August 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews

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

August 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews

If The Tabloids Are True What Are You by Matthea Harvey. Graywolf Press. 152 pages.

This book is a poetry moment. It explodes, “I am. There is nothing before quite like me, and I cannot be imitated.” At the same time, it manages to be unpretentious. Harvey is a bold reformer of words and art and when these are put together, we enter a fantasy of poetic courage and revolutionary expansion.

Only in poetry’s advanced society could we get such a vibrant work – with mermaids as alter egos – and a sharp social eye radiating outward. The tension between Matthea’s photos and drawings, and her poetry, creates humor and wonder. The point cloud is originality. And how we want it—how we look for it in everything—and once in a while, from both major and minor works, come the sweet distinction between what “poetry/art” has been, and what it can be. This book is endlessly diverse, with the unique power that only the technically competent and totally unselfconscious artist could produce. 

To be the first,” I tell students, “is better than to be the second.” Yet, to do something for the first time is an act of personal responsibility. It says I am concerned but I don’t really care what you think and this engenders a reader-transformation, so readers really care. She touches us. We see this artist/ poet as a friend who is like none of our other friends. I am hoping a wide audience will as well.

The silhouette in the book accompanying this poem below is a mermaid with a tail made of a jack knife/corkscrew. (Other mermaids have hand saws as tails, guns, yard rakes, etc.) 

The Straightforward Mermaid

The straightforward mermaid starts every sentence with “Look . . . ” This comes from being raised in a sea full of hooks. She wants to get points 1, 2, and 3 across, doesn’t want to disappear like a river into the ocean. When she’s feeling despairing, she goes to eddies at the mouth of the river and tries to comb the water apart with her fingers. The straightforward mermaid has already said to five sailors, “Look, I don’t think this is going to work,” before sinking like a sullen stone. She’s supposed to teach Rock Impersonation to the younger mermaids, but every beach field trip devolves into them trying to find shells to match their tail scales. They really love braiding. “Look,” says the straightforward mermaid. “Your high ponytails make you look like fountains, not rocks.” Sometimes she feels like a third gender—preferring primary colors to pastels, the radio to singing. At least she’s all mermaid: never gets tired of swimming, hates the thought of socks.  

Matthea creates all kinds of weird illustrations – artifacts caught within ice and god knows what all— Her “Patents Pending” are for a multitude of items not yet in high demand: Fog Apparatus, Music Box with Spinning Chandelier, Noise Prevention System for Rosemary (the herb) and so many more. There’s history imagined, and imagination made historical. And here’s one of Matthea’s PATENT MODES: 

PIANO WITH GLASS KEYS (PATENT NEVER FILLED) Shhh. Listen. I made that glass piano/ back when Esterre still loved sound, but/ last week, in secret, I sold it to a friend… (I left the edges a little rough on purpose/ I made the piano base from the roots of grapevines./ Each note tastes like a cold green grape.” 

And don’t you wish you had a Purring Bell? Well, there’s an illustration in this book. Maybe you can make your own. Open this book to any page and you’ll find road maps leading you to magical poems and visuals never thought of before.

Guantanamo by Frank Smith, translated from French by Vanessa Place. Les Figues. 155 pages. 

Guantánamo is French journalist Frank Smith’s adaptation of transcripts from prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay for tribunal. The transcripts were released to the Associated Press and evolved with Smith’s conversion to literary dialogue. The final result is Vanessa Place’s translation to English, so that the literal transforms to art. William Carlos Williams is referenced as its precedent and the best explanation is to remember that WCW built poems as he was writing them. WCW was influenced by the 1913 Armory show in New York City which introduced Cubism to America. We can see the intention here structuring reportage to a higher elevation.

This book is handsomely developed by its congregation of creators and something we need, and may not want, to read. The introduction is a mission statement. The literary style does not overshadow the horrifying content; for this is not about torture or waterboarding but something more baffling. The men interviewed, it seems, do not know why they are detained and as it turns out, some are hopeless ploys of warlords and confused circumstances. Many were fleeing countries to find asylum for families. The translations show this reality and the prisoners’ ethos. We can see villains in the war as well as terrorists as well as victims. What dismantles the mind is the individuals whose destiny was shaped by being in the wrong village at the wrong time—perhaps the interviewees are cunning also. There are discrepancies and lies. Perhaps this is fear. Perhaps guilt, sometimes practiced humility – the prisoners’ way of survival. For us not knowing guilt from innocence is terrifying reading. This is Poetry in the face of authoritarianism.

Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages.


After watching the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards, where Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright relentlessly play darker and darker, I reached for a book by my bed. Top of the pile, Bone Map. I felt better already.    

Johnson was a National Poetry Series winner selected by Martha Collins. The choice is a beauty—also difficult to identify one single driving force in the poems, for they’re streams of inner addictions, love, nature, loss— not new themes for any poet, but Bone Map makes words said, and heard, for the first time. Who believes that young poets cannot be Masters? Each poem is a new backdrop for matters of interest – mostly of love – new circumstances – sometimes surreal – each page an index of bright beautiful language. From Archipelago: Tabula Rasa: “ …The bees crawl into my ears/ to being their work. //They burn inside me/ like many stars,//and all the tiny tombs/ inside me open,…


The bees leave one    

honey-bead on the roof

of my mouth:


a thought 

that erases you

from me. Each atom

begins again. 

Except for this one,

this black speck

still in my eye,

like your pupil 

in the sunlight

in the last room

you entered: 

I remember.

You saw me.

Singing School by Robert Pinsky. W.W. Norton & Co. Now in Paperback. 196 pages.

My favorite collector of favorite poems is Robert Pinsky. Singing School teaches how to learn poetry from reading great poetry, presenting 80 poems, each with a preface by poet Robert Pinsky. I wish I’d had this book a long time ago; classrooms will benefit from its practical knowledge, looking through Pinsky’s lens at poems by the Masters. A précis before each poem serves as signpost and promise, taming the poem for the new reader.   

Pinsky shows each poet’s technical accomplishments and philosophy; he steers away from extravagance to assure the clearest possible communication. His brief summary sentences before the poems distill, without diluting, complicated thought. There’s a reason Pinsky’s mentors have gained legendary status over the years and his close look tells us why. In a striking proportion of history, and literature, Pinsky’s intellectual rigor and good humor make us the masters of our own reading. What the teacher knows, we can know equally well.     

The book has four sections: Freedom, Listening, Form, Dreaming Things Up:

Listening, Section ll, relates poetry to music and musicians, the harmonic structure of language. In its introduction, Pinsky offers a 2-line poem by Walter Savage Landor: 

On Love, On Grief 

On love, on grief, on every human thing,

Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.

Lethe is the river of forgetting in Hades. The art of this fifteen-word poem is beautifully considered. Pinsky can turn to Emily Dickinson, and then on the next page to an interview with Dizzy Gillespie about harmony and rhythm. Because of these variations, this will appeal to the general public as well as poets and teachers. Pinsky is known for the democratization of poetry, leveling Mt. Olympus so everyone can have a piece of real estate. His “Favorite Poem Project” allowed thousands to share their poems in America’s Favorite Poems anthology. Singing School follows a more recent book by Robert Pinsky, An Invitation to Poetry. However, I like this new one because I read hundreds of pages of contemporary poetry—and in the monthly flow, miss these Masters— and, I never would have found an unforgettable poem by Walter Savage Landor.

For a transcribed portrait/interview with Robert Pinsky, (Poet Laureate of the United States, 1997-2000,) visit For the poet reading and discussing his work, click here. 

The Sound of One Tree Falling,
New and Selected Poems by Llewellyn McKernan, Foreword by Fred Chappell. Motes Books. 107 pages.

Llewellyn McKernan is surely the voice of West Virginia, and we now have a healthy selection of her best work. Her neighborhood is measured by brooks, hills and “rugged green banks.” She welcomes us to the silence that makes the place.

Llewellyn’s intellectual property is a concentration of lyrically intense memories, and poetry as its principal consequence—gifted improvisation about the past. Comparing her new poems with former works, we see some poets do not have to age to be fine. I like very much McKernan’s extended poems – especially one from 1955, The Fast, a 16-page 18-part poem about illness near death, framing its interior logic. Couplets confine what would be chaos within the mind of the sick and we’re fortunate this form is McKernan’s strong point. Poets can’t know how readers will respond, but I predict that the careful colors of each word will keep minds fastened to her world: places like Four Pole Creek, St. Jude’s Church. She has a wonderful poem Love In The Mountains that begins about apples, moving to her Mother, ending, “… my fate hung entirely//upon the spell of apples, and—oh sure, the Bard/ still loves the moon but after Mother: all his/ poems were simply synonyms for loss.

Other Best Books For August Reading

Proof by Karina Borowicz. Codhill Press. 71 pages. 

Here’s a poet who can take popular culture and turn it into poetry history– some things just take time – I’m sure Tiny Tim, Bing Crosby, Rosemarie on the Dick Van Dyke show, Iggy Pop, Dinah Shore, Charo never thought they’d become poems. I love section lll turning these people to glitterati. The other sections feature common things of and through this world – tools, cuckoo clocks, Sunbeam bread, paintbrushes, each turned to elaborate myths. A strong unforgettable poem, Reading St. Therese of Lisieux, ends “… because I’m dying/to gallop into battle with the sword raised/in my fist. I’m filled with rage,/now show me how to make it holy.

Notes Above Water by Kirby Wright, Lemon Shark Press. 138 pages.

Refreshingly colloquial, Wright sometimes tells action adventure stories in poetic form. The Young Novelist from Manila is a social commentary. Also brave are his candid self-appraisals of aging without philosophical edits.

4 Rms W Vu by Susana H. Case. MayApple Press. 72 pages.

Poems as homage to ex-husbands and lovers – sharp, chilling poems about ecstasy— and disappointment, its inevitability. Case is amazingly clear about her wild young years, and the poet compelled to answer for them, in terse interesting well- spoken poems. 

The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu. Les Figues Press. 93 pages. 

This is one of the venturesome Les Figue Press’ Global Poetics Series. You will not believe, until you read Nakayasu, that ants can be protagonists of social systems, ecosystems but also systems of thought— these prose poems are poetic inquiries, preoccupations, prophecies, anecdotes, negotiations, myths, wry humor and sharp argument folded in – ants – ants, ants as heroes – symbolic, metabolic, philosophic, endowed with the lasting substance of poetry. 

Patches of Light by Chad Hanson. Red Dragonfly Press. 85 pages.

All I know about Montana and Wyoming and those places between the coasts are probably from reading here. And more than that, every prose poem is delicious reading—Rapidity of thought curried into fine line lengths. In the prose poem, line breaks are tactical decisions that connect us to the thought process, showing us the way to go. What is paramount in content is the genuine muscularity of honest writing from a poet whose two previous nonfiction books were on trout fishing. Recipient of the David Martinson-Meadow Hawk Prize, Hanson would be a winner anyway.

The Subtle Bodies by James McCorkle. Etruscan press. 103 pages.

Here’s a book to read each night, a poem at the end of day, to remind ourselves “…everything moving away, as light moves/ shadows pull us / further..” ( Expulsions.) 

One of the most elegant and literate books of the season features a 20-page poem Reading Lu Yu during a Year of War— each month is a poem, from June to June. July is a consummate prose narrative you’ll want to read more than once. McCorkle writes sternly, heartbreakingly, and lyrically about our constant wars. Softening the air, other poems reference Plato, Caravaggio, poet Su Tung-p’o, Prokofiev, John Berryman—and, McCorkle’s daughters. This book calms the spirit and excites the heart that such a poet is recording our time.

Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” She’s now celebrating her 37th year on-air with the series.

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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