March 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

March 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Ripened Wheat by Hai Zi, translated from the Chinese and introduced by Ye Chun. Bitter Oleander Press. 191 pages.

XX: Poems for the 20th Century by Campbell McGrath. Ecco/HarperCollins. 119 pages.

Poems: New& Selected by Ron Rash. Ecco/HarperCollins. 192 pages.

Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz. Graywolf Press. 47 pages.

Friends With Dogs by David Blair. Sheep Meadow Press. 75 pages.

99 Poems: New & Selected by Dana Gioia. Graywolf Press. 189 pages.

Winterkill by Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press. 93 pages.

Ripened Wheat by Hai Zi, translated from the Chinese and introduced by Ye Chun. Bitter Oleander Press. 191 pages.

From “Swan”  “…On my earth/ on birthday’s earth/ a swan is injured/ as in a folk singer’s song.”

From “Ocean Overhead” “…In the lamplight it seems I’ve met her/She leaps into the ocean/and the ocean hangs over the barn/It seems the snow/ of my hair and my father’s is burning.”

From “May’s Wheat Field” “… Sometimes I sit alone/ in May’s wheat field     dreaming of my brothers/ I see the cobblestones roll over the river bank/ The arched sky at dusk/ fills the earth with sad villages/ Sometimes I sit in the wheat field reciting Chinese poetry to my

From “Autumn” “...  Whose voice can reach autumn’s midnight     and ring out there/ Cover our scattered bones—/Autumn has come/ Without the slightest mercy or tenderness: autumn has come”

Ye Chun, Hai Zi’s translator since 2000, writes that Hai Zi’s suicide in 1989 occurred a couple of months before the Tiananmen Massacre: “His suicide has come to symbolize the end of idealism in the 80’s…”

Although psychology and behavior reveal themselves in poems, there is no morbidity in these beautiful lines that continue long after the poem ends. There’s a halo over the burdens of life that still speaks of affection. Hai Zi’s range of experience includes much lost love; but beyond the confines of pain are elements of perception I’ve not seen elsewhere. Each poem evolves through nature with its message. The devotion and intention articulated by Hai Zi stun me as gold standards of compassion and dignity. 

Also capable of irony, Hai Zi writes a 12-part poem of tiny stanzas from 3 to 10 lines each. He ends “This Thoreau’s Got Brains” with this verse, “… The sun is the bean/ I plant. It pouts its lips at me/ I unleash water across the river// This Thoreau’s got brains// Thoreau’s helmet/ — a volume of Homer.”

Narrative structure is consistent throughout the book, showing us a poet — however young — who knows the responsibility and consequence of good form. “Hai Zi has changed a whole generation’s writing of poetry,” says Ye Chun.

On a March day in 1989, Hai Zi laid his body on railroad tracks near Beijing; He was 25 years old.

Thinking of a Past Life
Zhuang Zi is washing his hands in the water
a silence spreads over his palms
Zhuang Zi is washing his body in the water
his body a bolt of cloth
Clinging to the cloth are sounds
adrift on the water
Zhuang Zi wants to blend in
with the moon-gazing beasts
Bones grow inch by inch
like branches
above and below his navel
Perhaps Zhuang Zi is me
He touches the bark
and feels close
to his own body
agonizingly close
The moon touches me
as if I’m naked
and enter and exit
Mother is a door, gently open to me

XX: Poems for the 20th Century by Campbell McGrath. Ecco/HarperCollins. 119 pages.

McGrath’s not kidding. This is an encyclopedia that shows where we’ve been in the former century; and what McGrath thinks about it. In these 5 “books” long narratives are made with natural strength — charismatically and stylistically telegraphed into poetry.

Book 1 chronicles poems from “Picasso” (1900) to “Wittgenstein; Letter to Bertrand Russell” (1919). Book 2 starts with “Mao: On Conflict” (1920), and takes us to “The Atomic  Clock" (1939). Book 3: “Virginia Wolfe” (1940) to (1959) “William de Kooning”; and Book 4: (1960) “Zora Neale Hurston: Enigmatic Atlas” through to 1979 “The Nation’s Capitol.” Book 5 starts at 1980 with “Two Poems for Czeslaw Milosz” to end with a 2000 “Prologue.”

Picasso (1902:) “…Yesterday walked across all of Paris in the snow/ with a pastel rolled beneath my arm,/ a pastiche of doting bourgeois mothers and children/ with a vase of flowers, no less, utter and complete/ artistic prostitution…”

Orson Welles: The Stage (1935: ) “…Cast against type, I stand outside of time,/ forger of destinies, smelter of ore, / my voice like storm-wind swelling every sail…”

The Death of Edward Hopper (1967): “…not afraid of the body but more at home/ with sunlight infiltrating empty rooms,/ the veneer of bleached calcium on oyster shells,…”

The Ticking Clock (1971:) ” Snoop Dogg is born. Julian Assange is born. Already it is coming,/ already the new century —…”

Nelson Mandela (1994:) “ …The earth is a single homeland,/ one resting place for every ancestor. // Beneath the skin we are indistinguishable…”

Poets like to speak and have their say about history and it’s refreshing to have one who, A) knows history; and B) knows how to structure a narrative in the fullness of a speaker’s voice. Some of these are persona poems creating the dynamic of theater with character, situation and plot. I recommend reading 5 poems day to see the making of society through the eyes of artists and thinkers. Some pages are punctuated by calligrammes by artists, cryptograms, and things I couldn’t figure out. But boys just like to have fun while writing a historical/poetical treatise, I guess. Yet in any church, this is High Mass.

Voyager I & II (1977)
Now we begin to speak for you
To greet, entreat, declaim and argue.
The voices we carry are yours, of course,
your melodies and genetic sequences sourced
and etched into our golden cores.
Like spores
from a broken milkweed plant
we float past planet
after planet, their parabolic array likewise
among the elemental designs
we display.  Imagine the moment
of contact, in whichever quadrant
of whichever time-lost galaxy,
when they happen upon us and we
rehearse the tale
of how we first set sail
upon these silent interstellar seas,
replay the encoded dreams and histories
which impel a species
to step into the darkness, to leave
the only home it has ever known
in the hope that it is not alone.
Let there be others, in the great night,
we whisper.  Let there be light.

 Poems: New and Selected by Ron Rash. Ecco/HarperCollins. 192 pages.

These are the Appalachians you never hear about except in Ron Rash’s books — the woman who falls asleep at her machine, taken away covered in blood, returning to work the next day wearing a wig “She never fell asleep at work again.” These are the people: the little boy sweeping at the mill whose head is shaved because of all the lint. Rash’s folks are shown at their chores with grueling jobs stretching beyond capabilities — yet, why does this book read without bitterness? It’s a quantum field of reverence and gratitude... “Work, for the Night Is Coming” “…but he will not follow his father / from the field, not until this/ end row is finished with what/ light windows from the farmhouse,/ where supper cools on the stove…the harvest his father will reap alone. “ In the line” death-clothes scarecrow a bedpost” is a cold truth. What we take away is a calculus of appreciation for living, with whatever life brings.

A lesser poet would sentimentalize, or idealize the life hard won in Appalachia but Rash doesn’t elevate poverty, farmers, and workers, he simply shows us a picture and we’re the ones who see the chivalry and the dignity. “July, 1949” “… She is dreaming of another life/ young enough to believe/ it can only be better — / indoor plumbing, eight-hour shifts, a man/ who waits unknowingly for her, a man/ who cannot hear through the weave room’s/ soft click,/ fate’s tumblers falling into place, soft as the sound of my mother’s/ bare feet as she runs, runs toward him, toward me.”  

From the mills, from the mountains, the bottomland, the hay “Belt-buckle high” comes a human anthem, a tapestry of folks — in debt and in sickness — somehow who get it right. This is because Rash effortlessly shows beauty, without complaint, in focused moments. He leads us to believe, without persuasion, that this is our country’s best DNA.

The Trout in the Springhouse
Caught by my uncle
in the Watauga River,
brought back in a bucket
because some believed
its gills were like filters,
that pureness poured into
the springhouse’s trough pool,
and soon it was thriving
on sweet corn and biscuits,
guarding that spring-gush,
brushing my fingers
as I swirled the water
up in my palm cup
tasted its quickness
swimming inside me.

Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz. Graywolf Press. 47 pages.

There’s a sweetness in Grotz’s open window through which we see the natural world. Grotz begins her poems in conversation as if each is “by the way;” then she deepens the image to its designation and raises the sights of what can be seen in a peacock, apples, poppies. These poems are aspirational — how life looks rinsed off with clean rain. I believe the best communicator is the poet who speaks to us directly; and Grotz is gifted in her ability for colloquy, unleashing the assets of the poem. (Snow) begins : “Rising as much as falling more mesmerizing than fire”  then in part 3; “…in its tiny throes smaller even than mine lizards fire ants/ snakes and groundhogs that lived underground/ but I never saw snow didn’t see rust only saw green imitations// of moss hot-glue-gunned on mother’s cuckoo clock…”   

Her imagery comes soft and then deepens, (Snow Apples) “There’s a stinging/sensation of cold on the skin, a singling/ realization, a stuttering that outs itself, has it out/ with itself…”   moving to conclusion “… sad as the stones/ on the lake shore, pink or gray sandstone,/ granite, rusted iron, eroded tale-smooth and uniform regardless — “Every poem is an eye-opener shared with the reader. A dialogue about how poetry sees. Nature is her paradigm. It’s her emotional calculus.

The Whole World is Gone
Driving alone at night, the world’s pitch, black velvet
stapled occasionally by red tail lights
on the opposite highway but otherwise mild
panic when the eyes’ habitual check
produces nothing at all in the rearview mirror,
a black blank, now nothing exists
but the dotted white lines of the road,
and the car scissors the blackness open
like the mind’s path through confusion,
but still no clarity, no arrival, only Pennsylvania darkness,
rocks, cliffs, vistas by day that thicken to black. It’s
sensual, though, too, and interestingly mental. What
I do alone, loving him in my mind. Trying not to
let imagination win over reality. Hurtling through the night,
a passion so spent becomes a fact one observes. Not tempered,
just momentarily out of view by the body that perceives it.
So that if it desires, the mind can practice a prayer,
The one whose words begin: Deprive me.

Friends With Dogs by David Blair. Sheep Meadow Press. 75 pages.

Blair is a poet of the unexpected, making a difficult process look simple with his spontaneous soundtrack of thoughts. This only works because there’s fluidity and grace. The poems look conventional at first sight — the vertical, the stanzaic— well, the title poem does experience space differently, but generally, the forms look familiar. Then something interesting happens, the poems become actions and sensations. Robert Frost once said that it doesn’t matter what information we have if we can’t ‘swing it.’ Blair swings in a free-wheeling way; so we never know what’s coming next. (On Water & Land” (1) Life Forms) “All of us are organs/ of one body/ but some of us are flippers/ while others cut up. We are determined/ by sight of each other reductively/ as lumps of meat/ turning rudimentary circles/ on ice, with the shapes/ created by vocabulary.// The flippers have the humors. / The others secrete their moods…” There’re many ways to achieve tension in a poem. Blair delivers words vigorously and gets intensity from his juxtapositions — (Formerly): “… that a possum waddled under his legs in the darkness, the umbrella still up over the table, the drink turned to water in his glass, the daylilies not out yet.” And non-sequiturs within the line, (Collies & Sheep): “We saw two dogs on a beach, collared, / …the older one game with a limp./ Maybe the dogs had just met. / Sure, we all screw up at times. / We also found a sheep skeleton…”

Casualness is central to his message, and Blair’s implementation strategy is to write with ease as if he can’t take credit for any of this because he’s enjoying writing it too much. We call that tone; and each author has his own. With Blair, it’s word choice + style = originality. (Formal Feelings): “Who put all these trees here, / and then soil, bulbs sending up their hard, / automatic mixers, // so I can’t wait for moonlight on bodega red awning?”

Poem About An Indian Restaurant Downtown
The fewer the details, the more universal the figure of lunch.
Stepped on sidewalk cellar doors eaten away by rust. And then glass blocks
lit somehow with some of them smashed. Eating lunch alone in an almost
empty buffet — the fewer the diners, the denser tandoori chicken, the
Some people leave you all alone with breads. I am one of the people who do
that.  Yet I complain too. The sweeter the mango, the more salt on my lips
and pakora.
Late snow falling into crocuses and in between daffodil leaves and stems
on the street, and in the garden, and on the common. The fewer the details,
the stranger and more ginger. The blue god sits bare-chested and vested
among the gopi; blue, the people on their way through the park.

99 Poems: New & Selected by Dana Gioia. Graywolf Press. 189 pages.

A closing line in his closing poem reads “…What must be lost was never lost on us.” This could be an imprimatur for this current work. Gioia, in the mechanism of service, has always raised the bar of poetry with his intellectual brand of firepower. This compilation — the new work — includes the truest personal narrative we’ve had to date.  Craft on Mt. Olympus raises very good dust added to bold emotional sentiment and declaration. Gioia always sees poetry as a noble cause, but each book taps into something richer. These poems are more aware of impermanence, magnifying new strength in the writing. Memories play a central role and I especially like “Homecoming,” a 15-page 9-part poem that has the making of a personal epic.

Gioia is our modern day wanderer seeing the world as a text to be discerned. In “Shopping” “…But I wander the arcades of abundance,/ empty of desire, no credit to my people,/ Envying the acolytes  their passionate faith. Blessed are the acquisitive,/ For theirs is a kingdom of commerce.” And able to draw  from every venue , (Men After Work) “…waiting patiently to ask for one/ more refill of their coffee/ surprised/ that even its bitterness will not wake them up./ Still they savor it…”

There are eight parts to this book. The section STORIES could teach fiction a thing or two about person, place, and thing— our powerful friends. Plus authentic dialogue. This book is a marriage of values: writing done exceedingly well; and a heart deeper and stronger than ever. Gioia has earned his stay in poetry’s future.

Cold San Francisco
I shall meet you again in cold San Francisco
On the hillside street overlooking the bay.
We shall go to the house where we buried the years,
Where the door is locked, and we haven’t a key.
We’ll pause on the steps as the fog burns away,
And the chill waves shimmer in the sun’s dim glow,
And we’ll gaze down the hill at the bustling piers
Where the gulls shout their hymns to being alive,
And the high-masted boats that we never sailed
Stand poised to explore the innocent blue.
I shall speak your name like a foreign word,
Uncertain what it means, and you –
What will you say in that salt-heavy air
On that bright afternoon that will never arrive?

Winterkill by Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press. 93 pages.

“ Without bird song how would we know the sun is the cut skin/ of an orange rolled into a  circle and laid flat, last fading hour pinned/ to a pine before any star allows itself to be seen?...” (Whip-poor-will)

Todd Davis teaches us mindfulness in the way he envisions each moment. He makes a passionate connection with nature—\with every deer, treetop, crayfish, brook trout, cattail, Kentucky warbler. His panorama is also occupied by family, son, parents—a father we meet before and after his passing. (Cenotaph) “ I dream my dead father/ spends most/ of the afternoon’s hours/ stacking rocks he gathers/ from the dried riverbed…  (end stanza) “… He calls them/monuments to dearth, to lack’s own beauty/ and what it allows/ him to make.”  And Davis notices the smallest indentation to each day:  (Sulphur Hatch) “… In this half light, our boy is walking/ home across the early June hay./ Each step he takes/ leaves a shadowed space/ we’ll see come morning.”

Everything in the world becomes a poem that never ends. Davis’ terrain is the rural land where chaos and traffic have not yet invaded, and so the poems feel like extensions of a meditative mind. We don’t imagine him approaching each morning with a mission to document, and catalogue; instead he has a natural centering, connecting every living thing from earth to heaven. It’s an exuberance for the mountain, the groundhog— everything given spiritual equity. Buddhists would call this “the practice of pure perception;” critics might say his is a reconciliation of thought and form; scholars would praise his knowledge of flora, fauna, biology, zoology; poets will see the metaphors and aphorisms in nature.

There is death as well as life detailed here, human and animal. There’s illness and suffering, but overriding is a wholeness in being alive –we might call happiness. This is seasoned writing, deeply literate, with expertise in the environment. I say we make up a Poet Laureate of the earth and have Todd Davis every day capture his humility and awe of the natural world, with its inhabitants — then pass it around like a good, very good, virus.

 Self Portrait with Fish and Water

In the world underwater, near the cattails where bass patrol
their spawning beds, early summer light clings to the turquoise sides
of pumpkinseed sunfish, so named because of the shape
their bodies take, not the coloration of their ctenoid scales, tangerine
stippling that stony blue, giving way to a yellow that seeps
to the base of the pelvic fin, an aquatic canvas as if painted
by the artist who cut away his own ear out of love, leaving
a blackened hole the sounds of his joyous screams rushed into,
a coal-dark flap like the one at the side of this fish’s face,
which shows me the world is always receding, fleeing
the shape of my shadow as I walk these banks.

Grace Cavalieri is producer/host of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio. She celebrates 39 years on-air. Her latest book is a memoir: Life Upon the Wicked Stage.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books 
7029 Ridge Road 
Frederick, MD 21702

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