November 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

November 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


By Grace Cavalieri

Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo. Milkweed Editions. 76 pages.

Mandatory Evacuation by Peter Makuck. Boa Editions. 95 pages.

The Persistence of Longing by Lynne Knight. Terrapin Books. 84 pages.

Johnny Cash, Forever Words: the unknown poems, edited by Paul Muldoon. blue rider press. 132 pages.

The Good Dark by Annie Guthrie. Tupelo Press. 53 pages.

Commotion of the Birds by John Ashbery.  HarperCollins/ecco. 96 pages.

ANYBODY by Ari Banias. W.W. Norton. 92 pages.

Woman In A Blue Robe by Yoko Danno. Isobar Press, Tokyo. 58 pages.


Almost Complete Poems by Stanley Moss. Seven Stories Press. 570 pages.


Still Life With Poem, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby. Literary House Press. 135 pages.

Best Translation

Russia’s World Traveler Poet: Eight Collections by Nikolay Gumilev (1886-1921), translated by Martin Bidney. 361 pages.

Most Surprising Volume

Whipstitches by Randi Ward. MadHat Press. 106 pages.

Four Reincarnations by Max Ritvo. Milkweed Editions. 76 pages.

In August 2016, poet Max Ritvo died of a cancer he endured since his childhood.

In each page, you are next to him while his creative intellect changes crisis; until the imperative of the poems fasten to your heart. I read the book, with deep feeling, before knowing of Ritvo’s death and the grief feels the same. Ritvo raises the temperature of poetry with his boldness—he changes procedure to prophecy; and turns the improbable to reality. Not enough can be said of the style and mastery of this young man who makes reading exactly what you want it to be — pages that do not get in the way — a truthful trajectory of impermanence. His six-page “acknowledgments,” at the close of the book, is a love letter to the world.

Plush Bunny


My poor little future,
you could practically fit in a shoe-box
like the one I kept peshul bunny in
when I decided I was too old to sleep with her.
I’d put a lid on the box every night.
I knew she couldn’t breathe — she was stuffed,
but I thought she’d like the dark, the quiet.
She had eyes, I could see them.
They were two stiches. My future eyes,
for a while. Then my future has stitches,
like peshul’s. Then cool cotton, like her guts.
Of course there is another world. But it is not elsewhere.
The eye traps it so where heaven should be
you see shadows. You start to reek.
That’s you moving on.

Mandatory Evacuation by Peter Makuck. Boa Editions. 95 pages.

“That’s it/the. That’s it/ Everything you need / is beginning to find you.” (Apres Le Deluge, or How To Return)

Makuck writes as if the world is a sacred ground worth recording into poetry. His work respects nature and relationships; and if these were the last words left in his heart he could be proud. In Buddhism, the path is said to be, among other, things right speech, right action; and we could complete the precepts by saying right art because if you follow the thread through all the systems in this complex tapestry of people places things, the guiding thread is a merciful conversation. Only a poet deeply mindful could capture sequences, memories and emotions with such optical precision.


A wrong turn in a new town.
An old neighborhood, azaleas and purple plum.

Warm afternoon.
Stuck behind a school bus with flashing lights.

You’re late, but relax.
Something worthwhile might arrive.

Lower the window.
An orange meniscus lifting in the east.  No bad.

A young woman
waits at the side of the street with folded arms.

A small boy
jumps off the bus, his red backpack

flickering in the tree shadows.
He runs to his mom, and grabs her hand

years ago — your son, your wife.
The cars behind you begin to beep.

Wisteria sweetens the ripening light.
That wrong turn now seems right.

The Persistence of Longing by Lynne Knight. Terrapin Books. 84 pages.

Not since Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap has there been such a stellar book of poems written about the end of a marriage. These poems are deeply marked by life and cover the emotional alphabet of betrayal, rejection, hope, despair, with the greatest gift of all the creativity to survive by writing. This is bright art about a dark time from the end of a relationship to the beginning of the book one can only imagine the internal mood music. I know it took Olds 25 years to produce her chronicle; and Knight’s ability to touch another’s life through these poems is a testimony to an artist’s work without deception; and serves to help poetry’s reputation in the world. Every poem is tailored differently. Knight knows her craft and uses clarity to fence in tumult. Each page is a delightful escalation of good writing; and the marvel is that this comes from a poet who knows who she is, through everything, and has the courage to share her gifts of discovery.

The Silence of Women

Finally, the silence of women began to disappear.
It crumbled like old bread.
It evaporated like steam from broccoli.
It rose like the scent of turmeric from kitchens.
It mixed in with birdsong.
It flew over rivers and oceans.
It settled in prairies, it poured out like water
trapped in leaves.

The silence was one language.
All the women on earth spoke it:
They had mastered the tongue.

But it vanished in the sound of vacuum cleaners.
It lifted like smoke from chimneys.
In winter, it covered the snow. It was white, then,
so at first no one noticed. More snow, they thought
longing for spring. When spring came,
the silence burst into cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, apple.
This world of ours! the women cried.

And their stories rushed out like breath
held almost too long —

 Johnny Cash, Forever Words: the unknown poems, edited by Paul Muldoon. blue rider press. 132 pages

We all know American icon Johnny Cash as musician and performer — we shouldn’t be surprised — but who knew he wrote poetry? Poet Paul Muldoon edited the book and the forward is written by John Carter Cash (son). A winning addition to this volume is the replica of poems in Cash's own handwriting, with corrections, and deletions. It’s a human element that one wouldn’t expect to be so moving, but it has a great emotional effect. There are as many harmonies in his poems as in his songs and also red zones of sex, women and reconciliations reminiscent of our best blues artists. Love, lust, luck sums it up — travel and country living. These poems can also be seen as meta-lyrics for the recurrence of sound, rhyme and bridges. The theme of don’t know where I’m going but no I’m going to get there pervades, whether about his ideals, marriage or his art. The X factor is Cash’s surprising disdain for fame, and the poem “Don’t Make A Movie About Me” is emotionally graphic. Editor Muldoon does a terrific job linking Cash to even T.S. Eliot and Scotch Irish folk songs. This gives the necessary ballast to the bold, raw and striking poetry of the man America still loves.

Body on Body


You wonder how (where) true love goes
No one can say — cause nobody knows
Like rain on a rock — life a leaf in the air
No way to tell but it’s going somewhere.

You wonder what — true love knows
No one can say — cause nobody knows
It don’t make sense — like a midnight sun
And one and one — is only one.

Heart on heart — and soul on soul
Body on body is how it goes
Heart on heart and soul on soul
Body on body — is all it knows.

The Good Dark by Annie Guthrie. Tupelo Press. 53 pages.

“Sometimes shadows become articulate says Annie Guthrie (chorus). Her mysterious book satisfies our hunger for the enigmatic and the divine. “the gossip” is a phrase that comes up often; and Dan Beachy-Quick, in the foreword, explains “There is nature, and there is God, and there is the gossip between them that the human ear eavesdrops upon…” A perfect way to understand all that Guthrie hides in plain sight. Her brief and nicely spaced poems give us an occasion to think, to compound our interest, in what is seen and heard, but more — the stillness and flow vibrating between. This book is thankfully not a compilation of poems with complete pictures. It is more a reflection of the contours of thought. The technique is the art here, and the art is the technique.’

*The gossip
she dreamed she was swimming out to sea,
curtain of black water, glistening,
forearms of waves heaving her further out —
let’s go back in! she called, scared,
waved to shelve her self in:
Just remember to feed the family!
Life is putting on shows!
I have to pull the curtains.

Commotion of the Birds by John Ashbery.  HarperCollins/ecco. 96 pages.

I think I first read John Ashbery about 1960. I remember the chair I was sitting in at the time, which became suddenly an energy force field. I remember feeling the electrification of finding something entirely new. Since that time Ashbery has never disappointed us. This new collection of poems at the age of 89 would make any young poetry Olympiad appear frail. Why is that? Other poets have given up fear as he has; and many have tried the same style, (non sequiturs line after line,) but there’s a thread that connects all Ashbury says, and if you read with your brain and breathe through your eyes, the social and personal commentaries are there — wry (an understatement) — the bulletin board of an interior life that  connects to a world seen with belief, disbelief, and humor. This new book reboots language once again, recreating flawlessly. I can’t imagine the world without Ashbery’s contribution.

But Seriously

Do not include anger at the distance
it takes to get from here to the hill of downtown
that bears the sapphire tower.
Others than you have made the trip, and found
little to marvel at once the arriving was over.

Your words hold too much meaning once
they’re released. Save an epigram
for the jar. Once it is lapsed
you’ll wear it like an endorsement,
jewel that goes nowhere.

All along the creek where we once stood
new ball games are being absorbed
and declassified.  oes that matter to us?
Or is it already time to go back in?
On the Waterfront was a good movie. Can we leave it at that?

  ANYBODY by Ari Banias. W.W. Norton. 92 pages.

Are you the you you should be or the you you want to be or are you the you that you must be.  

These poems advance human consciousness — a hyperbolic statement, I admit — but these thoughts of a Trans poet, go further than before into an uncharted territory we’ve only begun to explore. Being Transgender is not about sex and not about sociology: It’s a morality of the soul. Anybody makes us understand this. (DOUBLE MASTECTOMY): “Glided straight toward that white room. As if//approaching from within/ a dense wood// a place queerly brimming gold light; / the possibility of ///the possibility of// my body.” 

(STILL HERE): “When you’re in love the world appears more beautiful is something/ people like to say. For me the heart’s throat/ is choked. Someone went in & scrawled a mustache/ on the upper lip, and then/ one under each eye…”

There are transfixed moments in every poem, part of the significant backdrop of a person’s life. We know that every TV talking head uses the word “pivot.” It’s the word of the month. Changing from girl to boy or boy to girl is not a pivot — where thereafter, ‘now everything’s fine; the correct sex is restored.’  This false notion is torn, via fulsome, original, fearless language. Courage and conviction are Banias’ emotional currencies. Every poem (and some great prose poems) construct the circumstance — self-evidence — the path to be whole and fulfilled. Anybody shows, and teaches, about the future of our society, but mostly, the future of poetry. Being true to oneself is an axiom: Living it, in this book, is poetry of the highest excellence.


People, far too many people here —
drinking, leaning on the furniture,
congratulating my father
on his new life. Here’s
his young wife, young enough
to be my older sister.
She — if you can’t tell
the whole truth — is nice.
But he slams his glass
onto the table, yells
more now than ever. Unless
I remember wrong. I know
I was afraid. Of him. And so.
I know I played alone
with dolls and that
we roughhoused, hard,
like brothers. What is a father
is a question like what
is home, or love. In the middle of the room
guests on the arms of the awful floral sofa
Mom wouldn’t get up from
when she heard. In the grey bathrobe
for a week, horrid splotches
of pink and purple flowers with green
for stems. Or leaves. I can’t
look at it. There’s something hot
behind my eyes another glass of wine
should take care of.
There are people I should say hello to.

Woman In A Blue Robe by Yoko Danno. Isobar Press, Tokyo. 58 pages.

Yoko Danno once told me that she wrote poetry in English because the Japanese language was too codified for her ability to express. This English would satisfy any Anglophile; yet there is a pacing more graceful, at its core, that speaks of another culture. These short stories, essays, poetry, fables, folklore, share a delicacy of language and content. I especially like 10 tiny poems — not haiku — or maybe some form of haiku – that together are titled “Squid Ink.” Here: “one of a thousand flowery goldfish, / fluttering in a huge LED–lit glass bowl, /my voice silently rising as tiny bubbles.” And here’s another: “cups and glasses not wrapped, /clothes still hanging in the wardrobe, /bundles of goods for removal on the floor – /stop falling sakura, I’m not yet ready to depart.”  Each entry is different in tone — some are wry; others, whimsical — fragments of humanness caught on the wing as if they existed before, and will go on after; and we just catch a thought in the middle. Yoko Danno is known internationally for her “Scrolls,” working in collaboration with poet James Taylor each contributing to the same piece, taking turns by the paragraph. Woman in a Blue Robe is all hers. A regalia of introspections that does what all writers hope for – creating without precedent, every line reinforcing the narrative — stereography — writing without persuasion, calculation or manipulation. This writer’s spirit is on the page.

Tea Ceremony House

The way to your destination
is not simple - after getting off
the train at the suburban station,

cross the railroad to the opposite
side, walk along the street flanked
with prefabricated modern houses,

turn into a narrow bypath a car can
barely pass through; a wooden mansion,
generations old, looms ahead - the main

gate that once admitted noblemen on
horseback is fastened now with a bar.
Inside the wall by way of the side door,

tips of rock islands rise above the sea
of white pebbles mixed with fallen
flower petals - watered stone steps

lead you to the tea ceremony house,
where a weeping cherry tree in full
blossom awaits you - a swift shadow

of a huge bird passes across the empty
pool – before the spring storm hits you,

                                    please drink

                        this peaceful tea  


Almost Complete Poems by Stanley Moss. Seven Stories Press. 570 pages.

Legacy is an important word in poetry; and Stanley Moss could be its synonym. His publishing house has been a flagship for quality poetry for years; and the scale of his own poetry is in every human register. Moss, in his 91st year, is at the leading edge of the poetry world, and don’t we each hope for such an energetic response to a life-long craft. Each poem retools reality with a ranging knowledge of art, literature, and human conduct. Through Moss’s telescope a rich personality sees the world through many years. On this earth, with its turbulent times of wrongdoing, how fine it will be to have this good book at your side.

A Metaphoric Trap Sprung

Poets, step carefully, your foot, eye, ear, love
may be caught in a metaphoric trap,
like the bear’s severed foot.
Crying out or laughing is no use,
the only release is writing it off.
You don’t escape fatally wounded,
you can’t lick the blood away.
Learning languages helps — take work,
whose Chinese character includes a hand.
Too heartbroken to talk?
Every muse has eight sisters.
Where love is
or has been — words,
words spoken while making love
become flesh.

Still Life With Poem, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby. Literary House Press. 135 pages.

Editor Dubrow explains that her anthology started with conversations on Facebook — snapshots of pets… eople’s lunches…birthday cakes… She goes on to say that, to her, a poem is also  "life stilled; And so instead of having poets write from paintings ( i.e., William Carlos Williams Pictures from Bruegel), poets were asked to construct their own still life and use that for a  poem. This is distilling poetry to its essence because “the image” reveals how poets see as well as how they write.  So, awakened from silence, approximately 135 prominent poets (who could certainly be counted on for quality work) were invited to submit. What strikes me most, along with its originality, is the book’s startling expressions. I can say that this book is the cutting edge of what’s being written today. Curious readers sometimes ask me where to go to see the newest poetics — I point them to American Poetry Review, a fine example. Now I’ll also recommend Still Life With Poem. These are some of the most forward-looking poets writing today, exercising imagination freely, in forms that rotate reality and illusion with stunning technique.

Melting Snow with Half-Eaten Christmas Wreath
and What the Deer Have Left Behind

Enough of winter; of ice and salt pellets,
of Yankee potlucks, of Gore-texed friends dropping
by — “Come skiing with us, do!” Do
you even know me? On legs like number two
pencils, the deer have starved for months. I scat-
tered kitchen stems and peels, feeding them waste,
even the wreath of pine, the season’s leavings.

The melt reveals wire rings, turds
of glue, a nibbled ribbon. The yard’s dirt
exposed at last, I see from my kitchen stool
what else is left of winter, and banish it.
by Juliana Gray

Best Translation
Russia’s World Traveler Poet: Eight Collections by Nikolay Gumilev(1886-1921). Translated by Martin Bidney. 361 pages.

We wouldn’t be able to read this all at once. It’s a rich diet, but a poem a day is a good thing to acquaint ourselves with someone little known to American readers. This is the 14th poetry book by Bidney, plus his other publications. It’s an extreme form of excellence to establish an exchange rate between poets from different cultures. If this poet, Gumilev’s known by Russian school children, shouldn’t we at least be grateful for the introduction? Translators are the heroes of what is called the impossible art.

254.  Young Elephant

My love for you’s an elephant, just that.
A young one, born in Paris, or Berlin:
He’ll gallivant, with padded feet and flat,
In zoo attendant-rooms and raise a din.

Don’t give him rolls or any French cuisine:
A cabbage-head to him is not a treat —
He’ll gladly try a slice of tangerine,
Or sugar cubes, or candy, something sweet.

Don’t weep, my darling, that in narrow cage
He’s mocked and troubled by the chuckling crowd —
Cigar smoke up his trunk — as if his rage
Might charm the milliners, who laugh out loud.

Don’t think, my dear, that soon will come the day
When, truly angry, he will break his chain
And run and, like a bus that broke away,
Ram down the people, make them wail in pain.

Envision him instead in early dawn,
Brocaded, ostrich-feathered, far from home,
Like that Resplendent One who, stately, calm,
Bore Hannibal to face a trembling Rome.

Most Surprising Volume

Whipstitches by Randi Ward. MadHat Press. 106 pages.

Each page is a poem (4 to 6 lines) which purports the literal with keen observation — as clear-eyed as a child’s vision — and there’s the charm. Mostly hopeful, largely skillful, always easy to warm to, these are forensic fragments of a poet’s eye.



Through barbed wire
Just so I can feel
These fields
Remember my feet.

Grace Cavalieri founded, and still produces, “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now celebrating 39 years on-air, and now recorded at the Library of Congress. Her latest book is With (Somondoco Press, 2016).

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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