October 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

October 2013 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

October is the month of my birth, my marriage, my 4 children; and now— through death— I am no longer a wife but I enter October as Mother and Writer, and with these books, as friend.

Failure and I Bury The Body by Sasha West. HarperPerennial.108 pgs.

3Sections by Vijay Seshadri. Graywolf Press. 72 pgs.

Marvelous Things Overheard by Ange Mlinko. Farrar Straus Giroux. 86 pgs.

Swoop by Hailey Leithauser. Graywolf Press.63 pgs.

The Collected Poems by A. Jarrell Hayes. Hidden Clearing Books. 290 pgs.

Exile At Last by Chava Rosenfarb, edited by Goldie Morgentaler. Guernica Editions. 77pgs.

O, What A Luxury, Verses: Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic and Profound by Garrison Keillor. Grove Press.170 pgs.

Vital Signs, Poetry by Juan Delgado, Photography by Thomas McGovern. Heyday Books.113 pgs.

F/Poems/ Franz Wright. Alfred. A. Knopf. 79 pgs.

Failure and I Bury The Body by Sasha West. Harper Perennial. 108 pgs.

Sasha West was chosen as winner of The National Poetry Series by D. Nurske. The book begins with Failure and I Take A Road Trip; “Because Failure asked and I said yes,//Because I thought the spring would be beautiful, but winter was hidden,//Because I felt the pull to movement, to a belief in motion,//Because failure had dark kind eyes and asked quietly,/And because I said yes,// Yes to the desert and decay,…”


And ends its perfect momentum:”… I carried my suitcase to the car, and his trunks, and we packed woolen/smallpoxed blankets, and we packed bottled water, and oil, and oil/ and petrol, and provisions, and we fastened the latches on the back doors// And drove.”

Who would not go with her? We’re in for the trip. I love truth in writing more than anything in this world, and here this poet using language—nothing but a bunch of symbols—dressing it up in a way that we can only say Thank you. And especially for taking the teeth out of Failure and making it beautiful. Failure is the lover, the muse, the reminder that everything we love we will lose. It is the pain and remembrance, and if it’s the law of diminishment, how then can Failure have so much energy? It’s because West gives us new perspectives making a bigger space in our lives for the concept of Failure which, at time, restores patience, at times is robust and even vivacious. There’s a stunning two-page pointillist poem, Failure Burns the Taxidermy Museum, which (by the way) you have to hold the book sideways to read. Sasha West writes about the endgame of having lived and loved and sparkles with one of the most unique voices to come center stage upon the literary scene.


At night I slept in the middle of the bed—

Failure would crook his knees into mine

and with my knees I’d push the Corpse’s legs

into a bent position—Failure would encircle my waist

and I would throw my arm

around the waist of the Corpse

as if he were an accordion I’d strapped

onto my back—as if I stretched my arms

around his rib cage to begin to play.

3Sections by Vijay Seshadri. Graywolf Press. 72 pgs.

Since I have a new configuration to my life—more hours added— my practice is to read one poetry book a day. I couldn’t do this with Seshadri because he gives and demands so much more, especially with the 12-page (prose) Pacific Fishes of Canada and the 15-page (poem) Personal Essay. Some things must be read slowly and then twice. And now what do I know of it? Well, he’s hopeful as only the truly cynical can be, and he’s truly original as only the most literate can be. He attempts the impossible and succeeds, describing the state of Being like a free floating mind trapped inside a 21st century newsreel— The struggle to name consciousness is impacted by daily minutia. He writes in Personal Essay“…this is not a nocturnal Family of Man, it’s-a-small-world-after-all video,/ and neither am I expressing here, with this peroration,/ my love for humankind.”…

To this kind of thinking he brings the physical atmosphere into his writing, the psychological and the emotional—people, coffee shops, etc. drift in and out of his cave of shadows and he tries with his whole heart to make sense of it all for us, his readers, if he only can only do this for himself. What has Seshadri had to sacrifice to do this—the easy way, the instant gratification of narrative, linear, and the objectified experience. He immerses himself in the nether world as if, just out of the womb with an I.Q. of 200, he’s trying to interpret his first impression and experience—and then with the dignity of maturity— and a trajectory of time, and resilient thought processes, he lays it out. As I said, I read it twice; it was worth it.

Imaginary Number

The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
is not big and is not small.
Big and small are

comparative categories, and to what
could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
be compared?

Consciousness observes and is appeased.
The soul scrambles across the screes.
The soul,

like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.

Marvelous Things Overheard by Ange Mlinko. Farrar Straus Giroux. 86 pgs.


It is Mlinko’s CANTATA FOR LYNETTE ROBERTS I go back to, this impressionistic biography-criticism-in-verse about Roberts – whose death and immortality are in the hands of the living now; and the more we identify with the dead the better for quality writing. The first stanza:

Lynette, the stars are kerned so far apart—

Through a herniated zodiac I almost see your waledskylanes

yourshocked Capricorn and Cancer.

In the hundred and two years since you were born, and the

sixteen since your heart failed, and the nearly sixty

since you gave up poetry, it seems we can’t navigate by

the same star chart

I’d like to think we were fated to work the same coracle: you

steering with one hand, grasping your corner of the

seine while I grasp mine; together sweeping the weirs

The 11-page poem ends:

Insofar as we’re just pre-ceviche, pre-cadavers-reinterpreting-

flan, Lynette, let’s research articles, with babies at our

feet: on Welsh architecture, the potato tax, coracles…

I see you floating out to sea in your coracle, the spirit of the

Makah accompanying as far as the Azores: halfway

from a kitchen garden in Llanybri, halfway to aquinta

near Buenos Aires.

Ange Mlinko likes to repeat words to create an ongoing reprieve, part chant; the codified information in this poem comes from a personal, intimate alliance with Roberts. The direct address is only effective because of its invention in diction, and unexpected prosody.

Mlingo’s work is deepened by her knowledge of linguistics, and the presence of past poets and artists brought into the same room, creating overlapping situations where we feel we’re in a French film—visual compositions with characters. This is achieved not with story but incidental phrases. It’s a thrill to see this poet reach for provocative words, not settling for bottom shelf, and also this is an opportunity to read work where thoughts have a happy ending because they come through harmonious internal conversation.

The spectacular WINGANDECOIA is an 8- page poem in 6 tercets per page with single end-line stanzas—a fantasy piece of history, biology, ecology and legend written in form with some disco moves. Mlinko is good using fission and fusion to say what she wants. Her poems are atmospheric which evolve rather than declare. In a shrouded beauty we see the labor of imagining made to appear easy.

Swoop by Hailey Leithauser. Graywolf Press.63 pgs.

I thought I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, Andrew Marvell, Chaucer and Dr. Seuss. O (she likes to say O and has a poem O, She Says) this is all about consonants and vowels and the movement that comes from slam dunking them against each other. The poems are like those wonderful examples of foreign languages that have untranslatable words but perfectly understandable meanings. Leithauser is frolic and bubbles, whimsy and chance. She owns rhyme and meter and strings them on a bouncing string. And she is smart. Every line is a surprise. How many poets do we know like that?

Was You Ever Bit By a Dead Bee?

I was, I was—by its posthumous chomp,
by its bad dab of venom, its joy-buzzer buzz.
If you’re ever shanked like the chump
that I was, by the posthumous chomp
of an expired wire, you’ll bellow out prompt
at the pitiless shiv when it does what it does.
Was you? I was. By its posthumous chomp,
by its bad dab of venom, it’s joy-buzzer buzz.

The Collected Poems by A. Jarrell Hayes. Hidden Clearing Books. 290 pgs.


I think that anyone who offers a collection of 280 pages of poems published for the first time, with only 10 previously published pages, deserves to be seen. There’s something about belief in one’s own work, then making it a love letter to the world that has a time honored place in literary traffic. In the poem Gather Round The Stone, Hayes writes:” I march between a King and a Rose, / Going on peacefully to a new way./ Handguns and handcuffs oppose/ Our journey, but we refuse to stay.// We march straight into our cells covered in injustice’s dew…” The poems are folkloric, mythical and personal. An intelligent rhetoric illustrates this poet’s life process—giving an inside look at a person who found poetry first as self-healing moving next to artistic self-esteem from careful revision and shaping poems for public display.


Medgar Evers! I called you in a dream.
I called you, Nat, Martin, Stokely, and Malcolm
for justice – yes justice – has to be redeemed.
The other soldiers, I have not forgotten them.
But I specifically called you five,
in honor, tribute, and memory of them.
Where has the hope gone? Is it no longer alive?
Did it drown in the disunity and hatred of our youths?
Have we neglected it? Did it ever survive?
The answers lay hidden in the empty voting booths!
They lay in the violent turmoil at public schools!
They lay in the ashes of burnt church roofs!They lay in the lack of order, lack of rules!
They lay absorbed in the veins of abusers of drugs!
They lay wasted in the brains of fools!
They lay desolate in thugs, playas, gangstas, and pimps!
They drown in the sorrow of the depressed!
They strive within a life that limps!
They laugh and mock the oppressed!
They hunger for the end!
They, with their claws, compress
the soul, trying to break and bend.
This is what they do, the voice they speak, my friends:
Singing and howling the final act of the world. Amen.

Exile At Last by Chava Rosenfarb edited by Goldie Morgentaler. Guernica Editions. 77pgs.


Chava Rosenfarb (1923-2011) was born in Lodz Poland, and during the Second World War was imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto. Sent to Auschwitz, then Bergen Belsen, she was freed by the British in 1944. Rosenfarb is esteemed as one of the leading Yiddish writers of the 20th century. Now we have seminal poems selected and arranged chronologically by her daughter Goldie Morgantaler. Rosenfarb’s introduction is essential reading; she writes of the concentration camp Sasel:

“…In spite of the fact that every morning and every evening on the way to and from work, we scavenged the German garbage bins we passed like hordes of mice in search of food and endured SS women’s whips for our efforts; in spite of the fact that we were not allowed to wear even a cement bag under our striped dresses and neither work nor vigorous marches could protect our skeletal bodies from the biting cold—despite these facts, Sasel was a paradise. It was a camp without a crematorium. Fear of death was as distant as the nearest concentration camp that was better equipped than Sasel.

In Sasel I found a pencil. My bunk was just beneath the ceiling. As I lay there before sleep at night or after waking during the day, I tried to recall some of my poems. I jotted them down in tiny letters in a corner of the ceiling, so that they could not be seen from below. I then learned those poems by heart.”

Morgantaler explains in Notes about her mother, the poet Rosenfarbat 17, how she wrote poems under difficult conditions. This book has poems written in the Lodz ghetto, torn away from her on the railway platform at Auschwitz, then recreated from memory. The sections of the book are Echoes of the Ghetto; Questions of Faith; poems Personal and Domestic. In 1950, she settled in Montreal where she began her long and distinguished poetry career writing in Yiddish. Almost all the poems in this volume have been translated from Yiddish, mostly by Chava Rosenfarb herself.

Out of the swamp of human misery, one would expect lachrymose poetry but Rosenfarb writes with refined beauty. She travels a holy ground and is clear-eyed, glorious and finds her life force in the vigor of poetry. Everything was waiting for her outside of her heart, just out of reach, yet she sings of it.

He Asked Me

He asked me:

How can you still smile?

I answered him:

The smile is the smile of another.

He asked me:

How can you still set the table?

I answered him:

The table is set by another

He asked me:

How can you even pour the wine?

I answered him:

The joy is that of another.

I have made the bed

and snuggled up to my beloved:

while somewhere else, my other self, long gone,

caresses the ashen head of a man who is smoke.

O, What A Luxury, Verses: Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic and Profound by Garrison Keillor. Grove Press.170 pgs.

I’m in awe that someone could have this much fun writing. Doesn’t Keillor know poetry is the holy hagiography of angst and loneliness? Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” has been on-air since 1974. He’s also an author of many genres and an American humorist. This is humor in limerick, rhyme, sonnet and verse, and it’s pretty damn funny. As any of us can imagine even before picking up the book, it’s a satire on our culture with an ice cream dagger to its heart. There are men, and women, love issues, of course—what most comedy depends on—and Keillor knows how to draw champagne from the putrid well of folly. Many poems are paradoxes that dismiss themselves to happiness taking us along. Read the titles of his sections:

1. Was Ethel Merman A Mormon?

2. A Major Faux Pas Prohibited By Law

3. I Live In This Desolate Spot Because You Do Not

4. Beneath their shiny Domes They contain Your Chromosomes

5. Thanks Be To God For Keeping Us Small

6. Secondary Neurons Of The Cerebral Promontory

7. A Republican Lady From Knoxville

8. The Planet Revolving On Its Axis

If these do not have you running out to do early Christmas shopping, you have no curiosity for verbosity. (He has me doing it now.)


I met her on the Internet

A chat room called Hard 2 Get

Our chat was wild, digitally-propelled

We jabbered and we LOLed

She sent me a jpg

I sent her back one of me

From back when I weighed 163,

Before I went in for third-degree

Assault and robbery.

Now I weigh 209

But I can lose it by the time

She and I finally meet

When I’m out of jail and on the street.

So I sit here online

Chatting with my Clementine,

Her picture pasted to my screen,

She’s my dream at sweet sixteen.

And if she’ll only marry me,

What a virtual love it will be.

Vital Signs, Poetry by Juan Delgado, Photography by Thomas McGovern. Heyday Books.113 pgs.

If I say Vital Signs is a coffee table book I mean that the poetry is strong and beautiful and the photography is as well. The package, easy to admire, is called a ‘passionate collaboration.’ Poet and photographer take us through San Bernardino County, the inland empire, urban and rural working class Latino communities. The thematic elements are about the people, including the poet’s childhood recollections: From Wood Stilts …”Once I imagined I strung together to tin cans/ and talked to the father I had lost./ He kept his promise and made me some stilts/ out of two-by-fours, so I could walk around,/ shouting: “ Look what my father made me…”

The poems and photos depend on each other with style and substance, rather than illustration. The richness of the environment is caught in the colors rejuvenated through photography and the traditions are captured by the tender accounts of the human environment seen by the poet. This is a book of conviction and principles as well as art.

Crown after Crown

For Ernest

Goatheads bask in their thorns

            and roar on spoked wheels,

sun-burnt, falling to the roadside

            and spreading their seeds.

We, too, cling to our poor

           soil-rooted dreams,

the return of our lands. St. Augustine

will not smother us again.

           We have our crown of thistles.

We are a prong-stubborn people,

           dirty cheeked, and in spring

the lemon-yellow flowers

           of our goatheads bloom.

F/Poems/ Franz Wright. Alfred A. Knopf. 79 pgs.

You know the “there” no one wants to go? Prepare yourself to go with Wright’s new book. I am always waiting for a new poem from Franz Wright. Who tasked him, before he was born, to come and take on every feeling known to us, sacrificing himself to the gustatory pain of existence, so we, and poetry, could be more vulnerable: i.e. the human side of language. This could be the source of passion—an abhorrence of the past leaving nothing possible but a faith in the future. Is the nervous system able to take this reconciliation? The book opens with the poem Four In The Morning.

Wind from the stars.

The world is uneasily happy—

everything will be forgotten.

The bird I‘ve never seen

sang its brainless head off;

same voice, same hour, until

I woke and closed my eyes.

There it stood again:

wood’s edge, and depression’s


shade inviting me in


No one is here.

No one was there

to be ashamed of me.

And so the tone is set and page by page from the land of silence a lucidity so compelling that we close our eyes from astonishing moment to astonishing moment. From Section lll, the poem Learning To Read: “ If I had to look up every fifth or sixth word/ so what. I looked them up./ I had nowhere more important to be. // My father was unavailable, and my mother/ looked like she was about to break, /and not into blossom, each time I spoke.// My favorite was The Illiad. True,/ I had trouble pronouncing the names; but when was I going to pronounce them, and// to whom?/ My stepfather maybe?/ Number one, he could barely speak English—// two he had sufficient cause/ to smirk or attack/ without prompting from me.// Loneliness boredom and fear/ my motivation/ fiercely fueled.// I get down on my knees and thank God for them.// Du Fu, The Psalms, Whitman, Rilke./ Life has taught me/ to understand books

I especially like the fifteen-page poem, Entries of the Cell with Wright’s restless expansion of form—single phrases, the gift of space, long paragraphed stanzas—an outpouring he so handsomely leashes. Part of this is conjecture about the speaker’s name as he roams hospitals, bombed out churches, rooming houses, ‘lower depth rehabs.’ The poem finds the letter F in an old notebook:

It’s a capital F that takes up a whole page

My name, or grade in life?

Who names their child Franz and throws him to the boys of

American grade schools?

Franz. It would make a good name for a dog. Some retired

Shepherd, perhaps…

In this contemplation, one more thing could be added— that the poem itself is the meaning of eternity on earth with an awakening every new word of its writing. We are grateful that the person who has been tasked to say the most is the most earnestly accurate to the task.

Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” celebrating 36 years on-air. She holds the 2013 Allen Ginsberg Award for Poetry and the AWP’s 2013 “George Garret Award” for service to literature.

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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