she can’t do with words to make it ours. The past is best if we can make it the present with immersion into the tiniest details that make the big picture clear. I like the unexpected, for Briccetti must be an artist as well as writer. The page is beautiful to behold, inspired esthetics giving white space a strength and purpose. She takes leaps and lands safely for she knows timing and the calculus for each line. Briccetti has the gift of verbal energy, and with this she writes herself home.

Blue Guide, Rome, Giaicolo


The two-person elevator

that smells of pastries makes my lover so close

joy in him is sealed into my childhood.


Days, dogs off the leash bark at fountains’ aerial braids of water.


Nights, streets’ incandescence through a shutter.


Visiting my first country I am always a stranger

but distance is familiar and light.


In this happiness we build each other —

Renaissance painters laying down their blue skies,

inventing a way to see the world.


Blue, earthly. Human love, my true.


The Undressing by Li-Young Lee. W.W. Norton & Co. 96 pages.

From past experiences, Li-Young Lee renounces violence: the fleeing, the war, the horrors. But to renounce the ugly, he must examine ‘the word’ and what “words” do and cannot do. The long 15-page poem “Changing Places in the Fire” is a dialogue weighing the value and the guilt of living a struggle vs. speaking of it. Much of the book is a love poem balancing the body’s needs and its remembrances. Li-Young Lee is known for his ability for reflection and transformation and The Undressing is a cauldron of the worst of the earth and the best. This is his ability: to take the storm inside him and breathe it into words, nature, lovemaking. How dangerous is it to be happy when injustices rage? This struggle is what’s ‘undressed’ through lamentation and through prayer. To replace pain and trauma with poetry is a significant way to live. To gift it to readers, is a holy way to live.


The ash keeps dropping from the incense stick.


I keep turning you over in my mind.

I keep turning you over in my heart.


The stick shorted, burning.

The ash grows

and falls.


I keep turning you over.

I keep turning you.

I keep turning.


The ash keeps falling, piling up, more

of the silent reduction.

Burning earns such clean wages,

eye of ember, eye of ash hastening.


I keep turning your eyes over

to find your thoughts.

Turning your voice over

to find your meaning.

Turning your body over to find

a place to hide me.


And you keep turning inside me.


Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah. Milkweed Editions. 104 pages.

A brilliant poet in content and style, Joudah’s stories/poems would break your heart if you could stop reading long enough to let that happen. He speaks of the blood of life and that moves him to scientific inquiries within an architecture of human rights. There are people here too, where Joudah takes responsibility. This means that the difficult cannot be ignored and must be transformed to an attractive instance for the reader, and so compassion relies upon the well-made poem. Presenting poems as active measures of reality allows poetry to speak for itself; in the meantime, Fady Joudah did not know he was becoming a standard bearer for the art.



We hold the present responsible for my hand

in your hand, my thumb


as aspirin leaves a painless bruise, our youth

immemorial in a wormhole for silence


to rescue us, the heart free at last

of the tongue (the dream, the road) upon


which our hours reside together alone,

that this is love’s profession, our scents


on pillows displace our alphabet to grass

with fidelity around our wrists


and breastbones, thistle and heather.

And this steady light, angular


through the window is no amulet

to store in a dog-eared book.


A body exists all pages to be

inscribed on another, itself.

The movement through cultures asks for an identity that can only be defined and truly understood through poetry.


Night Unto Night by Martha Collins. Milkweed Editions. 128 pages.

Collins takes certain months of the year and dresses each day with a poem. This book follows her previous acclaimed Day Unto Day, with similar purpose, and equal elegance.




In sight — as at the bottom of this narrow

street the church — comes the end


of this small month, and where

has it led? In, on, past, back


with my love again, bells

ringing, morning drawing us in




In this little time left, time

to go, time for once


more into this past of brick

and stone, layered with late and later now:


For now, Gracie, tutti, I am almost

at the gate, I’m going through


Siena, Italy




Salvage by Cynthia Dewi Oka. Triquarterly. 112 pages.



Two women beneath a weeping

cherry in full bloom. One brushes


earth with her hair, deciphering

the calligraphy of fallen petals.


The other lifts her face to sun, laced

by branch and flowers like tiny


palms of snow. Almost a postcard

of spring, who could guess


the bounty on their heads, the men

with knives behind, how they listen


for their lives in what will never

be said. Give thanks. If only today


the world is their sons rolling

down hills of grass, the boughs


bending around them like mercy.


Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah. Graywolf Press. 96 pages.

Poems against war and oppression in powerfully well-shaped stories.

Apology from A Muslim Orphan


I know you know

how to shame into obedience

the long chain tethering lawnmower

to fence. And in your garden

are no chrysanthemums, no hem

of lace from the headscarf

I loose for him at my choosing.

Around my throat still twines a thin line

from when, in another life, I was

guillotined. I know you know

how to slap a child across the face

with a sandal.

Forgive me. I love when he tells me to be

the water you siphon into the roots

of your trees. In that life,

I was your enemy and silverleaf.

In this one, the child you struck was me.


Kissing the Bee by Lara Guarte. Bitter Oleander Press. 88 pages.

From the Azores to California, a brilliant migration.

Festo Do Emigrante


They sense the coast near,

hear the foghorn’s incantation.

They have crossed the great ocean,

their silver hair blowing in the wind.


Voices pulse through the air,

some speaking American.

At first just a mist, a slight drizzle,

primes their memory,

of waters where their fathers fished.


Forty years gone

till the waves bring them home.

They move down the gangplank,

some smile and carry gifts,

others, heads down, empty handed.


Those on shore don’t remember names.

One man throws his arms

around his mother’s neck.

She slips his grasp,

believing him a ghost.


They go back down the road

the way they came.

Here is home, they say.



La Dogaressa & Other Poems by Laurie Byro. Cowboy Buddha Publishing. 58 pages

Readers will love what they want, but no one can escape this poetry spectacle without admitting it’s a great moment for poetry. If you wish to see where history meets imagination, gloriously detailed, here’s an absorbing world populated by luminaries Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, D.H. Lawrence, and more. If you want to be stunned by the way a poet finds opportunities — if you cannot believe how the rational mind can storm scene and metaphor — I recommend La Dogaressa.

La Dogaressa Pantoum

Where I was still told to my face that modern art

can only be love… By Jews.” – Peggy Guggenheim


Cruel kids throw dead kittens in my garden like rain petals.

I am a Jewess in a town of Catholic ghosts.

My babies do not bark unless there is a reason;

they carry dead kittens like a trophy or a bone.


I am a Jewess in a town of Catholic ghosts.

They taunt me with Dogaressa, think my nose a snout.

They carry dead kittens like a trophy or a bone.

Every night, in Venice, I go to sleep alone.


They taunt me with Dogaressa, think my nose a snout.

I try to ignore them, serve up Warhol soup and crackers.

Every night that it rains I go to sleep alone.

The gardener and I mulch our blossoms with soft striped fur.


I try to ignore them, serve up Warhol soup and crackers.

My babies do not bark unless there is a reason.

The gardener and I mulch our flowers with soft striped fur.

Children play dead kittens in my garden like rain petals.



Albert Murray, Collected Novels & Poems, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Paul Devlin. The Library of America. 988 pages.

This is the initial publication of Albert Murray’s four novels, along with his poems. It’s about time to visit the south with him when he was a boy in the 20’s and 30’s (Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree. “Scooter” is the protagonist, winding up in a touring band (book three, Seven League Boots); and finally in The Magic Keys the writer finds himself and his true vocation in New York City. He’s bluesy, folkloric, poetic, learned, musical, writes like an angel, and deserves to be read as widely as Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker and more; critics say Murray is at times both William Faulkner and James Joyce. Murray’s first published writing, The Luzana Cholly Kick, is included in the appendix. Before its publication poet Sterling Brown read from this in a lecture at Morris Brown College in Atlanta (1954).  It’ll take a while to make the whole journey with the book but well spent. Start with “Notes on the Texts” and Walker’s “Chronology” as vital tour guides.

I used to say My name is also Jack the Rabbit because my home

is in the briarpatch, and Little Buddy (than whom there was

never a better buddy) used to say Me my name is Jack the

Rabbit also because my home is also in the also and also of the

briarpatch because that is also where I was also bred and also

born. And when I also used to say My name is also Jack the Bear

he always used to say My home is also nowhere and also anywhere

and also everywhere.

Because the also and also of all of that was also the also plus

also of so many of the twelve-bar twelve-string guitar riddles you

got whether in idiomatic iambics or otherwise mostly from Lu-

zana Cholly who was the one who used to walk his trochaic-sporty

stomping-ground limp-walk picking and plucking and knuckle

knocking and strumming (like an anapestic locomotive) while

singsonsaying Anywhere I hang my hat anywhere I prop my feet.

Who could drink muddy water who could sleep in a hollow log.



Jabber-Walking by Juan Felipe Herrera. Candlewick Press. 144 pages. (For ages 10 and above.)

Irrepressible, unconventional, imaginative, indefatigable Juan Felipe Herrera has developed a “Handbook” for young people, to welcome them to the land of inspiration, without fear. There are exercises in living freely, happily, on paper to “Scribble what you see! Scribble what you hear!” It worked for our former U.S. poet laureate, and now he’s spreading the joy.

“Do you have writing paper at home?

Where do you keep your images? Photos?


Do you remember a family story?

How far back in time do your familia stories take you?”


Please send 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,” celebrating 41 years on the air. Her new book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publisher).

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