May Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

May Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

What to look for in a book of poems, it’s very simple — I hope for the feeling I had at ten years old — the realization that everything is possible through language. And that’s the way I still understand the world.


April Twilights and Other Poemsby Willa Cather, edited by Robert Thacker, Everyman’s Library Pocket poets, Alfred A. Knopf. 220 pgs.

The Oldest Word For Dawn New and Selected Poems by Brad Leithauser, Alfred A. Knopf (Borzoi) 234 pgs.

The Bitter Oleander: A Magazine of Contemporary International Poetry & Short Fiction, (Vol. 19. No. 1) edited and published by Paul B. Roth 132 pgs.

empire in the shade of a grass blade by Rob Cook, The Bitter Oleander Press, 113 pgs.

1001 Winters (1001 Talve), by Kristiina Ehin, translated from Estonian by llmar Lehtpere, The Bitter Oleander Press. 259pgs.

Beauty’s Pawnshop by John O’Dell, Xlibris, pg. 81.

Postmodern American Poetry, Norton Anthology, second edition, edited by Paul Hoover, W.W. Norton & Co., 946 pgs.


Speaking WiriWiri, by Dan Vera. Red Hen Press, 78pgs.

Poet Lore Vol. 108  1 / 2 Spring/Summer 2013, edited by Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller.The Writer’s Center, 146 pgs.


The Marfield National Award for Arts Writing has announces its 2013 winner

Twilights and Other Poems, 
Willa Cather
edited by Robert Thacker, Everyman’s Library Pocket poets, Alfred
A. Knopf. 220 pgs




There is something cleansing and sweet about poetry from the earliest part of the 20th century, especially the women poets — women so pure they thought Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry scandalous and bold. Willa Cather is famous as a novelist, but before that she was well known as poet; and two versions of her early book Twilight Nights are printed here. She revised the second. But more fascinating are her excerpted letters. I want to read them in entirety someday. My favorite is how she tracked her favorite poet A.E. Housman to his home in England to gain an interview, only to be treated rudely in a filthy dwelling:

In London I battered upon the doors of his publishers until they gave me his address. He lives in an awful suburb of London in quite the most horrible boarding-house I ever explored. He is the most gaunt and grey and embittered individual I know. He is an instructor in Latin inscriptions in the University of London, but I believe the position pays next to nothing. The poor man’s shoes and cuffs and the state of the carpet in his little hole of a study gave me a fit of dark depression. I would like to tell you all about it sometime: I think he is making about the only English verse of this decade…”

There has been literary gossip about celebrity in every century and I have to say I love it all.

The Oldest Word For Dawn; New and Selected Poems by Brad Leithauser, Alfred A. Knopf (Borzoi) 234pgs.


Brad Leithauser has five other collections of poetry to his credit, six novels, a novel in verse, two collections of light verse and a book of essays. He’s an intelligence in our field.

You can tell Leithauser is a novelist because he uses time, character, place and plot in his poems. Many of these are of lost days where he puts his best shine on things now gone. There’s a balance here. Leithauser also speaks of travel and philosophy— Kenya, Iceland, places we’ll never otherwise see perhaps; but what I like best is the geography of people in domestic places. For example: “Bad Breaks,” from his newest poems Inward Island, is a series of five tiny dramas, the final one of greater length and significance. These crisscross time: “1. Jen and Jason, 2007;”“ll. Louie and Christopher, 1998; “lll. Gerry and Sally, 1984; “lV. Ron and Barb, 1978; “XX and XY, 1952:” Readers never get over what makes a relationship absurd or great.  Grace Paley said relationships were impossible yet she warmed over and over again to her own with a husband well into her late years. No one is better at this complication than Leithauser because his poems capture people walking without leaving tracks, camouflaged lives, the occupational hazard of any two things/feelings/ people that come together. He uncovers the logic in our fumbling love and loss, and is intellectually generous in its conscription to the page. What he sees, whether home or abroad, is developed from an understanding of our culture, its ideals and its myths. Leithauser is an American disruptive, (authoritative &witty 😉 master of conflicting ideas and he’s good for the health of poetry.


A frozen inland sea, and New Year’s Day.

Two forms of water – a white

lacing of frost, then ice, steel gray.

The year’s longest night

now stands a week behind us, the planet’s great

axial shifting begun,

ultimately to culminate

in a midnight sun  

and a breeze-whitecapped lake, blue as a true sea,

though on this New Year’s Day

that firm eventuality

looks as far away

as the row of low white hills on the horizon

that lets the hiker know

miles of ice give way in time

to rock and snow.

Bitter Oleander: A Magazine of Contemporary International Poetry &
Short Fiction,
(Vol. 19.No.1) edited
and published by Paul B. Roth

in the shade of a grass blade
Rob Cook,
The Bitter Oleander
Press, 113 pgs.

Winters (1001 Talve)
by Kristiina Ehin, translated from Estonian by llmar Lehtpere,
Bitter Oleander Press. 259 pgs.


Just when you think you’ve read every poet who will enslave you, along comes Rob Cook, I’ve been watching him in poetry journals for a while and I really think this guy’s got genius. He tests the psychology of the art and makes provocation a talking point. Without his kind of thinking we cannot really truly know life. From the Bitter Oleander journal, his poem Erato begins:” She calls around 2am/ when the clock is lost/ and the moon has turned off/its uncharted neon, /painted over its locks and windows/ and rolled into a child’s head for the night.//Sometimes her conversation/ is in the violence of an unfed violin, //and other times the dialogue/ a best-selling reveler wrote/ for a marriage’s outdated survival…”    I was glad to find him there and since the universe has ears, in my mail arrives an entire book by Cook, empire in the shade of a grass blade. Although the Modern Language Association likes words capitalized, I don’t think it will hurt Rob Cook’s reputation a bit. Here’s a poem from this book which makes the world pause a moment.


a suicide)

with a lip taken from her
           lunchroom bread
a girl feeds

                              her breathing
                to a sapling-spelled linden tree.

she unfolds a hall pass:
slut, if you want to find heaven
you’re gonna have to build it

in the woods a brown bear
                                eats the berries ripening
                on a noose.

slipknots planted by someone
               who wanted to feed
his thinning

the leaves are mean to each other today”
                                 the girls says where her voice
                                                                                   used to be,

                    though the breezes have not yet hatched.

she scrapes away, scrapes
                and scrapes with a grasshopper tendril
                                the spitting that belonged
to the girls
                                who continue as tall reptilian grasses.

and from her stranded feather
                                                the sun no longer looks
                like the days ahead.

she cannot remember which salamander said
                                                 it would be waiting here,
                               already blind on her body,

               a quarry of billowing sunlight
                               from the last knotted curtain she wore
while it tightened and grieved.

I don’t know how Paul Roth relentlessly publishes excellence after excellence but earlier this year came a cri d’ coeur, literally, a cry from the heart, 1001 Winters (1001 Talve)  by Kristina Ehin, translated from Estonian by llmar Lehtpere. I had to look up Estonia and now I want to visit Kristina. She writes: I am the big drowsy queen bee/ of a honeycomb universe/ who sleeps alone/ in her beehive-silent bed/ amid the dark of winter// I feel the restless lines in the hand of this universe/ I have crept through each of its black holes…”  She’s a magical creature from some Shakespearean forest, illyria, perhaps, not Estonia:

from Woman of Gold

even now the fog comes to howl at my door

to wail to dream

and create us anew

the soles of the oaks reach far under ground

in a dream I saw two moons

one big sphere and another even bigger one

on that clear night

the first belonged to everyone

and the second was

my very own moon – the beautiful eye of a dinosaur

your vanished face

through which I saw into myself

by John
Xlibris, pg. 81. 

John O’Dell is an Australian who settled in America, making a career of teaching English and French while pursuing his secret love, poetry. Here’s a sample from his newly published first book, emotionally fulfilling and musically precise.


The myth of perfect penguin monogamy
fractures in a Christchurch museum;
stones for sex may deflect knifeblade cold
prying into every nest, offer a means
to insulate against unquiet death always there
to claw at or smash new life before shells
are even broken and Antarctic dawns begun.

But often, for some of these chaste sisters,
the habit can not be thrown off so easily.
They’ll snatch up those strange beads
and flee back over the ice, favors withheld,
then, to all but the future.  These faithful
will line their nests, say a rosary of earned
or stolen stones; surely, all are absolved.

Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence
edited by
Laura Madeline
Hyacinth Girl Press. 203 pgs.


Let us now praise valiant women.

The book’s “Critical Introduction” has tiny essays – more like trajectories — Poetry as Power; Resistance; Differential Consciousness; Breaking Silences; Raising Consciousness & Poetry as Witness; Disrupting Narratives; Sassing Language; Strategic Anger; Resisting for Change & Poetry as Action. More than 100 contributors tell how it is. “Recent events such as Congress’ failures to review the Violence Against Women Act or politicians’ ignorant statements about rape… all demonstrate the pressing need for continuing education about violence against women…” says Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy.  We think of EDUCATION as a power point lecture in a study hall. Not here. Each poet spins an experienced reality with felt life. There’s a personal mantra I tell students: don’t write poetry unless you have to. These poets write for readers, but not because of them, with clear messages and great imperatives about ignorance and consequence.

In 1970 teaching poetry at Antioch College, I had a poetry anthology of several hundred pages with 5 women poets represented, so it’s with personal satisfaction that I hold this complete package of poems. Sometimes the poems describe great physical chaos, other times more subtle offenses, and often the wounds of ’love.’ Read Ann Bracken:

Marital Privilege

            “In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”
            Eric Weiner, New York Times, March, 2012

In Ireland they warn of thin places
places with a sheer veil between this world and the next,
between bliss and despair,
between saved and damned.

In the soft light of a Dublin morning,
I feel my husband’s hand
creep under my silk teddy.
I stiffen,
feeling the thud of refusal
over the tingle of yes.

Nudging himself between my thighs,
You know it feels good, he growls.

No, I insist, rolling over,
I hug the far-edge of the bed
not now…

He yanks off my panties,
unlocks my legs with a swift push,
shoves me to my knees.

I brace.  Then a hurried
thrust, thrust.
When he’s done,

He slaps my ass
and says,
Now, let’s go eat.

He whistles in the shower,
I crawl out of bed.
Tug my jeans over shaking legs,
Paste on my smile.

The thin place between love and hate –
I have crossed over.

American Poetry
Norton Anthology, second edition, edited by
W.W. Norton & Co. 946 pgs.


How do you describe a book of a subject that weighs almost 3 pounds of words on the bathroom scale? One way is to start with understanding what postmodern poetry is. For that I’ll pick some helpful phrases  from the intro — consummate — if you read this you’ll know a lot: Postmodernism covers the period after WW ll, strongest from the 1950’s to present. “Broadly speaking the term suggests an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the sentimentality and self-expressiveness of its life in writing…”  Then this: ”… A break with nineteenth century romanticism and early twentieth century modernism…” Those are the basics, along with the idea that postmodernism is influenced by modernism (or obviously it couldn’t be post.) Here are some buzz words we learn about—conceptual, cyberpoetics and proceduralism. “These work against writing as expression.” The book argues that avant-garde poetry refreshes language, making the case that all innovations, Dadaism; surrealism; modernism; Beat poetry, were disdained early on and apparently proved triumphant in changing our cultural perceptions. The self is taken out of (self) consciousness; I always felt that, ideally, language poetry can be seen as the most egalitarian of writing because the reader might not know the age, gender or race of the writer by what’s written. Of course there are many styles and so no one description fits all. Generally, PM poetry expresses emotion “out of the context” of personal expression, using metrics and sonic combinations  to imply meaning. The physical matter, material, substance, of words = the palette. This continues to be a fascinating discussion of esthetics especially since the digital age has jettisoned everything we knew years ago. This book makes a lot of sense and is crucial to understanding where we’ve been and where we’re headed. Gertrude Stein figures as a progenitor and it’s stated that she was ahead of her time but, interestingly, she wrote “no one is ahead of his time.”



The book is a reissue from 1994 and I think it’s a good idea. It might  have taken that long for the general literary public to warm up to it; and it will certainly satisfy college classroom needs with its fine encyclopedia of poets There are also essays from the works of Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Will Alexander, Leslie Scalapino, Nathaniel Mackey, Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein, K. Silem Mohammad, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Drew Gardner, plus.


A sample poem by Claudia Rankine (which has recognizable compassion I think):


Coherence in Consequence

Imagine them in black, the morning heat losing within this day that floats.  And
always there is the being, and the not-seeing on their way to –

The days approach and their sharpest aches will wrap experience until
knowledge is translucent, the frost on which they find themselves slipping.
Never mind the loose mindless grip of their forms reflected in the eye-
watering hues of the surface, these two will survive in their capacity to meet
to hold the other beneath the plummeting, in the depths below each step full
of avoidance.  What they create will be held up, will resume: the appetite is
bigger than joy.  indestructible.  for never was it independent from who they
are.  who will be.

Were we ever to arrive at knowing the other as the same pulsing compassion
would break the most orthodox heart.

Speaking Wiri Wiri , by Dan Vera. Red Hen Press. 78 pgs.


Vera writes so we know how it was for him, and that makes us more alive too.  He makes story link to poetry so that it matters to others. He allows the writing to evolve voluntarily and doesn’t push to persuade; letting people, sights, tastes, smells do the talking, as in  Mama’ Makes the Local Paper: “Because Cuban food in South Texas/ is like dishes from Venus or Mars,/ a reporter is sent to interview Mama’.// She cribs the recipes from Cocina Criolla/ and is photographed with her plates/ in her nicest dress, and a bouffant/ the size of her pressure cooker…”

Dan Vera was born to Cuban parents in South Texas in the middle of a Mexican American community. The book is an exegesis on language and culture— Wiri Wiri being the elder Vera’s phrase for gibberish. Sustaining Cuba in South Texas is funny and sad; but bears witness to all of us who had one foot in two worlds while balancing our parents’ earnestness in a new country. Characters are at the center of this dusty landscape— from the child’s POV in, Lago De Mil Ojos: “My father would roll down his window,/ they would ask for his proof of identification, /He would smile and hand them his license, / they would ask questions, I would translate the answers…”  Mr. Guzman is a tragic/comedian in Mr. Guzman Makes a Fool of Himself: “He told me about traveling with the pickers/ through the hot fields of Missouri and Iowa./ How when they got word they were coming/ the people would run for the  buses/ while he emptied a bottle of whiskey over his head…” “… ignoring the laughter of deputies/ who’d throw him in jail to sober up while they called the Feds…” Another of my favorites, Norse Saga, begins: “Let us praise the immigrant/ who leaves the tropics/ and arrives in Chicago/ in the dead of winter.” and the last verse,  “Let us praise the immigrant/ who dreams of the pleasures of sunstroke/ who wakes each morning to the alien sight/ of their breath suspended in the cold city air.”

Each tableau comes alive as a valuable record of the shifting patterns in our country. The book ends with a large statement:


The 2009 March on Washington for Immigration Reform

Nothing beats the surprise
on the faces of daily commuters
who looked on in disbelief
in every metro car in Washington

The faces are baffled and alarmed
to see the ocean of accented voices
which swelled from the suburbs
of Maryland and Virginia
through the subterranean labyrinths
to rise in the heart of the capital city.

They march past the office buildings
of the government that can not see them
that considers them a menace and urban legend.

When they reach the national mall
a smile appears on every face
as if they have arrived to the knowledge
of who they are and where they are standing.

There between the capitol and the monuments
a ripple of comprehension takes hold
and the dream unfurls again.

Lore Vol. 108  1 / 2 Spring/Summer 2013,
by Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller
The Writer’s Center,146 pgs.


Poet Lore is the oldest poetry magazine in America (1889.) It’s an old friend who comes to call and brings every kind of voice, the Poet Laureate, the fledgling, the language poet, the narrative. I chose to highlight Marge Piercy because, frankly her experience is my own, and that’s what poets give us, the gift of ourselves:


I remember hauling carpets out to the clothes-
line in the yard and knocking the dust out
in great cough-making clouds with wire
carpet beaters like diagrams of cellos.

Defrosting the refrigerator required much
boiling of water on the stove and flat pans
into which fingers of ice fell.  Every five
minutes they cooled and needed refilling.

The coal truck came and down the chute
into the coal bin the black rocks
clattered and thundered.  The floors
upstairs shook in a local quake.

The furnace with many arms lurked
in the basement and every few days
clinkers must be removed, often still
smoking, and ashes hauled out.

During the war we collected cans
and stomped them underfoot, handing
them in.  We bundled newspapers,
magazines for distant factories.

I miss none of this.  They were chores
not pleasures, but still I remember
and my age hangs on me like icicles
that bear down the branches of pine.


The Marfield National Award for Arts Writing has announces its 2013 winner

Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimpt’s
Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
by Anne-Marie
Alfred A. Knopf, 295pgs.


The Marfield Prize is given annually by the Arts Club of Washington to nonfiction books on arts and artists.  Now in its 7th year, it is the only award of its kind for writing about the arts; and equal to the Pulitzer Prize with a purse of $10,000. All books on the arts are judged: books on dance, photography, cinema, and music are eligible.

As one of its judges this year, I can tell you the conversation was animated, with the summary conclusion that this book was best overall, written about an art in a fascinating historical context, with moral issues and legal ramifications about the German appropriation of art in World War ll. But before that tragedy, a lush and detailed life of the art world in Vienna, impeccably written, readable, urgent, memorable, and lyrical, with information not before available.

Finalists for the Award: Michael
On Conan Doyle,
Princeton Univ. Press;
Short Nights of the
Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward
by Timothy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; The
Big Screen
by David
, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Grace Cavalieri is a writer. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books, attn: Becky Meloan

311 Tschiffely Square Road,

Gaithersburg, Maryland 20878.






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