April 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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


Mantic by Maureen Alsop.  Augury Books. 68 pgs.

Bicentennial by Dan Chiasson.  Alfred A. Knopf. 80 pgs

Darkened Rooms of Summer; New and Selected Poems by Jared Carter.  (Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series) Univ. of Nebraska Press. 196 pgs.

GLTTL STP by Dorrit Caroll. BrickHouse books. 60 pages.

The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest by Kathryn Stripling Byer. Press 53.71  pgs.  Descent by Kathryn Stripling Byer. LSU Press. 57 pgs.


Answers From Silence by Jeffrey Chappell. BookSurge Publishing  278 pgs. A professional concert musician is a healer and spiritual practitioner. 

Astoria To Zion. Foreword by Ben Fountain. Lookout Books. 400 pgs. Stories of Risk and Abandon from ECOTONE’S first decade 

Queen of the Platform, Poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman. Anaphora Literary Press. 80 pgs. Poems based on the life of Wiseman’s great-great-great-grandmother, a 19th century suffragist/poet.

Mantic by Maureen Alsop. Augury Books. 68 pgs. 

How do we understand how poetry crosses all the borders in our mind? Maureen Alsop is a gift to our understanding of how broken thought colorizes another thought – phrases that seemingly have nothing to do with one another— come inside the reader to make a whole. It’s a mysterious process and I’m sure psycho-neurology will explain it all someday chemically, and ruin the thrill forever but until then, I’ll read Alsop.

The following in bold is all one title:  Belomancy, //divination by the flight of arrows in which three arrows would be marked with the phrases ’God orders it me,’ God forbids it me,” and the third remains blank. There are 3 prose poems here, (1. 2. And blank. ) Blank begins stylishly,” I will consult with your grief for free. I will watch your departing… and ends with the stunning line (set off by spacing) “Which childhood do you remember?  Oh now we’re getting somewhere.”

Alsop has a lot of “mancy” poems going on in this book. Some 20 titles among the 68. Examples: Catoptromancy (divination by mirrors😉  Floromancy (diviniations by means of flowers) etc. These make a nice construct and characterize the words to come, leading us into a voodoo parlor of thought.

We can tell when a poem is sent out into the world scared and these poems are the opposite. They’re fearless. Alsop is like a hero who boldly moves forward and never looks back. She’s a social revolutionary using words to change our concepts of reality and the world. The first line of the poem Radiesthesia, //the science of using the vibrational fields of the human body to access information/ often using specially calibrated instruments  begins, ”His voice entered where it entered…”  who would not take her hand for the rest of what’s coming? Each line is a set of differences that, when assembled, leaves us with the grief the poet feels, the arrivals, the tenuous relationships. In Ostentaria, divination based on the direction from which certain birds call, Alsop has central lines,                       

“ … I in my falcon skin, you 

                                                                                     up from marsh roots stir

                             the mind’s  to-and-fro…”

  Not fair to tear poems apart, but I want to show the elegance from line to line. It is only gratitude I feel that words can do this—a purification of language, at the same time experiential. Alsop does not hold back. How do we teach this? How do we know what it is? We have in this book prophecy, prayer and mysticism. Only the good instincts of the poet make a common core to hold it all together, and so we, as readers, are never unsafe.

Bicentennial by Dan Chiasson.  Alfred A. Knopf. 80 pgs  

Chiasson is Samuel Beckett and Maurice Sendak—sometimes Plato with a touch of Dr. Seuss. He’s clever, the way authors of fairy tales can hold tumult within. Chiasson playfully discloses generational disjunction and loss. The most wonderful thing is his use of formal schemes to hold volatile, magical and musical thought. Or maybe that’s what makes the thought musical—verse in perfect forms. This creates accountability for all the disparate conversations, and strikes a balance that can only be called true synthesis—spirit in structure—feeling in circumstance—with not a lump under the mattress. 

Whether the subject is football in the snow or a party celebration, the poet has a curious autonomy as if the speaker is always alone, and the fascination for us is in finding the emotional reciprocities within and to the self. A loneliness underwrites this book and I love the 14 page,  seven-part title poem, bicentennial which is about  how one is cared for and how, in turn, cares for others. 

There’s a sweetness in Chiasson, and generally speaking if we listen to each verse we can hear a story, often entertaining, with interesting problems of time, place and identity—always carefully curated. The “Plays” in the book are the imagination’s balloons and bubbles, orchestrated to free fall.  This reminds me of Reed Whittemore’s late writing when he turned, after his work as historian/poet and biographer, to writing fables where he felt more could be expressed. 

Chiasson is clear about the father he never knew, and it is said in straightforward verses at the beginning and end of Arm in Arm (after Remy Charlip) 


I am my father’s son 

I am my father’s

Son I am 

My father’s son

I am 



And this final verse ends the piece: 


I am my son’s father

I am my son’s 

Father I am

My son’s father

 I am

What powerful reconciliations are here. Chiasson’s pilgrimage through his boyhood is more ascent than growth, and we follow the trail in perfectly formed couplets and stanzas, which ultimately says, Tomorrow Never Came but I will give it to you anyway. Indelible pain is dealt with buoyantly so that the poet leaves us in good spirits. Billy Collins once said the greatest challenge is to make tragedy and humor dance on the head of a pin. Chiasson does that like few others can.

Darkened Rooms of Summer; New and Selected Poems
by Jared Carter.  (Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series) Univ. of Nebraska Press. 196 pgs. 

This is the first of an occasional series of books published by University of Nebraska Press, selected by Ted Kooser, former U.S. Poet Laureate. Kooser says he had this poet in mind when he started the project, and he couldn’t have chosen a better premiere. These Carter poems are culled from some 60 publications and literary journals over the years. 

Jared Carter writes the kind of poetry that death does not touch. He brings us a very different atmosphere from this crazy techie world, with a command of metaphor and the bones of memory that do not lie. We trust this poet’s vision. He has a classic approach to poetry, a restoration of his own life and historical figures, as well, creating a porthole to the past, bringing the past to present, a rapidity of thought that becomes parsed, calmed into phrases, then stanzas, a progression of ideas, a procession of images. The base roots are of nature, tradition, the common man doing ordinary things, and the historical past.

Turning the Brick 

Men worked turning the brick/at the end of our street—/ They gave each one a quarter- turn /

and put it back again. That //was what the Depression was like/  where I grew up. Each day /

they got closer to our house; /everybody came out to watch.//They had their shirts off,/ down on her knees – old scars/ flared in the sunlight, tattoos/ glistened on their arms. Men /with no teeth, with noses/ turned and bent, fingers missing./ The bricks were tan- colored; / each had a picture on the bottom: a scene of ships, a name, a date…

Jared Carter enunciates motes of memory into portraits, establishing an architecture we can believe in. The reader can rest his thoughts because there’s no crisis of language in Jared’s work. From 1993, in the book After The Rain, is a poem, Galleynipper. Suddenly here a candle becomes a major character. The speaker experiences contentment before sleep and the figuration of this is written in a way that makes you want to be there.

Where we might go, in the summers, to a cabin on the big Lake

and spend time there in the light my sister and I, doing

nothing, saying in the sand, slowly turning brown and learning

to see through the glare, my mother with her book, her sunbonnet,


and nights in that room of open rafters, curtains drawn against 

a cold wind off the day. If we were good, she would let us have

one candle, in a saucer on the deal table, in the exact center

of our bedroom, that we could not touch, but only watch…

There is compassion for himself in this poem and his world. No need for affection or approval from us, the readers. No showboating or a wish to govern. His poems do not redefine poetry; they reinforce a satisfaction in storytelling and restate it into poems. 

The poem The Covered Bridge is a recollection about an encounter in the 19th century during the War Between the States. From the 2006 book, Cross This Bridge at a Walk, is an reenactment, in dramatic verse that shows another side of Carter. The first section is What Baxter Was Told; the second What Barnabas Said, and then #3, Going Fishing. It is ultimately the speaker’s love of the great grandfather that maintains the energy of the piece. Long poems like this one are not for beginners, because the transactions have to make the reader anticipatory at every moment; or the middle will sag before we get to the end. Carter knows how to keep us going. 

Thirty new poems are each exactly the same form: three stanzas with four lines each, second and fourth line indented. It’s interesting that a man who wrote in so many tempos, chose, consistently, a symmetry he liked and could trust for this many poems. The pattern creates a charge point for each topic because they are carefully executed with concrete lines that shape the culture of the thinking. Jered does not change the debate in today’s poetry, he sees without regret; he reports what he sees; and he makes permanent a beautiful seize of language that is unceasingly well done. And he has humor.


Although it sometimes happens – wrong
       soon giving way 
To might have been—as in the song 
      the radio plays 

Before I reach to change the dial,
      don’t turn it off, 
You say, I like the glow. And while 
      we soon enough 

Must let it go, it almost seems
       this moment in
A darkened room with you redeems
       what some call sin.

GLTTL STP by Dorrit Caroll. BrickHouse books. 60 pages. 

The title stands for glottal stop, a choking sound produced in the throat; and the words’ conversion to a book title without vowels is just one  sample of a woman who is a risk taker and a safety net all it once. Dorrit Carroll is sublime. What does she do and how does she do it? First, we start with the quality of her mind – the poem cannot be any better than the person who presses it into being. Her mind is like a giant constellation from which tiny zodiacs occur perfectly formed. 

From the poem father: 

… I say that I can’t miss you/because you are inside me/is it your lips/or mine/that press together/as if they are sealing off/an envelope of disappointment//your or my finicky way/of straightening a desk/pinching each paperclip/between thumb and forefinger/as if it’s a dead fly//and whose measuring eyes/appraise me/from the mirror//composed/perhaps/to a fault

Or look at this poem titled p.m.:

the night you/ gurgled yourself dead/your breaths sounded like/bubbles blown through a stroll//as if the milk of you were being drunk /by a greedy child somewhere/with no manners// and then at last the straw hit/the bottom of the glass/because the bubble stopped//and you/glass that you were/looked no different/empty/than you had/full

Sometimes she just snapshots a scene:

the Christmas trees

lie on their sides

on the curb


as if they’d been shot

just steps from their

front doors 

as if they’d almost

made it

to safety

Doritt Carroll’s poetry is concrete and allegorical at once. Poetry never repeats itself and yet   poems are made of the same old words we all use. Caroll’s impulses are her ideas. She hones each thought diligently until it acts precisely the way she chooses. Anyone can have a flash/an inspiration, but the implementation tells all. These are carefully made poems from templates that have antecedents in our craft, but that are particularly targeted on a page that could belong to no one else. Who knows what Carroll is made of and she, herself, wonders here:


the heart

is a complicated instrument

four adjoining chambers

in which

God knows what

goes on

The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest by Kathryn Stripling Byer. Press 53. 71 pgs. 

Descent  by Kathryn Stripling Byer. LSU Press. 57 pgs. 

Kathryn Stripling Byer had a book out in 2012 titled Descent in which she proved her epic powers as a storyteller. And if you put family and the South together, you’re not surprised to find the lace of ancestry and memory through her work.

In 2013, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest was reissued from a 1986 premier volume, an Associated Writing Program award winner, chosen by John Frederick Nims. I think it’s a great thing to bring out a prom queen 27 years later if she still looks as fresh as ever – and this book still stands as an exemplar of poetry from the land, from the farmhouse, and from the rough growth tamed by human hands. It’s in the American grain.

Stripling Byer was born in Georgia and lives in North Carolina in the valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has that sound of the southern tradition; so I was interested to find she’d been a student of Allen Tate and Fred Chappelle. It shows. Parents, grandparents figure here, relationships, and always the glory of nature. You can hear the owl, feel the pine needles. The poetry is a lesson in how we write to the senses. 

Also, there is a modesty and honesty every writer should envy. From Descent, the fifth stanza of a poem called Southern Fiction is a refreshment: 

When the feminist poet flew down from New York,/I drove her to campus, and hours/easy drive. We chatted all the way there,/mostly politics. I liked her so much I shored/up my courage and told her the work/those boys had done, the macho way they/bragged, how no one had the nerve to say/shut up. She misinterpreted my words./Assuming I had suffered in the midst/of bigotry, silently doing my very best/to row against the tide. It sounded so good/I kept quiet, ashamed to say I’d been no activist./That I’d done nothing, joined no protests,/felt no guilt. Had seen no reason why I should.

She can also enter a poem like a bird swooping across the field. From The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, the poem, Elegy, has an epigraph of an Appalachian folk song. The poem, then, begins:

Again it’s the night of the shivering stars 

and ice sprouting under the hooves

of the cattle my mother says 

she counted while she was driving

to town where he lay turning cold

as the stiff grasses. (How many 

cows, I asked years later. Twenty-one,

she answered. Twenty-one cows huddled 

under the sad moon.)…

There is a kind of reverence we find underlining each poem and Stripling Byer knows how to cherish life and death and we would expect nothing less from her because of the way she redefines goodness in her own terms. From that same book, Prayer:

May she wake on a Saturday morning,/wind through a raised window lifting/the sheer curtain./It will be late June,/the bird–dogs beginning to bark/and the hands scrabbling out by the pump house./She hears Kathryn sing in the next room/and Dick climb the unsteady steps to the porch/where my grandfather pulls on his work boots./Their rocking chairs creak./They swap stories of good crops for hours,…

The poet’s work is lightly imagined, depending more on the filming of real-life. She gives reasons to support other people’s prejudices, and this gives us reason to trust her. Society is made of creating new families and new worlds based on the past and Stripling Byer makes that come together as poetry’s goal –the clarity comes because she writes to find all this out. This is a poet who is running barefoot on the earth with tenderness for the land, using what she sees to find out who she is—and in her poetry, and in her empathy, she’s never far from home. 


Answers From Silence by Jeffrey Chappell. BookSurge Publishing  278 pgs. A professional concert musician is a healer and spiritual practitioner.

Astoria To Zion. Foreword by Ben Fountain. Lookout Books. 400 pgs. Stories of Risk and Abandon from ECOTONE’S first decade   

Queen of the Platform, Poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman. Anaphora Literary Press. 80 pgs.Poems based on the life of Wiseman’s great-great-great-grandmother, a 19th century suffragist/poet.

  Living in the Land of Limbo, compiled and edited by Carol Levine. Vanderbilt Univ. Press. 271 pgs.Fiction and poetry about family caregiving, an anthology of stories and poems by nationally known writers.


Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” celebrating 37 years on-air. Among honors, she holds AWP’s 2013 George Garret Award, The Allen Ginsberg Awards (1993 & 2013,) The Bordighera Poetry Award, the “Columbia” Service to Literature Award.

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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