December 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

December 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Leopard Lady: A Life In Verse by Valerie Nieman. Press 53. 98 pages.

Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages.

The Astrologer’s Sparrow by Panna Naik. New Academia/Scarith. 106 pages.

Stet by Dora Malech. Princeton University Press. 88 pages.

Abandoned Poems by Stanley Moss. Seven Stories Press. 128 pages.

Green Target by Tina Barr. Barrow Street Press. 82 pages.

The Practicing Poet: Writing Beyond the Basics, edited by Diane Lockward. Terrapin Books. 350 pages.

Remembrance of Water/Twenty-Five Trees by John Taylor, with paintings by Caroline Francois-Rubino. The Bitter Oleander Press. 112 pages.

Man Overboard: New and Selected Poems by Michael H. Levin. Finishing Line Press. 44 pages.

Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson. Orison Books. 162 pages.

with the dogstar as my witness by John Fry. Orison Books. 104 pages.

Also on the Best Books List: Linda Schandelmeir, Lauren Camp, Steve Kronen, and Martin Bidney.


Leopard Lady: A Life In Verse by Valerie Nieman. Press 53. 98 pages.

This is a story about a lost child moving through the world as woman, understanding it only through those she meets — fortunetellers lead her way. In “a rolling show,” there’s marriage with a man named Shelby, “One night he didn’t come back to our wagon…” and so she goes, always fulfilling a prophecy she never understands.

In “The Leopard Lady at the Market,” we get a self-description of how it is to be “other.” “Now I am half one thing half another/they say, but I am only one creature/in this world. My father’s skin set me/out as a Negro, so called, but only half/of me harks to my father…” and again, in Fearfully, Wonderfully: “I know you been speculating, /are them spots just painted on, / but you spy them for genuine as I go about/offering these souvenir cards — just ten cents…/walking around so’s you can see this is my own veritable skin. Us folk, /here in the show, are a lesson/in the flesh; see, the blood of my body shows/through the white like it’s paper. /Buy my card, just ten cents, gentlemen,/one thin dime…”

Traveling showfolk, river towns, Siamese twins, the rubber man — and there’s a professor that tell stories reverberating through the Leopard Lady’s contemplations and ruminations. Some parables are funny, some sad, all are profound in Lady’s innocence and discoveries. The Leopard Lady is the product of a powerful writer who knows what she wants and sets the Lady out to find it. Nieman, with vivid language, writes what Leopard Lady believes — including Bible teachings, dramatized and characterized through a fictional mind that suddenly becomes wholly real to us. This is about the stages of life for one whose perseverance is to seek pieces of the puzzle and even a piece of love. The poems are images of truth with stunning versatility.

Birth Day, 1935

I was born of a Wednesday
and full of woe, so they say.
My mother died in childbed and my father
seen only in that mirror I now hold up,
skin brown as a nut.
My red-haired mother died
before she could name me — a blessing,
someone said that, sure, a blessing.
Landlady took me out that rented room
where the ticking was sodden in blood
and gave me over to the Gastons,
grown old as Abraham n Sarah
waiting a child.
I gained a name and a sort of love
that kept me warm and fed
until scarce feathered, I fled.


Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages.

Wahmanholm is a terrifyingly exquisite writer who takes us on a dream from inside the universe of the body to an outside world reduced to dystopia. But the ruin is rich with surreality that clutches to us like a second skin. Danger is the same as beauty here, which is the most seductive thing of all. The second half of the book is a journey through apocalypse in prose poems; but is it an inner state of being shining upon an outer existence? Poets are sometimes able to risk everything. The measure is how much they’re willing to chance. Wahmanholm does not back down. She builds a powerful influence in a nether world, incrementally, poem by poem, with constant tension and poetic will.

Where I Went Afterward

On Earth I had been held,
              not just by honeysuckle
but by everything — marigolds,
bog after bog of small sundews,
the cold smell of spruce.

This planet is nothing like that.
Here, I comb lank alien grass out of my hair.
I wade through monochrome swarms
of weeds and ankle-high piles of ash.

I used to miss desire, but that was eons ago.
I used to miss the sound of my voice,
but that was before I pulled my name
from my throat like a pit and set fire
to the field of my face. If I stumbled
upon this place again, I would not know it.

When I say my skin is lace, I mean
I used to find it lovely. Now there is nothing
I miss. I hold myself in my arms.
I bend against myself like grass, like this.


The Astrologer’s Sparrow by Panna Naik. New Academia/Scarith. 106 pages.

Panna Naik is an Indian writer who’s been distinguished by her Gujarati poetry with a worldwide audience in that field. After 10 volumes written of Gujarati literature, The Astrologer’ Sparrow is Naik’s first in English. I’ve long known that words can be truer in meaning when a writer is not a native of the English language. It’s as if all the camouflage of daily usage and erosion is lifted to find the exact meaning for each word. So it is with Naik. There are poems from her old home in India, and of her present life here — as she brings the past to present time in harmonious clear beautiful language. Naik can be playful, nostalgic, introspective, and reminiscent — and each time she puts words into motion, which educates our imagination, she purifies, through a lingual lens, her heartfelt message.


The Aashadh monsoon
may arrive on time or not
piercing the dark face of clouds
but this lake of tears
keeps overflowing. What if it should dry up!
Won’t these two little fish,
thirsty for years,
waste away?


Stet by Dora Malech. Princeton University Press. 88 pages.

This is a package of dynamite that could go off at any moment — combustible words that separate and come together like a gorgeous debris. They tweak the page with hidden truths made of language and utterances that are puzzle solvers — but what is the puzzle? Perhaps dimensionality on the page that speaks only if you want it. The last section features nine prose poems titled “After Plath: Metaphors.” You won’t find Plath narratives, but perhaps a hologram. Some pages are electro-pop, some are written by a spirit animal, but Malech’s got pipes, and by God they sing.

This, Certain

 Ich streue das weisse Nichts . . .

                   — Unica Zürn

I scatter the white nothing.

Tonight cites thin weather.

I trace twine to thighs, then

wrist, then tighten. I echo at

teeth, chatter this: I, no wing.


Abandoned Poems by Stanley Moss. Seven Stories Press. 128 pages.

The man is indomitable. Moss is now in his 90s. His 10th decade, and so how can we not see this book as heroic? Through the years, Moss has produced excellent poetry and published multiple books by other writers. Music and artistry do not diminish with age. I say amen to that. These poems are strong-footed and — as is his tradition — bow to great art and music. He sees life and writes of it purposefully through the riches of the intellectual world, his friends, and experiences. The constant motion of a rich inner life makes Moss a terrific storyteller. There’s strength in every line; he takes no prisoners; says what he wants just the way he wants it until it shines the way he wants. He brings his A-game to every line, and it could be that this is one definition of greatness.


You loud in cloud. You end in mend.
You light in flight. You age in language.
You other in mother. You know in snow.
You ought in autumn. You fly in butterfly.
You low in willow. You rye in rhyme.
You rest in forest. You cunt in country.
You mud in Talmud. You man in woman.
You cry in Christ. You hell in shell.
You awe in law. You odd in God.
You ache in break. You bell in humble.
Your ear in fear. You art in heart.
Your sobbing breaks my speech apart.


Green Target by Tina Barr. Barrow Street Press. 82 pages.

Barr is inspired, every page, and fearless. For example, in “Ghost Variations” (on a painting by Joyce Thornburg), we get horrific examples of death and decay but written as if poetry is to fulfill a purpose that cannot be organized. Instead, it must be a force that brings emotion. Perhaps this can come from vivid writing. Perhaps, also, not all dreams are good dreams and not all art is pretty. Whatever the resolve of language, Barr does not shirk from its rescue. There are also moments of illness where the body is betrayed — a mother who must be put in diapers, a “bulb” under the tongue, chronic fatigue syndrome turns into a Blakean poem infectious with imagery. Barr makes words soulful, and her dreams happen using every element of nature touched with human endeavor — every grass, every butterfly is named to showcase the wild theater of her imagination.


Through crushed August grass
a child’s gray shoelace tugs itself,
its tiny pebble of a head triangular,
a wedge, therefore venomous.
Laced through a sneaker’s eyelets,
it nips a finger, a tiny prick. One
worries in the mountains. Goldenrod
seeds our heads with bites from some
insect. Meanwhile upright red rod
flowers burn for hummingbirds.
Portable shield on his back, a turtle
labors, feels with splayed paws, shows
off his orange splotched arms, leopard
patterned, bright as marigold, as
oranges bowled all along the railroad,
where a supermarket truck, pulling
across, got its back half sheared off.
Cop cars beetles up and down the road.
A boy on vacation by a lake said, “Let’s
go in,” but my husband refused. The
boy, and another who went after him,
drowned. Each night of his childhood
my husband dreamed it, woke just
before dying. One’s death is the period
that ends the sentence. In Cairo
on the sidewalk men links arms, like
paper dolls I cut as a kid. All at once
a waterfall of bodies bows to Mecca.


The Practicing Poet: Writing Beyond the Basics, edited by Diane Lockward. Terrapin Books. 350 pages.

Here’s a handbook that’s really a handbook! First, there are real “craft tips.” Then, poets who exemplify these with poems. Here are the sections. One: Discovering New Material; Two: Finding the Best Words; Three: Making Music; Four: Working with Sentences and Line Breaks; Five: Crafting Surprise — then six, seven, eight, nine, and 10, each with subsections with writer’s tips and examples by noted poets. Editor Lockward is invincible. This book is the third in a series of teaching writing, and it proclaims, “pushing poets beyond the basics.” If you’re lonely, just read the sample poems by some of our hottest writers today. If you have a bit of energy, try a prompt. No one’s watching, and you may wind up writing beyond your boundaries. This is practical, not ethereal, wisdom, and, therefore, one of the best books of tools out there. And, of course, with wonderful, delicious poems — otherwise, what’s it all about, anyway?

Bonus Prompt: The Chant Poem

Begin your first line with I believe. Complete the thought, then
keep going. Begin each new line with the same phrase. Keep
going for 15-20 lines. Write rapidly.

Go back and either delete 2-3 I believe phrases (keep the rest
of each line), or insert 2-3 new lines that do not use I believe.

Keep in mind that pattern is good, but too much pattern becomes
predictable and tiresome. It encourages the reader to skim
read. Set up your pattern, then break it. Joe Brainard does this
in his famous poetic memoir, I Remember. Again and again he
begins a sentence with I remember, but just when we expect
another repetition, he surprises us, e.g., I remember the only
time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.
first sentence pursues the pattern of repetition; the second
sentence breaks the pattern.

Read your poem aloud and notice the musical effect of the

Other starter phrases for another day:

I want
Because I could not
I wish
Forgive me if
I remember
He broke


Remembrance of Water/Twenty-Five Trees by John Taylor with paintings by Caroline Francois-Rubino. The Bitter Oleander Press. 112 pages.

Our creative team is seasoned by an association where sometimes the work comes first, sometimes the painting. In this book, the noir masterworks appear to follow the verse in that they amplify and describe so accurately. Taylor is an ex-pat living in France who calls upon his childhood in Iowa as well as his explorations in Europe to memorialize nature’s great sentinels. It’s an art book and a poetry book. At the center of each landscape is a voice of wonder and appreciation as well as a memory and mortality. Being alone in nature will do that, lets you know what you think and remember — an inner porthole to the past in the beauty of today’s surroundings. But Taylor is not alone; the paintings give another authority to what is said and a chance to feel something more. The paintings are not simply innate skill. They are a spiritual power.

The Paper Birch

your father’s birch bark canoe
glides by

again and again
over the years

in his drawing
he once made at Christmas

you are standing on the shore
of an Iowa lake

just today
on the north bank of the Loire

the mists lifts
reveals the distant island
with its chaos of shrubs
and crooked trees

you knew was there
could no longer see


Man Overboard: New and Selected Poems by Michael H. Levin. Finishing Line Press. 44 pages.

The takeaway in reading Levin is how many places he tackles and how many ideas he generates. It’s a kaleidoscope of pop culture, high culture, and personal experience. He’s learned in a sweet unpretentious way with a knowledge of sculpture, history and artifacts — these embedded, not dominating the writing. I would say variety is a good word for poetry. This writer has a trained ear for this; each poem is different, and there’s no repetition to be seen. The talent in Man Overboard is tonal, with a repudiation of ugliness in the world.

Our Sixties

            (Kent Island MD: a party)

Twist and shout friends
you look quite fine;
in tonight’s back beat
no gray or loose flanks
show. Survivors
of brown rice, lies
and chemo, flushed
as Watteaus and stretched
down pine floors in
dance-dazed space
like murals in a mastaba,
you are as you were —
husked kernels of brightness,
a slow smooth swirl extending,
till the sedge at the skyline
turns salmon. Until
the music dies.


Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns & Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson. Orison Books. 162 pages.

Editor Johnson believes the hymns we learned stay and guide us forever. For this reason, he invited an array of poets and essayists to write of their choice hymns. Johnson said, “They became like a temporary congregation to me.” Among essayists, Kwame Dawes writes a magnificent 10-page piece (the song chosen is “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”). Dawes states this is as not only a grounding principle of faith for him, but one shared equally with his wife, Lorna — it is “their hymn.” It’s a privilege to read the various hymns that are life-changing, and because poets feel as they write, it makes tender reading. The hymns’ lyrics are produced in their entirety which gives us the key to each essayist’s experience, and makes the book a dialogue between the speaker and his/her hymn. Johnson serves in high office here with an encyclopedia of all religions represented by those who have been both blessed, and troubled, witnessing their sacred songs.

Breathe on Me, Breath of God

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
until my will is one with yours,
to do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
but live with you the perfect life
for all eternity.

(Edwin Hatch 1835-1889)


with the dogstar as my witness by John Fry. Orison Books. 104 pages.

I see this as a book-length prayer where Fry claims ownership of his faith and dedication to “The Lord,” along with the New Testament. His own demise is delayed, one could read, by feeling the freedom of faith. His allusions are well-documented Bible stories, and his responses are part chant, part hymn, part dream of salvation. There are variable moods in each piece, but there’s something always truthful about poetry, and Fry’s truth shines like a living thing. He loves his religion and by the love seems to make it even greater. That could be one definition for eternity.


I was walking when
there was this edge

that was a problem:
words went missing &

dressed in sackcloth & ashes
I needed more than a gust

of God — in wind
blown upon — to believe

in more than a word
like loneliness was

I this hole in the
(dancing inside my chest

where no one saw)
heart do you still

shine in the dark
did you want

to be found
I fell in


Best Translation

Blue Birds and Red Horses by Inna Kabysh, translated by Katherine E. Young. Toad Press. 39 pages.

These are not simply poems. They are the heart of Russia in verse.



Coming Out of Nowhere by Linda Schandelmeier. University of Alaska Press. 90 pages.

A fascinating account of growing up in a homestead six miles south of Anchorage. “There was no road access when my father filed for the land in 1946…” These poems are “appointments” with life — beautiful, bold, harrowing, and true.

Homage To Mistress Oppenheimer by Steve Kronen. Eyewear Publishing. 55 pages.

To read this book is to know a man. I can’t think of a better accolade for authenticity. Each poem captures moments that praise the genuine. This kind of poetry makes us depend on more of the same. Learned language, modest rendering.

Turquoise Door by Lauren Camp. 3: A Taos Press. 105 pages.

Every time I read Lauren Camp, I’m reminded of how extraordinary she is — the complexities managed with sophistication and grace. This time, Camp honors Mabel Dodge Luhan, creating a myth and culture of her country, orbiting New Mexico with icons D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Georgia O’Keefe, and Ansel Adams. But the poet’s relationship — in dialogue with her creation — is the book’s main character.

PLUS, two by Martin Bidney:

Book of the Amphibrach: First Journal in Verse. Dialogic Poetry Press. 282 pages.

Book of the Floating Refrain. Dialogic Poetry Press. 266 pages.


A Note from Grace:

Why does it matter that poets are showcased? Because poetry rinses off language so that we don’t sound like endless newscasts. Poetry slows down the world. That’s a wonderful thing: removing wires from our brains long enough for us to see what’s written imagistically. Poetry makes us less lonely because poets say what others just think — and that place of vulnerability is where we recognize one another.

There are few poetry reviewers who are poets because, well, it’s more fun to write poems. But we believe that reviews are an artform because they quote the greatest artists in print.

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Send review copies (2019 releases only) to:

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Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s poet laureate, founded and produces “The Poet and the Poem” at the Library of Congress for public radio; it’s now celebrating 41 years on air. Her latest book is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishing).

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