November 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

November 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Monthly Poetry Reviews

By Grace Cavalieri

In the month of thanks, I am thankful in finding cause for happiness and sadness as seen through poets and poetry.


Stealing Sugar from the Castle, Selected and New Poems (1950-2013) by Robert Bly. W.W. Norton. 364 pages.

My Poems Won’t Change The World, selected poems by Patrizia Cavelli, edited by Gini Alhadeff. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 261 pgs.

Nothing by Design by Mary Jo Salter. Alfred A. Knopf.105 pgs.

Ain’t No Grave by T.J. Jarrett. Western Michigan University. 91 pgs.

On the Flyleaf by Herbert Woodward Martin. Bottom Dog Press.97 pgs.

Black Stars, poems by Ngo Tu Lap, translated from the Vietnamese by Martha Collins and Ngo Tu Lap. (In Vietnamese and English) Milkweed Editions. 107 pgs

Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire by Brenda Hillman. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 105 pgs.




Stealing Sugar from the Castle, Selected and New Poems (1950-2013) by Robert Bly. W.W. Norton. 364 pages.


From the section Talking Into The Ear Of The Donkey, 2011,

Starting a Poem

You’re alone. Then there’s a knock

On the door. It’s a word. You

Bring it in. Things go

OK for a while. But this word

Has relatives. Soon

They turn up. None of them work.

They sleep on the floor, and they steal

Your tennis shoes.

You started it; you weren’t

Content to leave things alone.

Now the den is a mess, and the

Remote is gone.

From a celebrated life comes a celebrated book, although Bly would not think of it that way; he’d see it more as job satisfaction, expressing his moral concerns. Yet his searing conscience about our mortality, and the way mankind’s plans reach toward heaven, are on every page. Robert Bly is a fiery intellectual with a soft voice. He found, early on, the right way to tell stories and has a gentle hand on the pain that went into making them.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was to choose the poems to represent his many books. What is significant in each section is his art of pausing long enough to find a healing message, and then his seeming lack of attachment to its outcome. A Buddhist principle but Bly has many complexities. We who are older will remember his poems from 1967-1972 in The Teeth Mother Naked At Last sparked by outrage at Viet Nam. He will say in one stanza in The Teeth Mother that ‘the President lies to us,’ and in another stanza we will say ‘do not be angry at the President,’ citing his drift toward death. This theme is pivotal in his political poetry. Scouting the problem and then resolving a conflict. Another thread running throughout is his love for his father. In Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (1990-1994) we get the feeling that love also pivoted from harder times.

If we read from end to end, Bly claims the same breath with all animals of the world, and he reconstructs life on earth again and again coupling joy with death, building each poem from the idea of reverence for each. The metrics of speech are always consistent. If ever I can hear a man’s voice on the page, it is here with its unmistakable cadence. Bly predominantly measures his words in tercets, and ordered stanzas, and he is a man of regularity as if saying you can count on him by merely looking at the shapes on the page. The poems say he has the charge and we don’t have to worry that the good practice of poetry will fall in bad hands. There’s a larger strategy in consistency: Proof that what is articulated is thoughtfully processed. This gives the reader faith.

The ratio of poems featuring death are equal to those overcoming it through life moments – in such a volume of writing, this could be anticipated. There is inevitably a stretching out of themes in a large body of work, as we are looking at samples from the whole of a man’s life. Fifteen books are represented here in this collection plus new poems. And in each utterance, authenticity is the lesson taught.

There’s a large breach between people who understand poetry and those who do not; but, in the case of Bly, his conversational tone set the standard for poetry in the 2nd half of the 20th century as he made serious appraisals of the world without despair of it. Many of us who have followed Bly since the 1950’s will say he’s the clarion voice of our time because he is the one who showed us that everything on earth sings in its own way. From Morning Poems (1993-1997):

Tasting Heaven

Some people say that every poem should have

God in it somewhere. But of course Wallace Stevens

Wasn’t one of those. We live, he said, “in a world

Without heaven to follow.” Shall we agree

That we taste Heaven only once, when we see

Her at fifteen walking among the fallen leaves?

It’s possible. And yet as Stevens lay dying

He invited the priest in. There, I’ve said it.

The priest is not an argument, only an instance.

But our gusty emotions say to me that we have

Tasted heaven many times: these delicacies

Are left over from some larger party.

My Poems Won’t Change The World, selected poems by Patrizia Cavelli, edited by Gini Alhadeff. Ferrar, Straus and Giroux. 261 pgs.


Poems from 1974-2006, translated by Gini Alhadeff with translations also by Rosanna Warren, Mark Strand, Susan Stewart, David Shapiro, J.D. Mcclatchy, Kenneth Koch, Jorie Graham, Jonathan Galassi, Damiano Abeno, Brunella Antomarini, Judith Baumel, Geoffrey Brock, Moira Egan.

I was surprised to find myself often comparing Patrizia Cavelli with Russian poet Anna Akmatova, not for content but in form—short terse poems reaching for an urgent message within a few lines—each piece a transformational thought. And each poet writes poems as if answering questions; challenging existing assumptions about women in their cultures.

I’m not clear about why Cavelli is described by critics primarily as an “erotic” poet—love yes, but with the most restrained and indirect pain—just enough for the poem. Words matter and Cavelli parses them like grains of rice, hiding a multiplicity of feeling. Brief poetic statements. Modern Italian poetry, which is so much based in the classics, sometimes idealizes relationships. Yet, the women of Italy are steady in changing literature and we can see Cavelli as a major consequence of change. I would characterize her by the words “bravery” and “impulse.” She’s plainspoken, colloquial, but never in free fall. She’s shifted perspectives of women’s literature in Italy and pushed back its horizons. From the 2006 poems Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate an uncharacteristically long 8-page love poem translated by Alhadeff.

slow and dark the Keeper appeared.

I recognized her right away; aloof

she did not say hello, or introduce herself.

in command of her steps, melancholic,

late, buttressed and vigilant:

the unmoving, stern, immutable

Keeper of the Door.

If this is the keeper, I told myself,

who knows what lies beyond her door.

Because it’s obvious, one guards inflexibly

only a door that has a feeble lock

and that would reveal, when opened, delights

so encompassing and fatal

even the keeper might fall prey to them.

Nothing by Design by Mary Jo Salter. Alfred A. Knopf.105 pgs.


Mary Jo Salter’s poetry is not only comfortable reading for the general public, she is a poet’s poet. This means that those of us who make a life from reading look for reasons to feel good.

This poet’s burden of clear vision is only made possible by her knowledge of poetic structure. Salter has been called a formalist but I’m not sure labeling does anything but serve judgment. It certainly does not describe Salter’s fluidity within the line, her search for the exact word, nor the dynamics in what words can be said loudly, and what can be soft. This kind of thinking goes beyond meter. Within this book Salter also celebrates poets whose work surpasses their lives. When it seems the entire world is in decline, this lifts our flagging spirits. Such an excellent piece is in Section Vll, the final section, about Nobelist Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky, now deceased. He was in a labor camp in the Soviet Union for 7 years before emigrating, by great good fortune, to the United States. Salter, writing in his own country, gives us a 6 page eulogistic poem, partly biography, partly homage –Voice of America— In quatrains that are perfect—just the way Brodsky in his exactitude would demand. A poem of this dimension could be a marble pillar of language, not so with Mary Jo Salter’s skills. Enjambment is what gives the piece needed motion, and keeps us moving. And so much more here from the heart.

In Section Vl, titled Lightweights, Salter shows her wit with poems on Ezra Pound, E.S.V. Millay: and, even on form—prosody and syntax, haiku and riddles. Here’s a poem of wryness, qualifying certainly for heavyweight :

No Second Try

Why should I blame her that she filled my days

With misery—

W.B. Yeats, “No Second Try.”

Why should I blame him that he filled his days

With mistresses, or that he came home late

To meet most ignorant trust with smiling ways,

Such thoughtful gifts, and claims that I looked great—

Whatever that meant, though clearly not desire?

What help if I’d been wiser, with a mind

Simply to hurl his laundry in the fire

Rather than buy his tall tales with a kind

Solicitude and a deluded kiss,

Having cleaned his house from stem to stern?

Why, who else could he use, a guy like this?

Was there another wife for him to spurn?

Ain’t No Grave by T.J. Jarrett. Western Michigan University. 91 pgs.


This is the voice of a strong soul. One of the recurring images in Jarrett’s poems is the dark, and we all know what comes from that. She illuminates the past with an aching accuracy, historian as well as poet. She has written poems dedicated to victims of hate: ‘For Mary Turner, burned and hanged May 17, 1918; For Cordella Stevenson. Raped and hanged December 8, 1915; For Sam Hose, burned April 23, 1899; For Laura Nelson, raped and hanged May 25, 1911;’ and more.

Beauty comes from Jarrett’s inner source, her childhood, rich with a catalogue of family, situations, occasions and characters. We meet a mother who irons her best dress so she can “run away from home” in patent leather shoes, only to come home for dinner from the wide world—there’s Thanksgiving where tragedy and harmony meet—solidarity at a funeral—family members showing their tattoos, getting caught with their pants down. These are tiny short stories in poetic form. Only such a sweet life could bear to make such a commitment to the dead, keeping them alive, respecting their music.


What the Grass Says

The grass says: I was born for supplication.

I bend toward the light. Arc for the moon.

Grass flinches from nothing. Not even the brightness.

Supplicating always. For the day and the ant king

and his amber jeweled subjects traveling over.

For the night and the men, the women and the fire.

The grass will bow to the fire and the men.

The grass is an object to the sentence.

The men will stand upon the grass.

The grass will raise him up upon the earth.

On the Flyleaf by Herbert Woodward Martin. Bottom Dog Press.97 pgs.


Herbert Woodward Martin is the biographer of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, researching and publishing his uncollected works—as you can imagine—a triumph. Martin is also a poet and musician. In this new book, he explains that his poetry comments on existing poems and works of art—but there’s much more. The book is Martin’s philosophical statements on what has shaped him and what he has shaped. Each poem begins with ‘On the Flyleaf of…’

In On The flyleaf of Cold Comfort, Martin writes about the days of drinking segregated water and a white woman who asks why she can’t drink from the colored fountain…The answer was: ‘those fountains contain rainbow water. It is reserved for Negroes only.’ The poetic environment in the 1940’s and in this book is about race and compassion, revelation and forgiveness, traditions and rejuvenation. Martin is diligent; but this quality deepens only because of impulse, idea, and implementation. One quality alone does not ride a poem into the future. Every poem here is a version of Martin’s experience or understanding. He interprets our views with his own. I won’t say this book is a culmination of a poet’s life but the visionary power here is not a bad verification of a life well lived—composing images through beautiful construction. On the Flyleaf of 50 Contemporary Poets: “Beginning with a line from an older poet:/each generation tells the next how excellent/ its time was and that the next generation will/ have it better…” On the Flyleaf of

90 Miles (for Dennis Brutus) Martin begins: “I see your restless spirit in between the roots of a Banyan tree/ searching for a route that will allow you to defeat your nearest/ competitor…”

Sometimes Martin’s commentary is about the past, sometimes about the contemporary. On the Flyleaf of The Last Uncle (by Linda Pastan) his remarks are as fine about her work as has been written.

And here is a tiny three-liner poem, On the Flyleaf of Urania:

Titanic language

Clouds forget; they drift away

Sweet delirium.

Black Stars, poems by Ngo Tu Lap, translated from the Vietnamese by Martha Collins and Ngo Tu Lap. (In Vietnamese and English) Milkweed Editions. 107 pgs.


This is a book of uninterrupted memory. The 1960’s saw the beginning of what is now known as the Viet Nam war— and so did our poet. But there is no stridency here, no vindication. The word choices are soft and more like a lullaby of sorrow. The story of loss is told again and again. From The Slumber of Books (1) Lap’s last stanza reads: “… The slumber of white time yellows each minute/An imitation of immortality/ Like wormholes eaten into the dark night/ Like patient stars brightening on the horizon. “Patient” is an excellent term for this poet for there is a sense of long-suffering reverence for the past and the dead. From Little Lap-Tree: “ …Little Lap-tree/ Your eyes sharp with pain in late afternoon/ Is that your country up there, high in the sky?” You will love his lyricism, A Tree Has Fallen: “A tree has fallen, you have just gone/ The sky is more spacious, my heart more empty/ I’m a stranger in my own room…”

Here is a writer who has seen the worst and written the best. His intensity comes from a gentle tone, and his spare beauty brings us insight sweetened by introspection. He was born in Hanoi in 1962 and evacuated because of the war. Martha Collins’ introduction says, the poet progresses “from being a young man reflecting on his village childhood, to a more mature traveler absorbing and reflecting on contemporary global life.”

The lyrics are clear and clean. Instead of desperation there is an understanding of all that happened in his country. Through this book, Lap takes flight from his youth with a narrative flow that bears the imprint of our greatest ancient poets. We can only rejoice that Lap’s lifelong horrors are transformed into dream-like images, becoming elegant amendments to a disgraceful time in history. All that is ugly is redeemed by his descriptive writing, poetic restraint, and ennobling experience.

Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire by Brenda Hillman. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 105 pgs.


This book demonstrates that a poet with self-knowledge helps poetry and society. With Hillman, you just surrender and follow the words, and you’ll find the utmost diversity and creativity, reviewing age-old beliefs and questioning new ones. Almost every poem is presented in a different way. Her audience knows that enigma is a life style and to capture that takes activism in the world and on the page. Hillman’s interdictory thought forms are internal wisdom turned to sound—sort of like digital thinking that looks free associative, but is classic and futuristic at once. There’s a sense of fable and folklore tucked into her hipness. Remember your first encounter with “The Owl and the Pussy Cat?” That’s where Brenda Hillman takes me: I know there’s not REALLY an owl and a pussy cat and they’re not REALLY going to sea in a pea green boat, but the idea from some primary source inside me transforms the base idea into something thrilling—something I feel rocking beneath logic.


Many of Hillman’s poems charge our complex society head-on; some poems merely unlock words within thoughts within words; history and science are often interspersed—and so are Hillman’s personal devotions. I cite an 11-page section titled Smart Galaxies Think of Our Mother. Poem titles are: Small Galaxies Think of Our Mother; Smart Galaxies Work with Our Mother; Smart Galaxies Sweep with Our Mother; Short Galaxies Sweep with Our Mother; Named Galaxies Wing for Our Mother; Galaxies are Born with Our Mother; Ringed Galaxies Work with Our Mother; Blue Galaxies Knit with Our Mother; Round Galaxies Turn for Our Mother; Important Galaxies Glowed for Our Mother; Yellow Galaxies Speed for Our Mother; Light Galaxies Sleep for Our Mother—each two-column poem is a love story, phrases return and repeat and refigure the Mother image. The performance of remembering in Brenda Hillman is always surprising. You’ll be changed if you can keep up with her rapid expansions of thought. I can and so can you.


The Best American Poetry 2013

Guest Editor, Denise Duhamel; Series Editor, David Lehman

Scribner. 204 pgs.


This is all you need the whole year through! Excellent choices. A bubblebath for the soul.


by Katie Peterson,

Western Michigan University. 71 pgs

Just when I thought I knew every poet worth loving, along comes Katie Peterson.


by Cullen Bailey Burns. 

Western University Press. 61 pgs.

Western Univ. Press must stay up late at night finding great poets. This is a beautiful voice to read at least twice.

Earth And Below by Susana H. Case.

Anaphora Literary Press. 103 pgs.


This is an incredibly important book about organizing labor and copper workers. Its illustrations could make up a history course. Its writing could change a world view of inequities.

Loose Weather by Robert Herschbach.

Washington Writers’ Publishing House. 81 pgs.

Winner of the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize for 2013. A smart new voice is added to American Letters, and this one will stay in the canon:


Someday I’m going to wake up

and not be able to see

out of my eyes, which are stone,

or move my hands, which are fish.

The barbed wire caught in my lip.

The skin washing ashore like sheets

of plastic, And the tin can

in my head, empty.

One of these days the Jew’s harp

in my throat will snap, just as I thought

I finally had it—the answer

to the Sphinx, and the other riddle

where legs are strings, and we fiddle.

Grace Cavalieri holds the” Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award” for 2013; and the 2013 Associated Writing 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, celebrating 36 years on-air.

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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