October 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

October 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Mean Numbers by Ian Ganassi. China Grove Press. 110 pages.

Scriptorium by Melissa Range. Beacon Press. 67 pages.

What Blooms in Winter by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. NYQ books. 116 pages.

There Now by Eamon Grennan. Graywolf Press. 64 pages.

Bugs Us All. Poems by Scot Slaby, drawings by Walter Garbo. Entasis Press. 29 pages.

Glass Harvest by Amie Whittemore. Autumn House Press. 74 pages.

A Map Of Signs And Scents: New & Selected Poems, 1979-2014, by Amjad Nasser, Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah and Khaled Mattawa.

Plus Best Anthologies, Literary Perodical, and Prose for October.

Mean Numbers by Ian Ganassi. China Grove Press. 110 pages.

Ian Ganassi’s a poetic trickster, creating narrative from aphorisms, emotional acrostics, metaphoric anagrams, and optical non sequiturs. Well that’s how it feels to read Mean Numbers. Ganassi doesn’t compare his poetic consciousness to anyone’s norm and yet he fulfills poetry’s aspirations. He gives new meaning to improvisation and continues the notion that art is play, yet the bigger idea is that poetry equals change because language is a constantly moving stream of soul and technique. Each poem is a continued delight even while we ask ‘how do we interpret this?’ Part of communication is message, part is enthusiasm, and finally there’s language awareness. No matter his subject, Ganassi speaks to these issues as standup comic and linguist.

Shaky Dog Tale

Let’s begin with the original intention
Where we ended up ending up
Slightly off
To one side the junky muttering,
“What flavor is the green kind?”
Unusual instrumentalist
The hand where it
Used to be the connection had
Grown faulty might as well pretend
The insulation hadn’t
Fallen off the high tension power
Lines humming in the background like
A swarm of killer bees.
Remains of the day remains
To be seen
And me
Dilapidated into the blue with
A rope tied around my waist.
The needle moving
Backward through the grooves,
The runners poised
At the finish line waiting for the blank
Round to be sucked back into the gun
Since running out of time
Was a waste of time.

Scriptorium by Melissa Range. Beacon Press. 67 pages.

I’d just seen illuminated biblical texts at the Library of Congress before picking up Scriptorium.  Range’s poems of medieval colors become a vivid pattern about man’s elaborations, in trying to shoulder (his) faith. Tracy K. Smith writes a foreword that includes, “traditionally a scriptorium was a room where monks sat copying manuscripts. The word calls to the sense of what is precious, what must be made and remade, what one could give one’s entire life to preserving...” So now we have a context for poems about doubt, religiosity, and the elevation of worship; and also, the emotional decency of common folk. Range intersperses her own Appalachian background and culture with elegant interpretations of spirit. What troubles the divine, in this book, is the mortar and brick of piety and conformity. In her poem “Negative Theology” Range watches her grandmother die in the face of prayerful rhetoric. This is the conflict that stirs throughout, raveling the authority of our belief system, our hopes, and perhaps the failures that should be undermined. These poems stand on the shoulders of agnosticism while continually reaching for Heaven. At times we’re with the monks in the hum of their duty — and then — through Range’s precision and gifts — we’re suddenly with NASCAR, rednecks and BBQ. This National Poetry Series winner combines such unnatural systems accurately, beautifully, with care.


Not green as new weeds or crushed juniper,
but a toxic and unearthly green, meet
for inking angel-wings, made from copper sheets
treated with vapors of wine or vinegar,
left to oxide for the calligrapher.
When it’s done, he’ll cover calf-skin with a fleet
of knotted beasts in caustic green that eats
the page and grieves the paleographer.
There’s copper in my brain, my heart of hearts;
in my blood, an essential mineral.
Too much is poison.  Too much air imparts
sickness to the script — once begun, eternal,
its words forever grass in drought.  Nor departs
my grief, green and corrosive as a gospel.

What Blooms in Winter by Maria Mazziotti Gillan. NYQ books. 116 pages.

Mazziotti Gillan is an exemplar of a poet consciously living. From this, comes her creating — an awareness of each moment of the past and how it impacts the present. To read this book is to read a life force of ancestry, history, family, immigration — all used to open us up. The human experience is here with its great range of loss and life’s small favors, breathing out poems from the heart — the baseline of Mazziotti Gillan’s poetic energy. Awareness of her actions, and acceptance of every day’s fate are her strong points. These would be ineffective if it were not for her learned poetic techniques that sell the poems from the pages. She activates each story with precise detail; she energizes with character, place, and situation, then finally she anchors the poem to permanence, reaching to those qualities inside us that want to become alive again. I’ll read this book if ever I forget the purpose of poetry — if ever I start believing it’s only about the adornment of language. This is the stuff that made humankind want to speak, to write.

I Tell People I’ve Let You Go

At 3 a.m., I wake up in my hotel bed.
I reach out expecting to find you there,
though you died three years ago.
I tell people I’ve let you go,
but that is a lie.
Last night at the dinner party, laughing and talking,
I remembered those evenings when we hosted
such parties—all the laughter and food and conversation.
The sicker you became the fewer the parties,
until we moved the table out of the dining room
and moved in your bed and hospital equipment,
Hoyer lift and wheelchair,
the buffet strewn with pill bottles.
Here in this candlelit dining room,
surrounded by such warmth,
I am overcome by grief.
How long will it take
before the memory of you will fade,
the life I thought we’d have already vanished
and in its place, this silence, sharp edged
as a razor slicing through all my defenses.
No lie can tell myself
that will make you live again
and bring back the young couple we were,
all our lives before us, our faces lit from within,
all the things we didn’t know waiting to drop
on our oblivious heads like nets.

There Now by Eamon Grennan. Graywolf Press. 64 pages.

To say Eamon Grennan is a nature poet is to say 18th century artist William Turner paints water. Both statements are essentially true but trivialize, insultingly, these artists. I’d like to talk about the way they each see, and capture, in finest detail. To look at the natural world “in the eye” is to find the truth in the moment. It’s also the true source of exhilaration. The Buddhists know this when meditating into the present. Eamon Grennan is a steward of “now” in the physical world (thus the book’s title). He brings poetry to every part of life: bird, leaf, tree, lake. When reading Grennan you know what’s important; because we know poetry is his way of seeing what’s important. It’s verbal photography on every page, with the lilt of language creating a gold standard in the description of living things.

things in the vicinity 

                  “Small world! / You could almost hug it!”
                                    Wislawa Szymborska, “Séance”


It’s the lightning wings of chaffinches
                  where they squabble over breadcrumbs
or it’s dew droplets flashing on grassblades
                  or simply it’s the fact that one minute
in the life of the world this autumn morning
                  is as Cézanne says going by! paint it as is!
that makes me bend again to the page
                  my live and accidental hand is shadowing. 

Bugs Us All. Poems by Scot Slaby, drawings by Walter Garbo. Entasis Press. 29 pages.

Who knew a book with illustrations on bugs could be so delicious? Scot Slaby writes limericks and tiny verse, per page. Veteran artist Walter Garbo (rightly called ‘whimsical and surrealist’) has compiled an adult’s picture book. The poems are meant for us big readers, with irony and sometimes black humor. Nobody has anything against ladybugs but here’s a poem: “Did some wanderlust lead you to your quest? / All alone, you’re our lucky houseguest, / but if we spot others/ (say a few hundred brothers), /we’ll annihilate you and your nest.” You get the idea. These are menacing tough-love sonnets; and sometimes a list of one-liners like a poem on head lice called “At The School,” starting with “…head lice are browsy…” ending…” one kid sits/in the health room. Are his parents lousy?” It’s silliness with a punch. The drawings are fabulous, adding a dimension to the slight poems which range from 5 to 14 lines, max, so you see the winning strategy is to write a piece and have it demonstrated a different way, visually — together making a smart little book. No one will get a PhD in entomology by reading this; it’s a selfie of two guys who are highly creative and like to have fun.

Little Jesus bugs,
ever satirical,
show walking on water’s
no miracle.
They stride
with such ease
and do
as they please.
Why can’t
we be
equally spiritual?

Disinheritance by John Sibley Williams. Apprentice House. 76 pages.

From the poem Oppenheimer, the last stanza, “…Mother we call the beauty in/what cannot be possessed, /and father, where are you/but in the violence it takes/to create her?” You can see this is a powerful poet and he proves, over and again, his poetry is an intense colloquy with death. There’s no morbidity, however there is a shattering recognition of ruin and — and the faint beauty of its resurrection. Poems to his dead parents are mysterious and appear without resolution. He speaks of things broken and — as poet — feels accountable for everything lost and in pain. Mournful and haunting as a prayer sung at sunset, Sibley Williams writes about hurt without being hurtful, and this is the true maker of art. His poems are like questions he has to climb for some comfort, some conclusion; but what comes instead is the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death.  From Paean,…Yes, the shovel has already/forgotten your name, /the stone has forgotten, and the wood, /perhaps one day the photographs and house. /But the earth is patient/as a sapling’s first leaf, /indifferent yet ravenous…”

From “Paper Cranes,” “We like to believe/ what we make will save us. Before/our weddings and our births and after/someone’s left us and sometimes/for no other reason/than to give our hands the illusion/of control…”

Sibley Williams is like a messenger between worlds, determined to find the purpose of snow, stone, death. This lyrical longing, this aching melody are really poetic questions about living in the flesh and recording its passage. It’s earnest poetry, but far from depressing because he writes at the highest level of thought. To be truly awake, it seems Sibley Williams must analyze sleep; and as he does this he pushes language forward, making everything hopeful.

Bone River (iii) 

At night, sometimes, I hear them
grind dreamlessly against cold sheets,
for something not yet named.  Those
perfectly formed hands, so like mine,
alive with unrevealed obligations.
It is night sometimes
and from the cradle her eyes
appear as fire breaking over water.
Her body is beginning to remember itself —
what is it here I have left unbroken?

Glass Harvest by Amie Whittemore. Autumn House Press. 74 pages.

I love this book. Every word is a connection; every line an emotional proportion to the whole. We always note the choices poets make and what’s sacrificed to the bigger range — the line — the stanza – the page. Whittemore makes all the right moves. Just enough of everything: intuition, sensuality, feeling. This is a working artist who’s writing every moment, even while watching TV, which she says “erases” her. She records the world, her dreams, her failures, with a commitment to emotional lyricism that strikes truth straight through your heart. She has an imaginary daughter, an imaginary granddaughter, a woman lover, a husband, a divorce, a ‘former niece.’ I couldn’t stop reading.  Amie Whittemore is intentionally vulnerable and unintentionally dazzling. She’s got what it takes, and we want what she has — her storied language; her candor and exquisite grace. I hope she wins every award; and even with this impatient pile of books on my desk, I’ll keep this one, to read again.

Spell for the End of Grief
No incantations, no rosemary and statice,
no keening women in grim dresses.
No cauldrons, no candles, no hickory wands.
No honey and chocolate, no sticky buns.
No peonies and carnations, no handkerchiefs.
No dark and lusty liaisons.
Only you and me to see it out.
Sweet self, let me wash your toes,
brush your hair, let me rock you gently.
Together we’ll change the sheets
and I’ll pull you to me, little spoon.
You be the marrow; I’ll be the bone.

A Map of Signs And Scents: New & Selected Poems, 1979-2014, by Amjad Nasser, Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah and Khaled Mattawa. Curbstone Books. 161 pages.

This is a travelogue of a Bedouin descendent, who was born in Jordan and left to join the Palestinian revolution in Lebanon. A journalist as well as a poet, gives more than one lens to a world of exile and witness. The sensibility of the Near East is in every line, the flavor and longing, the memories are like no other; yet he’s compared favorably to Celan, Cavafy, Borges, Neruda, in classic structure and sensuality. Nasser’s best gift is the ability to fold the ancient within the troubled “present” with philosophical discourse and pungent imagery. Personal love, and love for this world, with all its sorrows, in lyric and poetic prose, show this man as a Master of the word in any language.


A sway and a stoop,
a slight movement in the shoulders,
a throat shaking off drunken butterflies,
a foggy picture of kitchen utensils,
a light perfume wafting from the wood.
The woman’s silhouette stands behind glass:
a silent dialogue,
a halfhearted wave pulls the ragged clothes
off the bodies branches.
Ten fingers extend to raise ten violins
toward the mouth.
A ringing from an anklet, a trembling leg.
Two marble shoulders support the window.
But somewhere else
someone is playing the violin of suffering,
someone is emitting fever in the shape
of a sorrowful whistling.


Absent Ginsberg, edited by James Oliver Firkins and Will Vigar. A Swift Exit Press. 86 pages.

This beautiful little book comes from Southampton, England, and features contemporary poets from all parts of England, plus one American, in a compendium of 21 honoring, Allen Ginsberg.

So Much

         By DiDi Menendez
There is a poet taking a nap lying
on a red wheelbarrow. Of course
the poet is an adult and too big to
fit inside a red wheelbarrow so the
feet and arms are dangling outside
the red wheelbarrow but none the
less a red wheelbarrow is the best
place for a poet to take a nap in the
middle of a perfectly good afternoon.
Place a face and a name to the poet.
Let’s say the poet is Bukowski and he
has a black pussy cat curled up on his
stomach purring like a black pussy cat
should. Bukowski strokes the black
pussy cat’s head and mumbles something
about that time he was delivering the mail
and you want to hear the rest but he
is after all taking a nap and the black cat
is purring and flies are circling something
in the distance and the wrenching smell
makes it to your nostrils as the breeze
circles the red wheelbarrow and then
Dickinson is in the red wheelbarrow
looking daintily straight at the sun because
she is not afraid of pain as her black
heavy dress dangles over the red wheelbarrow
and the dust settles on the tips of her
black pointy shoes. The black cat
is now a parakeet in a tiny bird cage
she holds over her heart. The parakeet
tweets and flutters in the tiny cage. Dickinson
shushes the parakeet with a lullaby which only
makes the tweets louder and louder and louder
as a cloud of cigarette smoke sails off into the
distance because now Sexton is in the red
wheelbarrow. She is wearing the perfect
little black dress and her manicured nails
circle around her pearls, her long legs
are crossed hanging out the wheelbarrow
as she rubs them against each other because
that feels good and she has a poem stuck
between her thighs that needs
to be released. Once the poem has climaxed
she mutters, what a piece of shit and lights
another cigarette and places a hand over
her left breast as if she is about to say
an anthem but instead she cups it hard
because she likes it as you watch her
you then realize why Williams said
that “so much depends on a red wheelbarrow.”

Lummox # 5 (An anthology ofISMS”) edited by R.D. Armstrong. Lummox Press. 255 pages.

I don’t know how Armstrong does it. I stopped counting poets in this volume at #108. We don’t know why someone would devote his rent money to present poets to the world, but we’re glad he does.

 They Didn’t Spare Me the Racial Slurs

                         By Jackie Chou 

At the age of 16
I swear I didn’t have yellow skin
And didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year
To me, yellow skin meant
You had hepatitis or something
And had nothing to do with being Asian
My mother said I had skin like
Like a white peach
Light on the surface and pink underneath
I said I looked that way
Because I was East Asian
Chinese, Japanese, Korean
Not Southeast Asian
I hid in an elitist crowd
Wearing designer clothes
And holding expensive gourmet coffee
To show people that I was no peasant
No descendent of the Chinese railroad workers
They still call me little “Chinese girl”
Instead of “ma’am”
In my care facility in Pico Rivera
Men asked me to have sex for money
Because, they say, other Asian women have done it


POET LORE (since 1889) Spring/Summer 2016, edited by Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller. The Writer’s Center. 115 pages.

Keep this one by your bedside; and every night read a poem or a review, and you’ll be up on the most delicious tip of the iceberg of American poetry and thought. This is so carefully edited, you may take notice of the juxtaposition of poems, making each one –before a page and each one after — better than it was before. Excellent curation of these poems, truly, make a blend for every disparate voice. This magazine proves there’s more to publishing than printing.

Uruguayan Poet Idea Vilarino is featured with nine poems, in posthumous tribute to her book Poemas de amor.

Te borro.
Estas borrado.
Far away
I erase you.
You are erased.


Second Chance Kids by Jody Primoff. 284 pages.

Just for the sake of our humanity.


Grace Cavalieri celebrates 39 years on air with public radio’s “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress. Her latest book of poems 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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