March 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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



Lines Of Defense by Stephen Dunn. New Paperback Edition. W.W. Norton & Co. 95 pages. 

When this book was in hardback I read it with affection, and, now, another chance, because, let’s be honest, timing is everything in what we read; even the good ones sit on the shelf waiting. Every poem here shocked my senses awake again as Dunn enters his fictional countries, and our emotional frontiers — the most dangerous places of all. As with the stock market, high levels of risk are associated with high potential returns — meddling not with structure and form — he’s got that like silk — but with ideas and philosophical content. Dunn’s poems are Milton’s Angels talking in ways forbidden by Heaven. What I like best are the poems about conflicts of identity — each with a relevant view.

Poems are complex self-portraits and this chronicling presents a whole spiritual body of a man. Reading Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn, we’re beneficiaries of one of the top minds in this country who, lucky for us, writes poetry that will stay.

This is the last stanza from BEFORE WE LEAVE:


Happiness is another journey,

almost over before it starts,

guaranteed to disappoint.

if you come for it, say so,

you’ll get your money back.

I hope you all realize that anytime

is a fine time to laugh Fake it,

however, and false laughter

will accompany you like a cowbell

for the rest of your days.

You’ll forever lack the seriousness

of a clown. At some point

the rocks will be jagged,

the precipice sheer. That won’t be

the abyss you’ll see, looking down.

The abyss, you’ll discover

(if you’ve made it this far),

is usually nearer than that —

at the bottom of something

you’ve yet to resolve,

or posing as your confidante.

Follow me. Don’t follow me. I will

say such things, and mean both.

Practicing the Truth by Ellery Akers. Autumn House Press. 82 pages.

It’s is one of life’s pleasures to enter into “the seeing” of a poet I didn’t know before, Ellery Akers is a keen observer of her characters; and also about who she is in relation to her poems. She consoles as she explores experiences from her life that in lesser hands would be anecdotal autobiography; but here each poem becomes a problem solved by a poet who is a humanist. Poets share dreams and nonfiction narratives. But how this is done negotiates the value of the poem. Akers is forceful with language and brings a flexibility of motion to her line. Each word becomes an element of validity so that we are seared by  truth. How to say the scene — whether brutal or yearning — without challenging its enchantment — this is what makes extreme writing. We hope all poets share honestly what they think and Akers makes compelling poems by unfolding, line by line, a secret knowledge. She finds a tipping point in each stanza which becomes emotionally acute; then she holds that line with authority. The result is clarity of purpose, a promise met. We feel someone’s in charge, and Akers makes every poem a shared interest with the reader. Poets don’t have to talk louder to make their point. All they have to do, page after page, is be reliable and circle thoughts wider and wider until we’re pulled in. I can’t say strongly enough how story becomes an art form in this book. Ellery Akers has the golden gift, with good profit to literature.

First and last stanzas of a two-page poem:

My Mother Sunbathing

She got up around noon,

hung over, bruised where my father hit her,

tore off the black satin Sleepwell mask she slept in,

had her maid hold back the curtain,

ate her one egg, one slice of toast, and got dressed:

a bikini. She lay on the lounger, oiled, eyes closed,

fished around the patio for her tumbler,

found it, stirred the ice with her finger,

then lifted it, eyes still shut, to her mouth.

I remember the knobs of corns on her toes, her high, pale arches,

and how, from time to time, she’d flop her wrist into the bushes

and absentmindedly pat the roses beside her,

and though I knocked out the Japanese beetles

that rolled in the petals and chewed their way through,

I doubt if she ever noticed.


Drunk, in the dark, in the cool, her skin radiating heat

and gleaming with oil, she looked alien to the room,

and even to the earth, as if she wanted to go back to the hot core

of  the star, which would deliver her. 

Castrata by Laura Orem. Finishing Line Books. 19 pages. 

The author begins by explaining her title, “The castrates were male singers who were surgically emasculated before puberty to maintain purity of their voices.” This was 18th, early 19th centuries. In this interior design Orem braids her own triumph over cancer, and then the conversation is modified into perfect sonnets. How much poetry benefits from a higher principle — and perspective — and a truly skilled hand. The major part of this poetry is a necessary description of cancer’s behavior — and the ordeal — and a robust spirit confronting death. The impact of each poem is because the body’s temple is being blasted to find its soul — and that becomes the word; and the spirit of expression has to have a working relationship with doctors and hospitals and fear and — in the end, the glory of it, coaxed into 14 lines per page. In a way, cancer and castration are performing their devil dances for us, and Orem is the conductor in a colloquial voice within a classical frame. “The fix is in,” she says, and indeed it is — made official into book form. I would say magnificent AND rational writing, from chemo. Who would have thought it? 


I write this down, then throw it all away:

I’m going to die someday. Everyone says

they know, but just like sex or Vietnam,

you have to have been there, and so I was.

But so what? I know a woman as calm

as toast, who ticks a box off every day

like bonus points won in three-card monte.

Her calendar’s improbable X’s

encroach each month like the incoming tide.

She should be dead. She’s not. No one suspects.

So why do I complain and whine

and grind my teeth? I’ll put on some Belafonte

and pour a drink, and act my age with grace,

show off my glittering poetry face.

The Little Edge by Fred Moten. Wesleyan Press. 75 pages.

Wesleyan is always cutting edge, and it spares no expense for the best of everything: poet, paper, design. I love the way this book is constructed with so much space on the page, the way Beckett used light as a character. The poems are explained as “shaped prose, “rhythmic blocks.” They read like jazz sounds, using the edges of the note, and so we have the book’s title. The lines are long — some too long to quote — but they show the poem as a vehicle driven via a unique desire — like the long sound of a horn — then the interruption.

Moten IS perspective. He comes at language like an architect building time and space and utterance — creating access his own way, completely aware that the exterior of each poem is its entrance. I’m always interested in how broken phraseology can create unity. But I swear it does, by the capability of the poet — otherwise we’d have a rubble of words. Moten makes a scene, with the kind of heart a musician has, opening the heart in public, seeing what falls out. 


The praline of amusement and

my clinometric pearl can’t call it,

curve unnumbered. you can’t


ride that long, you can’t turn


that far, that cold coming and

going in and out of snow. the

speed of our washing is blinding


and our devotion is laughing

without a name or song. This is


our music, we’re many hymns


in love with one another


warring out of circle almost,

almost frozen, color become


shape, you put your coat on me. 


The 8th House by Feng Sun Chan. Black Ocean. 104 pages.

There are characters here: Mary, Abraham, Jesus, sex, pigs, stew, stars, Angels, pain, jelly and veal. The eternal and the pigsty get equal attention — bearing witness — bearing witness to heritage — trimming the tree of life, just to knock it down in the next stanza—then beautify it in the trash. This is a WAAY different voice.

You’d better get your motorcycle on for this reading. This is NEW. And she’s off and running.


You can render pork, have pork, have a pork, pork a pork, pork a man

or a pork, both having porks, observe porks, cook pork, sear pork,

eat pork, cut pork, analyze pork…


mary was organic and pure. She wore jeans in the summer. She believed

in love and gave birth to a void…

There was fire in my loins and all the world

was wrapped in glistening fat.

All I wanted, I still want…


I still want to be filled with the richest light. 

Sand Opera by Philip Metres. Alice James Books. 112 pages.

From the book’s notes: “Sand Opera emerges from the dizzying position of being named but unheard as an Arab American, and out of the parallel sense of seeing Arabs named and silenced since 9/11.” Section One is titled  Abu ghraib Arias. The first poem, The Blues of Lane McCotter, has lines blacked out as in censorship. This happens throughout the book, in various poems, for a stunning dramatic effect. In Section two, there’s a floor plan of an interrogation room that could chill the bone. (Black site, exhibit Q.) And then, Section four, along with poems. is a detailed plan of a cell — Cell 6 — accompanied by a poem, ”Black Site (Exhibit l,) I cannot replicate the pointillistic display of words (forgive me, Philip Metres). No matter how changed you think you are, you’ll be more so after reading this book.  


From “A Narrative of the Renditions of

Mohamad Faraq Ahmad Bashmilah”


In the wake of. I don’t even speak the language. In

glances and glares. My son, you are an Arab, be proud of it,

my Dad would say. I awaken. I avoid pulling up beside

flagged trucks. Of ire I sing, mirror. Who turns to see

me, the invisible now visible. Who lives in a want ad for

a criminal act. Fits the ethnicity, if you know what I mean,

my colleague said. Myself as numb stranger. My son,

you are an Arab, be proud of it. I count turned heads, raised

eyebrows as the faculty meeting, when two Muslims

are introduced as visiting professors in physics. What

does it matter where numbers come from? B’s father

is still missing. Whose face, he’d joke, he never knew,

seeing it was always behind a home movie camera. My

son, I caught myself saying to no one who exists, I am air.

The Altar of Innocence by Ann Bracken. New Academia/Scarith press. 77 pages.

How does a little girl become woman, then artist, then educator and poet? The beginning was a trouble zone with a gifted mother subdued by depression, where the power of communication never visited home. Where do things go when they’re lost? They’re carried to womanhood into an ill-shaped marriage, one not fit for an artist who, this time, will not be hijacked into silence. The poems are a reflection on what it takes to become whole; and, how western medicine doesn’t help for all its strategic and tactical solutions. Instead, poet Bracken reinvents herself into her own voice, her own way, onto her own canvas.

The emotion is in the taut line. The lesson is invaluable. This is a book for this time in history where women are moved from what is possible to what is manifest. The book is a pushback  to  authoritarianism and, from the shards — how to rise to our spiritual best.


Sometimes Revelation comes in a whisper

as tender as your first seduction.

This time, you see the thunderstorm lurking beyond his smile,

translate the promises into threats, sense an opening.

You slip into a portal that opens behind him and

claim your new life.


The cover image is from a watercolor fashion design, ”Sheer Elegance” by Bracken’s Mother, Dorothy Wetzler, 1935, whom the book memorializes.

Wild Domestic by Natania Rosenfeld. The Sheep Meadow Press. 62 pages. 

Here the poet deals with all creatures, wild and domestic, fish, fowl, human kinds. There are wonderful poems of history. Here are portions of All She Remembered,  in the voice of Bertha Rosenfeld, 1904-1991: “… The first night on Ellis Island, I dreamt/ of my mother. You know she died/ giving birth to me. I never saw her,/ or heard her voice singing. That night/ she came to me. She wore a long white/dress and her red hair shone down/ to her waist…she said/ to me — in Yiddish, of course —Tokhter,/ it will be all right. So I believed her…”

And of her own world, the author begins the poem, “Autobiography,"

A child, I entered German

churches, pitied the gaunt man

hanging from open hands

like my father’s.  I drew

his picture, brought it to him

at morning.


They told me our God

had no face.


I must learn

and immerse myself

to be a Jew.

Shub’s Cooking by Shelby Stephenson. Red Dashboard. 164 pages.

New North Carolina Poet Laureate Stephenson is the voice of the Deep South, and as historian, and folklorist, he hosts a feast of anecdotes, poems, recipes, memories, and lessons (including how to catch an eel.) Never in the history of humankind will you ever be able to shoot and cook squirrel as well again. But there is genuine memorabilia here and the best accounting you’ll find on what has made the South endure. Tradition through food. Here’s a partial poem followed, of course, by a recipe.


I can hear clearly outlining three birds — large —

Maybe red-tailed hawks, certainly not eagles

                  Over Paul’s Hill —

It’s famous for sparrows and sassafras trees.


A squirrel’s at the little red schoolhouse feeder.

A rat snake’s waiting for the martins to hatch.

The buzzard eyes the rabbit on the slope.

Down the hill at Rehobeth Church a picnic —

                  table’s heavy —

Stew beef, steaks, chicken, barbeque

And one of those big-old-out-of-this-world

                  Pecan cakes:

Ah Wind: Uncollected Poems by Carolyn Stoloff. MadHat Press. 109 pages.

Stoloff is well known in American letters and over the years loses none of her tenacity — the pretty workings of a seasoned mind. Her places are of this earth: Spain, Arizona, New Mexico, New Hampshire, France but she brings a pointed observation that might as well be  Shakespeare’s Illyria for her new flavors. The way Stoloff writes imagines life the way she wants it to be, while walking the plank of a very real world — every step imagined, every step real.


there is a lonely bell

a map without ports

a white bedroom with no dimension


oh the distance …

then the horizon’s belt


sky meets sea

in silk harbors, in the lungs,

in petals sadly curled


in love’s raft – a wafer

dissolving on night’s tongue.

The Last Two Seconds by Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf Press. 75 pages.

I’m still thinking of Bang’s previous book, translation of Dante’s Inferno, with Heaven and Hell and Stephen Colbert all clearing our fugue state. The Last Two Seconds  is Bang’s authentic voice with its joy of living — sentenced to death — but emerging with vindication. Some of her poems seem uncertain about herself in the world; yet, her dignity and imagination shine out as if they are dreams we’re waking from feeling much happier. After the book closes, we say, “Yes, there is more to life. What is more? This is the more.” 



Think of yourself as a character. It’s hot today,

in the house it’s cooler. Cool air rises off the floor and meets

the heat that inches in through the window.


Listen to the cicadas, the monkeys.

Whatever evaporates. The boat is dragged forward

along a matched track — to what is that attached?


Today, we will read a book and play in the right chamber.


The Grief Muscles by Brandon Courtney. The Sheep Meadow Press. 112 pages.

What poets do we remember from World War I and World War II? Tragedy is never finished providing lyrics for poetry and I honestly think Courtney will be among those remembered for our recent conflicts. He writes, “…howitzer/ shells. 200 miles from Hanoi to Hae Phong, the body/ who broke free from a stretcher another soldier/ held by the glue that blood becomes…” Somehow, gracefully, Courtney manages to visit deaths closer to home as well: a father, an uncle, a pet dog, yet it will be his war experiences that burn the retina of your mind. In "Hold Fast," he says “Master Chief forced me/ to throw my books overboard. // their pages ached open by the sea, floated/ dead white birds…”  and in” Calva,” A lie told / to  greenhorns:/ sing in perfect pitch/ And wounds will close,/ war will cease…”

Can wood be turned to gold? Can war be stomached any better when staged, emotionally, through poems? Whatever the answer, Courtney calls it out with skill, tricking the brain into thinking we can bear it. And the beauty he makes, in the end, is true.


In a country you’ll never see,

an IED tears apart a man.

He tries again and again


to stand on legs no longer

there, the lesser knots

of his knees finally untied.


In cities built on sand,

the scar carries the wound

into the future; the bandages

won’t stop unraveling.


Sometimes, blood, like breast

milk, leaves the body

through the smallest of holes.


No, there is nothing

miraculous about the body —

it ends. I’ve stood this close

to violence; I’ll never be the same.

Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015.  by Chana Bloch. Autumn House Press. 211 pages.

“The adult heart is the size of a fist” says Bloch — and her New & Selected poems explore its aspects. She’s the empress of relationships — the lover,  husband,  father, “What’s between us/ seems flexible as the webbing/ between forefinger and thumb…”  In another, she waits to hear about the size of a tumor in the poem “Inside Out.” We wait as well. Bloch is essential reading for anyone who has ever loved anyone and that makes a wide audience for her. In High Wind, Block says “…There is still time to say what the two of us/ never dared—/Let it bring the house down.” 

SOMETIMES I WANT TO SINK INTO YOUR BODY (from the book Blood Honey, 2006).


Sometimes I want to sink into your body

with the fever that spikes inside me

to be a woman

who can open a man.


Why must I be only softness and haunches,

a satin cul-de-sac?


You ought to know what sharpens me

like a barbed arrow.

Do you think we’re so different?


How you tease me, twiddle me,

hustle me along,

just when I’d like to splay you

tooth and nail.

Sugar Run Road by Ed Ochester. Autumn House Press, 75 pages.

Let’s give Ochester the Mark Twain Award for his poem “at a country diner” or “an evening with Gerald Stern.” He ends a poem titled “early morning, writer’s conference” with  “…Right now all I want is a little more coffee,/a little more silence, a few pages/ of scrap paper and a pen that works,/ a couple more poems to read as/ a momentary respite from endless chat/ about all this excellence, excellence, excellence.”

This whole book is just what we need with its three kinds of cheese in Pittsburgh and letters to friends —  He counters Gertrude Stein on roses and finds what lines to like in AR Ammons. Don’t we wish we were at the family reunion where cousin William wears “gag” glasses with a penis for a nose. Oh, those were the days. Those Are the days. In this cold, in this rain there is thankfully Ochester with his push pull opinions protecting a culture under threat: Humor in poetry. Anarchist or observationalist, Ochester collaborates with language to make us feel good. The book’s a happy adagio at the end of Winter. Write more, Ed. We don’t want our luck to run out.

 diamond sutra

The reader says “this is my last poem

but” — smiling — “it’s twenty minutes long”

then reads an epigraph from the Diamond Sutra

saying life’s one long series of illusions —

which like his poem,

is boring too 

From The New World, Poems 1976-2014 by Jorie Graham. Ecco. 384 pages.

Poems from eleven books are in this Pulitzer Prize winner’s new volume; and so posterity is right now. I’ve been reading Jorie Graham since she began and I don’t look for “story” but I just let the energy move through me jolting the chair. Language is the only way she can express her multiple ideas and urges. And so we let that happen and we understand her through our bodies. She’s a major voice and a welcome one in a country where we value our differences more than any other country — especially in poetry. Overall, she improves the situation in literature, and life, just for her originality and — like a hero — she doesn’t look back over her shoulder for what should have been said another way. I’d say she’s instrumental in hydrating language so that it won’t wilt away. I’ll always wonder how she’d judge her own work because it seems to be only discussed at extreme sides of the spectrum of love/dismissal by critics.  

Many readers get her messages although many others do not, but  this book is for  the audience who wants new ways to go. Her premise is reason — her method is compression — not persuasion via letters or portraits or possessions like other poets. Her presence comes up more in a situation or a habitat, as apparatus for emotion.  What happens in daily life doesn’t always matter to Graham — she’ll just relate something to something else. That’s perspective — temporal, spatial, although she’ll not always place it in real time. Forget metaphor, instead she spiral movements, pacing equivalences. Some say it directly, not Jorie Graham who confronts with neurons that I fear we don’t all have.

What’s the risk? Resolution? She’s got that — Unity? Sometimes. Completion? Well, reconciliation, for sure. Listen, in her poems we may never hear the dialogue on the bus or the primary colors of the ghetto, but these new poems of hers — well, they vanish, then they open the door to the terrace where others merely describe the trees. To believe in something enough to “express the inexpressible” — as we say — to take the blind down the road not seen, well I love it. I wish she’d tell us something we don’t know, though — how her poetry would feel to her if it were written by somebody else.

I mostly favor the poems Graham writes about her own vulnerabilities, This new poem is about a surgical procedure. Here’s the last stanza of the poem Prying. If readers say they don’t understand it, they’re probably reading too fast. 


me hoping to do nothing wrong, then hoping for a bargain,

asking how long before one would be able to live again as if —

and those other turns in the brine — the yetif not,

if now, and  now, when now — turn towards me now a bit you say to them and then

let’s turn the torso this way please, recheck marked spot.

Can see the guide wires but can no longer feel them.

Then the thing on the other side, the person who will open up my hand and say

it’s over now can you hear me here is some water.

And in my living room cut flowers still in their paper stapled up. Undelivered.

And you get a little extra life to live now — here — can you still live it.

Best Chapbooks 

Mother, Loose by Brandel France de Bravo. Accents Publishing. 31 pages.

Sometimes nursery rhymes, sometimes fairy tales, much humor and France de Bravo makes poetry reflexive to all this. She comes at her primary sources with new imagination dying to get out. Her three poems “In The Arms of Morpheus”  describe a strange decline we’re not sure is autobiographical or mystical or both — always dynamic. This is a delightful funny, sad book making us believe that the power of the image is the most important issue of the day.


He looked like six o’clock

and she the face.

Together they were bacon

— sinew and glisten —

And called a platter home.

She licked the welcome mat.

He licked the light switches.

She licked his arm chair.

He licked her vanity.

One day, in the pantry,

their tongues met

and they knew salty-sweet,

felt time running in place.

Afterwards, Jack lit a cigarette.

Add To Cart by Michael Spielberg. The Ludo Press. 40 pages. 

A London poet, 3rd in a series distributed by Washington’s Dryad Press. Those English know how to parse words into proper place, with grace. The poem “Whenever You See The Moon” ends.


…reflecting off that silvered dish

to you wherever you might be

all the words I never spoke out loud.

Look, at just the right moment,

and you’ll receive them

without interference.

Adjust the tuning.

Guarantee me a good reception.

Wildcat Creek by Worth Bateman. Seasonings Press. 22 pages.

A no-nonsense set of poems clearly a part of the poet’s fiber — no artificial flavorings. From “Moving Hydrangeas”:


So now it’s time to put the tools away;

this season’s almost over

and we’ve prepared as best we can for the next;

the firewood stacked along the porch is ready

and soon the Lenten roses will be blooming in the snow.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem form the Library of Congress" for public radio. Her latest books are The Mandate of Heaven and The Man Who Got Away.

Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books 
7029 Ridge Road 
Frederick, MD 21702

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