September 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

September 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Ashbery, Collected Poems, edited by Mark Ford. The Library of America. 767 pages.

Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow. Southern Illinois University Press. 71 pages.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith. Graywolf Press. 104 pages.

Appearances by Michael Collins. Saddle Road Press. 80 pages.

Abloom & Awry by Tina Kelley. CavenKerry Press. 79 pages.

Dear All, by Maggie Anderson. Four Way Books. 70 pages.

Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911. Poems and poetics by Chris Llewellyn, edited with essays by Michelle B. Gaffey. Skye’s the Limit Publications. 82 pages.

The Color Blue by Alexis Rotella. Red Moon Press. 69 pages.

Vixen by Cherene Sherrard. Autumn House Press. 53 pages.

Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey. Ecco. 80 pages.

Plus, four more on the “Best Books for Fall” by poets Hayden Saunier, Susanna Lang, Gabriel Fried, Miranda Field and Chana Bloch.


Ashbery, Collected Poems, edited by Mark Ford. The Library of America. 767 pages.

The Library of America celebrates the late John Ashbery’s 90th birthday with a second volume of his collected poems. Ashbery has used every phonic in the English language to interconnect our sensibilities to the potential of language. And this is what he’s taught us: Language isn’t a destination place, but a porthole to observe a sea that is otherwise unfathomable. I remember in the 1960s holding one of his books and feeling the energy of unpredictability and possibility go through me like electricity. Ashbery, as an art critic, brings us the knowledge that the viewer (the reader) must also be a participant. His poetry comes from opera, art, film, human relationships, with a catbird seat on the 20th and 21st centuries. What we honor is poetry not as prophetic statements, but as deeds that stay. The collection includes some unpublished poems, and his 41-page poem, “Girls on the Run.” Here’s one of the poems premiered in this volume (2000):

A Lot of Catching Up to Do

Dark days, lit by a falling flame

from time to time. A door stands open

or not. It’s much the same.

Only the top layer is of any importance,

the rest, why the rest is immanent,

that’s all.


It hurts only when you think about it.


To my friends in the rough:

When all the toys were swept out of the attic

only a bluish pitcher remained,

as though marking time. Shadow of wing in the air,

the dream nevertheless wanted to be congratulated for its


It took off prudently, however.


Then there were many napkins, many knives in the Seine.


Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow. Southern Illinois University Press. 71 pages.

It easier to leave then to be left, but how does a military wife transform that emotional experience into art that will last? Dubrow approaches her marriage of values with the most substantive work on the theme written today. Loss is ubiquitous, loneliness universal, so to magnify these traits is dangerous — too much unleashing is hard on the consumption — but the poem is a perfect vehicle to hold tumult, a mechanism of service for this narrative. Dubrow holds it in check through complex tapestry — every poem a new viewpoint — pulling a guiding thread we follow with painful recognition. The reader doesn’t have to be left on shore to know what we all know — that the good exchange in love is missed, like the dead. Its grief. What does Dubrow do with this — her poems are like dreams that are accomplished and remembered with exquisite care. Vulnerability in itself is not a virtue until artistry transforms it to a wound we can each share. This is rare in any art. Sometimes a reader just admires the work — with Dubrow, we are at the epicenter. All this raw material about being alive is disruptive, so the poet whips it into something we can own. As a vintage Navy wife myself, I was afraid of what I’d feel; but I welcome this uncompromising excellence that reminds me of my finest yearnings. There’s nothing good about war but what’s found in this book — and this is damn good, by one of our really best.

Combat Veteran Lives Here Please

Be Courteous with Fireworks

            Fourth of July lawn signs for veterans with PTSD


Our weekend brings its long barrage — the flare

and cherry bomb, the snap, the thunder-flash.

A rocket streaks the sky. Green mortars crash.

A roman candle lacerates the air

with sparks, a hissing brilliance everywhere

that wrenches shadows from the grass. Each splash

of lights sets off the dogs — they smell the ash,

they scurry from the missile’s steady glare.

Small parachutes drift paper-frail as thought.

There’s smoke, a shattering of shells, a crack

which sounds the way a rifle might when shot

into the night. Our neighborhood is hot,

alive with waiting, one moment powder-black

then bright, as if we’re all under attack —



Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith. Graywolf Press. 104 pages.

In the ecosystem of poetry, Danez Smith is greening America. He’s new, he’s bold, he’s birth giving. You only THOUGHT you knew what you knew until you read his one-page-prose-poem-epistolary-statement “dear white america.” While I’m still rocking on my heels from recent books by wake-up poets like Claudia Rankine and Evie Shockley, now we have the anthem that brings HOW IT IS to public consciousness. This is why poets are faith leaders. Once we thought intellectual honesty and smart changing it up on the page were enough for a life’s work. But the poet has always been a prophet leading cultural change to the good, and Danez Smith makes a revival of death into song in Don’t Call Us Dead. Integrity to Smith means Let Us Not Forget the black men killed by police; it means disease does not win unless it’s a disease of moral righteousness. There’s love and pain and stories that tell it all with lasting impressions. The notion that poetry doesn’t make anything happen is just plain wrong. Danez Smith is making a high niche in evolution, by sourcing his life into indelible art.


just this morning the sun laid a yellow not-palm

on my face & i woke knowing your hands


were once the only place in the world.

this very morning i woke up


& remembered unparticular Tuesdays,

my head in your lap, scalp covered in grease


& your hands, your hands, those hands

my binary gods. Those milk hands, bread hands,


hands in the air in church hands, cut-up fish hands,

for my own good hands, back talk backhands, hurt more


than me hands, ain’t asking no mo’ hands

everything i need come from those hands,


tired & still grabbing grease, hum

while she makes her son royal onyx hands.


mama, how far am i

gone from home?



Appearances by Michael Collins. Saddle Road Press. 80 pages.

In one poem, Collins says, “My balance once betrayed me in the snow”; he’s talking about breaking bones here, but I think it’s a great line to take away because the book is all about balance and equipoise. This comes from watching the natural world and breathing in every particle: sunrise by the water, frozen paths, herring, mallards, leaves floating on the harbor — it’s a Thoreau world Collins brings to this century. How many of us truly pay attention, only the poet does, Michael Collins does. The gold of the realm is in what streams and grows; and the creatures that are on our earth; so an entire book framing it into poetry is a meditative practice. The world will bring its words to you, depending on what world you see. This is a book of appreciation. I find the modest signpost a worthy introduction to the work.



I wanted to promulgate it a great violation.

But when I quit pretending to be the harbor’s


righteous witness, I see it is just

a little spill — Someone must have slipped


while filling a gas tank — My soul compels me

to take in this translucent painting before me,


circles of beige and grey mixed with light

metallic blue crescents, slivers of clear water


curling through the colors, a tiny child’s fingers

first grasping the thumb of the unfathomable


giant from whom he’d fought toward that awful light.



Abloom & Awry by Tina Kelley. CavenKerry Press. 79 pages.

Tina Kelley’s poetry has, along with the sacred, some pique, and a spit-in-the-eye-of-death- humor. Motherhood, sketched liberally in anecdotes, is never platitudinous. These poems are a mix of seriousness and wit you’ll want to read without interruption. What I like best is the natural speech quality to these well-made poems. It’s as if you’re across the kitchen table listening to someone who’s sharing her “well warming world” with personality and intelligence.

Spoon Song


The notes sound sad and whole, a cream of tone.

The foghorn stops but the sun does not come out.

Everything’s always next, and nothing’s now.

“Did his heart fall asleep?” Kate asks about Grampa.


Who knew I’d feel so sad to feed you, baby boy,


to watch carrots drip from rubbery spoon and mouth,

stain the bunny shirt? And to go back to work

with this sweetness barely tasted? Wave bye-bye.

Later on from someone else you’ll learn forks and clapping.


I feel the worldwide weight of dust settling on the sea.


We discover our loved ones over again, backwards.

The slipknot Dad tied on balloons, absent, ruined July 4th.

The buckeyes he’d hand me every walk, emptied the fall.

He won’t know this child as much as I’d like. Neither will I.



Dear All, by Maggie Anderson. Four Way Books. 70 pages.

Reading this reminds me of the Beatles’ lyrics, “Something in the way she moves…” The poems are all about motion: emotional, physical, spiritual — but these qualities would be nothing without careful movement on the page. Lots of knowledge, here, about how space is a character in any play and that lines are the way we talk. These poems are addressed to ‘the others’ in Anderson’s life — the one who loaned her gloves on a cold day; the one who noticed she was tired and should rest, a father who’s dying and trying to utter his last. These are the ones we write for; and never better than in this ensemble. For what’s the use of poetry if we don’t want to send memories and messages to the world, and it they’re not about the ones who loved us, who should they be about? And for? Words suggest realities but the poet knows reality’s not a permanent fixture, so she uses the gift of language to make a space where the past comes out of its cave and lives with the present just for a moment, just for a page. Anderson is good at this, and I enjoy the people and places she illuminates.

The Thing You Can’t Forget


It won’t let go of your mind,

the over-and-over can’t figure it out,

all the secrets, big nuisance, big excuse.

Impatient, unruly, it chokes the imagination

like kudzu sprawled across the roadsides,

overweening “mile-a-minute vine,”

vegetation with no brakes on fecundity,

litter after litter it keeps on.

Kudzu roots make an aromatic jelly,

said to cure a tendency to drink,

and the leaves of the kudzu plant

cover over the useless, the derelict

and abandoned. From this we invent topiary,

fantastic shapes of palaces and creatures,

until the mind can catch what

runs away with it and slow it down,

turning our relentless narratives

into a story we will have to live with.



Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911. Poems and poetics by Chris Llewellyn, edited with essays by Michelle B. Gaffey. Skye’s the Limit Publications. 82 pages.

This is the 30th anniversary issue of this award-winning book, now with additions, emendations, revisions and commentary. The author, Llewellyn, notes “At about 4:45 PM, just before pay envelopes had been distributed, a fire broke out. Not everyone was able to reach the elevators and stairways. On the ninth floor, because the bosses had kept the doors locked to keep out union organizers, workers were forced to jump from windows. One hundred forty-six people, some as young as fourteen, perished.”

If poets won’t say it, who will? Columnists and journalists reported this event, and historians hark back to it, but it’s the voice of the workers in this book, the photographs of faces, the images of human destruction that the poet brings to life. Imagination is just the backdrop for real time events here — they need no adornment — the truth is palpable and made beautiful in a book dedicated to sisters who died in the fire: Bettina and Frances Maiale, Rosaria and Lucia Maltese, Teresina and Sarafina Saracino, Maria Lauletti and Isabella Tortorella, among the other 138 deceased.

You don’t have to be a marcher, a protester, a picketer. You just have to be a reader; and you’ll be doing your part to navigate society so that, together, we can wish for what can be made better. Language has an impact and these girls are brought back to life, just for a moment, and just for a time, as fundamental forces to reorient our thinking. Poetry is the method of address here bringing reality into language. Sometimes horror is saved by love.

Ninth Floor Reprise

Fifty-eight girls crowded into a cloakroom.


The glass blackens and shatters.

Who will come for us?


Up on Tenth, typists and bookkeepers leave

ledgers to ashes, machines to melt.

The packers and switchboard-lady gone

the phone cords and crate slats spurt

split into stars and meteors.


Up on Tenth, our finished shirtwaists unfold,

crack the crates, jump upright, join sleeves,

dance the hora and mazurka, spin like dreidels.

They call to us, their makers:

Stitcher, Presser, Cutter, Tucker.

“I saw them piled,” testified Fireman Whol.

“they pressed their faces toward a little window.”



The Color Blue by Alexis Rotella. Red Moon Press. 69 pages.

Rotella is a practitioner of Japanese style poems and active in the Haiku world. This doesn’t confine her, however, for she often expands her art(s) combining original illustrations with words. In The Color Blue, we get the best of her short forms, tiny as teardrops refracting the whole world. Read this and learn how to SEE, NOTICE, PAY ATTENTION to the world, and then make it permanent. I’m not a vendor but this is the book to buy to initiate that friend who thinks “poetry” is too obscure, and out of reach. Rotella is in reach, like an arrow to the heart.

Bridal bouquet

he prays

she doesn’t catch it


The wind

wearing my father’s



The garden

losing interest

in itself




the rain


You were prettier last night

he tells me

in the elevator



Vixen by Cherene Sherrard. Autumn House Press. 53 pages.

It’s all about the vixens here, the wonderful women who are commemorated; and even a dictator’s wife and Mussolini’s mistress (real vixens) thrown in. The women. Poems dedicated to Rihanna, and Ruby Dee; and especially fine, a suite of poems “The Seditous Saga Of Annabelle X As Told to the Abolitionist Mrs. Sarabeth Clarke of Rochester, New York, In Nine Parts,” — a masterwork — and then (Lady With A Lamppost.) “Hilda Simms,/ pinned-up on a lamppost in Harlem,/ her hair waves winsome, shellacked/ as her cheesecake smile, a tea-length skirt/ grazing at her knees. I want to rip the cover,/tape it to the oval mirror.” The soundtrack is jazz, the subjects are about identity, historical and personal, from a writer who doesn’t subordinate herself to make a poem. Each page is unexpected, with a fresh view, meeting someone new, filled with poetic change and intrigue. These poems are edgy; and yet smooth, and strong, as silk.


Our neighbors inform us they have applied for a license to raise chickens.

I tell them my grandmother grew collards between stalks of sugarcane.

Everyone cultivated something on 28th Street. They parked Cadillacs on

Roughdry lawns to make way for the corn and cucumbers lining the drive.

Roosters strutted the stoops. Children cupped hands to catch avocadoes

That rivaled grapefruit before they busted on the sharp, green crabgrass.

The new coop will not prevent grazing on our side of the unfenced yard.

What will happen to my floral ambitions? We recycle. We endure: coffee-

ground compost, rain gardens, solar ovens, electric mowers & water barrels.

I can tolerate the hunger of hares, thieving squirrels & rabid raccoons

But yardbirds pecking at my daylilies is too much like what I left behind:

Laundry on the line and foulness of fowl strung by their toes, drying,

then shorn, then fried.


Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey. Ecco. 80 pages.

There’s nothing ordinary about these poems. Sealey is smart, inventive and fearless. These are three good things for a writer. She likes humor and stories that come to life, like her faux mystery poem (clue) all satire and style. Another achievement is my favorite, a 12-page Cento —  an Italian form where each line is taken from another poet’s work — and a work of art it is — then the fun is going to the book’s notes to identify which line goes with which poet. So much here that’s heart-and-soul felt, along with real body heat — words swing with skill and energy, at the same time delivering critical narratives. No easy feat. We know how tragedy makes comedy and so does Sealey. “It’s on the head of a pin,” once said Billy Collins. The delicate balance is accomplished by taking a perfectly rational idea and epitomizing it, all the while using easy-going language. Sealey’s won a host of awards and her future looks like it has another gold star in.


underperforming sonnet


[For Marilyn]


This time, this poem, is the best idea

I’ve ever had — the best in history

even, the best any has had, I swear…

and I should know, I’ve kept inventory

of them all; this poem is the alpha,

omega, middle, and the laterals —

literally the conceit of a far

off blank stare or a volta with virile

tendencies to talk about it and be

about it, it being the best sonnet

to ever sonnet — formal guarantees

of a good time, ready rhymes, and, I bet,

this poem is, with enormous success,

the only poem entirely imageless.





Imaginary Royalty by Miranda Field. Four Way Books. 68 pages.

Formal Photo at Dusk on Adirondack Chapel Steps


A back brace for the mother.

A ghillie suit of roses, awkwardly fitted, for the father.

Sporrans of cut sod for the interlopers, the appended men.

The bridesmaids’ French braids wreathed with grass snakes.

The bride’s black hair waiting to fade-out to white.

Squirrels enough to stain and eat through folds of silk in storage.

Jays to eat the rice grains from the grass.

Crows for the roast. Worm casts.

The groom’s feelings floating faraway, New Jersey, New Jersey.

Later, a rose-tinged supermoon.


The Children Are Reading by Gabriel Fried. Four Way Books. 70 pages.

The Roly-Poly Pudding


O dough ball, O child.

Here I find you: gagged,

sooty, bound with strings

from a toy guitar.


I know I say

there are no monsters,

that we are safe,

as safe as houses,


but no one ever knows

what creeps the attic,

flue, or crawl space

once we break from day,

when the door is shut,

when the cat’s away.



Travel Notes from the River Styx by Susanna Lang. Terrapin Books. 89 pages.

I, Beast


  • child’s drawing on birch-bark, ca. 1260


I, beast, carry the blind moon on my back,

copper coin with the sheen worn off

and the face hammered out.

I go by the old rutted roads.


A boy dreamed me, four backward feet

and a curly tail, when he wasn’t dreaming battles,

himself victorious against all enemies.

But I outlived him.


I, beast, enter the stories you remember

as if they were inns by the side of the road,

the sheets turned down for me.

At times I walk upright in a mask and coat.


Now the boy is gone; the blood moon weighs

heavy, its bag worn and fraying at the seams.

I am afraid it will slip back into its place

above the trees, while I must keep to my road.



How to Wear This Body by Hayden Saunier. Terrapin Books. 70 pages.

Epiphany with Trashcans, Ice Pond, and

Four Hemlocks


Late-day-tired, I look up

from dragging trash cans down the lane


to gauge how much light is left to finish

what’s never finished:


firewood, garbage, sweepings, ash,

as an unremarkable low flat cloud takes light


dead west in the bone-ache cold of a winter afternoon,

begins to climb its own body, crystal


by frozen crystal, builds itself up

into a steep-peaked mountain from a Chinese print


above my neighbor’s ice pond with its quartet

of black-spined hemlocks already stocked with night.


I wait silently with them, watch the day’s last fire pour out

cold and straight across


what little we are made of —

water vapor, temperature, hard clean curve of stone.


So little and so much.

It sums us up.



The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch. Autumn House Press. 63 pages.


Dear Future,

my own, my only, it is you I conjure

as I take in the mail and the paper,

impatient to open and unfold.

Your low clouds threaten the morning.


Are you listening?

All that living of mine must have

some use. I’m not greedy,

just curious to know

the uses you will make of me.


Your Honor, I have been innocent

after my fashion. May it please the Court

to commute my sentence

to life without parole —


I section the grapefruit,

spoon a little honey into a cup,

hope a little hope,

and here you are already,

waiting to tell me:


“All that hoping —

I could have told you.”


Review copies should be sent to:

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

Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem” on public radio, now from the Library of Congress. Her new book is just released: Other Voices, Other Lives, a compendium of poems, plays, and interviews (Alan Squire Press, 2018).

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