December Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

December Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

The Last Girl by Rose Solari. Alan Squire Publishing. 63 pages.

Station Zed by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf Press. 106 pages.

Falta de Ar by E. Ethelbert Miller.Translated into Portuguese by Manual A. Domigos, Medulla Press. 59 pages.

Basho In America by Sander Zulauf. Cover photography by Madeline Zulauf. iuniverse press. 40 pages.

The Cards We’ve Drawn by Scot Slaby. Bright Hill Press. 27 pages.

By the Windpipe by Leslie McGrath. ELJ Publications. 26 pages.

The Last Girl by Rose Solari. Alan Squire Publishing. 63 pages.

The first thing you notice is her craft — I tell my students to make it “pretty on the page." The next is how comfortable Solari is with the Mother Tongue of poetry. This is not the work of a beginner. The poems are, each one, a statement about the definition of women within our social norms; and the speaker introduces multiple categories including her own inner arguments.

Women in Translation” is about dining alone in a swish English restaurant observing other women lunching at a near table. “… all pearls and soft, expensive hair…” The speaker then confesses: "I want to tell them how/I ache sometimes for women friends / back home. I want to say it’s lovely / just to see you…” Yet the alienation and loneliness continues until “…two tables down… ” contact is made with a woman, warm with chatter. This shows how much the book touches the priority of friendship, and how it completes some important part of ourselves. Friends have to do with our own worth, and the subtlety of that harmony is found here.

Each Solari poem has a distinct turning point which we can call a hot center, where everything changes. The poem “Island With Goats” begins with lush imagery: “The hard hooved, thick-furred bodies packed/so tight with themselves there is no room / for doubt. The dark tulips of head, holding / the otherworldly eyes…” The poem turns a corner in couplet 5, saying “... Unable to see the failure in myself, / I thought the world had let me down. Only / the goats, in their indifference, helped…”

These poems shine like metal with precision, housing content that comes close to reminiscence, reaching almost to melancholy, but turning back before the brink. This technique allows feelings to go through the reader’s body, rather than staying with the writer.

Rose Solari’s scholarship is it the field of mythology and literature. The poem about Mary Magdalena makes the biblical character humanized to become someone we can learn from. rather than study, “… Now, / amazed by emptiness, you try to recover / the tender animal she might teach you again / to be. Remember your name, the one your mother gave you…”

From an abstract idea, Solari pins her poems down to a portrait of person or place that invokes some turning point in her own life; and with notable courage shows how to be oneself on the page — what every writer should strive for — taking risks, revealing the wounds of love, graphically, with honesty and humility.

Although the subject of each poem is different, there is interconnectedness — from world travels, to the death of a brother, etc. They culminate in self-realization — and, to our cultural health, Solari strips away the camouflage from our lives. Even when there is chipper jauntiness of speech, there’s the hum of memory borrowed from emotion. The result is a book of how a woman’s life becomes her own mythology and how innocence is a return rather than a departure.

Persephone at the Train Station

Pale from the indoor life

               of winter, she glides to the top


of the moving stairs, blinks back

               the sun. A bag in each hand —


one small, one heavy — she makes

               her slanting way to the concrete


island, where other travelers shift

              and mutter. She’d forgotten how


the daylight world, here, spins

              swiftly by. Beside the fountain, where


nymphs and goddesses pour water

              from jar to jar, a pair of teenagers


strum guitars and sing something

              about a hill, about climbing high above


the city. Grab your things, the chorus goes,

              I’ve come to take you home. The word


charges her heart two ways at once. In between

              is where she lives. When the white sedan


rounds the circle, her shoulders lift, then

              fall, as if pulled by sky-strung cords.


The door swings open, a woman’s voice

              glints out, My girl. My girl. She is swept


up and in. As they pull away,

              her eyes return to the young couple,


who, above the roar of pouring

              water, begin another song.

Station Zed by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf Press. 106 pages.

Let us put Tom Sleigh’s book in a time capsule to be found another century by another species and then all those meta-androids will know what a poet was, and what we thought and felt “back then.”

Sleigh has not only traveled to the Middle Eastern war zones to live there and write of it (Iraq, Libya, Somalia, etc.) but he also goes where geography never reaches. In the poem ”Second Sight,” he begins: “In my fantasy of fatherhood, in which I / your real father, not just the almost dad / arriving through random channels of divorce, / you and I don’t lie to one another…” And he ends: "Will we both agree /  that I love you, always no matter / my love’s flawed, aging partiality? / My occupation now is to help you be alone.”

Let’s buy the book for our classrooms because it’s instrumental for students to know how far a person can burrow so deeply to find, and surface, a poem. Here‘s a bit from “The Negative”:

That was how it was in those days, back when my friend / hadn’t yet met the coroner who wrote down / his cause of death as ‘polysubstance abuse” / that brought on his heart attack while fucking…/ And regardless if I believed, whenever/we were together God shown clearly — / those were the days when every morning God woke up / in a blur of ecstasy and went to bed every night / in divine rage. Whoever loved him, / he loved. Whoever hated him, / he hated back: for who can doubt the vitality / of hate or the volatility of love.”

This is the same man who can define being a twin better than all the psych books. As a mother of twins myself, I should know — “The Twins”: “You know those twins hanging on the corner, / they look like me and my twin brother / when we were younger, in our twenties, / the paler one like me, sickly, more uptight, / but weirdly aristocratic, more distant / than the one like you, Tim, who if / you are him with would put his arm around me with that casualness and gentleness / I’ve always craved between us, which we / nearly lost in her twenties but got back / in our fifties now the death’s in my face / when I look at it just the right angle: / then your smile’s so open, Tim, that we go / back even further, to when we were / boys listening on the stairs to our older brother telling us about girls…”

Sleigh improves our knowing. We would be resource-starved if it were not for poets; and because Sleigh’s messages change all former presumptions, I call it Poetry of Integrity. His temporal life is made better by some search for the divine. The first section of the book holds the childhood poems, and in "The Parallel Cathedral," # 3: “All through childhood on eternal sick-day afternoons, / I lived true to my name, piling dominoes/into towers, fingering the white dots like the carpenter Thomas/putting fingertips into the nail holes of his master’s hands. / A builder and a doubter. Patron saint of all believers / in what’s really there every time you look: / black-scabbed cherry trees unleafed in winter, / the irrigation ditch that overflows at the back / of the house…”

The book is in four parts. In section 3, HOMAGE TO BASHO, Sleigh moves from the Gulf War and Iraq, back and forth with flashbacks to his writer workshops as he crosses time. We have much to learn about the wars as they turn into classroom discussions. To have done so much of interest, Sleigh stays up all night to write of it.

Section 4 is HOMAGE TO VALLEJO. #6 is “Insomnia Is The Only Prayer Left.” The second stanza says,”prayers prayed for the dying, for the confessions / going on between earthworms and earth, between / the way a man argues with his own shoulder bones…” The poem ends about the eye that never shuts, “and smarts in its sleeplessness staring / up into the dark shadow by stingrays, gas stations, / the slow flapping wing of a lottery ticket.”

It is not only what Sleigh writes but what he is that inspires us — brave — trippy — mixture of sun and thunderstorms — power in the pen.

I will give Sleigh a gift quote from Emerson — “To the poet to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”

Songs for the End of the World


On the other side of praise
it’s time to chop down the tall tree in the ear —

enough enough with the starlit promontories —

a nervous condition traces itself
in lightning in the clouds,
a little requiem rattles among Coke cans
and old vegetable tins

and shifts into a minor key
blowing through the dying ailanthus,

grieving to the beat beginning to pour down

percussive as a run
on a nomad’s flute of bone
while car engine dangling from a hoist and chain
sways in a translucent gown of rain.

Falta de Ar by E. Ethelbert Miller. Translated into Portuguese by Manual A. Domigos, Medulla Press. 59 pages.

Love is sweet in any language — twice as sweet in two. Ethelbert Miller, poet and historian, becomes the balladeer of romance in this small but potent book. It fits in your pocket to read on the subway, or in church (choose the back pew, please).

It’s about one man’s sensuality and reminds me of an updated version of the popular 1950s book This Is My Beloved that topped the bestseller list and left the Eisenhower era unsettled by its publication. Perhaps this book is needed now because there is no existing book- length love letter in 2014. The book has aphorisms that I like very much — some existential, such as in "Life": "There is a ladder in the room / that goes nowhere." Some are philosophical, as in "Affairs": "All affairs begin in fiction / and end in fiction." Then a page is punctuated by Haiku, in “Alone”: "No moon tonight / Empty bed / Pillow on the floor."

Miller is a political poet and a social activist, so it’s not surprising that we have poems of liberation, one about Tubman with an epigraph by Amiri Baraka (“Arm yourself, or harm yourself”), and poems of sanctuary — “The Kirti Monastery” — by a poet who becomes observer and capturer of love’s spectrum.

The appeal of the book is in its combined interests, man and woman — yes, but also man and politics — man and faith — the poet in love with the natural.

Basho In America by Sander Zulauf. Cover photography by Madeline Zulauf. iuniverse Press. 40 pages.

The book’s back cover speaks of Matsuo Basho, 17th-century master of haiku. The book is testament to Sander Zulauf’s work in following Basho’s path. In his introduction, Zulauf acknowledges a poet /scholar of Japanese, David Heinlein, who assisted translations; Zulauf calls them “transfigurations.” The first haiku was written only after consummate study.

This is an important book because just now American readers are waking to the fact that Haiku is not merely 5-7-5 syllables of anything you want to line up. It is about essence and illusion. and only knowing what is heard and said after several readings. It is reader-resonance rather than reader-reaction.

You know those maps in the shopping areas that say You Are Here? That’s what Zulauf’s haiku does. These poems place the reader in a vital engagement with a tiny poetic form. The strength in the haiku is a vocabulary of equilibrium, a balancing act, where the idea is the performance. It takes very small space on the page and there’s a lot at stake. When a haiku falls flat it’s a terrible sight, but we don’t have to worry here. These are a kind of anthropomorphism — pieces inspired from a Master, making everything human, maintaining our ability to see, as well as look, at meaning.

The Cards We’ve Drawn by Scot Slaby. Bright Hill Press. 27 pages.

This book is possibly the smallest book I’ve ever received from my editor, 4x6. That does not diminish the contents a bit; poetry will triumph wherever the writer excels in form. Some poems here are classic Petrarchan sonnets. The subjects are wonderful, every day colloquial happenings — poems about a broken gift vase, or graffiti on a bathroom stall.

The final verse of “The Lovers & the Influence Affecting Him” is: "So Adam looks to her; is love / what he desires? I leave her for / a six-week conference where I’ll prove / myself a writer. What’s in store / for me? Engaged, I won’t speak of / my doubts — cold feet and nothing more.” (His vertical sonnet is more effective than a horizontal rendering.)

You’ll read the book in one clip because of the wit and discipline that reforms the page. The Cards We’ve Drawn is a spirited intermission from the sonnet as lecture or requiem. Slaby rocks with his terrific view of a new poetry in his own original contemporary tradition.

The first section is a reading of eleven Tarot cards; “the second section consists of nine sonnets and quatorzains that address the speaker’s life after the cards.” These are some of the best sonnets you’ll ever read. Honestly.

By the Windpipe by Leslie McGrath. ELJ Publications. 26 pages.

Leslie McGrath has the one thing an artist must have — the gift of courage. I’m convinced if she had one blue eye and one brown eye she could write an award winning epic about that. This time, it is not a simple cosmetic disorder but an emotional crisis that fuels the poem — and the divergent paths she takes through poetry to health.

The speaker may find herself in a miserable circumstance but the speaker is never miserable. The book argues that, even in a position of situational powerlessness, intelligent detachment and a sense of self regard allow bedrock of solace.

The pace of life and the fervor of other people’s fixations can make us sick but the canny mind can still sustain a dialogue with the surrounding culture, to find relevancy and judgment enough to create a new life story — this time with promise. We’re made bold by how these poems rally toward independence; and a purposeful literary identity. Against the background of an uneven mental health system, a poet with an excellent skillset builds a partnership with the reader — we are united in the idea that to write with such assertion and light is to make social change. McGrath has a style I wish I could teach — she personalizes a line like no one I know writing today. Here’s what I mean. I’ve read this poem several times.

A Music

When at last I knew my illness had no lasting shadow
only the rushing of light under lintel
you could have spun the silver
tricked thin as fish pins
and wedged me tight within that windpipe
some call God.

I’d’ve become harmonica. Still could.

Grace Cavalieri is the producer/host of public radio’s “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress; she celebrates 37 years on the air. Her new books are The Mandate of Heaven and The Man Who Got Away.

Review copies should be sent to:
Washington Independent Review of Books 
7029 Ridge Road 
Frederick, MD 21702

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