May 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry

May 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

The Known Universe by Terence Winch. Hanging Loose Press. 112 pages.

Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss. Graywolf Press. 120 pages.

The End Of Chiraq: a Literary Mixtape, edited by Javon Johnson and Kevin Coval. Intro and outro by Javon Johnson. Preface by the editors. Northwestern University Press. 192 pages.

The Eyes Have It by Anne Harding Woodworth. Turning Point. 104 pages.

How to Love the Empty Air by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. Write Bloody Publishing. 100 pages.

Plus: Best Poetry Handbook, Best Chapbooks, Best Poetry with Illustrations, and Best Literary Magazine!


The Known Universe by Terence Winch. Hanging Loose Press. 112 pages.

“Wit” is defined as mental sharpness, intelligence, and inventiveness; the first two would be nothing without the third. Winch writes as if he’s the first person on earth to look around and strip the world of pretense leaving only the funny and the painful which he makes magically the same. Wilde, Shaw, O’Hara, Beckett — Look. Winch is here too with paradoxes, irony; and a systemic itchiness that may be mistaken for philosophical brilliance.

There’s no high-fat content in this poetry. No line in this book is subjugated to any other line. Every word is an irreplaceable link to the next — this is indisputable stuff; and why we want to reread — (besides liking to laugh and cry) — we want certainty, a control that only comes from the authentic and the inimitable.

We meet a grandmother who imagines our speaker with her at ‘funerals and wakes:’ “We would dig up every joke/ in the book and the universe/ with our filthy laughter.” And then there’s ‘Kenny in New Orleans’ who takes the implied author to his first strip club where “…the dancers wore infinite pairs of panties and bras, so there was always/one more layer between fantasy and reality.” There’s a sick brother who lifts his hand: “I don’t know what to do, so I take his hand in mine. /We’ve never done anything like this before.” “Mother” says, “The Complaint Book is full…” in spite of a list of hilarious entreaties.

In Just This, I have asked you over and over/not to bring flowers into the house. /Also, please don’t wear perfume. /And don’t wear perfume and bring/flowers at the same time, I beg/you…” And in the poem The New, a series of inversions beginning with “Winter is the new spring…” and ending with “forever is a new never.” (I love this guy.)

This is a book of Beatitudes, for each poem is saying Blessed are my friends and family; Blessed are the old days; Blessed are the new days; Blessed are the Emperor’s new clothes; the gas station on Route 1; “trees birds and Woodland animals”; and especially the past, where Terence Winch says he spends most of his time, “It’s vast and entertaining, and I know how it ends.”

Subject to Change

Let us shove the last 73 minutes down the garbage

disposal and vacuum up all traces of the past 17 years

and stuff them in a plastic bag and be done with them.

Let’s scrape our alternative versions of everything

we have learned since 1981 off the ground and flush

them all down the toilet. I’m worn out by my misdeeds.

My hands hurt, my fingers won’t curl anymore.

 I’m in the emergency room at Holy Cross hoping

all is not lost. I have no one to pray to, just the vast

empty sky, the black hole inside the black hole

that swallows up everything whole. They make

me lie down on the blank slate. Dr. Baker is running

late. Then the nurse lifts the curse and Baker says

you’re a lucky man. It could have been worse.


Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss. Graywolf Press. 120 pages.

Diane Seuss’ poetry is in dialogue with art and literature. To call these responses to great paintings “ekphratic” is to misrepresent the scope and depth of her writing. Her work mirrors the Old Masters, but she takes deeper and daring looks at their visions and virtues; then she attacks the ideas with fierce attention. The speaker’s emotional life is intertwined with literary detail, personal incidents, as well as the art itself. A writer with such capacities is able to create worlds of originality and one way to see is through myth, Eden: An Outline, is a three-page rollercoaster ride of extraordinary imagination.

In Self-Portrait with Levitation, a 20-stanza three-page account of “family,” uses humor as underbelly of human conduct. There are five prose poems under the heading Walmart Parking Lot on Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Alice Neel. Every poem changes perspective in surprising ways with psychographic messages, because Seuss sees a world that combines versatility, tenderness, and sheer lingual strength.

Seuss is a mega talent. I could hardly choose a favorite poem, but Sentences has characters (lots of them) living lives neither comforting nor terrifying but somewhere in between (i.e., survival). It’s pure poetry psychodrama and if Seuss wanted to write a sitcom she could. If she wanted to win the Golden Globe, she could. Her digital look at subjects is perfect, with not one stanza or syllable out of step. Craft, brightness, darkness; she’s writing at the top of her game. Girl Crush Here!

Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid


Some women make a pilgrimage to visit it

in the Indiana library charged to keep it safe.


I didn’t drive to it; I dreamed it, the thick braid

roped over my hands, heavier than lead.


My own hair was long for years.

Then I became obsessed with chopping it off,


and I did, clear up to my ears. If hair is beauty,

then I am no longer beautiful.


Sylvia was beautiful, wasn’t she?

And like all of us, didn’t she wield her beauty


like a weapon? And then she married

and laid it down, and when she was betrayed


and took it up again, it was a word-weapon,

a poem-sword. In the dream I fasten


her braid to my hair, at my nape.

I walk outside with it, through the world


of men, swinging it behind me like a tail.


The End Of Chiraq: a Literary Mixtape, edited by Javon Johnson and Kevin Coval. Intro and outro by Javon Johnson. Preface by the editors. Northwestern University Press. 192 pages.

“Chiraq” is a word combining Chicago and Iraq, a war zone made of artists scholars, essayists, hip-hop performers, creators. The violence regularly experienced by young Chicagoans is harnessed here to transform the potential and richness via rhythm, slang, hip-hop, scholarship, imagination, and documentation. It’s an important book encapsulating the feelings and experiences of the black community in Chicago, a city under siege. These are stunning voices in rap, story, interviews, never put together like this before. In the preface written by the editors, Chiraq is defined as an amalgamation of Chicago and Iraq that starts and ends with the idea that “creativity is critical in imagining better possibilities.” The preface and intro are really essential reading because here we get the pulse of the book. The editors cite Chicago native Kanye West’s quote, “I feel the pain in my city wherever I go. 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago.”

There’s a more-than-meaningful interview with graffiti artist Liz Lazdins (conducted by Leah Love). Lazdins’ quoted, “When you feel you have no voice, no power, putting your name for the world to see, it feels good… Many might see the act as an illusion — a meaningless gesture — but actually, a good graffiti writer knows the city better than 99% of us. They know where construction is happening; they know how to climb buildings, all the alleys, bus routes, when cops come on and off shift…” These are important messages brought to us by gifted messengers.

Jalen Kobayashi writes important truths in The Stoop. “This stoop, a manhole/covers the X marking/the spot under an awning. /rolling dice until morning. /clouds rolling in, the ol heads/rolling blunts…”

Marvin Tate titles his poem “Hip Hop Poet” and begins “Give us a poem/that celebrates, struggles/cuts like a revolution that won/that will sing at the top of its lungs…”

In “Windowpain” Nile Lansa writes a lyrical piece, “Deep dish Dreamin’/ghetto awakening/ Sun don’t shine too bright ‘round here/ Big brother tells me it glistens on the North Side… Concrete angel/Displayed on the ground/After the corpse is removed/Bystanders revel in the beating silhouette//Stunning pain. Beautiful dirt/When the moon smiles on family barbecues/& popped water balloons//The Land of the Misunderstood/Spike don’t know nothin’ bout my kingdom.”

Few in literature are more revered than Dr. Haki Madubuti who’s fostered our greatest poets. He writes a meaningful essay that gives us “Unconditionals” for love for black people. Editor Coval ends this book with an essay committed to the work ahead, quoting historian Howard Zinn, You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” This is a powerful encyclopedia of human progress though creativity.


The Eyes Have It by Anne Harding Woodworth. Turning Point. 104 pages.

Anne Harding Woodworth’s new book is a testimony to her stature as a writer. What emerges from these new poems is the image of a poet who’s awake every moment of her life — on a subway platform, lifting her head to hear bird sounds, surprising the snake in the garden, telling a tale of parakeets, parrots, the Zen moment of feeding fish etc. We learn early on that everything is the subject for poetry, for the poet can’t hold back her responses. The fundamentals of life are ingredients that turn on some small fire that becomes a poem; what ‘makes’ these pieces “work” is the emotional connection to the material — making charismatic the inert, reframing reality to freshen, rinse and refocus the frame. In each poem it feels as if we’re being told a secret just for us that becomes a special moment — together, they message a meaningful life. I love the flashback poems from age 9, the last section, my favorite part of the book. Queen of content; Queen of form. I’m a fan.

Pocket Watch

            For Fred

To be briefly with my son again,

who goes by different clocks,

I took the Swiss pocket watch he gave you

from its special box.


I wanted to

inspect its inner workings through

a magnifier largely

bringing far-away up close to me.


I wound it and it ticked,

but time seemed slow,

and so,

to get there faster,

I nudged the arrow


toward Accélérer.

But then like feet of clay

the seconds stopped

and nothing moved.


I blew at gears,

as if my air

would breathe back in time,

reconstitute the sound of years.


And some time I will confess to you —

will make it known —

how I broke the watch

and at what time and zone.


How To Love The Empty Air by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. Write Bloody Publishing. 100 pages.

Sometimes the person offstage in a play becomes the most memorable character. Aptowicz relives her mother’s sayings, her mother’s death, and its aftermath. It’s very moving material but impossible to become darkly depressed because our poet is a buoyant writer who energizes with performative language. She takes us through the steps of recognition, then, transforms the hole torn out of her world with stories she can understand. Her colloquial conversational poems reveal a great relationship that will never die, and we should be privileged to be part of it. Although these poems come from a deep place, memory bubbles effortlessly pulling light through the waters that are troubled. What a miracle literature is — indelibly giving us a character we would never have known.

Isn’t Every Love Poem an

Unfinished Love Poem?


Praise the ear.

Praise the hair curling

around the ear.


Praise the music

we never turn on,

only make.


Praise the caps

of your shoulders, my lips

pressed against them.


Praise the poem

I was trying to finish

when you showed up


at my door.



Best New Poetry Handbook

How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse by Thomas C. Foster. HarperPerennial. 224 pages.

Honestly, this is the best book since Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual. I’ve learned so much, remembered a lot, and was reminded of more. No one wants to read a book dissecting our precious art. That’s what Foster knows and so he wrote a book that’s fun, irreverent and profound. The title is unfortunate because we don’t want to read like a professor, and Foster, knowing this, writes in opposition to the image of academia, dust, and yellow pages. Even discussions of meters are totally alive. How he does it, I don’t know, but he makes us keep reading and we cannot stop. So, what if we already know what anapests are, or consonance and assonance. That’s not the point.

The craft of understanding (and it is a craft) is carefully unraveled here for our reading pleasure. I don’t mind a little Kubla Khan and Edgar Allan Poe thrown in. It can’t hurt. And if Foster has to resort to saying A B A B once in a while, well we need a little roughage in our diet. It’s good to see the nuts, and bolts and wheels again and recall what makes the carousel go around. Listen to some of the chapter titles: Chapter 1) The Sounds of Sense; 2) Sounds Beyond Sense; 9) Look Who’s Talking; 10) A Haiku, a Rondeau, and a Villanelle Walk into a Bar, etc. They sound quirky, but the content is invaluable. “Is Verse Ever Really Free?” This book presents a sparkling infrastructure for poetics. “Craft” has always been in the shadow of our star — we tolerate it to get to what we truly want. Foster shifts the center of gravity, making craft, believe it or not, the star.


Best Chapbooks

A Dog Runs Through It by Linda Pastan. W.W. Norton. 80 pages.

The title means what it says. In a poet’s life, we first think of contemplation and reverie. But the truth is, disruption runs through it, and sometimes in the form of living breathing rollicking unpredictable, loving creatures, some who have indelibly marked Pastan’s life. They’re assembled with homage paid to drool, grass rolling, arrivals and leavings. Heartbreak is inevitable whenever love exists — especially for those in our charge — children & animals — since they’ll grow beyond their tenure with us. This is not a dog calendar with cute utterances and torn slippers. These are real dogs with names and personalities who call to mind larger moments involving friends, parents, mythology and memory. The canines are written with Pastan’s natural strengths — lyrical lines, fluidity and grace. Whether by parable, anecdote, elegy, or narrative, Pastan’s dogs are blessed with poetry’s name by one of our best.

The New Dog

Into the gravity of my life,

the serious ceremonies

of polish and paper and pen, has come


this manic animal

whose innocent disruptions

make nonsense

of my old simplicities


as if I needed him

to prove again that after

all the careful planning

anything can happen.


Love Poems by Pia Taavila-Borsheim. Cherry Grove Collections. 40 pages.

Love is difficult to write about. First, it must be genuine. That’s hard enough. Then it must be carefully changed into a mechanism of service to the poem, no longer an abstraction, but an emotional calculus for language. The intention is not to describe but to magnify the strengths of a relationship. Love takes the best possible communication where each poem taps into something deeper than words. We wish it to be aspirational because we all want something from it that relates to us. At best, it unleashes the assets of the poet. Happily, poet Pia Taavila-Borsheim fulfills its greatest purpose.



As he waters blue hydrangeas, I peek

through the window, shy as morning glories,

waiting to bloom like moonflowers coming out

at night to entwine his pergola frame.


He picks cucumbers, cherry tomatoes,

cradling them in his hands as if they will break

at any moment, spilling seed across the floor;

he brings them into the house like diamonds.


We will can them in the water baths,

eat them in winter, glad of color and pulp,

pucker at the dill and the sharp taste of garlic.

It will linger on our hands after dark.



Let You Fly by Susan Okie. Finishing Line Press. 38 pages.

What I admire most is the way Okie can move back and forth across time within a single poem. The imagery assists the consequences of space and thought, therefore she can compress and expand time to tell her story, and a large story can be made in a small space. The poem is an act of compression and the challenge is always to use that tension gracefully. Okie’s precision and sharp eye makes for clear writing; and, it’s the love of the exact that we read which benefit the reader. Never is an idea obscured because it’s heartened by a visual or a sensual assistant. The speaker enters the landscape but doesn’t ever dominate the picture. These are virtues that make us trust the work, along with honesty and to intimacy.



The hinge, crusted with mud,

resists your effort,

so you twist and saw,

cut through the crack,

turning a line into

a mouth helplessly opening.

You pry the shells apart

to show gray flesh

glistening in its sea water

and you pass it to me.

I tip the bed and slide

the cold body onto my tongue —

like the afterbirth

of a mermaid: salty,

so mellifluous that I

swallow it whole.



Best Poetry with Illustrations

Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child by Mia Leonin. Illustrations by Nereida Garcia Ferraz. BkMk Press. 100 pages.

A child protagonist in a book for adults was rarely seen in literature until the 21st century. I can think of a handful of successes in this genre and this addition to literature is inventive, original and engaging. Ten-year girl, Micaela, overcomes trauma by immersing herself in words that become her salvation and her saviors. Braiding poetic prose, narrative, verse, and fable, the story’s action is propelled by delightful illustrations.

Dog doesn’t walk Micaela to school

or wag his tail when he sees her.


He scurries from behind trash cans.

He rolls himself into an armadillo shape to sleep.


Dog appears when Micaela sits on the apartment steps

or under the lemon tree in the lot down the street.


When Micaela pulls a bread scrap or a boiled potato from her pocket,

Dog lowers his head, always bowing before receiving a scrap.


He limps to the base of a tree, devours the food, and looks up,

 searching for the morsel so he no longer remembers.


Best Literary Magazine

The Massachusetts Review, edited by Jim Hicks. Univ. of Mass/Amherst. 180 pages.

Since 1959, the Massachusetts Review has featured fiction, poetry, essays, and art. In the spring issue there’s a one-act play advancing drama, something other literary magazines seldom do. The visual art is irreverent and ingenious; the prose is bold and the spreadsheet of poetry rich with respected names, Ilya Kaminsky, Mary Morris, etc., and a national favorite, Emily Fragos.

This magazine with its interrupted agenda knows what literature is and how it should be presented. A magazine is a community; its writers, each issue, contribute a tone and a statement. There’s an underlying text of political thought here made better by historical purpose. Since the second half of the 20th century the Massachusetts Review contributes stylishly and intellectually to America’s literary canon.

Here’s Emily Fragos:

My Body


The body she needs me now to cut her food and feed her,

to bring the glass of sweet water, never sweeter, to her mouth,

dry and shuttered. Now it unfurls itself as mouth, fish wet

and bird ascendant to a higher branch, with the taste of peaches

on its tongue, and for a moment she is mine again. The body

she needs me to hold her hand in the antiseptic rooms, the pill-clicking

halls, the ill surrounding her with their ugly eyes surrounding her.

Needs me to massage her neck, her legs, her temples so filled with

ancient agonia. Her breathing is shallow now, more so than yesterday.

I alone can tell. She needs me to call her back. She grows evermore

distant, ever deeper, too tired to lift her head, her arms, to speak

the barest of words. I alone know what is happening. The body

she requires me now full force to her kind attention.


Please send review copies (2018 releases only) to:

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


Grace Cavalieri’s new book is Other Voices, Other Lives (ASP, 2017). Her latest play is “Calico and Lennie,” Theater for the New City, NYC (2017). She produces/hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” celebrating 41 years on the air.

Love Exemplars? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!

comments powered by Disqus