March Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Prodigal by Anne Caston. Aldrich Press. 89 pgs.

Caribou by Charles Wright. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 79 pgs.

How To Dance As The Roof Caves In by Nick Lantz. Graywolf. 81pgs.

Time Is A Toy: The Selected Poems Of Michael Benedikt, edited by John Gallaher and Laura Boss. Univ. of Akron Press. 219 pgs.

And also, on Best Books List for March

Reading Dante, From Here To Eternity by Prue Shaw. Liveright.171 pgs.

The Light that Puts an End to Dreams by Susan Sherman. Introduction by Margaret Randall. Wings Press. 137 pgs.

What I Can Tell You by Ruth Moon Kempher. Bright Hill Press. 82 pgs.

What’s Hot: Prose by Poets!

Teach Us That Peace, a novel by Baron Wormser. Pisqataqua Press 321 pgs.

The White Rail, stories by Clarinda Harriss. Half Moon Editions. 87 pgs.


Prodigal by Anne Caston. Aldrich Press. 89 pgs.


Anne Caston’s book is separated into sections of Gospel: 13 poems in The Gospel Of Something Like Love; 10 poems make up The Gospels Of Half Past Gone; and, 10 Gospels, plus subtext poems, are in The Gospel Of Exodus.

I read a lot of poetry and yet I would know Caston’s voice if it were scratched in hieroglyphics on a cave wall—so individual, liturgical, so prophetic. It combines the hum of a fortune teller sitting by the fire, the cautions of a wandering guru, and the half singing, half-praising keeners at a wake by the western waters of Ireland. There is no one like Anne Caston.

But I am speaking of the poetry mechanics of voice and they don’t really tell what a book can be. These gospels have a wider focus. They are radical explorations that say, “Forget about your small self and take the path to realizing something more. Enjoy the liberation of imagination hijacking reality.” For 89 pages the reader will need no other entity but this—poetry revealing the nature of the poet as she resolves a poem, making the mythical past and future co-present.

It is always the temperament of the poet that takes us by the hand to obtain the unobtainable—the reader’s soul journey. Is there any greater vulnerability than to show others your heart with its gothic legends, tales of beauty and horror— to recomb the edges of reality, dream, reflection and perception?

In this book there are missing girls, ghosts, and ghosts of doubt, the shadows of a lost son, hunters who kill living things, parents that maim— but tales not gruesome because they are merely correlated factors to our spiritual selves struggling with our physical destinies. The infrastructure of the book is a poetic religiosity without orthodoxy. What makes these poems worthy of their author is that they bind story with intense focus and cohesiveness, creating a circuitry between writer and reader; then, these private powerfully felt pieces become a public conversation.

These subjects have never been said before in this way: Call it art, call it excellence, call it what you will. It doesn’t matter. You will be different after the reading, haunted by entering a new zone of authenticity. Call it holy work.

A 6-page poem, The Slaughterhouse Gospels, ends with this 5th stanza:

5. The Gospel Of The Natural World

Exalt the reeds and praise the river

all you want; such exaltation changes

nothing: not the river drifting by indifferently;

not the reeds bowing to water and wind; not the boy

who drowned here early May.

Enough about death,

you say, enough.

I know; there’s little music in such

singing or, if there is, it’s the music of totems

coming, finally, into the Craftsman’s hands:

that splintering at the end of things.

Below, I say. Look there: below,

where the god in the shadows rows.

Caribou by Charles Wright. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 79 pgs.



Clouds mountains rise over mountain range.

Silence and quietness,

Sky bright as water.

Grace is the instinct for knowing when to stop. And where.


You will recognize him by his long line lengths. These relax our minds so he can enter—for Wright is a man of expanded thought—of such ease we wonder how a mind can labor in leisure.

What exists is innovated by poetry: the bounty of nature, immediacy in capturing the moment then giving it up with integrity and visual accuracy. These are his intimations of mortality.

I think of Wright and I say How can someone be so good at something most of the world won’t read?” OK, maybe 1% of the population will read Wright and will luxuriate in a new book, and others will not know that this kind of evolved thought comes to us through the machine age, the steam age, the computer age, and is a kind of salvation. What Joseph Brodsky called “The highest locution.”

I’m not valorizing Charles Wright, yet his present age shows impressions of a man debating with himself about a life well lived, but lived long. And thinking out loud is written as if tomorrow will never come, and so let us make a substantial case of exactly what we see today. Small creatures, mountains, sparrows, lakes—common enough—are imaged to depict the fading light. He immortalizes the delicate tinge of sight and thought. A poet’s skills, energies, and higher instincts, create the strong pursuit of staying alive. Poems are then agents of change, a corrective to dying. They are not desperate. Rather, tributes to life in the 8th decade.

In Caribou, no social movements but what the land sees. Wright takes the light of day and a curiosity of what is looked at— and what’s seen comes back to the poet, then to us. Time goes—his responsibility here is to make a difference. This poet has the authority and capacity to touch every ordinary thing with significance. I read this book because I want the correct balance in my life and on the page. I want words that reflect and calm the fractured world of technology. I want a grand design by a grand designer. That is the kind of writing that interests me—a mega poet/ a super nova.


Where is the crack, the small crack

Where the dead come out

                                   and go back in?

Only the dead know that, the speechless and shifting dead.

But it does ooze, half-inch by half-inch,

Under the doorway of dejection,

                                    under the brown, arthritic leaves.

The clock strikes, but the hands don’t move.

                                   The night birds outside

The window are gone away.

The halo around the quarter-moon

Means no good.

Is this the hour of our undoing?

                                   If so, we are perfected.

How To Dance As The Roof Caves In by Nick Lantz. Graywolf. 81pgs.

Nick Lantz enhances reality as the weirdest, most wonderful place you will inhabit in many a year. The way he delivers the news would make you cry but you’re too busy reading. These personal experiences puncture the world’s Truman Shows and Stepford Wives in a poetic truth seeking, which fuses honesty with sweetly tortured insight, so this book has a throughline which most collections don’t have. The near future is reimagined and it’s here; and not very reassuring at that, “stockbrokers threw themselves/ into the deep cool of cee notes…” and that’s the happy part. Lantz’s tactic is to show us the ludicrous in our daily life machines. His brain is a great piece of software and the data base is satire. This is theater of the absurd— bold, individual, ambitious, nimble, slightly cynical— a solid identity, sustained page after page. For consumers of poetry, you can’t find a better buy.

Section Two of the book, How to Stage a Community has 19 poems. Here is # 16.

You Are a Recessionista

And I am a thriftifarian. I rake a stack of leaves

In the yard and say: civilization!

In bed, we page through coupon books as foreplay.

We are buying whatever is on sale. We buy strawberries

that make you break out in hives, and we eat them,

Oh yes, we eat them. We eat

the Burst Bubble Breakfast Special

at the local diner, though it is the same raft of bacon

and wet sneeze of eggs that it was a year ago and the year

before that. We’re all about homedulging

andbleisure. We stuff the dog bed with shredded

bills, and when the dog sighs and turns

in its sleep, we hear our future, a tiger

rustling in the grass.

Time Is A Toy: The Selected Poems Of Michael Benedikt, edited by John Gallaher and Laura Boss. Univ. of Akron Press. 219 pgs.


Benedikt is gone now. His book Sky (1970) was the first poetry book I ever reviewed. I can’t remember how it came to me, not known then as a reviewer, but I was teaching at Antioch College at the time and I can see exactly where I was sitting, at which table, surrounded by poetry students, I held the book with its giant tit adorning the cover, opened the book, passed it around, read parts aloud, and we were in love.

Benedikt was hip, surreal (although he was to disavow this by 1977) and epitomized the Cultural Revolution in which we flourished—he was its philosopher/ loner/satirist—symbolic of the New York School with all its fashionable outliers.

I’ve been a fan ever since. When this posthumous collection arrived this week, I got chills, and I felt the painful loss of a voice so original and reminiscent of my own years of wine and roses. And when I opened the book I saw an intro written by poet Laura Boss, Benedikt’s long-time companion, driver, nurturer. Knowing Laura, and imagining her writing this epitaph was hard, but strangely enough after reading I felt good. There’s something about a shiny true testimony that makes all the lights in the world go on.

These poems from beginning books to present are unmatched for their singularity: the view of a poet in our society, after rubbing against the rich and beautiful, who becomes a recluse. So much for the rewards of those cocktail parties. Even the title Time Is A Toy tells it all. Editor John Gallaher’s introduction” The Benedikt Suitcase” sets the frame for historicity, and Robert Archambeau’s essay , titled “Six Passages” is essential to make the journey. Then there is a piece by Michael himself, “A Profile, 1977” describing how his poems had changed over the years: ”… Increasingly, they are a matter of searchings, gropings, and of downright pratfalls, at least on the psychological level…” We could say this of most poets, as they listen to themselves speak, but how he combined the above to make art is how we embrace the new and remember the old in Michael Benedikt’s work.

Here’s an early poem from Changes, A Chapbook:


At my whistle, with your basket

Superior to all the village others

You come bounding down

Jingling like little monies

From all over the world.

When you fall asleep, it is like growing.

Patronage is no use. I love your empty baskets

Woven with funeral wreaths

And I will never leave this village.

And I will never leave this world

Except as a magazine.

Benedikt’s prose poems set the standard. “Mole Notes” are lessons in how the poem can make an arc like a short story. They are also terrific examples of persona poems— ripe with truth, the facts of a poet’s existence, a transcending line. Of The Difficulty Of Finding A Friend begins “Mole tries to find a friend. What is the best way to go about such a thing? A / mole figures out an answer for himself. Circling around the underground part/ of the large rock, he digs a long tunnel, and comes up right in the middle/ of a large garden party in Scarsdale…”

Who would not want to read this!?

The final poem in the book is “YOUR LIFE IS YOUR OWN LIFE…”VARIATIONS ON A THEME BY JAMES WRIGHT brings us to psychic closure in the church of Michael Benedict’s life.

First line:

  1. Your life is your own life & not just a compendium of debts: …

The poem’s Last line

—If only just to provide a welcome sense of relief, at least briefly, from the

way things too often are;& if only as a form of experiment.

Best Books List for FEBRUARY

Reading Dante, From Here To Eternity. by Prue Shaw. Liveright. 171 pgs.

How many Dante’s have you read? And why doesn’t anything stick to the bones? Just off the top I can cite translations by Robert Pinksy, WS Merwin, Mary Jo Bang, Clive James (James, also by Liveright 2013; with its handsome paperback just out). NO disrespect but it’s like Chinese food. I cannot remember anything but the tones of these books: Pinksy’s excellent meter, Mary Jo Bang’s hip rendition, James’ flowing prosody. I think I learn a little more each time but I feel like a Dante sieve. This book, a graphic account, an explication, an exegesis of the translations, promises to be written with the general reader in mind. And I will read roundtrip cross country to AWP’s Seattle conference, and I know this time I will know DANTE. I am emboldened by the remarks on the cover “For all of us who have put off a trip into Dante’s great poem for fear of getting lost there for good, Prue Shaw’s intricate, humane, lucid and precise guide….provides a longed-for map. ..Adam Gopnik.

I was never afraid. And the other translators were certainly humane and lucid. I just have Dante short term memory. But I believe, as Gopnik promises, when I start this handsome book, that Prue Shaw will be my Virgil.

The Light that Puts an End to Dreams by Susan Sherman. Introduction by Margaret Randall. Wings Press.137 pgs.


This is a collector’s book, one for the bibliophile, one who buys books instead of checking them out, who loves to hold a beautiful thing. I don’t know when I’ve seen such care put into a paper bound book, The information age on-line will never replace a book as beautiful thing. The paper, the type set is gold. And the photographs by Josephine Sacabo make us return to them again. The book honors its author because Susan Sherman has been an artist who’s helped shape our culture since the 1960’s hit New York City. I knew of her plays in the Hardware Poets Playhouse, at that time, and now I revisit a woman who is still an activist and has even more to show for it. Here are love poems and prose poems, political poems but the crown jewel is the last section which bears the book’s title “A Suite of Poems for sor Juana Ines de la cruz 1651?-1695.” The page note explains “In the 17th Century a nun defied tradition to become one of Mexico’s greatest scholar and poets. The eleven poems are welcomed in by the nun’s own words “…. My inkwell is the simple pyre where I set myself aflame.” This is what feminism means—that a poet of today keeps the flame burning in the temple of the past.


Darkness rises still unable to penetrate the layer

beneath the sin has no need night already reaching

down earth inevitably turning toward it Is it really

that layer of night you fear its dark shroud

growing from earth slowly spreading shadows

lengthening until they meet and merge sending all

creatures but your vigilant eagle to sleep. Darkness

births us is the source of creativity art religion

science Is it possible day is the real adversary

The light that puts the end to dreams

What I Can Tell You by Ruth Moon Kempher. Bright Hill Press.82 pgs.

You can tell what a person loves by what she writes. Kempher’s sections of the book are: Of Difficult Gardens; Correspondence; Of Junk, Treasures; Reading, Nightly; Of (Other) Trees, and Weathering; Close to Home, Gaddding; Of Dogs and Heaven, Etc.

To read her is to think you met again a friend you knew once long ago.

Journal Entry: November 7

Too early for Thanksgiving, and too many deaths

have come, tough blows, out of unforgiving Heaven—

so that any smile that creeps to my lips is an occasion

and a laugh, God knows, a rare blessing . Here’s this

table laid out in my dining room…pumpkin left

from Halloween when the kids came to dinner

and a drift of papers; invitation to hear the Poet

known here as Spiel read his work out in Pueblo

lists of places to send poems and bits of onion

where the bowl sits with bluefish and bread chunks

and a yellow page with lines from Williams…

Tennessee, not William Carlos, but he’s underneath

in a stack that tilts perilously, dry parsley and pepper—

ah Lord, it’s the wrong season, but I’m grateful—

we will have fish loaf, the dogs and I, and dreams

of a better time, lemon juice scented, but literate.

Prose by Poets!

Teach Us That Peace, a novel by Baron Wormser. Pisqataqua Press 321 pgs.


A teenager in the 1960’s, Baltimore, from the former State Poet Laureate of Maine.

The White Rail, Stories by Clarinda Harriss. Half Moon Editions. 87 pgs.

We are promised Poetry as a major character in every story.

Grace Cavalieri holds the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award for 2013 and the 2013 Associated Writers’ Program’s George Garrett Award for Service to Literature. She founded and still produces “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress, distributed nationally to public radio and now celebrating 37 years on air.

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