September 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

The Hour of the Poem by David Bristol. New Academia/Scarith. 61 pages.

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon. Milkweed Editions. 105 pages.

Kingdom of Speculation by Barbara Goldberg. Accents Publishing. 24 pages.

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo. W.W. Norton. 137 pages.

Application for Release from the Dream by Tony Hoagland. Graywolf. 80 pages.

TrenchArt Monographs: hurry up please its time edited by Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place. Les Figues Press. 375 pages.

Charles Bukowski On Writing edited by Abel Debritto. Harper Collins/Ecco. 214 pages.

Then & Now by Eva Brann. Paul Dry Books. 138 pages.

Running Down Broken Cement by Nancy Scott. Main Street Rag. 63 pages.

And …

Saying Goodbye to Viet Nam by Ken Williamson. Photo Gallery on the Net. (Hardcover) 371 pages.

The Soul Of My Soldier; Reflections of a Military Wife by Abigail B. Calkin. Familius Press. 209 pages. 

The Hour of the Poem by David Bristol. New Academia/Scarith. 61 pages.

Bristol uses "the poem" to find "the poem.’  Each of us approaches difficulty and fidelity in our own individual way. This is what the book’s about. Each page describes an emotional "poetry encyclical" in the making, all the time while conjuring the poem.

"The poem" is the protagonist here operationally managed by its writer. There’s a vital energy in each line — success, failure, rejection — the poem becomes lover, arbiter, holder of fate. Bristol works with words at the core level and makes a great difference by believing in himself enough to show the locking and unlocking of words. The working conditions of a poet are his narrative and Bristol puts a shine on how we become who we are as writers. In wrestling with the angels, David Bristol does not submit; and he may just convert a few to his stunning kind of minimalism.

I am writing this without me.
I do not know what the words are.
The words trip over themselves.
I try to unpile them.

Because I want to.
This is here.
I prefer it not be me.
I would have no hand in this.

It could be free.
I could be free.
Everything could be free.
Instead there is obligation and gesture.

I think kindly upon this
And open my hands to let the bird fly.
See the white dove.
It is a symbol of.

So what.
Be clearheaded about this.
Because I want to
Make the gesture of offering.

This is about itself.
I am about this.
It is out of control.
The obligation does not cease.

Cool it down.
Calm it down.
It is coming down now.
It looks for a prize.

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon. Milkweed Editions. 105 pages.

This is poetry alive with exuberance and exciting moments, so the reader enters the energy that went into the writing. A young woman moves from New York to Kentucky. Why? The change of location is never part of the narrative, but she lets us live the experience. Limon forges sensuality into every line — the lawn mower across the way, horses, bluegrass — all detailing a story of love’s partnership. In fact the poems are all about relationships — good, bad, past, present — and dynamically, it makes for strong momentum. Limon doesn’t let the organic become diffuse as she measures her bright coherent imagery. Good spirited and dynamic, the book is a look back at past loves, then progresses forward. These are emotionally based poems with buoyancy and integrity.


Tell the range and all that’s howling,
the flickers of life beyond the weeds,
the vulture’s furrowed brow of flight,
the blasted sticky Canadian lawn thistle;
tell the clowned-out clouds and the rain,
and all that makes you go quiet again,
tell them that you didn’t come here
to make a fuss, or break, or growl, or
scream; tell them—crazy sky and stars
between—tell them you didn’t come
to disturb the night air and throw a fit,
then get down in the dark and do it.

Kingdom of Speculation by Barbara Goldberg. Accents Publishing. 24 pages.

Such a slender book to hold in your hand; such a magic pudding of fairy tale, collective consciousness, intelligence and inspiration. Here is the seductive power of Barbara Goldberg: We have a kingdom, a king, a princess, a quest, and morals to the tale — not so much written as imagined into words. Do you remember when fairy tales carried you off to towers of romance and poppy seed cakes?  I’ve been waiting for someone to dignify folkloric archetypes, like Italo Calvino did for grown-ups.

This time our hero is a woman, a royal princess and botanist, who travels the land to gather seeds of renewal. "…Her spirit lifts when she spies/ a new species, tubular, two-lipped. //pale pink, she names it beard’s tongue. / Giddy with naming, the Princess is likewise/ immersed in her own anonymity."   Like all true fairy tales, there are deeper meanings. We meet "The Master of Chance," a memorable bit. Among other "characters" are Grief, Passion, Compassion, plus more who excite our attention.

All of this would be without credibility if it didn’t follow some critical rules. Fantasy, for one thing, must be tethered in reality to be tolerated. Fairy tales continue where reality leaves off; but Goldberg knows that universal themes need a grounding gravity. Another "MUST" is craft. I know a poet who wrote a PhD on enjambment. I’d like to introduce her to Barbara Goldberg whose lines disrupt in exactly the right place. Phrases link together in form, without which, there would be story but no poetry. This small sweet book is an example of technical mastery—wherein (even in this cruel world) a princess can collect seeds to plant the flowers of eternal imagination that will grow for us forever.


The princess has a heart…well,

the heart of a princess. Yet studying


the crone, her snaggletooth, her shifty

expression, she cannot help but feel


a pinch of reservation. If she takes her

on she might never reach her destination —


There is so much work to do, and all

her own subjects. On further reflection


the princess has no wish to forfeit

her dreams, not even the most appalling.


As for the weight, she seriously doubts

the crone’s powers of transformation.


She’d guess the crone weighs in at a full

seven stone, one for each day of the week.


With all the grace she can summon, and not

without sorrow, the Princess refuses.

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo. W.W. Norton. 137 pages.

In her first poem Harjo exclaims: " Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that/ bottle of pop…If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and back…" She can mix the flesh and the soul just like that. We know this poet for her spirituals, hymns, philosophical elevations; this new book lacks none of those poetic traits yet there’s more—her bluesy down home stomping at the bar poems.  In "Had-It-Up-to-Here Round Dance" for two voices, she and "Charlie Hill" exchange stanzas:

"I don’t like your girlfriend and her high-heeled shoes/ And her skirt up to here/ And her blonde hair down to there/ When you dance right past her it gives me the blues/ You have the sweetest step in double time it’s just not fair/ How can I tell you that I love you when you don’t even / care —

… " I don’t like your boyfriend and his white man ways./ You hold him in your shawl it makes me crazed/ I like the way you step so high beside me/ But how can I tell you Babe when you don’t talk to me…"

 Harjo is our leading poet on Native American lineage, culture, chants, history, psychology, racism, but she can also get down with her no nonsense man/woman poems. There are so many sides to this poet and this book captures the spectrum, uplifted by bridges of interior monologue: "Whenever a saxophone begins to sing in a story we/ know that for a time, we will no longer move about so/ lonely here, far away from the house of sun, moon, and stars."

And when Harjo confronts tragedy, she becomes our conscience. "Suicide Watch" has 9 small sections: 1. "I was on a train stopped sporadically at checkpoints. / What tribe are you, what nation, what race, what sex, what unworthy soul?" --   And Section 8: "This is not mine. It belongs to the soldiers who raped the/ young women on the Trail of Tears. It belongs to Andrew/ Jackson. It belongs to the missionaries. It belongs to the/ thieves of our language. It belongs to the Bureau of Indian/ Affairs. It no longer belongs to me…"

Here she is in her fullness:

The First Day Without A Mother

In the hour of indigo, between sleeping and wake —
A beloved teacher sits up on the funeral pyre —
He smiles at me through flames that are dancing as they
eat —
I will see you again, is one of the names for blue —
A color beyond the human sky of mind —
One third up the ladder of blue is where we sit for grief —
I was abandoned by lovers, by ideas that leaped ahead of
time, and by a father looking for a vision he would never
find —
Do not leave me again, I want to cry as the blue fire takes my
His ashes cool in my hands.
I’m too proud to let go the tears; they are still in me.
I keep looking back.
Maybe I have turned to salt. It burns blue, like spirits
                  who have already
Started to call me home, up over the last earthy hill broken
                 through with starts of blue flowers that heal the wounded 
Chickadee sings at dawn.
I sit up in the dark drenched in longing.
I am carrying over a thousand names for blue that I didn’t
have at dusk.
How will I feed and care for all of them?

Application for Release from the Dream by Tony Hoagland. Graywolf. 80 pages.

His birds, he claims are "people watchers."

Hoagland is one of our best read poets. He has the heart of Aristotle and the pen of Trollope. However he is Hoagland and approaches the page as a possible mental disturbance, stirs it up in long line lengths, complains about humanity then, with personal ease, wins us over with humor and irony. And always surprise — which he claims is his personal salvation.

Hoagland’s way of thinking is what attracts us. It’s sharp and clean and comes from a definite mind-set, each poem with a focus; yet as we read, we see that Hoagland is exploring with us. He’s not so sure after all; and so it happens that each line broadens his ideas until we end up far from where we started, at times, non sequitur. His endings bring the poem home in a great way. That’s what makes us want the next poem. "Controlled substance" ends "…Why don’t they break down my door right now and arrest me/ and send me to a rehabilitation program/ for using sadness as a substitute for understanding?// The sadness that is an eventual inevitable result/ of not being able to understand anything."

Wish more were as smart and humorous (comedie noire). No one escapes his skewer. In "Fetch" he says, "…Now I understand those old ladies walking/ their Chihuahuas in the dusk, plastic bag wrapped around one hand…in all their apartments on the fourteenth floor/ holding out a little hotdog on a toothpick// to bestow luxury on a friend…" or the poem,  "But the Men:" "…Their love-mobiles are dented and rusty./Their Shaggin’ Wagons are up on cinderblocks…A pool of testosterone is spreading from around their feet,/ it’s draining out of them like radiator fluid…"  and the women are addressed in "A History of High heels" beginning; " It’s like God leaned down long ago and said/ to a woman who was just standing around, / ‘How would you like a pair of shoes/ that shoves the backs of your feet up about four inches/ so you balance always on your tiptoes…’’’

Every poem wears a big hat of observations. In "Please Don’t" he talks of flowers which "…don’t imagine lawn/mowers, the four stomachs/ of the cow, or human beings with boots/ who stop to marvel…" and of this hallucination of their happiness, Hoagland ends"… please don’t mention it. / Not yet. Tell me/ what would you possibly gain// from being right?"


They took the old heart out of your chest,
all blue and spoiled like a sick grapefruit,

the way you removed your first wife from your life,
and put a strong young blonde one in her place.

What happened to the old heart is unrecorded,
but the wife comes back sometimes in your dreams,

vengeful and berating, shrill, with a hairdo orange as flame,
like a mother who has forgotten that she loved you

more than anything. How impossible it is to tell
bravery from selfishness down here,

the leap of faith from a doomed attempt at flight.
What happened to the old heart is the scary part:

thrown into the trash, and never seen again,
but it persists. Now it’s like a ghost,

with its bloated purple face,
moving through a world a ghost

that’s all of us —
dreaming we’re alive, that we’re in love forever.

TrenchArt Monographs: hurry up please its time, edited by Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place. Les Figues Press. 375 pages.

This hefty book is the 9th in a series of TrenchArt titles. These are writers/graphics artists (sometimes lines are arranged rather than written,) who are disenchanted with the present day command of language so they’re calling the meeting to order with new rules and new characters. Some 40 contributors are leaders in the field of the "advanced guard" — critics and philosophers, filmmakers, poets musicians,  essayists, visual artists — and I like very much Harold Abramowitz, Stan Apps, Michael du Plessis, editors Carmody and Place, Ken Ehrlich, Paul Hoover, Kim Rosenfield and some others. It’s just that I admire it more than I love it.  These artists design their work against the bias grain, so it’s not possible to read much at a time; also some pages have every other line blacked out (in a good way): but I do keep it on the dining room table and open it at random to enjoy whatever I find, like an occasional 30 second yoga.  It rattles my neurons so I have to go slowly in surrender to this multiplex wonderland. The young and the restless are bringing me along on a ride without ballast or reference points, and I’m trying. I like a lot of what I read. Here’s a sweet handful inserted within Abramowitz’s "Selected Writings."

But there is a letter waiting by the door.

There are new ways of saying old things.


Final and violating the pin —

The pin, and only the pin.


But it does not ring true.


And here is another sample from Trenchart:

Statement, Manifesto, Poetics by  Paul Hoover

I.      Statement

Sonnet 56 consists of 56 versions of Shakespeare’s sonnet of that number,
produced from February to May of
2006.     Many of the
2007.     activities, such as
2008.     "Noun Plus Seven"
2009.     and "Word Ladder,"
2010.     are influenced by
2011.     Oulipo; others, such
2012.     as "Villanelle," "Jingle,"
2013.     "Ballad," "Flarf," and
2014.     "Blues," are traditional
2015.     literary or song
2016.     forms; and some,
2017.      including "Personal Ad,"
2018.     "Chat Group," "Course
2019.     Description," and "Mathematical,"
2020.     are my own
2021.     invention. The project
2022.     began when I
2023.     removed all but
2024.      the end words
2025.     of Shakespeare’s sonnet,

Charles Bukowski On Writing, edited by Abel Debritto. Harper Collins/Ecco. 214 pages.

Bukowski’s been a cult hero for the underground as long as I can remember. Every place I ever taught since the ‘70s was a hotbed of Bukowski hysteria. These letters do not dispute the fact that he was an alcoholic self-acclaimed degenerate who came from (his words) "flea bags" and "whores;" but only now we see how keen a literary mind he had.  That he’s an impassioned poet, there is no doubt.

It’s a miracle — truly a miracle — that his gifts came to public notice. He admittedly couldn’t type and couldn’t spell — lost his typewriter early on and spent his life at horse races, sent out stories and poems which he never tracked or copied. Robustly anarchistic, Bukowski got under everyone’s skin and loved it there. While undermining the views of other poets and editors he makes some valid and intelligent points about American culture and the state of the literary arts.

These letters show B as honest, energetic, and innovative, and they mark a trail we can follow through his (iconoclastic) rise to notoriety. America’s bad boy is one of our most popular poets; and, even after his death, I have not seen a decline. I like his poetry but was never comfortable with the self-loathing that he capitalized into art.

We start the book in 1946 with his excellent drawings and correspondence to various small magazine editors. Significant letters went to John Corrington throughout the 1960’s to 1993. His editor at Black Sparrow, John Martin, also has a lion share. It’s a fast read- a hilarious spectacle at times — and I’ve developed a new respect for Bukowski’s critical faculties. The editor did a good job for us as he sums up an outrageous writer and finds him a deserved place in the academic lexicon. I don’t know of any other letters by a poet that expose the compulsive joy in writing as well as this. Also, I went back to his poems after this book and finally became an unreluctant fan.

Every new generation likes Bukowski. It was never fame, itself, he wanted, but fame meant something to him, alright. He wanted to prove he was worthy of it.

[To William Packard]

December 23, 1990

[. . . ]  When everything works best it’s not because you chose
writing but because writing chose you. It’s when you’re mad with
it, it’s when it’s stuffed in your ears, your nostrils, under your
fingernails. It’s when there’s no hope but that.
                  Once in Atlanta, starving in a tar paper shack, freezing. There
were only newspapers for a floor. And I found a pencil stub and I
wrote on the white margins of the edges of those newspapers with
the pencil stub, knowing that nobody would ever see it.

 Then & Now by Eva Brann. Paul Dry Books. 138 pages.

The book is divided into two parts: (Then) "Comprehended by Herodotus;" the second (Now) "The Imaginative Conservative. This was my 15-minute-a-day reading, because it is the slow read that makes it a good one. 

Herodotus (writing from 450-429) is presented as an historian who reports stories as "being believed" rather than "having happened." His History of the Persian Wars is the inspiration for Brann’s "showing-forth" of ideas using as example Herodotus’ approach to history. i.e.: Works have to show-up before they can show-forth so Herodotus is primarily recounting rather than originating, even though he traveled and observed widely.

We may know names such as Spartans, Egyptians, Barbarians, Hellenes, Pausanians, Greeks, Persians, Athenians, etc. but now, we generally know who did what to whom and how it was seen — or told — to Herodotus. I imagine he braided gods and goddesses throughout history for that was his belief system. The most interesting information for me is about Themistocles (of whom I knew nothing) and his crafty statesmanship and ingenuity in winning victory for Athens in war. (Rather than ask why this is important, Brann would have us reflect on why this is important.)

Herodotus’ Themistocles appears to me, then, as a
first and a fixating incarnation of a man of democratic
freedom.  Here is some evidential data: He isn’t particularly
low-born but appears as a newcomer. He is shrewdly
provident, persuading the Greeks to appropriate the income
from their silver-mines to building a navy by cannily
interpreting an oracle one way which he will later
interpret another way. Apparently, he is the inventor of
political propaganda, scratching messages on rocks to
persuade the Medizers to defect (VIII 23). He accepts
and dispenses bribes in pursuit of his political purposes
(VIII 4-5). And he has no scruples about appropriating
good advice as his own (VIII 57). This litany sounds
unsavory, but in fact it’s the first instance of real
democratic politics — practical intelligence (glossed as
prudence in the high, craftiness in the low view) applied
patriotically in the cause of a city that is the freest of the
inhabited world, and yet also nationally, in  behalf of the
Hellenic nation with which Athens feels herself, beyond
all the differences, at one in essentials: consanguinity,
common language, common sacred rituals, common

Brann knows that we can make words do anything and as a trained archeologist, and world class philosopher, she’s devoted to "setting things right" and cleaning up messy thinking. So she chooses words very carefully. The 89 pages devoted to Herodotus are really an explanation of how one perceives the world, how concepts are closed circles of thought, and what it means to look at The Classics without fixed notions — all the while discussing (and demonstrating) what expanded thought can be. By showing Herodotus in the world, (and how he proceeded) Brann shows her own process of exploration.

In the Book’s Section II "The Soul’s Demesne" (we could say the soul’s estate) Brann talks about the past as she looks at memory and imagination, using historical episodes to source the qualities of "the soul." For example, as we read the first of the twelve essays, "The World’s Center," we enter the memory of ancient Persia and Greece, etc. All the time, Brann is illustrating that the moment we’re reading is the moment where memory and matter come together, the "NOW." (Buddhists will love her.) Brann’s not a big believer in predicting the future based on the past, certainly does not believe in inevitability, and is faithful to events as the result of men’s actions. I guess then the future is up to us.

Beautiful traditions, stories and actions are what Eva Brann treasures as the foundation for education, of course mathematics being a beautiful language among them. The unimaginative political conservative is not the Imaginative Conservative and Brann takes extremist scoundrels to task. The Imaginative Conservative is defined: "A disposition to delight in repetition, reference, resonance, recollection…Reflective thinking… Digging deeper to understand the roots of the world…Imagination that can stand in for faith…Populism as a political friendship (not the populism of the far Right that is hate mongering or the far left "crowd-sourced revolutions") …She does not trust the future much beyond the laws of nature.

I think we all agree with her warring against the "outsourcing of imagination…to be replaced by the inundating hyper productivity of an industrial image-source." Poets who work to rinse off language and imagery would win Brann’s favor.

I know I can get in trouble consolidating Brann’s words but, if this is as fascinating to you as it is to me, you will read Then & Now with deep abiding pleasure, slowly savoring the use of language in its highest locution.

Running Down Broken Cement by Nancy Scott. Main Street Rag. 63 pages.

Nancy Scott tells us in her preface "These poems are inspired by two decades as a caseworker…first in a child abuse and neglect response unit, later in a rental subsidy program…"

The poems tackle racism, homelessness, drugs, child abuse, mental illness, AIDS — all the nightmares and horrors of humankind. She was there and she writes about it. First: We need warriors like Scott and two decades is a lot to give to those who have nothing else. These poems are hard to read but turning away doesn’t change reality. Scott adds a needed dimension to anecdote and reportage. She shines a light for everyone to see what she sees. She chooses the most powerful form of the written word because only compression and finite lines can contain the anguish and despair we’re called to witness. I believe an Op-Ed piece or letter to the editor or blog could not/would not deliver the necessary emphasis, cadence by cadence.

I don’t know how we measure what a social worker accomplishes; but I do know that to turn the experience to art is a collaboration with God. I believe these poems will reach a wide audience and someone will be touched — this is not rhetoric or rant, it’s poetry. Scott tells stories; the powerful and tragic part is that these are true stories.The impressive part is that Scott goes the distance in life and on the page. She’s a singular voice and adds to the idea of poetry ethics, a kind of morality where observations about social needs are presented in a form that will hopefully attract notice.

In Absecon

A blond man gaunt with AIDS
teaches his dark infected foster child
a nursery rhyme.
Word by spout he becomes a teapot,
spout by arm she mimics him.

Dying man, dying child.

Tulips whirl on her pinafore,
as he lifts her to his bone-thin hip.
More, she cries.
He shakes his head.
Tomorrow. No more today.

Lest We Forget

The above phrase is a frayed cliché but its meaning is not. Let Us Never Forget the literature and art that comes from true life/death experiences.

Saying Goodbye to Viet Nam by Ken Williamson. Photo Gallery on the Net. (Hardcover) 371 pages.

Ken Williamson was a U.S. Army photographer in 1969; and now 46 years later the world can share his photography, portraitures, letters, essays, poetry and journalism. In the foreword Curtis Nelson (fellow photographer and V.N. vet) writes "…This historical memoir will carry the Vietnam veteran and his readers back to the "Republic of South Vietnam" as it was in the time of "The Domino Theory…" Nelson points to "...the remarkable images illuminating the history."

With a heavy heart I opened this book, myself a career military wife, for fear of what I’d see. And maybe of what I would not. Instead I immediately recognized this collection as a powerful history — breathtakingly beautiful, visually — with profound insight I could never have found- and have not seen- elsewhere.

The range of thought is important to stress for the photographer is a watcher of human souls in action. Each sequence is sobering and enlightening, as art transforms the intolerable to what can be redeemed and made memorable. There are 43 chapters, each self-contained in photo and language — eloquent and honest, for photos as we know do not lie. From the book:

"It has been said that there are several types of Veterans of the Vietnam War, the
ones who served elsewhere in other countries; the ones who served in combat, face
to face with the enemy; and the veterans who served as support to the combat units.
Each has their own level of anger and guilt about their experience that they carry
with them daily. Each has their story. Those who served in another country and had
friends who died in Vietnam ask, "why not me?" Those who fought face to face with
the enemy ask why their buddies died and they didn’t. Those who served in support
roles, ask if they could have done more. One thing is true for all of us who served.
We never say "goodbye to Vietnam." It is impossible to say goodbye to the sights,
sounds, and smells of a combat zone. Those experiences stay with us forever.

Tam Tien was right when he said young men learn to kill each other and old men learn
to love.

Farewell Vietnam! "

The Soul Of My Soldier; Reflections of a Military Wife by Abigail B. Calkin. Familius Press. 209 pages.

The chapters: Early Years; Collateral Damage; Robert and Abigail; Deployment; Listen, America; Recover; Resolution, Always Partial; and Welcome Home.

Wives get Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during their husbands’ deployments. Or, in this case, they turn to make art as a saving grace. This book holds wonderful combinations of essays and poetry with the assurance of a strong writer with subject matter no one would wish for. The prose is excellent — fast, clear reading — and the poetry is the tie that binds. Most of all, it’s an example of an unimpeded mind that can emphasize, and even flourish, interesting words that warrant deep consideration.

Shock and Awe

No, Mr. President. It’s called
Damage and Destruction.
We families get
to live with it for the rest of our lives.

Grace Cavalieri’s new book is a Memoir: "Life Upon The Wicked Stage."  She founded and still produces "The Poet and the Poem" on public radio, now from the Library of Congress.

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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