February 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

February 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Voices in the Air, Poems for Listeners by Naomi Shihab Nye, with an introduction by the author. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. 208 pages.

Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua. Lithic Press. 85 pages.

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo. Milkweed Editions. 112 pages.

Paul’s Hill, Homage to Whitman by Shelby Stephenson. Illustrations by Jacob Stephenson. Sir Walter Press. 65 pages.

all blue so late by Laura Swearingen-Steadwell. Northwestern University Press. 80 pages.

House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf. 120 pages.

Plus, Best Prose; Best New and Selected Poems; and Best Literary Journal.


Voices in the Air, Poems for Listeners by Naomi Shihab Nye, with an introduction by the author. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. 208 pages.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s book is one waited for by 20th- and 21st-century readers and writers: now ready to be introduced to the next generation. She’s an American icon — not the marble pillar kind or one of those in portraiture — but an active teaching citizen of the poetry world who is moving us forward word by word. This time she’s inspired by “Yutori” (life space) found from teaching poetry workshops in Japan. The book’s introduction leads us from this moment of stillness — to listen, and then to hear. This book comes from listening to many people — some great and some unknown. The poems are elegiac, reverential and celebratory; addressing more than 75 individuals in 100 new works. Each character suggests an idea within an historical story. It’s a streaming of cultural happiness observing others.

Emily Dickinson is featured in a poem called “Emily”: “What would you do if you knew/that even during wartime/scholars in Baghdad/were translating your poems/into Arabic/still believing/in the thing with feathers? /You wouldn’t feel lonely/that’s for sure. /Words finding friends/even if written on envelope flaps/or left in a drawer.” Coincidentally, Naomi Shihab Nye also has poems saved and read in prisons, halfway houses, schools, therapeutic institutions; and why is this? Because she writes sharply and clearly of a wholesome reality where we find something to like in each line. Her work is completely understandable while maintaining a high level of language and poetic identity. She presents a reality without artifice and lets a poem speak for itself without getting in its way. These poems seem to say: this is what I saw this is what I heard I stopped long enough in (life space) “Yutori” to hear. Just take a look at people and places — each is a portal you can see into.

A gentle rebuke is in the poem Oh. Say Can You See it begins, “I’d like to take Donald Trump to Palestine, /set him free in the streets of Ramallah or Nablus/amidst all the winners who never gave up/ in 69 years. /… I’d wrap a keffiyeh around his head, /tuck some warm falafels in his pockets, /let him wander alleyways and streets, / rubble and hope…”

I love the prose piece where the author, at age 20, visits Jack Kerouac’s widow (whom she barely knew via telephone) and grieves with her. Her parents drove from Texas to Florida to deliver her to this visit. We see early on the meaning of tenacity.

Naomi Shihab Nye is an intermediary between the reader and a language that dignifies ideas. There’s moral leadership here in an excellent book where on every page poetry subordinates the bad in this world. This is why she’s one of our country’s most beloved poets.

In Transit

I mailed a package to myself, it never arrived.

Months later, wondering what it contained…

the package was oversized, I paid extra.

Mailed it from a place under trees. Surely shade

and sunlight was in the package. Mailed it

from a place compassionate to refugees.

Unopened envelopes inside the package,

poems from kind students hoping for response.

How do we answer without knowing

who they were or what they said?

This is why you must smile at everyone,

living and dead, everywhere you go.

You have no idea what has been lost

in transit.



Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua. Lithic Press. 85 pages.

Poet Joseph Stroud says these poems “will take you on a journey to where you have never been before.” This is true and it’s miraculous, for all of us to have the same words in English — yet a poet can, by virtue of his fantastic vision, combine them magically. Roxas-Chua is dreamlike, mythic, imagistic, bringing forth spirits from his ancestral China and the Philippines. All poetry is made of mystery but this poet transports us to a realm that is both primitive and exalted. There’s a ritual of the mind, as well as a boy inside a man, who speaks a vivid language in After His Great Fires: “…Death’s gift/is in the lifting/of limbs, of forearms, /strong like the breast/of a horse carrying/a boy on its back /its muscles and chambers/moving the clack/of his skeleton, echoing in/the interior of a boy whose/mind like a carousel spins/against a reflection/of mad ghosts in odd/shaped mirrors.”

The father figure features predominantly in his work as a source of energy and the inequities of childhood — not forgiveness and reconciliation but something more like longing and remorse. There’s a beautiful haunting we’ve not seen exactly like this before and may not until he writes again. I wish to focus on this. The same poem (“After His Great Fires”) begins, “When my father turns his wrists/to unbutton his flannel sleeves, /I pull half the world like a mule/and sing diphthongs/ to a somnambulist God/who failed my father, /my drum, my bakunawa, /neighing tied against/the great catalpa/where he left me his shirt, /his flannel shirt/that I inhale to believe that I am a boy:/ a bastard a bastinado, a dab/ of blood in his compass…”

And in “The Adoration & Mystery of The Fifth Thorn,” he writes: “The sound of early footsteps/presses against the wood, it is my father, //light in his substance now little tides/under his translucent feet. An inch//is all I saw of his levitation/to the kitchen, to the back door, //to the flat chest of the yard/where I once hug on to him, //cheek on the back of his neck /my first nosebleed//coating the white cotton of his starched collar.…”

See the poem “After the Carnival”: “I carry you, /my Strongest Man in the World, //your bloated stomach on my back /our beard songs so beautiful//tonight I walk home. /Father, I didn’t mind the mud//or the breaking of illuminated creatures/under my boots.… I never did close your eyes//when I sold you to the seas. Never did I take a sea palm// …/Tonight, // our fealty belongs to the sirens, /their long hair our beds, //Their hands of soft ambulances/stitching the silver lines//back into your graying eyes.”

Roxas-Chua is also a visual artist and I believe this with all my heart.


Last night I watched my mother

milk a memory into a letter.


The fading days are here,

fiddleheads are falling


from her silver hair,

umber stems are crawling out


of her mouth as she coughs

into a pillow.


Her bed, a brittle star.

Her hands, light —


the paltry soul of paper.

Her eyes are vellum coffins


dimming in the whirl

of a lifeline.


She sleeps with folded hands —

a dorsal.


Our dancing days are over,

my hands are ledges,


my fingers drink from a bleed

in the oyster.



Virgin by Analicia Sotelo. Milkweed Editions. 112 pages.

This is a new voice for me and it’s a dazzling one. The book has major sections — taste; revelation; humiliation; pastoral; myth; parable; rest cure, all with an overlapping theme: male/female relationships. Others have written this, in fact everyone has, then how can it feel so new, so exciting, and so dangerous. Whether it’s about a mother and father, an old lover, or male summoning, Sotelo goes in two directions at once. She embraces her own autonomy while evaluating understandable attractions and thirst.

I love the way fantasy grounds reality with unexpected imagery. Each line has its own life then takes on another identity when set up against the next line. It’s rare to have a poet allow each line a special place and give it such a big life; for this writer makes words alive, surprising, with unintended consequences. She’s intuitive and has never outgrown the childhood ability to play, changing the dynamics of a gray world by instinct, daring and the totality of intelligence. I’m crazy about this poet. She’s deeply meaningful about human relationships and has the ability in this book to reframe poetry.

A Little Charm

She floats like a lost brain cell.

Her body is a sleek brown lamp from 1929.

She arches and slurs.

Gentlemen in winter coats would like to cover her.

Gentlemen in thick winter coats hand her new cigars.

She nods like a child under the influence of milk.

She appeals with eyes as wide as money.

Even in alleys, her legs look like unfiltered honey.

Her moods are expensive. She’s all lit up.

Gentlemen order her whiskey and whiskey

and horses dip her gloves

into the whiskey with their mouths.

They love her. They want to sweep her up

with their tongues until she learns to stand straight.

She never learns. I did not suspect I would like her.

I did not expect to give her

this loving little push out the door.



Paul’s Hill, Homage to Whitman by Shelby Stephenson. Illustrations by Jacob Stephenson. Sir Walter Press. 65 pages.

Whitman would love this book. Stephenson’s Homage is filled with all of his culture. The sounds and sights of the earth float free in fractional lines, natural phraseology ringing with song. Stephenson reaches deeply into the soul of the south, living life every day with the natural world. This book-length poem allows us to see things never seen before via Stephenson’s bucolic setting. Birds and foliage represent the truth and background for the Stephenson’s family history, sustained for generations. Stephenson lets people know what poetry is, as Whitman did, allowing the words to carry us through the world.

“The old house” becomes a character filling emotional space. We hear his mother walking on the floorboards when he’s ‘home from school.’ We meet teachers, the fire department, Smith’s nursery, every corner where people used to live “among the honeysuckle.” With the extraordinary listing of “melons in the garden, roasting-eared corn, September peas, turnips, collards, cabbage, yams,” we see the details of southern life delineated in atomized measure. This is a lesson about how the poet notices every blade of grass — but even more — makes the noticing proportional on the page to make the space beautiful. The poet, as observer, as singer, as visual artist, has never been combined better than here. There’s one entire page of people’s names listed — a column of names — each one evoking a memory, time and place. The past becomes a ribbon on the page technically and strategically placed simply by the naming.

We learn that “a stroke slapped Shorty” and we know Ms. Caro wanted to be ridden around her house in her coffin when she died. We learn hundreds of secrets and dreams. These are characters you’ll never forget; and here’s what I believe — we should read one page a day of this monumental poem to savor its sensuality and tapestry. This is poetry not about ideas but sensations, where time has stopped, where every page leads us more toward wonder. We are back in North Carolina. There’s nothing like this on the shelf, physically beautiful, made of prayers, mythology, and symphony — drawings that carry the notion of the poems. Sweet courtesy, storiography, and empathy are the themes. Here’s a place where nothing is lost. It’s all remembered within sight of Paul’s Hill.


From Paul’s Hill and my birth-house,

Farmsteads fade into tree-clumps and housing developments.


The ninth-month trees turn their coats in Cow Mire Branch.

The tulip-poplar, sourwood, hawthorn, beautybush, sweetgum, pine,

The southern oak with the elbow like a kettle’s arm —

Fall’s upon us — frost, October’s ovens, winter’s snow.

I hitch my britches for spring.

The bluebirds come home again and again.

The purple martins make their long trips here and back to Brazil.

The little ones churble from their nesting gourds.


The moon over the terrace hangs full of cotton blooms.

The Nimrod Stephenson Memorial Cemetery lights up for July and her sawbriars.

The street lights the field where the June Peter house was.

The path’s paved to the Peter Hole on The Creek.

I wait out the pumpkinseed and the channel-cat

And daydream over the beans.

The patrolling jay comes for an acorn.

The cardinals feed early light and dark.

The bluebirds fold insects in the air.

The downy, hairy, red-bellied, tanager, jay,

The Carolina Wren of the dashing eye-stripe —

The garden floats blulup blulup.


all blue so late by Laura Swearingen-Steadwell. Northwestern University Press. 80 pages.

Sometimes very good poetry comes from the very dark feelings. At 14 years of age, that’s where we all were, in the deep morass of emotion. This poet reaches back to a certain time to center her book. Several poems are actually titled “Fourteen,” with a strong writer describing the way it felt, struggling with gender, race and oppression — these are the flame-throwing words of our time but that’s where the spirit is — poems pried out of memory to be burnished into powerful stories. They describe and dramatize psychological states of being that are autobiographical but become fictional when made into art. And that’s what I admire: changing the reality while original feelings remain on the page. They guide us toward the bigger message that incidents are only seen in a half-light until they become “truth” in a critical infrastructure such as poetry. Although there is a variety of perspectives in these poems there’s only one point of view and that’s a good thing, for that’s how oppositional forces become clear. It’s always interesting to have an adult writer recreating a younger self, looking at scenes with a connection that almost gives off sparks. I praise very much both the adult and the teen for courage. Happily, Swearingen-Steadwell has honesty plus skill — that’s the challenge for the writer, and reward for the reader.


It all goes down in the cafeteria, the warehouse

where throngs of wild children congregate,

jostling for space with their gangly bodies, their plastic trays,

trading jokes, rumors of hookups, fights, suspensions, the news

that matters. Everyone sits with their own: the mostly white

table, kids from Southeast, basketball players, the black girls

with good grades and no white friends, the kids whose infant English

still wobbles. Your chest rustles with broken glass as you scan

the tables, hungrier than you’ve ever been. If only

you had the look (Hoyas Starter jacket, hair ironed flat),

the markers of belonging — but you want to be the star,

the one whose life goes nova. The standout. Look at you now,

standing alone among hundreds of people. Nowhere girl

hunched over her food at an empty table. Don’t look up.



House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf. 120 pages.

Sleigh reveals that “fact” and “ruin” are the same, as much as we’d like to believe our little mortality is a real commodity. He takes meaning to its extreme, pushing logic to become philosophy — taking the rough stuff of this earth, rolling it around in his hands and then letting us know just what it’s worth. The book has a great portion devoted to war (Libya, Baghdad) when he was witness to devastation, and writes of what he saw. But even more, he made a promise to young combatants to “tell their story.” Some of the poems are first sight, and others retelling. Because Sleigh was trained as an anthropologist he can realistically replicate cultural events. Although one doesn’t have to be an anthropologist to record the chilling horror of death, destruction and loss, the transcendent task is to never let it descend to reportage if poetry is the goal. Poetry is Sleigh’s task here and he’s one of a handful of writers today upholding the brightest part of our canon.

“Down from the Mount” is a four-page poem that’s heartbreaking, “all are dead ones like after-party/stragglers who//keep showing up in dreams, /saying, I want you/to keep this for me.” Later: “The dogs are terrorists to cats, the cats/terrorists to rats, the rats terrorists/to each other watching each other’s/terror. The rock band warming up to shut//inside its wall of noise…” Although there’s death at the ending, nobility in the writing overrides this. Sleigh, again and again, shows that poetry is a mechanism of service tapping into something more eternal than what we think is present and substantive. What is the substory of Sleigh’s poetry? He’s carrying on history — his own as well as others. The eight-part poem titled “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” presents windows into the treatment of POWs in perfect 14 line “sonnets.” (Talk about containing the tumult!) And with each narration is an actual interrogation technique combined with dreamlike surreality (poem 5): “We’d have three strobes/going at once, we’d lock this guy in a little box/and like me he’s afraid of insects and I’d have to turn into ants.”

The chaos and human defeats through the poems are dignified by a musicality and coherence. In the title poem “House of Fact, House of Ruin” — another long one — seven pages — listen to the glorious start of the fifth section titled “The Last To Be Excused”: “Remember the old aunts, sarcastic,/chain-smoking, gesturing with their canes,/scoring point after point with their widowed lungs?//How was I to eat with them as they pushed/ around their plates not peas and carrots/but distance and disdain for their silly nephew//still trying, at his age, to forget/how being old is as new to the old/as being just born is to the just born…”

Since Sleigh is known for his prose, it’s not surprising that several prose poems are in this book. My favorite is “Autobiography,” with an epigraph by mystery writer Raymond Chandler. (Ah, the romanticism.) A postmodern “intimations,” it’s a story of growing up, a permutation where Sleigh presents events, finally leaving “my promised land of Raymond Chandler”…“That was when I left the steppes forever, when/the tangled underlife entwined with voices that pricked/and burned, were now flattened to black squiggles on a page/where what comes from the tribe the tribe has lost…” He wisely notes at the end he knows he needs life insurance, plus, “I needed a vacation, /I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, /hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

No matter how imagination becomes fantasy, there’s always a gravitational field in Sleigh’s work, so we don’t dare allow ourselves to be seduced. We know it’ll be fact to ruin, after all, although never said better; and when each piece is written it leaves, in spite of itself, a tough love that outlasts its life. Sleigh makes poetry go beyond itself. Like Wallace Stevens there’s an imperative beneath the line, words as a consequence of fine-grained thought. The complexities of experience can only be written with complexity, but the fundamental gift of craft makes poetry responsive to the world and allows the reader to respond in kind. He couldn’t do this without clarity and irony, making the consequential burdens of life beautiful things.

The Fox

Marine helicopters on maneuver kept dipping

toward swells at Black’s Beach, my board’s poise

giving way to freefall of my wave tubing


over me, nubs of wax under my feet as I crouched

under the lip, sped across the face and kicked out —

all over Southern Cal a haze settled: as if light breathed


that technicolor smog at sunset over

San Diego Harbor where battleships at anchor,

just back from patrolling the South China Sea, were


having rust scraped off and painted gray.

This was my inheritance that lay stretched before me:

which is when I felt the underbrush give way


and the fox that thrives in my brain,

not looking sly but just at home in his pelt

and subtle paws, broke from cover and ran


across the yard into the future to sniff my gravestone,

piss, and move on. And so I was reborn into

my long nose and ears, my coat’s red, white, and brown


giving off my fox smell lying heavy on the winds

in the years when I’d outsmart guns, poison,

dogs and wire, when the rooster and his hens


clucked and ran, crazy with terror

at how everything goes still in that way a fox adores,

gliding through slow-motion drifts of feathers.



Best Prose:

The Land between Two Rivers; Writing in An Age of Refugees by Tom Sleigh. Graywolf Press. 272 pages.

This is Sleigh as journalist, with a stunning exegesis on our current wars. I’m soft, however, on his essays about childhood and, another about a friendship with Seamus Heaney, but as the teens like to say, “It’s all good.”

On World War I poets Wilfred Owen and David Jones:…

The Earth is nothing but unfeeling rock, and if it pulses, that pulse is only the soldier’s heartbeat as it speeds up from the adrenaline rush of fear, from the physical effort of combat. In Keats and Wordsworth, there would have been no qualification about the cause of the earth’s palpitations: it would have been assumed that the earth was in cosmic sympathy with human beings, that the pantheistic reciprocity among all things, animate and inanimate, human and divine, was still available as a mode of feeling in an Owen poem, summer can still close into a soldiers veins; but in the Jones poem, “dark gobbets” of bodies, or body parts, are oozing out blood, staining torn uniforms of dead soldiers skewered to barbed wire supports…


Best New and Selected Poems:

The Clinic, Memory by Elaine Feinstein. Sheep Meadow Press. 181 pages.

Poems from 11 books, plus new poems.


Suppose I took out a slender ketch from

under the spokes of Palace pier tonight to

catch a sea going fish for you


or dressed in antique goggles and wings and

flew down through sycamore leaves into the park

or luminescent through some planetary strike

put one delicate flamingo leg over the sill of your lab


Could I surprise you? or would you insist on

keeping a pattern to link every transfiguration?


Listen, I shall have to whisper it

into your heart directly: we are all

supernatural every day

we rise new creatures cannot be predicted



Best Literary Journal:

New Letters, Vol. 84, No. 1, edited by Robert Stewart. University of Missouri-Kansas City. 141 pages.

  1. contributors, poetry, prose, art. Here’s a poem by Albert Goldbarth:


One of the usual friendly arguments:

Is poetry the greater art — or music?

Maybe it’s like the sky above us

on the porch as Nathan’s bottle of vodka goes

increasingly empty and the talk

correspondingly full: it’s not as if the moon

and the stars are a competition.

And yet

we argue, if only to use it as a vehicle

of friendship. You won’t be surprised I say

that words are music and idea both, and thus

superior. This gains much support,

and yet not all, and someone offers


up a dream: how at the graveside, toward the end

of an elegiac song, when the weight of the mourning

stretched the web of the humans vocabulary

that held it…a man became a wolf,

a woman became a loon, and the keening sounds inside their throats

changed too — left the words

behind, the way those water lilies late in his life

by Monet stretched out of botany,

out of the very idea of “flower,” and entered that space

where the universe takes its matter back

and returns it to energy.

“That is,” he said, “what my saxophone does.”


Send review copies (2018 releases only) to:

The Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702

Grace Cavalieri’s new book is Other Voices, Other Lives, a compendium of poetry, theater, and prose. She produces/hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

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