August 2019 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- August 15, 2019
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
Giménez Smith takes no prisoners and buys no bail bonds for how she feels about our present society. Searingly visual language fires one page after another in rhythmic chants dismantling the pseudo-comfort of American life. With meta-energy, this book changes the dialogue about human decency, for its poet is a fierce steward for change. Space and time are compressed into powerful poems that dispel old myths and make new ones demanding honesty and responsibility. Her thoughts are dangerous because they’re meant to ignite the next generation to take on the world. Social morality is a feature in American poetry that’s more visible than ever. This is tough talk, written and read through the heart.
People sometimes confuse me for someone else they know
because they’ve projected an idea onto me. I’ve developed
a second sense for this — some call it paranoia, but I call it
the profoundest consciousness on the face of the earth.
This gift was passed on to me from my mother who learned it from
solid and socially constructed doors whooshing inches from her face.
It may seem like a lie to anyone who has not felt the whoosh, but
a door swinging inches from your face is no joke. It feels like being
invisible, which is also what it feels like when someone looks
at your face and thinks you’re someone else. In graduate school
a teacher called me by another woman’s name with not even
brown skin, but what you might call a brown name. That sting
took years to overcome, but I got over it and here
I am with a name that’s at the front of this object, a name
I’ve made singular, that I spent my whole life making.
If all loss in the world were pulled into a knot and placed into the center of your chest, that’s how you’d feel reading this book. Poet Harriss loses her man, her lover, her partner, her sweetheart, little by little, as he enters the land of confusion, not taking her with him. There she is outside the bubble of Alzheimer’s — with her poems and her heart and her pen and paper in hand. How many times have we read of this disease — yet why, when a poet illustrates with the blood of truth, is the shock as if for the first time? The sweetness of thought, the patience of love, the way to stay alive by writing — this is a beautiful hello/goodbye/I love you/please don’t cry theme. Her Tom finds new love in a new home, calling a new friend by this poet’s name. The illustrations perfectly enhance the purity of this art; and a love that stays innocent while stained by sickness.
Prologue: Man, with Alzheimer’s
Falls, skins knees and elbows, forgets,
wakes to bloody sheets, maybe
learns at eighty how it must feel
to be a thirteen year old girl.
Shows off in yoga class. Such a Happy Baby!
Loves making love. Forgets we just did.
Must be reminded to put clothes on, then
layers shirt upon shirt, sock upon sock,
happily discovers he can wear two more
pairs of yoga pants over his yoga pants.
Is getting ready to take a long trip
carrying no luggage.
The author prays to the gods so she can stop praying. And here is the tone of these wry, tight minimalist poems. Each page has either a conundrum or a puzzle at the center, as Cohen tries to light a dark world by strengthening thought and stripping words to their hidden literal meanings. We could call this counterprogramming for poetry’s lyric. It’s also humorous, smart, and irresistible reading; and every page is a coalition of new logic — and therefore a new norm for the poem.
The shadow my mother
makes she makes
by mistake. Take
two, she says, rearranging
us in front of the camera,
in front of the brick
wall that is the sea we
are forbidden to drown
or swim in. All these
years we stare her
down, sullen, sun-
blinded. What was
the photo meant
to document? Not
that we were there —
or anywhere — but that
someone was looking.
“Do we make the end or does the end make us?” The poet asks, as we taste, see, and smell Kentucky’s natural world sheltering his poems. There are no limits to words, and Jones chooses the exact ones to tell a true story of his earth, its beauty, the death of a father, and becoming a father himself. Language and lamentation become the way to honor the world rather than succumb to it; and so, a crisis of spirit translates into hymn-like structures — with a paradox of modernism and lyricism. These poems say a crisis in life makes one live more truthfully, and if you love the sentient image, formed by intellect, you need this book.
Beneath the Trees at Ellingsworth
I wake in an orchard chaoticwith apple blossoms.Kentucky, I know it from the smell.
Field where my dog spun circles
in blue light
bleeding from the mouth.
We piled limestone in the yard to keep the coyotes out.
Covered the grave
and marked it with a wooden cross.
My brother knots his shirt on sheep wire
scores his stomach on the rusted barbs.
His name cuts my lung like split glass —
frost in the hollow of a throat
I can’t remember.
The heart’s heat begins to slow.
I climb apple tree
after apple tree.
A literary star makes a debut. Not on the horizon but very close to us, in Brooklyn. “Erou” means a god, or hero, as underpinning for the rich classical layers in these poems by a poet who’s clearly guided by the ancients. And with this skill she creates a book-length lament for a father who died young. This is no ordinary document of mourning. It’s an original journey transcending time where father, as ghost, is revealed and recreated. His life after death is a parallel universe gliding through every dayness, even when he spies “the inner thighs of the girls on the Q64,” and his faults and shortcomings are laid bare. He pervades every section of the living world in this consummate piece of literary excellence. With grace and grandeur, a life is transformed, off-beat, irreverent, loving. Grief remembers everything but never before so originally unfolded. This is life beyond life, and it will lengthen your poetic attention span.
Fathered by rumor, raised
by ghost, you’ve learned
to love the slimness
of the shadow from which you grew,
the glory of the myth you inherit —
you can build a father out of this,
one side of a story you tell,
the hero’s blood that claims you
in the telling — your history half-
hearsay, half-spun out or air, for
it has already been said:
You are the seed of outis,
a nothing, a false wind, trick
of light. So what now
will you call this man?
“To see it. Itself, entire.” In clear, direct language that moves like silk, we find every experience interesting — poems about family, daughter, grandchildren, the doughnut baker. It shows a poet being the best he can be, engaged fully with every breath and each living moment. Who could write a poem about a dog on a leash and allow us to know it’s ours and as memorable as a moon landing? If the poet has a rough day, it’s here. If he has regrets about his behavior in the past, he means it, here. We trust every word because each one’s faithful to the scene, reported with simplicity and substance. When we see inside a life much like our own, reverent attention makes the ordinary something better.
October Moon on Lake
Not another poem about a stunning moon!
It won’t be me who writes it.
I’ve heard the clichés, I’ve seen that shine so often,
there’s nothing more to mean,
to see or say. And yet at that you ought to behold
this pair of night-time loons,
for instance, paddling through a riffled band of light
the moon has deftly laid
from that far shore to this. There may be more to come,
probably more to be told,
even more to signify. It’s just that I,
feeling awkward, oblique, can’t figure
how or what or why, no matter that now I consider
the cavortings over the sky
to my east of that trio of swallows, who might have returned to their holes,
twilight turning to dark,
to wherever they go after they’ve played themselves out.
They would have done so, no doubt,
had the moon under which they caper not been so immense,
so vivid, so candid, so bold.
Wendy Carlisle is alive with energy that seems to flower in her body only to show up on the page — sexy, sweet, wild child, transporting us across America. It’s an internal travelogue, as well as a field of ideas, that always calculates the impossible with the belief in another probable. The tone is cutting-edge: talk, sometimes hip, sometimes contemplative, but always colloquial with more than a tang of poetry pedigree. The poet is the hero of her own story showing us contemporary life with stinging accuracy and clever phrasing. There’s a force of raw power in her carefully tailored lives. That’s why we hear her. That’s why what she says means what it does to us.
Advice: An Arkansas Sonnet
By a lake shaped like a cartoon parrot,
we practiced the simple art.
You were seventeen and I was nineteen —
two years between us —
and then I was twenty.
This was the first math.
It was Arkansas in the Seventies
and your aunt said,
don’t grin honey,
you don’t want to work your skin like that.
She told me,
one day you’ll be dead,
but until then put on some lipstick,
wear you a cute skirt.
The title foretells the lushness of lines. As a translator, Carlson knows the value of the rarefied word — she makes decisions from other languages in terms of cadence and sound. This shows up in her careful and credible writing where each phrase is a result of a hard choice. Formalism is a way to hold our art — when it’s gifted to verse, we don’t see the structure, but we do see the result if it’s a smooth, constant, reliable line. The poet is on point matching emotions and sensibility. They make up “tone” that advances the visceral to elevated language. These poems, years in the writing, radiate inward. She’s right to call it an infusion.
Complications of the Heart
I’ve heard that hearts are not just simple pumps,
but storage sites of energy — rows
of twitching desires, secret romps
muffled in its four-chambered folds.
Each part carries weight — a string quartet
whose practiced rhythms fit the everyday —
and should a section fail or skip a beat
technology can shock the whole awake.
But still no surgery to transplant love,
uprooting it intact to needed space
when one mate loves too little, one too much —
asymmetry that flusters the hearts’ pace.
If balance over time won’t self-correct,
demand cuts off supply and hearts defect.
Old themes with new vitality: life is what we inherit every day; partnerships and the constant motion toward age; and this book translates past conditions into the present. It takes a certain kind of knowing to source personal stories objectively and without sentimentality. What we call experience is described clearly, unlocking new feelings where none are expected. What I like best are Rockman’s unconventional techniques for conventional subjects — sometimes the narrations seem multidimensional. She does this with dialogue, line lengths, and surprising imagery. Craft allows the poet to layer thought so an idea is first embodied and next disclosed. Rockman is faceted and prismatic and never explains herself. This book maps a marriage and the natural laws of time on scaffolding, with a private arena made public, showing what we all want to know about ourselves.
There was the dream of a room
a glowing a windowless cave
in which a girl might live
the sun slung low
I was a burrowing creature
cap tied under my chin
cheeks their own hot planets
the sun hung low it was three it was four
snow creaked beneath my knees
sweat at my neck breath steamed
before dark before supper
before the call to come in
son nudging its orange ball
between my knees half of me in
on all fours half of me out
a door a roof coming true
and walls curving up and I
did not stop to think am I happy
did not pause to hear an odd bird
I’d have a house at dusk
I’d have a home before dark
I couldn’t stop reading it, with the suspense of a novel, page after page; the stories build, a brilliant chronology — every day is a diary of detail in a marriage that starts at the very first touch between two people on a rooftop and moves to its dreadful conclusion. I want to praise the imaginative entry to each line, the shifts in tone and temperament, the grip on subject, along with uncanny ability to hold onto plot and psychological action — surprising moves, good word shifts — only a few poets can write characters occupying poems in sequence. Gluck comes to mind more than once here, with the control, the ability to temporize decline and keep it alive and make it last through the pages. The narrative and story are strong. The voice is bright and defiant in spite of hardship. Both modest and proud, this writing makes my heart beat fast as if it were an action adventure novel. It captures you. I don’t know how else to say it.
Postcard from School
Out of the dorm her first hard year:
four beds jammed together — no place
to be alone except asleep. Out of the alarm
cracking the winter-dark morning;
out of the dim bare bulbs
over the cows’ breath and shit
steaming — hauling milk cans
and shoveling gutters. Out
of the phone booth filled
with tears: fear of never being
pretty/bright/liked/loved enough —
To find the card, the stamp, the mailbox,
to know exactly what to write
and write it, reaching me at my own
school, where I read it over
and over to myself and to friends:
Dear Mom, Do you feel young again?
This is one of the great minds of our time. I’m only on page 78 and I know more about the Bible and the ancient Greeks and poetry than ever before in my life. This is the book you were waiting for to fill in those islands of thought you’d abandoned.
Meditations and encounters by a true humanist. The mercy of a good man who makes the world better, now sharing his thinking about his actions. Griffin’s work in the world will not be forgotten.
A biography that takes the story of suffering and points it to the healing energy of art, then to the emotional energy of compassion.
A woman, who is a poet, selects her mother’s work to translate from Polish, preserving the reality of a world immersed in World War ll, transforming events with imagination and memory.
Best Young-Adult Literature
A young university student pits herself against Hitler’s regime, performing acts of resistance, facing crimes punishable by death along with her brother. Young people brought before the Gestapo hope “our deaths will mean something.”
A young girl leaves Syria to live in Ohio with relatives, learning how to find herself, how to find a true “home”; a story of self-discovery and belonging. “That they all see people like me/ and think/ violence/ sadness/ war…”
Send review copies (new releases only) to:
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, celebrating 42 years on the air. Her latest poetry chapbook is Her latest chapbook is Showboat (Goss Publications, 2019), about her 25 years as a Navy wife. Her play “Quilting the Sun” premieres in September 2019 at Theater for the New City in New York.