February 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

February 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

Charles Bukowski: On Love edited by Abel Debritto. Ecco/Harper Collins. 206 pages.

Vivas To Those Who Have Failed by Martin Espada. W.W. Norton. 69 pages.

St. Francis and the Flies by Brian Swann. Autumn House. 73 pages. (Winner of the 2015 Autumn House Poetry Prize.)

In Defense of Puppets by Anthony Di Matteo. FUTURECYCLE Press. 90 pages.

Love Is My Savior: The Arabic Poems of Rumi. Translated and edited by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony A. Lee. Michigan State University Press. 75 pages.

Memos From The Broken World by Jean Nordhaus. Mayapple Press. 72 pages.

Stranger by Adam Clay. Milkweed Editions. 130 pages.

Charles Bukowski: On Love edited by Abel Debritto. Ecco/Harper Collins. 206 pages.

Debritto is on a roll. He’s edited Bukowski: “On Writing” and “On Cats.”

I opened this book in the middle only to find Bukowski suggesting someone put a tongue in an inappropriate place; so I thought I’d better start at the beginning and work my way up. Yes, our man is tough, dirty, sometimes tender, funny as hell; and every generation of college students goes through a phase loving his work. He has cult followers and imitators but no one quite achieves Bukowski’s shock value, persistently original as he is.

In the poem “a definition” he invents 32 definitions of love. I’ll bet you couldn’t make these up if you bottled lightning in a jar — Bukowski is an energy blast made material. “Love is the crushed cats/ of the universe”…”Love is the first 3 rows of/ potential killers at the/ Olympic Auditorium”… “Love is the emptier of/ bedpans”…Love is a barstool where there is/ nobody sitting on it”…However the heart does open a bit wider with “Love is your woman dancing/ pressed against a stranger” "…Love is an old woman/ pinching a loaf of bread.” He does soften as he goes on, like a child who’s had a tantrum, now incarnated. So, the book is never boring.

The frisson/aphora in balling big boned women, and others, finally cools his poetic machinery, and we have an (almost) sweet poem “the bluebird” where CB admits there’s a bluebird in his heart that wants to get out…” He says, “but I’m too tough for him…”

We can trust Bukowski to unsparingly share his body’s groupings — unleashing its physical courtesies page after page — but the book’s final poem may be the real C.B. In “confessions” he breaks his own rules and says “I love/ you” to Linda, his wife. And I know, for sure, he did. Everything before that is just yielding for the market.

I love it when you talk clean to me, Charlie.

Here are first stanzas from a long poem:

 quiet clean girls in gingham dresses
all I’ve ever known are whores, ex-prostitutes
madwomen. I see men with quiet,
gentle women — I see them in supermarkets,
I see them walking down the street together,
I see them in their apartments: people at
peace, living together. I know that their
peace is only partial, but there is
peace, often hours and days of peace.
all I’ve ever known are pill freaks, alcoholics,
whores, ex-prostitutes, madwomen
when one leaves
another arrives
worse than her predecessor.

Vivas To Those Who Have Failed by Martin Espada. W.W. Norton. 69 pages.

What I like most about Espada is that he writes as if we don’t have that much time left. He doesn’t wait for others to document; there’s urgency, awareness, intention in every line — identifying his heroes, co-creating the great actions of the past. Using Whitman as mentor, and often quoted, Espada honors John Reed, a major figure in the Paterson strike, 1913; Jose Gouveia (beloved poet to us all). The people of Newton Mass; Hannah — the “Joan of Arc” of the Silk Strike; Poet Maria Mazziotti’s father, who led mill workers in a march for union justice for weavers and dyers.

Espada is a labor poet/humanist/activist, writing from a heart-mind unified brain. These poems read like a novel, or short stories, with their long lines, and what I saw is that each one stems from the thought, what is sacred; what is the revelation that comes from this; what comes from struggle.

The father figure in American literature is a major theme, so it is with Espada who extols his father’s strength and power in Puerto Rico and beyond. His verse does not really end with finalities because there’s no ending to what he speaks. Men who are mad for a cause, in art, are condemned to a life sentence of glorious possibilities.

After The Goose That Rose Like The
God of Geese

           Everything that lives is Holy.

                William Blake

After the phone call about my father far away,
after the next-day flight canceled by the blizzard,
after the last words left unsaid between us,
after the harvest of the organs at the morgue,
after the mortuary and cremation of the body,
after the box of ashes shipped to my door by mail,
after the memorial service for him in Brooklyn,
I said:  I want to feed the birds, I want to feed bread

to the birds.  I want to feed bread to the birds at the park.

After the walk around the pond and the war memorial,
after the signs at every step that read:  Do Not Feed The Geese,
after the goose that rose from the water like the god of geese,
after the goose that shrieked like a demon from the hell of geese,
after the goose that scattered the creatures smaller than geese,
after the hard beak, the wild mouth taking bread from my hand,
there was a quiet in my head, no cacophony of the dead
lost in the catacombs, no mosquito hum of condolences,
only the next offering of bread raised up in my open hand,
the bread warm on the table of my truce with the world.

St. Francis and the Flies by Brian Swann. Autumn House. 73 pages. (Winner of the 2015 Autumn House Poetry Prize.)

In “Images” Swann writes “ Thrush music drifts in so rich I can’t quite follow/ its bent and fractured notes, the bent fractured/ bent, quick liquid rills, thrills unpredictable, impeccably phrased,/ precise yet impossible to remember, sung or whistled…” Now you see and hear the music. In this 21-line poem there are so many packed recurrences of sound we can almost believe Dylan Thomas was of Swann’s heritage.

He’s more than a nature poet, although there’s nothing wrong with that if we mean fine writing that’s more prayer than description. “…loess has filtered into the lungs// of scrawny trees whose breath I breathe, here where a wind-blown/ rock-flower/ roots deeper than the jackpine whose laterals slip off stone, here where on/ bleached bones// lichens hunker, moss leavens, and ore locks in our blood while the sky/ reaches/ down, backs off, leaving glare, tailings, the gloss of grace.”

I apologize for not being able to present the look of the poem on the page, (Maybe all the more incentive to buy the book.) There’s history in Swann’s poetry, and travel, and understanding    antecedents of both; but what I like best is Swann’s meditation into being present with every sight and sound, exploring the possibilities of his sensations. (World’s Shadow) “On my adobe’s red-earth floor something is making the light jump/ like a jack rabbit, up and off whitewashed walls. The flowers outside/ take in canvas or run it out, stretching their brightness to morning’s/ indigo which they breathe in and turn glassine…”

This is a book of visions; contours; outlines of space interpreted with detail; wonder; and listening to place.

The Hummingbird
Snow is falling with no more substance
than a hunch.  I wake to moonlight
drifting across my face.  It smells
like glass.  It smells like time itself,
So now it is fall beside the pool near
the house where she died climbing
the stairs and on the calm black surface
I can trace the first stars until I see a
hummingbird on the flagstone near
my feet, and bend to pick up but a breath
blows her onto the dark water so the stars
shiver, break up, and are gone.
 In memoriam, ESM

In Defense of Puppets by Anthony Di Matteo. FUTURECYCLE Press. 90 pages.

I read the title poem first and it informs the book well. Each poem is a different event but there’s an interconnectedness, a public conversation, throughout. I see it as personal philosophy and personal morality. The writing is without heroism or rhetoric, but there’s a definite ethical slant to the poet’s characters — a muscle memory of trying to be better without being valorized. The Buddhists speak of “nothing tainted nothing pure” and, although this is a simple sounding phrase it carries centuries of thinking we could excavate. The balance within is what DiMatteo seeks. These are poems of realism, without spiritual portraits or lessons, and they are downhome poems, yet I sense a search for forgiveness to and from the past.

The tactics and strategies of DiMatteo’s poems are well tended, infrastructure is good, and poems excel because of the poet’s inner resources.  There are some spirited poems here about relationships and a level of good will. The gift the poet gives is in weighing his actions in a poem, because this takes insight and caring— the high bar we set for poetry. Without it we have just an imprint on the page.

 Second Nature
The dead have had it, tired of being
used for rhetorical effects — the wind,
the dark, the silence.  It’s not cold out there
for them, and gestures through smoky windows
look ridiculous through the trees that appear
to be on fire with the lamps of the New Year.
They look in at the shadows we’d have them be,
disappointed that we feel so melancholic over them.
It’s tough in the state of annihilation but the living
have it much harder, trying to train themselves
to dance on air.  Forget it.  It’ll be second nature.
The music will be so perfect no one will hear.

Love Is My Savior: The Arabic Poems of Rumi. Translated and edited by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony A. Lee. Michigan State University Press. 75 pages.

Rumi was a 13th century mystic poet who wrote in several languages, mostly Arabic and Persian. Born in 1207 in Turkey (an area now part of Afghanistan), he spent a life of devotion, traveling and writing, to define God in poetry. His search for the Sufi “essence” of God lives on. At times his God was very much human, celebrated in song, wine and physical love. Rumi’s major work, Masnawi, contained 60,000 poems of ecstasy and scholarly teachings.

Love Is My Savior includes 33 Arabic poems and pieces taken from 1010 poems in Rumi’s Divan-e-Shams-e Tebrizi. They reflect Rumi’s mastery of Arabic and Persian and devoted, in passion, to his teacher Shama-e Tabriz — from the pure to the erotic — creating a world never read before. In the world of medieval Islam same-sex love was tolerated in Arab culture “within the boundaries of its cultural norms.” However, these poems are not confined to human love — the physical was one prism to seek the eternal source of all divine love. From these poems we understand the elaborated myth of Rumi’s life until his death in 1207. Each poem is a constellation: message and metaphor, saying I AM WITH YOU. Flaming lines control structures of exquisite longing and prayer.

How such a man remained transfixed in soul expansion to the Divine, His Beloved, is a comfort for humanity.

He’s Never Bored with Love
Yes!  My soul will be sacrificed for you!
You are the full moon. You rise, and you shine.
Praised and glorified be God for that shine!
You invaded my soul, doubled my life.
Then, you left — with that noble pride of thine.
Today, I pray to you in secret, or
I shout out loud these mad love dreams of mine.
Life tears me to pieces, and still I shout:
Pierce through these veils!  Let me drink your love’s wine!
Centuries of loving, and he’s never
bored with love. Never will his love decline.
My lover is a whale, and my desire
pure water — an ocean — with no end time.
Can a whale grow bored in a pure ocean?

Memos From The Broken World by Jean Nordhaus. Mayapple Press. 72 pages.

Jean Nordhaus’ new book proves her writing talent. The pull of her art is silk covering steel, delicacy and power, creating the flexibility to find our own truth in the poem. It’s a way of trust.

I once called Nordhaus a “poet of the hearth” because she made domesticity into a larger psychological canvas. In one of her previous books, her poems address workers renovating her house: the architect, the carpenter, etc. These internal dialogues created layered relationships and divergent ideas. This is how the writer gets insight into her own mind. Significant poets of domesticity emerged in the 1950’s with Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and even Adrienne Rich. Multitudes of male poets are in the genre today; but women were the ones who established themes from the kitchen window, looking out upon complexities in relation to their own. No one does it better than Nordhaus — able to describe the social world from a locus. This isn’t saying Nordhaus writes household poems — no, but they are bred from the moral air defining where one belongs. We can call that a home — how we’re rooted; why we leave; where we go; and what stays. These are profound journeys, but they begin somewhere.

Although Nordhaus is professionally experienced in dance, music and history, and she’s often influenced by other cultures, these themes emerge but don’t dominate. Her poems are real life occasions; and my favorites are those about what we own and what we live without — never mentioning possession or loss. She holds her poetry out to us without fingerprints. The poet has mastered the craft to spark and stimulate the line with observation; and then let the reader free to his/her own illusions. This is seasoned writing; and, although Nordhaus’ last lines are breakout moments, they surrender us to our own beliefs.

  Of What Do We Make Our Homes?
Of wood.  Of stone.  Of earth.  Of ice.
Some chicken wire, a few geranium seeds.
A mat.  A stake.  A shell.  I knew a man
whose longing was his home.  A woman
who built a nest in the wreckage of lust.
A child who lived in the house of her hands,
whose fingers were her only friends.
I knew a lover whose foundation stone
was flight.  A tune that lodged all night
in a creaking limb.  A penstemon
that pitched its tent in an open field.
A crested lark whose home was all of Portugal.
I knew a foot soldier whose flag
Was winding cloth; his home
was in the ground.  A prayer.  A rhyme.
A vow.  Some mansions are of grief and some
Of hope.  Of hay.  Of leaves.
                                                Of wind.

Stranger by Adam Clay. Milkweed Editions. 130 pages.

Sometimes a poet stops me. Adam Clay’s writing is spiritually superior to any effort I can make to describe it. W.S. Merwin comes to mind, certainly not for form or even content, but something else — the merging of the conscious and the unconscious mind — the flow — an ability to comment on the process while in the process. “Even our resting bodies/ will not illuminate/ the rooms of our childhood…” The poem ends “…Look how even/ / the sky drifts down/ to tiny shreds// of light. Look/ how I see myself// growing wiser/ the less I learn.” (What I Remember.)

He has that perfect combination, the discipline of language and the power of the image. “…soon it’s raining when/ it ought not be:// the clouds grit their teeth, / the newspaper ends up/ down the street, in a drainage// ditch. The aisles we follow// blur into blue. / And what else is meant/ aside from the exploding pops of sky// reflected in the eye of a child…” (This is a Frame.)

Clay unwinds universal ideas that come from thinking his own thoughts without social judgment or editorials. Just existing inside the poem. “…Somehow// an image means/ more than the object itself// but not because// it’s made of words. Most likely/ it’s because the act of creation/ sets the mind down like a bird/ in a field// where the speed of the invasive cannot exist.”

What is this myth called meaning? It’s putting hieroglyphics together to make it understandable and match the mind’s vibration. Clay seems to ignore the difficulties. It’s a personal rhythm a poet has — the way he walks or talks or enters a room (or a line.) Because of this, we admire, most, how complexity and revelation turn language to its best possible use.

Our Daily Becoming
Like animals moving daily
through the same open field,
it should be easier to distinguish
light from dark, fabrications
from memory, rain on a sliver
of grass from dew appearing
overnight.  In these moments
of desperation, a sentence
serves as a halo, the moon
hidden so the stars eclipse
our daily becoming. You think
it should be easier to define
one’s path, but with the clouds
gathering around our feet,
there’s no sense in retracing
where we’ve been or where
your tired body will carry you.
eventually the birds become
confused and inevitable. Even our
infinite knowledge of the forecast
might make us more vulnerable
than we would be in drawn-out
ignorance. To the sun
all weeds eventually rise up.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio. Her latest book is a memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage.

Review copies should be sent to:

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

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