March 2019 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- March 13, 2019
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
A Cry in the Snow by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, translated by Luke Hankins. Seagull Books. 120 pages.
Also listed with March’s Best Books: Nancy Huxtable Mohr, Jessica Jacobs, Diane Mehta, and Rigoberto González.
A major voice in American poetry has turned to playwriting. Rankine knows how to do it – taking a powerful topic and putting it in the hands of epitomized characters. Her characters include an American businessman, and his family, who wish to buy the latest work of art by a celebrated African-American artist. Theater is about ideas and the conflict that polarizes its people, and it helps that Rankine has the gift of dialogue and a subject no one can look away from. It’s the white card that dogs our society when do-gooders are wrongheaded proving, over and again, that all motion is not progress. The wealthy people in Rankine’s play try hard to understand why they’re not wonderful and progressive: they walk the walk, yet inherently aren’t able to grasp racial nuance. As the great poet Sterling Brown once said: “They mean so well, but they do so poor.” In fact, well-meaning could be a character in this play. Only the son (i.e., the next generation) fathoms the difficulties. Rankine’s play shows that even today we cannot agree on the basic facts of race relations, and we have a long way to go to assume healthy responsibility. The play is about viable conversations that fail — if, say, a philanthropic art owner owns private prisons but wants “to help black people” — and if human rights and humanity are not seen as the same thing. But, for now, we have this play that opens it all up, and this exposure of differences is where we begin — as we now begin, over and over.
Former Soviet citizen Kaminsky writes of authoritarianism, military invasion, and resistance in a harrowing tale involving puppets, puppeteers, lovers, and children. The writer writes what we don’t want to hear; and makes it something we cannot live without hearing. The villagers’ resistance is to make up a language the soldiers cannot understand, using deafness as a weapon of power. This is so true of many stories where victims coalesce to be victors — yet, with oppression and violence in enemy occupation, there’re no human aspiration — only whose blood flows and when. Especially effective are Momma Galya’s puppeteers, who strangle soldiers (after sex) with puppet strings.
Kaminsky’s written a work that’s a symbol of all times when one dominant force overtakes a people. Throughout history, victims will always develop a codified message to endure and sustain. Kaminsky’s writing is one percent sociology and 99 percent poetic genius, making explosive realities manageable — even when writing of cruelty — and giving us lines that are so gorgeous, and original, and breathtakingly visual, we marvel at the human being who wrote them.
Value added. In the notes at the book’s end is this: “ON SILENCE: Deaf people don’t believe in silence. It is the invention of the hearing.”
On balconies, sunlight. On poplars, sunlight, on our lips.
Today no one is shooting.
A girl cuts her hair with imaginary scissors —
the scissors in sunlight, her hair in sunlight.
As soldiers wake and gape at us gaping at them,
what do they see?
Tonight they shot fifty women on Lerna Street.
I sit down to write and tell you what I know:
a child learns the world by putting it in her mouth,
a girl becomes a woman and a woman, earth.
Body, they blame you for all things and they
seek in the body what does not live in the body.
A Cry in the Snow by Stella Vinitchi Radulescu, translated by Luke Hankins. Seagull Books. 120 pages.
The poet lived during the communist regime in Romania and brings her sense of dread and survival into a meditative journal. Radulescu begins her book with speculation on her existence, corporality, and mortality. She writes the poetry of her culture using her own processes as central. Imagistic and beautiful, the poems create moments of reverie and melancholy. These are patient observations and internal monologues — they speak of a larger presence — the competing realities of a life limited in freedom except for the imagination and the pen.
what life on earth is all about
in the garden among leaves
have the birds gone away?
where is this noise at the bottom of the ocean coming from
this avalanche of human forms?
enough? of course not, it’s starting again
the empire is drowning
they’re hanging innocents
and it’s up to the wind to listen to their cries
to soften their souls
Nouns & Verbs by Campbell McGrath. Ecco. 288 pages.
Don’t bother looking for any words today. Campbell McGrath has them all, and then some. He can craft formally, bop playfully, and speculate philosophically. He’s known for the long form, the prose poem, social commentary, and nostalgia — once I worried about slander when he wrote an exegesis about the Chuck E. Cheese establishment, but thankfully those people don’t read poetry. The intellect is the thing with McGrath, but the best part is we don’t know it’s there, as we’re on the roller coaster of his ideas and verbiage and never want to stop to find who’s running the machinery.
I’ve known his work for 30 years, so I started reading the new poems first, and they are new, but thankfully they have semblances of former poems — a sweet smartass approach to life’s degradations, and an astounding encyclopedic mind for science, literature and pop culture. You can find a “happy meal” in a soliloquy, or poems written at “Jiffy Lube” — then find a “Smirnoff” or “Bruce Springsteen” deepening a poetic thought. You can also find eloquence and lyricism, enough to take your breath away. He simply has it all.
McGrath is ubiquitous, although he’d be able to do something more spectacular with that word — his craft is impeccable when he wants it to be. He’s incorrigible and lovable — an American patriot trying to shape up the country from its television to its most elemental problems. This book is McGrath’s roadmap and is worth the trip. He did win the MacArthur “genius” award once, and I second that award.
The Human Heart
We construct it from tin and ambergris and clay,
ochre, graph paper, a funnel
of ghosts, whirlpool
in a downspout full of midsummer rain.
It is, for all its freedom and obstinance,
an artifact of human agency
in its maverick intricacy,
its chaos reflected in earthly circumstances,
its appetites mirrored by a hungry world
like the lights of the casino
in the coyote’s eye. Old
as the odor of almonds in the hills around Solano,
filigreed and chancelled with flavor of blood oranges,
fashioned from moonlight,
yarn, nacre, cordite,
shaped and assembled valve by valve, flange by flange,
and finished with the carnal fire of interstellar dust.
We build the human heart
and lock it in its chest
and hope that what we have made can save us.
I’m so glad I’ve read Rathburn, to be reminded once again how poetry can encapsulate story powerfully, formalizing events, making them well worth it. Everyone has childhood memories and discordant pasts; then why do this poet’s gifts seem incomparable? As if no one has experienced it all quite well enough before? It could be her craft and form, invisible to the eye and ear, holding feeling and language together with a special chemistry.
Deft explorations into the soul are not for everyone – not even for all poets — examining shame, humiliation, blame. Only the richest mind can refashion into vivid tableaux. We might see Rathburn as a visionary for the way she converts circumstance into hologram — the actual is transformed by language’s internal radiance — so careful, so exact, unaware of its utility.
Knowledge of the visual arts is everywhere, and one long poem on Delacroix’s “Medea” is a masterwork. Mother and child are the source and subject of Rathburn’s poems — the push/pull of emotions — the shared knife — but unlike Medea, we do not kill, we find the divine. The only way this art can be described — a collection of poems with the divine.
Variations on a Theme: Delacroix’s Medea, 1820-1862
For years he seeks a way into the work.
He sketches the children sucking at her breasts,
he studies her neck and torso, turning her
this way and that, in motion and repose.
Why am I not a poet? the painter writes.
But at least let me feel as much as possible
in each of my paintings, what I wish to produce
in the souls of others. He draws the dagger
from every angle but does not let her use it.
It’s always the moment just before she kills.
Camouflage by Lupe Gómez, translated by Erin Moure. Circumference Books. 128 pages.
On each page are two poems, one written in Galacian, and its counterpart in English. Sometimes the poems are only one line: “death was a white horse bathing in a river”; and every page is beautiful. The theme is grief — a mother’s death — but the story is birth, the life from this mother and an unspoiled village not touched by modern configurations — a rural land that still carries on its ancient practices. This is a treasure of language imagined, and translated with an exquisite hand. It constantly amazes how few words can be said to open up a world. It’s apparently the poet’s sacred obligation to preserve her language, her culture, shaping contours of meaning from fragments of thought — each word precise to its mission.
You had no dreams
because women in villages don’t dream.
The economic backwardness of Galicia
was a form of artistic avant-garde.
Hoagland was one of our most energetic and beloved writers who died recently, leaving this “craft guide” with dozens of poems referenced, and his own personal explorations and explanations. The book is about “Voice” in 12 chapters: Showing the Mind In Motion; The Sound Of Intimacy; The Warmth of Worldliness; The Tribal Bond of The Vernacular; etc. As we see, the mysterious subject “WHAT IS VOICE,” heard in every classroom, is answered thoughtfully, from various perspectives. Hoagland is said to have been a superior teacher — a final chapter is on “Prompts, Exercises and Skillbuilding,” and Hoagland infuses his own versatility and effortless elegance in sharing his knowledge. Tony Hoagland’s own voice beams from the page, invested, influential, strong, imperative — just the way we like to remember him.
“One of the most difficult to define elements in poetry is voice, the distinctive linguistic presentation of an individual speaker. In many poems voice is the mysterious atmosphere that makes it memorable, that holds it together and aloft like the womb around an embryo. Voice can be more primary than any story or idea the poem contains, and voice carries the cargo forward to delivery. When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it — that is, how they live, breath, think, feel, and talk.”
A Crown of Hornets by Marcia Pelletiere. Four Ways Books. 86 pages.
Without self-pity, these poems chart the course of a wounded brain coming to life from injury. Each poem is a genuine straightforward account of this reckoning. Where is wellness and how does it feel? The whole person and the damaged person coexist, composing a series of elements — fear, sorrow, memory loss — but from all emerge strong clear writing that lives the only life it has, and does it meaningfully.
The Habit of
We put on crinkled patient gowns
and clicked the snaps, each time,
like children, obedient,
accepting what we got.
Finally, the strangers
finished reaching underneath
our paper sleeves, said we
could take them off for good,
but after so much time
in those light robes, we paused
before we moved into
the lack of them, the letting go.
Tsunami vs. the Fukushima 50 by Lee Ann Roripaugh. Milkweed Editions. 120 pages.
“This book is a tribute to, in memory and honor of, the victims and survivors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.”
When a tsunami hit a nuclear plant (Fukushima Daiichi), 50 stayed, risking their lives, to man the reactors.
Natural elements are beyond human scale. Maybe that’s why we need poetry that encapsulates so much and provides the only shelter we have from calamity. Roripaugh uses our oldest beliefs to confront the disruption of nature’s harmony. Characters and situations are her choice of tools as she tackles an enormous task. Fortunately, she’s equal to the painful subject with good technical skills and an ability to find subtleties within a horrible story. Some poets were destined to write something on a timescale we cannot even imagine and yet make it germane to every moment. Part historian, mostly artist, this poet restores life from the rubble.
because it was afternoon
and I was at the carnation farm
when the earthquake struck
because by the time I arrived
back home to help my family
traffic jams had clogged shut
the main arterial roads leading
inland from Futaba-machi
because when the tsunami
breached the sea wall,
and concrete disintegrated like
strewn chunks of soft plywood,
we had to leave our car
and flee for higher ground
because the elevated hill
marked as the evacuations point
for an elementary school
seemed like it should be safe,
until the tsunami rose like
a thundering wall of water
and blotted out the sky
because there wasn’t time
for us to climb all the way
Capista has his hand on all aspects of this art. His craft is impeccable, often witty, and always refreshing. The poet shows extreme versions of himself — he can lullaby you with perfect tone in moments of tranquility; he can write social issues via poetry; he writes referendums on college teaching and his students. The poems allow an emotional exposure, so the reader has full access to thoughts behind the line. Some poems are simple, some complex — Capista has a certain gift to allow quiet around experience and this has to do with word choice and aesthetics on the page. Most of all, we find the poet expresses essential goodness in daily acts, and takes on this art to prove it to us. This is a reward for the writer and the reader.
History of the Inevitable
Fire wants to be ash, which wants
a bucket to hold it with unsleeping certainty.
The bucket wants to look like the moon,
which it does some nights, while the moon
wants to be the storefront window, full
of something. But the window’s coats
are tired of town’s dull hooks and long
to be pitchforks, which long to be trees.
The trees envy the slow-moving cow
beneath their boughs, and the cow wants
an engine to propel it though the sharp
fence where the man rests, wondering
how he will ever go to his desire when
the universe so needs his tending hand.
Also in Best Books for March:
Honoring the farm women of family lineage from the 1700s to present time, Mohr immortalizes history and tiny acts that create the past. “Storms coming but the tubs/ are full — one wash, the other butter/ for you on the next train…”
One Minute More
A man and a woman sit
after dinner, stare at sun’s
reach over oak crusted hills,
the long light on green lawn.
They drink wine and talk
of those not seen in years,
of hope and not despair.
The dusk around them
holds itself taut, as robins
search for their evening meal.
Let’s not go in yet, he begs.
One minute more.
A powerful autobiography of friendship, love, marriage: “We knew what we were getting into. Each of us/ holding the hand of the most/ stubborn person we knew, the only one capable/ of wrenching the other/ greater than the sum of her parts…”
The koi were killed by a possum killed by
our dog, whose barks brought my dad to the dark
yard, along with me — his stand-in son, his
midnight shadow. In the glower of the flashlight,
the dog’s eyes were red and rolling, the possum’s
fur bright as an errant scrap of daylight.
The dog wouldn’t put it down, bent the pipe
of the pool skimmer my father used to lever
the body free from his jaws. My parents
gave the dog away soon after. Because, I suspect,
wildness can live in the suburbs only so long
as it doesn’t bare its teeth; so long as when the light
finds it, it drops its prey and wags its tail;
so long as we confine our darkness to the dark.
From the essay “Sex & Sensibility”: “The sexual vulnerability so specific to postdivorce love is the very thing that rekindles your relationship to experience, but it is also what makes you that much more lonely…”
My tough blue hands are veined with a thousand rivers
navigated or drowned in.
But I have roots to care about, moss to take me in;
earth-maid, dirt-maid, pages of trees grow within.
Chasing down my blue-dark conversations,
cockatoo creations, I ration thought, chase elation.
Lakes move in their reflections of trees
where light swims with full-floating ease.
A thousand years from now,
love will wonder why it ever lost its vigilance.
Perhaps: dream-crazy midnights, illicit scenes,
walking roughly into grief, casketed in it.
While stars telescope me into new geography.
Gravity claims down trees and follows me.
A book of pain and sorrow expiated by lyricism. “I’m simply an entity misunderstood, I only do/what you do to me. Since I am no longer free,/ the cloud of me becomes the shroud of you.”
Portrait of a Father After His Son’s Memorial Service
There’s a man who sits on a bench
waiting for a train, though the trains
arrive and depart and the man remains
seated, the heaviness of resignation on
his face. As evening falls the light flickers
awake in the waiting room and a moth
begins to flutter in and out of sight
until it rests finally on the white bulb
above his head. All things come to calm
this way — even the trains. The cycles
of grinding metal stretch out into yawns —
each iron wheel a flower folding its petals in.
Night concludes its hymn. The man rises but
hesitates to leave this station of his cross.
Send review copies (2019 releases only) to:
Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702
Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s 10th poet laureate. She founded and still produces “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress, celebrating 42 years on the air. Her latest book is Other Voices, Other Lives, a compendium of poems and plays (Alan Squire Publisher, 2017).