January 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

January 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


A Monthly Poetry Column

Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Eldest Daughter by Ava Leavell Haymon. LSU Press. 80 pgs.

Lines Of Defense by Stephen Dunn. W.W. Norton & Co. 95 pgs.

Under The Potato Moon, Poems by Tom Kirlin; Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture by Nancy Frankel. Little Red Tree Publishing. 152 pgs.

Australian Love Poems 2013, edited by Mark Tredinnick. Inkerman & Blunt Publishers. 316 pgs.

Bay of Angels by Diane Wakoski. Anhinga Press. 117 pgs.


Singing at the Gates, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Grove Press. 248 pgs.

Skin, Inc. Identity Repair Poems by Thomas Sayers Ellis. Graywolf Press. 175 pgs.

Tobacco Dogs (Perros De Tabaco) by Ana Minga, translated from Spanish by Alexis Levitin. Bitter Oleander Press. 95 pgs.

Ask Me by William Stafford. Graywolf Press. 109 pgs.

Guinevere in Baltimore by Shelley Puhak. The Waywiser Press. 89 pgs.

Glass Armonica, by Rebecca Dunham. Milkweed Editions. 69pgs.

The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat, by Stephen Massimilla. Stephen F. Austin University Press. 91 pgs.

Morph And Bloom, by Wendy Wisner. CW Books. 71pgs.

BibliaPauperum, by T. Crunk. Accents Publishing. 75 pgs.

Green-Winged Horse, poems by Lyubomir Levchev, translated by Valentin Krustev, art by Stoimen Stoilov. Little Red Tree publishing. 235 pgs.

Eldest Daughter by Ava Leavell Haymon. LSU Press. 80 pgs.



Ava Haymon was raised in the southern church and born from the southern soil. She writes to complete herself, and us, folding her journeys into the Word. The religious system dictated its truth, and Haymon’s life identified her own—so we have a powerful book of opposites—exploring the craft of all that makes us who we are. The South has its own cultural currency which enriches the writing but what makes the poem, always, in every case, is how honest the poet can be. Haymon, Poet Laureate of Louisiana, does not write crinoline; and she doesn’t write for a public debate; her poetry is not to sanction the addressments of society—becoming, because of this, a poet we can’t resist.


The dilemma with women writers historically, more than their male counterparts, is how much to push against the daring edge. Women still tend to engage the idea of judgment—an idea waning now in the middle of the 21st century—but still prevalent. Haymon’s motivation is to tell of the forces converging in us, so she’s always within and above propriety at once. There’s no dark in her writing; its elegant spare clean strokes honor her themes. There’s a terrific prose piece, The Castle of Either/Or: a fairy tale, Italo Calvino and the Brothers Grimm, made sweeter.

The Father in literature will always occupy its inner life, and so it is with this book. A long 5-page, 5-part poem memorializes Ava Haymon’s father, a former basketball star who died watching the LSU-Georgia game”… ‘When they fall like that- symmetrical- the mortician’s/ fingersnap:/ popped like molars on buckshot:/They never knew what hit ‘em.’…” Let us praise enjambment, while we’re at it.

This is a poet who lives through her words. Her book is about forgiveness, just as –if we try— we can finally make it happen. And then there’s her wit, evident in a poem creating a ‘Holy Ghostess.’ Read the first and last of 7 wonderful stanzas.

The Holy Ghost Designs the Perfect Woman

When the Holy Ghost first thought of making a woman,

He’d have rubbed His hands together, if He’d had any.

A woman! That would show The Son, so smug

in Historic manifestation, spoiled rotten

by His status as favorite child. The one thing

on earth The Father failed to give him

Already boundless, He felt himself expand anew,

in love without falling, without head or heels.

A mirror vision, freed from glass or silver backing,

to worship, to adore, forever and ever. A woman

everybody would want, but no body could have,

Only Him. Alone. Him Alone.

Lines Of Defense by Stephen Dunn. W.W. Norton & Co. 95 pgs.


Stephen Dunn is solidly esteemed and earns every bit of it with this new book. What the poet keeps closest to himself makes a strong association with the reader, and so we find where we are by where Dunn is. He takes his time with a poem, getting the feel of it like an athlete getting ready, then by faith he moves through story as if every word massages the whole. The promise of Dunn is that year after year he will not fail us. There is nothing better in an artist than existing skills—next, the intention—then the music inside.

Making an original thing out of our weary days is to enlarge the sense of what is sustainable, and then to liberate it, making more possible. It is the only way we can possibly brighten our lives and Stephen Dunn’s poetry does it for us. Let’s teach his poetry in the classroom, and for starters show how an anecdote, with a philosophical platform, can transform to a poem:


In a history paper in college I said the period

between the tsars and Leninism

was a period of transition, and my professor

wrote in the margin. “All periods in history

are periods of transition.” I learned nothing

from that, except that he was a wiseguy,

a show-off, someone I would not take again.

Two years later, in a course that focused on Stalin

called The History of Power, I wrote

passionately and I thought persuasively

that much of what he’d done was “inhuman.”

In the margin, the response that may be the beginning

of my intellectual life: “Stephen, when it comes

to things like that, human will do just fine.”

Under The Potato Moon, Poems by Tom Kirlin; Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture by Nancy Frankel. Little Red Tree Publishing. 152 pgs.


A handsome collection of poetry and art. Kirlin, originally from Iowa, calls himself ‘a lapsed farmer.’ All the better for us, but now we know the elements for his writing. I’d heard Kirlin read the title poem … Potato Moon… years ago and still remembered it, because of the simplicity and how freshly the words relate. How does he do this? It’s a form of naturalism made more authentic by form. Kirlin’s stanzas are just right for the energy of his voice. I always look at the poem on the page before reading because esthetics tell a lot about the rhythm to come.

Kirlin’s poems are atmospheric. They establish early on an emotional and physical place. Then the story unravels with innovation, so we tune in at the start. Kirlin’s accomplishment is the rapport— as folksy and savvy as Frost who parlayed that with sophistication— Kirlin is that, and hip.

There’s a recognizable urgency in sincerity, especially if the poet forgets himself and goes with a verbal expedition – getting out of its way. The poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at Aquarius is audacious:

Stanza ll

‘Up and at-em, farm boy!’

Janus the young cock crows. ‘Go ahead

milk that frost-bitten cow

down to her brass nose! Be

the man, dammit! That’s right—

strut your carpe diem stuff!’


And here is Kirlin’s humor again, ending the poem, Blind Date:

but mostly I want

to weave these palms

into your geography

& sing the one sweet


trembling inside this kiss

which I find entirely



The idea of printing a full gallery of contemporary art is not new, but it’s made better when displaying a single artist so we get to know the work in depth. Nancy Frankel brings pleasure to the book. Her glorious works make an arc for the writing and the pieces have electricity on the flat page that jumps out, like the poems do. It is a joyous book.

Australian Love Poems 2013, edited by Mark Tredinnick. Inkerman & Blunt Publishers. 316 pgs.


An omnibus from Australia— the editor claims it to be a nation of love. Donna Ward writes in the foreword that 632 people submitted 1501 poems for this; and 173 poets wrote the 200 poems making up the final. Editor Tredinnick has an intro about the many forms of Love and how this book spreads the good. And who does not love Love? Well bad love poems are really scary and I was half afraid to open this book however beautiful the cover. No worry though. It goes down like vanilla almond milk laced with gin. Delicious.

How can I read all this, you ask? Well, have you ever been to an all-day swim event where your participant has the first and last 3-minute entry, at the beginning and end of the day? That aside, I can quite seriously recommend this book as it is not HALLMARK writing. There is raw love as in Song of the Barebreasted Honeyeater by Christine Paice; Betrayed love in Israel by Erin Martine Sessions; bereaved love by Jen Webb, The Widow’s Point of View –and every other known love and a lot of it.

Love is not an embarrassment. The editor really did a job in dismissing the ineligibles. What I like most is it doesn’t feel success-driven. It lays out the thought and grief; and folds in the heart and mind with exceptional care. The metaphysical poets sometimes used the word Love as irony. These poets take it straight on. Love is a poetry genre and this book shows where folks are now, born from the gold and brass of the 18thand 19th century. Some poets here take risks; some report life-changing moments; others ponder the source of Love, and when we stop reading we have non sentimental conclusions about Love – essential and indispensable– idealized or carnal. The book is a survey and a documentary and shows the basis for our heart’s conduct. But the biggest love of all shows, loud and clear, from the people who put the book together.

From the Section “You are Gone Now,” by Paul Kelly:

Time is elastic

Together, days disappear

Apart, seconds crawl

Bay of Angels by Diane Wakoski. Anhinga Press. 117 pgs.


I’ve been a fan since 1970 and remember teaching Wakoski in a course with too few women poets represented. She’s emblematic of the Cultural Revolution and she rode her intellect on top of the rant and renaissance of the moment.

Knowing Diane Wakoski’s work is helpful, and this book is an enlargement of past themes. She takes advantage of mirage and fantasy to focus on reality, using, in this book, the cinema. Like myself, and others of previous generations, she grew up without TV; and movies rejuvenated all the private lives we wished for. Movies were a shield against the ordinary, placing us in a privileged position above the mundane. Revelations were frozen in time and now Diane Wakoski trades on that bright art with its traditions and idealism, made better by poetry. Wakoski has notes on some pages for the origin of her thoughts or a piece of history.

The book’s title, Bay of Angels, is also the title of a favorite film—Netflix will probably be swamped— and her poetic commentary on the film shows what hope is about, how gambling is a higher expression of longing—and how it can take hold of our imaginations—seeking the impossible, something a poet can identify with.

Some of these poems remind us of the black-stockinged girl with silver bracelets of 40 years ago, reconciled now with even more self-knowledge; she’s also an instructor to the core about poetry and its past. The 7-page poem Meditation On Flowers is a playfully serious, good-natured response to Ron Silliman’s poetry theology. Taking poems apart as words, without narrative, is not to Diane Wakoski’s taste. A poem matches skill with passion; and she thinks deconstruction somehow makes us forget what we know of the magic. Whether in agreement or not, you’ll enjoy a dazzling argument.

She set an example for us from the beginning, with her comfortable intelligent cadence. Wakoski’s Introduction reads as if we are sitting with her in her kitchen, drinking her favorite Russian Caravan Tea. With a lack of pretension, she still has the capacity, and more, to wake us up. The 14th verse From Meditation…

To protect the cigarette’s paper cylinder

and its lit flicker from Vermont’s

neither invisible nor disguised rain,

the man I invented and turned into a betrayer

made an empty

convex fist,

big as the trumpet

of a Red Lion amaryllis. It’s not a good idea,

Ron, for you to

make too much of this.


Singing at the Gates, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Grove Press.248 pgs.


It is with EXTREME pleasure that we read The Selected Poems, by a prominent voice who began in the 20th century. The first poem I read by Santiago Baca was printed in Will Inman’s magazine, KAURI. Inman was the poet at American University and a leader in the field of liberation politics and poetry. He was a great champion of Santiago Baca.

Santiago Baca’s “Author’s Note” is an essential intro about how he came to write:

It was the greatest beginning a poet could have, I mean living in a place where men were stripped down to their essential cores, screams of tortuous madness crackling the midnight air, human beings being split in two by rapists, killers beheading other killers, everyone on guard… Instead of sitting in the day-care nurseries of dreary university classrooms, I was gifted to be an eyewitness to life on the edge…

From this came song:

I Put On My Jacket

Wrapped up, I went out in winter light

climbing in volcanic rock on the west mesa

feeling softer and meaning than I’ve felt in


Amid arid scrub-brush and bone-

biting cold, I thought of Half-Moon Bay,

how the ocean unscrolls on shore

with indecipherable messages.

Only those hiding out

from tormentors and tyrants, those in jail,

gypsies and outlaws, could understand.

The ocean talks to me

as one prisoner taps a spoon to another

Through four feet of concrete

isolation-cell wall.

Skin, Inc. Identity Repair Poems by Thomas Sayers Ellis. Graywolf Press.175 pgs.


Ellis is a poet, photographer, documentarian and it’s all here—a man for all seasons—now out from hard cover to paperback—I almost wrote hardcore—that too. The photos are laser beams about black life, and, like the poems, show what people have overcome. This is animated by language poetry, satire, and narration; he sets an example for running free on the page. He shows. He doesn’t have to persuade.

The Identity Repairman


I am rooted.

Ask the land.

I am lyric.

Ask the sea.



America is where

I became an animal.

America is where

I became a nigger.


Trapped here

in Segregation.

Trapped here

in Integration.


I am weary of working to prove myself equal.

I will use education to make my children superior.


My heart is a fist.

I fix Blackness.

My fist is a heart.

I beat Whiteness.

           African American

Before I was born,

I absorbed struggle.

Just looking

at history hurts.

Tobacco Dogs (Perros De Tabaco) by Ana Minga, translated from Spanish by Alexis Levitin. Bitter Oleander Press. 95 pgs.


Ecuadorian poet Ana Minga says “My first, my only, and still my best friends have been dogs….In all sincerity I prefer dogs to humans…”Yet this book is not about dogs alone. It’s about disenfranchisement, the alienated, the forgotten, the“ stray dogs” of this world. In an age where we want to prettify and package our art for protection in an ugly world, Minga takes it head-on, and when you stop her poems, the sight does not leave your eyes.

We write about what happens to us

for that’s the stuff we’re made of.

We search for what does not exist

like humans seeking signs of God

like ingenuous dogs

who believe that on the next street

the sun is shining.

Tombo by W.S. Di Piero. McSweeney’s.61 pgs.


Poetry as a kind of diary to make us see better— and, a record of what was forgotten in us. Poem With an Altered Line by Frederick Tuckerman is the perfect poem about trying to recall a recurring dream—something haunting, and until Di Pieri captured its difficult essence, elusive. He’s like that—easy and able to get at the technology of feeling and language. Although his poems are written straight-on we immediately understand them to be prisms/edges.


Where are you now

my poems,

my sleepwalkers?

No mumbles tonight?

Where are you, thirst,

fever, humming tedium?

The sodium streetlights

burr outside my window,

steadfast, unreachable,

little astonishments

lighting the way uphill.

Where are you now,

when I need you most?

It’s late. I’m old.

Come soon, you feral cats

among the dahlias.

Ask Me by William Stafford. Graywolf Press. 109 pgs.


In my experience, for the past 20 years, students of poetry would claim William Stafford as their “favorite poet.” He was known in the poetry community for his generosity; he never received a request for publication that he refused—even if were a basement mimeo magazine. Now from 50 published books, son Kim Stafford offers us reason to have students say again “He’s my favorite.” A conscientious objector, a word warrior, during the wartime, Stafford gave us unforgettable work.

At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border

This is the field where the battle did not happen,

where the unknown soldier did not die.

This is the field where grass joined hands,

where no monument stands,

and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,

unfolding their wings across the open.

No people killed—or were killed—on the ground

hallowed by neglect and an air so tame

that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Guinevere in Baltimore by Shelley Puhak. The Waywiser Press. 89 pgs.


Who wouldn’t love that title? Shelley Puhak won the 2013 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize judged by Charles Simic. Having Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere and others in Baltimore is inspired, unprecedented and indicative of this poet’s saucy imagination. The template is perfect playgrounds for Puhak’s talent and abilities, as poem after poem tell spirited and stirring emotional adventures plus Camelot’s sex in the city. Ignoring this book is not an option for designer readers.

Lancelot, Advising Galahad at the Office Depot

So you’ve fathomed an unfamiliar

flank. All the early bees of spring

swarm in your stomach and you’re lax

and lucid with endorphins. Still,

be polite. Despite this recent upswing

in your prospects, don’t forget the facts

of your situation. Send a note.

Handwritten, in a gilded envelope.

Merry wench, distressed damsel, enchantress

with a hard luck story: each one wants words,

wants some small song to wet the flap –

the smallest song, most lonesome, the longest –

wants a sonnet in an envelope creasing towards

closure, even if no glue will ever seal the gap.

Glass Armonica, by Rebecca Dunham. Milkweed Editions.69pgs.


Winner of the 2013 Linquist & Vennum Poetry Prize judged by G.C. Waldrep. Here’s the poem More, Heave Ho. There really is a bowl for every/occasion. Don your best hospital gown and/ haul death up, a gizzard. It’s someone else’s////job to clean it.

Several of these poems are in voices of others—19th century characters and before—but each pays the same service to physical pain and the body. Medical procedures are eerily laid in. Self Portraits are in other personae—sometimes as form, sometimes as people—this raises the overall design of poetry to a superior degree of perception. The simplicity of language and complexity of thought truly took my breath away— The refinement of implementation—I am in awe of how Dunham’s words define the poet’s function. I learn again what I thought I knew—with what care it is all done.

Mary Glover in London, 1602

I am sick, the doctors say, and offer

to count the ways. They call it

affliction of the uterus, the globus

hystericus. I call it ‘clod of cold

porridge lodged in the throat.’ I call it

the devil and no tight lacing or

birdseed diet can exorcise that grip.

I name my tormentor, and thought

I cannot speak, still the voice box tics

and creaks: Hange, Hange –

I turn round as a whoope, heade back

to hippes. They testify to the womb’s

wandering. How it constricts. Dear sirs,

don’t you think I’d know it if it did?

The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat, by Stephen Massimilla. Stephen F. Austin University Press. 91 pgs.


Massimilla is called “resounding” and that’s a good word because these are large poems with large undercurrents. His subjects are outside the boundaries of our dailiness and his lyrical and classical knowledge are tamed into service for each poem. I’m always interested in how poetic materials and process come together— sometimes, with lesser poets, like railroad cars clanking—This poet shows us how, taking cultural complexities and contemporary culture in stride, not only making poetry memorable, but better. He makes it right.


Ulysses’ dog was as faithful as he could be,

given his age and aggressive temperament.

Each year that died, his teeth grew longer; three

or six years more, and the fur went witch. His pent-

up growl was evidenced by the bone he’d gnaw,

then bury, gnaw, then piss near every night

until one day he finally quit. He saw

how pointless faith can be, his master’s flight

unexplained by this uncleared bed of dung. Who

could blame the hunter for giving in to sorrow,

invaded by fleas while the suitors swept on through

lodge and lore? The homecoming killed him, or so

the queen presumed. Who can say who sniffs the loom

of love in memory’s dismantled room?

Morph And Bloom, by Wendy Wisner. CW Books. 71pgs.


From the wish for a child, through the profound generation of new life, the production—how it occurs—this is a heroically personal collection. To profess what we want most and fear most is the greatest courage. Our poet, from the first poem, writes as if she’s running from the tsunami of loss, always with us as we birth a child, for the only way a child can go, is away. Loss occupies these poems and brings with it the intuition that’s the heart of poetry. She writes of it whether at a playground, or an uncle’s funeral, the child within, or the child weaned. The book embodies an emotional life of Motherhood, each piece protean to the larger question: How do we bring in temporal love, and how well do we reflect on it.

Benjamin Sleeping

Long ago, his body

slid out of mine.

Now he sleeps in a fetal pose,

fists joined in prayer.

Long ago,

but it was yesterday.

No, a winter has passed.

Two. My mother’s turning sixty.

My boys call me mama.

Soon his body

will fill the doorway,

long arms dripping roses

and I will walk into the dark

looking for my mother.

Biblia Pauperum, by T. Crunk. Accents Publishing. 75 pgs.


Originally a Yale Series Winner, Crunk continues with crisp taut lines that reiterate sound and make true music. Compression, and lines with sometimes 2 or 3 words, lend well to emphasize vowels and consonants. Space on the page matters in how vowels and consonants connect and sing. These poems are to be read aloud, as were the ones that started the art of poetry. Then you taste the salt in the verse—the resurgence of rhythms. It will make you a believer. In these razor thin poems, there are internal contradictions and a multiplicity of sounds.


           Time does not end.

           The circle is not round.

                                 —Macedonian proverb

Day                                             Night

The way out                                The clock’s

and the way in                             sad drip

                                                     of second

are the same:

all morning                                   after second

                                                     spiralling inward

a hand                                          nothing

of sunlight

                                                     into nothing:


inched across

the kitchen wall                            footsteps

                                                     in the hallway

the world                                      coming closer

and me together

                                                     never arriving

aging                                            footsteps

                                                     walking away

at the speed

of time.                                         never leaving

Green-Winged Horse, poems by Lyubomir Levchev, translated by Valentin Krustev, art by Stoimen Stoilov. Little Red Tree publishing. 235 pgs.


This is a big book in every sense. Levchev has long been a leading Bulgarian poet and Stoilov is a famed Bulgarian artist, perfectly complimenting each other. The art is exhilarating and disturbingly beautiful— dreamworlds, myth, symbol and fantasy. Then here are the poems interrupting the atmosphere with a stolid Central European temperament. This is a philosophy of the world with its loves, tender and brutal tears, and hard-won bread, but language you cannot defend yourself against. Word and visuals of the human condition as it takes on every feeling there is. From Caprice No.6,”There my youth is calling:/ Love,/ how much you have given me! / Love, / how much you have taken from me…”

Grace Cavalieri holds the “Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award” for 2013 and the 2013 Associated Writers’ Program’s “George Garrett Award” for Service to Literature. She founded and still produces “The Poet and the Poem,” now from the Library of Congress distributed nationally to public radio, celebrating 37 years on-air, in Feb 1977.

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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