October 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

October 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Hold by Bob Hicok. Copper Canyon Press. 88 pages.

The Iphigenia Plays by Euripides: New Verse Translations, translated by Rachel Hadas. Northwestern University Press. 176 pages.

My Bishop and Other Poems by Michael Collier. University of Chicago Press. 80 pages.

The Lumberjack’s Dove by GennaRose Nethercott. Selected by Louise Glück, National Poetry Series Winner. Ecco. 96 pages.

Dark Testament by Pauli Murray, introduction by Elizabeth Alexander. Liveright. 112 pages.

The Final Voicemails by Max Ritvo, edited by Louise Glück. Milkweed Editions. 88 pages.

Horn Section All Day Every Day by Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow. Salmon Poetry. 80 pages.

The Trouble with New England Girls by Amy Miller. Concrete Wolf. 86 pages.

With Walt Whitman Himself: In the Nineteenth Century, in America by Jean Huets. Circling Rivers. 194 pages.

Hey, Marfa by Jeffrey Yang, paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes. Graywolf Press. 184 pages.


Also on our BEST BOOKS FOR OCTOBER list: The Mirrormaker by Brian Laidlaw; How to Avoid Huge Ships by Julie Bruck; A Spell in the Pokey by Hugh Walthall, edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen; and Wishbone Moon edited by Roberta Beary, Ellen Compton, and Kala Ramesh.


Hold by Bob Hicok. Copper Canyon Press. 88 pages.

Bob Hicok is a spectrum. That’s the only way to describe his new book. He stretches language until it begs for the next line. These smart sweet poems are about subjects we find aren’t always all that funny — Hicok confronts racism, violence, and inequalities; no, he zaps them with poems that ignite from within. I’d love to see an MRI of his brain while he’s writing, as the neurons show us what’s possible, how a human can be a thought leader, taking us into the future.

Hicok’s style is the long narrative, where change and continuity jockey for position and every thematic element is a surprise. It’s the instrumentation that holds it all together and perhaps the title of this book is apt for this reason.

Bob Hicok writes of experience: translating an Arab poem; medical procedures; a lesson in civility; an elderly dad whose caretakers ignore him; a mother with an enlarged heart. He personifies with uninterrupted spirals of ideas, images, and editorial comments. He’s sometimes the victim (Charlie Chaplinesque) and sometimes the voice of reason badly needed now in our cultural crisis. Hicok interrogates the world with mercy and wit and style and intelligence and modest swag. He’s one of America’s favorites — and to make the reader want to share the poet’s reality fulfills poetry’s finest aspiration

Home Improvement in memoriam

Two poets died this past month

I knew in person a little and a lot

by what they wrote about forests and saints.

Their deaths got me over the hump

of swapping out the hollow plastic doors

in my house for solid oak, which I wanted to do

for years but only now does the genuine

shine as worth whatever trouble it takes

to match the old hinge locations to the new doors.

I’ve done one, and for days as I glide

through the house, I’m pulled to the bedroom

to touch the revelations of the grain,

or I’ll be out counting falling leaves

for the annual inventory or riding on a deer

across the field when I think of the door

and become convinced that someone — not me —

will live forever or at least

have their growth penciled onto that door jamb

and come back before they die to kiss

the stages of reaching their life went through,

long after I’m gone and no one knows

all the places I’ve buried dead cats

around this yard, not just because I love animals

and digging holes, but those are two reasons

to do a lot of things: feed the birds

and elephants if ever they arrive, and move dirt

from one hiding place to another,

to honor the spirit of the unsettled earth.


The Iphigenia Plays by Euripides: New Verse Translations, translated by Rachel Hadas. Northwestern University Press. 176 pages.

Believe it, this is easy reading with smooth flowing verse that moves easily, never boring.


Thanks to my play-reading group, we’d read several Greek plays, and I knew some myths and characters, but I’d never met Iphigenia before, and she’s a find. There are two plays in this book: "Iphigenia in Aulis" and “Iphigenia among the Taurians.” Play #1 touches so much that’s sympathetic as Iphigenia is to be sacrificed by her father to change the winds of war for the Greeks. Iphigenia initially believes she’s being summoned to be married, but ultimately, honorably, agrees to serve the greater plan.

“Iphigenia in Aulis” is the last tragedy written by the Greek playwright Euripides, sometime between 408 and 406 BCE, and was produced in the year after he died. Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army in the Trojan War, decides to sacrifice his own daughter to free his ships and preserve Greek honor. The psychological insights and character motivations are wonderful to read and keep us invested. Iphigenia’s saved in the end and a baby doe is “miraculously” found in the place where she was “sacrificed.”

Play #2: “Iphigenia Among the Taurians” takes place 20 years after “Iphigenia in Aulis” although it was written several years earlier. It begins with Iphigenia having prophetic dreams, one about her younger brother, Orestes, whom she believes is dead. Meanwhile, Orestes has killed his mother Clytemnestra, to avenge his father, and was brought to trial and freed. Apollo sends him to steal a sacred statue of Artemis to bring back to Athens so that he may end the torment. Iphigenia is in charge of all punishments on this island, and doesn’t recognize her brother during their beginning encounters. He and his friend escape and you’ll have to read to discover how and why.

I liked reading these plays but I don’t like summarizing because the beauty’s in the reading. Anytime a seasoned poet’s at work, you can be sure the language is worthy of the story. Hadas spent three years translating these. They deserve more than short mention: They deserve to be read in full.


My Bishop and Other Poems by Michael Collier. University of Chicago Press. 80 pages.

I’m already a Collier fan, and this book, over the others, is my dramatic favorite. The risk-taking is new, or at least riskier, clean, and profound — stories unlimited in freedom.

Collier’s title poem, “My Bishop,” is a myth about Catholicism constructed within a personal surreality. This is a masterwork: a poem of fear, courage, judgment, and reverence — like the religion itself. There’s forward motion at every turn as the speaker takes different roles, also infusing reality — with the death of a father, the presence of a mother, plus a predatory priest; and the complexity of loyalties. I’m glad I had to wait three hours in the doctor’s office so I could immerse myself into Collier’s mysterious processes. Take the title poem — a thoughtful reader will notice that a poem’s stamina is achieved by how it’s laid differently on every page. “My Bishop” is about orthodoxy, in story, that turns to spirit, via poetry, not unlike the way brick and mortar become sweeter when they crumble.

“The Storm” is another long narrative — 17 pages — connected to the heart — more, on a father’s dying and death; with additional plays within plays. It’s also about honesty. This makes me think how modesty is sometimes heroic. The poems in this new book borrow more from Collier’s nighttime mind than seen before — a rich place, for sure. And his poem’s last lines are always killer lines. You’ll admire a beautiful piece, “To Isabella Franconati,” about her husband:


 Unlike you, we began in disbelief

and so to be given faith, even an empty one, was a gift.


 “After death,” he wrote, “there are two alternatives,

both heartless: memory and forgetfulness.”



The Lumberjack’s Dove by GennaRose Nethercott. Selected by Louise Glück, National Poetry Series Winner. Ecco. 96 pages.

Just when we’re told that our culture is flattened by the mundanity of social media, Nethercott rises from its ashes like an angel of redemption. Part 1, page 1 begins:

“It’s the same old story:

A Lumberjack loses a hand to his own axe. /The hand becomes a dove. The hand tries/to fly away but the lumberjack catches it/beneath his shoe. You know this story. The/Lumberjack ties one end of a string to the/hand & the other end to his belt. Then the/Lumberjack walks out of the forest, the/airborne hand fluttering along behind.

There are three rules of storytelling:

  1. only tell a story if you have to. If you can/survive without telling it, keep mum. / /2. A story is a two-way mirror. Don’t think/the characters cannot see. It’s safest to/assume they can always see you, & they / know exactly where you live. // 3. The purest way to speak truth is by lying.”

Every page is a change of events where we follow the Lumberjack first to the ER room then to a witch doctor. The stump is a character, the dove, and oh! There’s an egg! Miraculous writing — Italo Calvino, Basho, and American folklorists are clapping their hands. Every line spins a different version of itself; and throughout, the storyteller unravels how the story is being told, what the story is, how to lie, how to tell the truth. Nethercott lays out her enchantment in this tiny epic beautifully cadenced, a gentle tale with the force of all great stories that last.


Dark Testament by Pauli Murray, introduction by Elizabeth Alexander. Liveright. 112 pages.

Murray adds substance to our national conversation at a time in our country when there’s a war on truth. Her work represents a higher obligation. She’s finally being recognized as an early Civil Rights activist, predating Rosa Parks by 40 years with a similar bus protest and arrest. Murray was the first African-American woman to receive a juris doctorate at Yale; and her writings about slavery and inequality are now getting attention long overdue. With a scholarly background and an insistence for justice, her testaments bring history to a powerful lyrical life.

Murray’s voice reminds us of the cruel facts this country must still overcome. He rhythms are welded together with care and skill — the painful messages are rendered imagistically and vividly — these poems are protest songs, badly needed, and well sung. A conscience is found here on the page carrying our history with its terrible truths.

Love in Wartime


Hold me with urgency of flesh

Before a holocaust.

How the butchered dead must pity us

In whom time garnered up the worst!


If, when this awful thing is done

And I am cast upon some foreign earth

To wander senselessly among the slaughtered,

Gather up the fragments of my soul

And build it piece on piece again

Into a thing fit for God to behold,

Will you be there to watch with kindly eyes

And make a friendly place of death and ruin?


The Final Voicemails by Max Ritvo, edited by Louise Glück. Milkweed Editions. 88 pages.

What if you lay dying. Well, what IF you lay dying. And you are writing a book. What’s the imagery that would come from your soul — and at that point there’s no point using anything less as a source. Max Ritvo has forged the most extraordinary thoughts, intensely, and beyond all the personal happiness that had to be left behind. Writing a poem is the poet giving thanks. Here, these brilliant poems demand the reader’s thanks. Ritvo’s reflections are sometimes humorous and always startling. From “DECEMBER 29”: “The cookie was much less sweet/than my psychiatrist. //Earlier that day he said he was proud/that as my tumors grow/my self-loathing seems to shrink.…I would’ve asked/If all of me is the part that’s loving/what is left to love?...”

I can’t understand how Ritvo summons the wit and energy to dazzle line after line. “ANATOMIC AND HYDRAULIC CHASTITY”: “O to be full of olive oil, / O for this skull to be a case/of olive oil, //for the kiss to mingle freely/the oils in two skulls, /for a telepathic love in the shared mouth…”

Dead from cancer at 25 years old, Ritvo’s poem, “January 8” says, “I fix everything by dying, and you not dying…” Technique certainly doesn’t hamper creativity and in spite of his physical demise Ritvo measured work handsomely in couplets and stanzas. It’s impossible to read this book without wondering, What if I lay dying?



Today I woke up in my body

and wasn’t that body anymore.


It’s more like my dog —

for the most part obedient,

warning to me

when I slip it goldfish or toast,


but it sheds.

Can’t get past a simple sit,

stay, turn over. House-trained, but not entirely.


This doesn’t mean it’s time to say goodbye.


I’ve realized the estrangement

is temporary, and for my own good:


My body’s work to break the world

into bricks and sticks

has turned inward.


As all the doors in the world

grow heavy

a big white bed is being put up in my heart.


Horn Section All Day Every Day by Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow. Salmon Poetry. 80 pages.

“Super Dan,” a hero from outer space, comes to Edlow’s consciousness to observe our humanity. These thought shards are in the form of “Super Dan Comics Question Box Series,” and they number 88 poems. Super Dan poems are interspersed with others: riffs on music, animals, brothers, baton twirling, policemen, drummers, and even a love poem to bison. What I’m telling you is this is encyclopedic high holiday where Edlow romps with language, risks everything, uses dialogue as if she invented idiom, and writes with high-octane energy.

Edlow houses her imagination in couplets, haiku, narratives and all respectable versification, but the end result is the same. The words burst at the seams with insistence to be original and incorrigible and seem to say if poetry isn’t fun, who needs it. This poet is in her own lane, and manages structural success with unconventional methods. It’s intense reading because Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow believes velocity is trajectory. The girl’s got game. She brings it, and her verbal connections are skill, not coincidence.

 Baton Twirler With Horns


Only the trumpeters and Sharon

drink the peppermint schnapps


under the bleachers.

Good thing half-time is over.


Two-inch white-heeled go-go boots

on a spongy grass field don’t jive


with a flying metal rod

above the head. Keeping the free hand


L-shaped, and pretty all the time,

the non-stop smile even as her head is


thrown back to gauge

shimmering rotation against the overcast


sky. Blue skies disorient the game out of her.

Through a soft chilly schnapps fog


her mind revives the crown of her routine—

the forward bending at the cinched, spangled waist,


her mom rising out of her seat. Dad, silent.

She catches the descending baton


with her right shoulder blade. The wand jumps high, still

in revolution and on the arsis


she grabs it from the air like an oriole. Then kicks on.

Which is when the tassels finally get their due.


The Trouble with New England Girls by Amy Miller. Concrete Wolf. 86 pages.

I love this book. Sweet/simple/ complicated poetry discourse – every poem a story. Here’s the last stanza of “On Being Told My Brain Is The Normal Size”: I think of Einstein/and that said cashier at Walgreens/in her green uniform/and hope that whatever she has or thinks she has/will soon be gone and she’ll walk/out of that store at the end of her shift/to find the sun’s come up,/and even though it’s cold/and her car is brittle with ice,/it starts,//it starts.”

There are eight “Grief Poems.” Opening first lines, here, from “The Grief Is A Small Wooden Box”: “You carry it with one hand under, / one over. In the rain, you pull/a flap of your coat to hide it/ though you were not sure/what’s in there...” and there’s a predicate for each of these “Grief” poems; between each page is another (untitled) poem, adding a different perspective. These insertions are unconnected in subject, and are framed in the natural world, countervailing poems as interior monologues. A second voice separating the Grief poems.

This is what William Carlos Williams did in his Kora in Hell, a philosophical and imagistic subtext. What do Miller’s images say? A state of mind in a scenic setting. It’s unusual and effective. Strophe & anti strophe, adding a nice pace to the text. The whole book is good writing; not one you’ll put it down. An upmarket poet here, for sure.

The Poet Laureate in the Laundromat

For Lawson Fusao Inada


He stands to watch the comforter

hug and unhug itself

as the dryer muscles on and hums

its white-noise lullaby.

Even in the warm, overlit room,

he wears a leather jacket, hands

pushed deep in the pockets. Music,

perhaps, is what he hears

in the tinning and rumble,

notes dopplered to a shriek. Or poems,

spinning and powered

by their own unseen magnets.

He is not writing this down.

It washes over, river

and color and metal. But sometimes

something catches —

there, you can see —

he tilts his head, surprised.


Unsealing Our Secrets, edited by Alexis Rotella. Jade Mountain Press. 132 pages.

Some 47 poets, women and men, tell long-held secrets of sexual abuse. The subject would be too much to bear had it not been formalized into Japanese forms of haiku, tanka, senryu, halibun, and what curator/editor Rotella says is a rare form, the “Cherita.”

Even so, it’s difficult reading and exactly why I suppose it needed writing. The wounds cannot heal until the toxic infection is open to air. Mass consciousness will not be changed by such personal accounts, however strongly they shake the reader and the world. Sexual abuse mostly to children occurs unspeakably and is nothing less than a public health problem. All this is important and necessary to say in words, but can be painful beyond words to hear. Those who have been recipients of hurtful scarring behaviors have been treated like objects or receptacles; this is a sin against all human experience, the human being, and humankind, and this book is about allowing the subject to be exposed. We who are lucky enough to be the readers of such accounts, rather than the writers, can only bow to courage.

A poem by Sonam Chhoki:


Lies curled in a knot

of blackness


her father’s child


pumice stone

in the morning shower

to scour

the feel of him, the smell of him

into the sewer


With Walt Whitman Himself: In the Nineteenth Century, in America by Jean Huets. Circling Rivers. 194 pages.

This could be called a family album, a big picture book in size and substance. Three-hundred images about Whitman’s family and friends. We have a look at Whitman’s personal circumstances and most importantly, the Civil War and W.W.’s life in Manhattan, Long Island, and Brooklyn. These are snapshots that tell a complicated life, mostly chronological, beginning with the American Revolution.

You’ll read of Thomas Paine and others who affected his schooling and education: Highlighted are Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and other literary figures of influence; historical icons Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Tubman are featured as well as significant Americans assisting change; and the American Civil War (then called “The War of Rebellion” by the government) — including Whitman as printer, and his move to poetry. This isn’t a book intended for analysis: it reminds me of the “Book of Knowledge” I pored over as a child; short takes on each item; accessible plain-speaking texts. That we have Whitman’s own words here in relation to — the content is the greatest value. Huets’ book isn’t meant to challenge cultural assumptions about the 19th century; it’s an intimate personal guide, to assist understanding Whitman, in greater context, and this is done successfully.

 Opening of “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.


My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’ d from this soil, this


Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their

 parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not to death.


Hey, Marfa by Jeffrey Yang, paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes. Graywolf Press. 184 pages.

This is as sweeping an account of the West as the West itself. It’s a land “felt” and made alive with words and rattlesnakes and caves and deserts; along with philosophical quotes and mystical insights. If you believe fire is an element that cannot be personal, read the two-page prose account, “The Dry Santa Ana Winds,” that drive the spectacle. This is poetry’s landscape and tells more of the West, even as it’s changing, than details inside a chuckwagon could ever do. Another prose piece “Tigie,” is elegiac; facing that page are three segments of quotes from “the Book of Last Words.” Yang runs commentaries of profound origins throughout the book. The panoramic vision of the writer along with his illustrator show their thinking in every line — to create an anthropological poetry that puts a true human soul into the soul of Yang’s earth.

Winter count


on the Plains

painted on buffalo hide

each image

a year’s happening,

snowfall to snow-

fall meteor

shower, witnessed

by the tribe

chosen in common

experience, spiral

calendar history


meanings of the symbols

living memory


through the seasons’

icons into stories


Also on our BEST BOOKS FOR OCTOBER list:

The Mirrormaker by Brian Laidlaw. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages.

Laidlaw is a musician using these daring poems as octane inspiration for songs that can be heard via digital download; and also when Laidlaw tours with his band, “The Family Trade.”

Echo’s Dreams


Echo dreams of being an Onassis

lookalike, dreams sheer textiles, greenrooms


with checkerboard portents.


In the highland umber is a primary color; the others

are olive & marigold.


How to Avoid Huge Ships by Julie Bruck. Brick Books. 104 pages.



She is old, but still elegant. Or

so everybody says. The daughter

sees only what’s lacking: definition

around the eyes and jaw, loose

skin, teeth discolored and going

their own ways, each change a yellowed

failure of will. Each is one more thing

she refuses to control. Stained

sweaters, new smells: signs

she will soon lie down and refuse

to get up, which makes the daughter

want to shake her back to her senses

and the mirror, where she once stood,

nostrils flared, like a racehorse

knowing its power.


A Spell in the Pokey by Hugh Walthall, edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen. selva oscura press. 105 pages.

My laundry is trapped inside a crime scene.

                                    for Patricia Cogley, 2010


I drop twelve quarters into two machines

And go round the corner for coffee in

My newest disguise, a seedy old man.

I fear it’s way, way to realistic.

I have these memory glitches; I can’t

Be sure if Humphrey Clinker’s a novel

By Tobias Smollett or Tobias

Smollett’s a novel by Humphrey Clinker.

I only remember Oscar Wilde by

First remembering he’s NOT Oscar Tame.

I always remember I drink black coffee.

I drink black coffee; police cars scream by.

Has it been half an hour yet? maybe.


Wishbone Moon, edited by Roberta Beary, Ellen Compton, and Kala Ramesh. Jacar Press. 104 pages. (An anthology of haiku by women in the international haiku community.)


not seeing it

until darkness fills the pond

         the white carp


  • Margaret Chula, USA


 rain-streaked windows

            how to paint

            the finch’s song


  • Carolyn Hall, USA


                     early closing

             a waitress sits

             in a circle of light


  • Frances Angela, England



Send review copies (2018/2019 releases only) to:

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


Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio and for poetry podcasts. She celebrates 41 years on the air. Her latest book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publisher).

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