July 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- July 11, 2014
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
The month of vacations with two suitcases—one for clothes, and one for the best Summer reading list below:
SAUDADES by José “Joe” Gouveia. Introduction by Martin Espada. Casa Mariposa Press. 40 pages.
At first sight José appears to be resting on his famous red motorcycle, but those who know him open the book slowly – because it is a timeline written under chemo, and edited in hospice with publisher Maritza Rivera. We want to turn away from melancholy, the still point of knowing, especially because we cared about this poet. But something miraculous happens as his thoughts go through our bodies. The oral historian of death rises to a call to the living, poetry echoing the exploration of all we love – even while praying for relief.
Yes, poem after poem, death is forming – the wounds of love make it no better, but here is what we behold – the ultimate courage to be oneself even to the end. Here are the colors Picasso never painted, and here’s poetry as a foil against the final countervailing system that creates beauty unexpectedly and here is the power of the image. We say, how can this be enough for a poet’s life?
The answer is that this book of poems is a man saying hello to his soul in a way he could never have done before. They take us from his childhood of Portuguese immigrants to the nobility of a literary life. José Gouveia got married to his love in the final stage of his life, shortly before he died. He tells of it here. These are messages torn from the heart’s last breath. José at his best.
The first and last stanzas, Where Home Is:
“A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod
“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.”
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book Of Disquiet
This is where I lay me down to sleep,
not in the city nor its suburbs, but here,
in the sands of a beach town, where natural beauty
far exceeds fashion; where dirt roads,
first formed by horse and buggy
later paved for automobiles,
racing from runners to moonshine –
used by Portuguese Prohibition smugglers
from Provincetown to “hide the goods,”
roads leading to the sea, which solves our wounds
like codfish, sun-dried and preserved.
These shores, serving as vacation fun for tourists
life–and–death working conditions for local fisherman
graveyards for whales and dolphins – where yogis stretch out
and Buddhists meditate the rest of the Universe,
is where we find home, our lives, the place where we
turn our backs on the rest of the world –
breathe in the salt of our wounds
mourn after the loss of even our moorings
dive into that ocean of loss and longing, in it
make love cast a rod hope for a keeper find peace.
Traceries by Jean A. Kingsley. ABZ poetry press. 83 pages.
C.D. Wright selected Kingsley for this first book poetry prize. The sweet couplets neither contradict nor confirm sadness. They do something better—They energize. We are all our own heroes and antiheroes in our remarkable journeys which the poem contextualizes. Pain may be the incentive but a poet who speaks in her own clear voice deserves a book prize. The first of three sections in the poem, June, Maybe:
I want my mother back. And while I’m asking
I want all of my dead and missing pets
back, too. I want every cat that was hit by a car
and the baby mice found in the garbage –
their small pink bodies covered
with bits of the lint and paper. And I want
my dog back, too. The one who was poisoned
who suffered on the cold floor
of the laundry room while I watched through
a rectangle of louvers because
my mother felt that death was something
a door should be between.
Sailing by Ravens by Holly J. Hughes. University of Alaska Press.78 pages.
For once, a title tells the tale. Hughes uses every aspect of the sea – navigation, map making, sailing – to chart her poetry. Hers is a record of Alaska’s fish industry and the strong hearts that steer it. Yet, the book is about vulnerability at sea – with all the remote sensing which that entails; and, how the work of living its boundaries and their challenges justifies our inner discoveries. Here is a woman whose relationship is floundering but who has a strong literary compass.
Did she cast him out or did he cast her? Does it matter?
Only that they both were exiled from what was never
(admit it!) a garden, and for years she bobs in the waves,
a glass ball, hollow, contained. She floats beneath
granite cliffs too steep to climb; swept out
to sea, is carried in the suck and recklessness of tides,
drifts past old landmarks, sees friends wave
from shore, their arms X’s against a blank sky.
She jostles the tattered coastline until she shimmers,
a genie’s empty lamp, wishes spent.
He fetches up on another shore, hauls himself
out, naked. He does not look back. She thinks
how Lot’s wife, fleeing, ignores God’s advice.
She looks back, choose salt, its rough lick,
its familiar crown, its endless burning blue.
Child Sings In The Womb by Patrick Lawler. Bitter Oleander Press.134 pages.
One more book from this press? This twists a reviewer’s equity but this one is an original so it wouldn’t be fair to refuse comment. Patrick Lawler is a magical curmudgeon and that’s hard to turn from. The first section is the title of the book, and contains pointillistic pages where space is a character surrounded by its own fonts— scatterings of words that coalesce because Lawler says so. We don’t argue because it works for us. It is the next section” DEAR WORLD” that sold me—an entire epistolary book in its own right, with the titles: DEAR STORIES, DEAR GOD, DEAR LABYRINTH, DEAR DEAR, DEAR SECOND PERSON PRONOUN– and lots more, and then the next double whammy section is DEAR NIETZSCHE /LOVE KIERKEGAARD: (What Is Great In A Man Is That He Is A Bride); then, the final section DEAREST AKEEM BENEDICTA, love letters involving the death of fathers. So I’ll give a sample of the book with its final page titled, ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
DEAR PATRICK LAWLER
…I am queasy after reading the details of your life (see bio), your reflections about your life (see interview in The Bitter Oleander), and your silly self-promotion (see webpage/ Facebook). As they say, “(I) t is a story told so many times it is told without our saying it.”
Isn’t poetry the diamond thief who shows up dead? All the stolen glitter and the vanished ego.
I mean, how strange it is to do what you do and expect people to pay attention. You write. We get it. You teach. OK.
I hope you will not take this personally, but, if I saw you in a barbershop quartet, I wouldn’t talk about your accomplishments. (You see it is never about voice— always about voices.) I am so much more interested in hearing “the world singing its heart out.”
I am waiting for you to grow old so you can be a child; I am waiting for you to be silent so you can hear me singing. I’d rather quote Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
I want to know what you hum. The dances you stumble through. The songs that clink and rattle in your cranium.
Corridor by Saskia Hamilton. Graywolf Press. 68 pages.
Rows of pines, dirt roads, dried leaves, pigeons settling, the feet of animals. From the language of nature comes philosophical moments — postmodern formalism crosses the distance between rural landscapes. But the pulsing motor in each poem is keen intelligence about complex relationships and their unimpeachable truths. It is unlike anything else, Hamilton’s fundamental use of soil and earth to make a cradle for significant ideas. These are terse honest emotions, internal struggles as subtext, held up against the simple logic of country life. She takes the rusted machinery of the world and makes it beautiful.
Hawking for moths at dusk: the night-jar
in the fan near the worn stone markers
of the old bishoprick: ceded
two centuries of the forest: thence their fall,
one by one: thence centuries under-
foot of branch and brush and Pete. Near us,
but where, it’s gone: past the rides.
Uncivil War by Indran Amirthanayagam. TSAR Publications.190 pages.
From the bloody Sri Lankan war comes poetry. This is a book of complication: Taliban, Tamils, Bamiyan Buddhas, Christians, Muslims—the poems reveal their parts in homage to a country of strife and murder. Politics, love, and family intercut pleas for human rights, poems of riots, protests, and calls for justice. The poet mourns and rages for his divided country and its torn sovereignty. This book will not only teach how many ways one can purposely turn history to song, it will make us learn more about Sri Lanka. The poet makes a good case for his poems of conflict as legacy; now I want to research the country I know nothing about. Most of all, It’s fascinating to think of the pain and disruption in the mind giving way to enough silence so that a poem can begin. Amirthanayagam is a diplomat in the United States Foreign Service.
on my stomach
in a bunker,
I climb out
water for tea,
in the bunker,
bunkered, I hear
Persephone On The Metro by Wendy Taylor Carlisle. MadHat Press.24 pages.
Any book with Marilyn Monroe on the cover has my attention, and so we get the sense of it—those icons— whether from Greek myth, the classics, or our own time, recycled with intellectual fire and a cup of kindness. What Was It to Snow White? begins:
The shape of the mirror
a walk in the woods
Glass – encased, what mattered
after ever after but that apple
his kisses, the cost of the fruit.
This sums it up better than Disney did. The poem called Jonah finds the speaker strained at a cocktail party, lamenting, in the second stanza:
“Later, Jonah discovered Yahweh doesn’t withhold His mercy,
even from a beached sailor, even from the party people in
Nineveh. This saved the prophet, may have even comforted
him, but it doesn’t relieve me much as I peer into this cocktail
party full of Assyrians, people who should know better,
people who tonight will each have at least three drinks and get up late
tomorrow and not remember my name or the names of my
gods but drive to work and Target and never notice a stranger or
look up at the sky and never even think of taking an unexpected
And the title poem begins:
Persephone on the Metro
She rushes down the stairs. Her mother shouts,
In God’s name don’t be gone all night
she barely hears; she’s busy trying not
to trip herself on narrow stairs…
And here’s Making the Bed with Ariadne, beginning,
Naturally, being a princess, she objects
to cotton sheets— their crisp whiteness suggests
passing into, not out of, sleep’s blind alley,
but once she undertakes to solve the mystery
of tuck and reverse, she shapes each hospital
corner square as a Bull’s stall , unwinds ruffled
eyelet to expose the comforter’s
dark center. This Ariadne’s a match for
any household chore…
You see all those we love have gone nowhere at all and by the power of the word Carlisle gives everything second wind – poems of historical conversation that in a world of overlapping data justifies human existence.
Stones came at her like bees to candy/and sweet redheaded harlot that she was/
she screamed out, “ I never, I never.” Anne Sexton
The redhead is losing what she never owned,
a man’s hands, those curious bears,
the ravaged plane of his chest, his skin,
its pores and wrinkles, it’s strange, familiar
smell, the beehive of his shivering.
I never –
The redhead’s peaceful days disappear.
She turns for comfort to honey, to mayfly, to river,
considers the invisible inverse –
a cooler universe where her neighbors
would love her and blessed desire.
Avoiding their eyes, she backs away.
Over her shoulder, the first rock –
she bends to pick it up –
I never. We never. Never –
Carlisle again and again restores women in history with verve— and just the right touch of heat and vindication.
Vexed Questions by Anne Higgins. Aldrich Press. 83 pages.
When I read this we can think of the Pascal quote, “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known.” Here it is, says Anne Higgins, found in my wondering, my faith, my observations.
Higgins is a member of the Daughters of Charity, teaching at Mount St. Mary’s University; and she’s known in the poetry world for her ability to dramatize human consequences with the force of writing. Her cancer, the death of her mother, a paperclip, statues in Paris – nothing is too large or small to write about. I thought the meaning of radiance started in Heaven, but no, get to know Sister Higgins:
The Meaning of Radiance begins:
Still cooking the colon
years after the machine
delivered its killing light
to the heart purple carcinoma.
readily crumbled, brittle,
easily reduced to powder,
able to be fried in the sun,
on the stove,
in the mouth of radiation.
She moves the poem to Hiroshima and earthly horrors, then finishes with the sublime: “O Radiant Light O Sun Divine/ of God the Father’s Deathless Face…”
And putting on her first Nun’s frock is a terrific poem. Habit Taking.
I couldn’t wait./I had a sweater months before,/and I put it on/and examine myself in the mirror.//The day came,/and I stripped down to my underwear,/and was given/a chemise, white frothy cotton short sleeve long shirt/to wear over my underwear,/and a white cotton turtleneck shell/to wear over that,/and then she came in/ and slipped the blue dress over my head/what did she say as she did this?/Something about wearing it as a sign/Something about wearing it in faith.//Then, over my short hair a white cap,/and over that, a white veil.//And I walked out of the room,/down the stairs/to join my companions in this./When she called my name/called sister Anne,/I could hardly hear her under two layers of cloth.//When I talked on the phone, I kept yanking my ear out from under the veil./So many layers, so much crunching of material.
Here are selected first line stanza fragments from Higgins’ poem Decades
Finger the years like rosary beads:
First mystery: the Father with Alzheimer’s
Second mystery: planes flying into tall buildings
Third mystery: the spending down/ to Medicaid level
Fourth mystery: the hole in the retina
Ninth Mystery: collapsing convent…
To say Anne Higgins is profound is to be embarrassingly reasonable. She comes alive in a sensory world liberated by ideas worthy of our love. Her excitement in living and dying change all the complex problems turned to vexed questions. Hers is the predicament of a kind of faith otherwise forgotten in our cyber-fracture world. I’m beginning to think people are just born with faith in God (i.e., life, beauty, language, spectacle,) and if this is so, then the luckiest of them can take all that potential and show us what is possible.
Second Childhood by Fanny Howe. Graywolf Press. 71 pages.
Emotionally detailed, inventive, Fanny Howe continues to surprise us. That is her strength. After we read we feel the rain has passed and there is a sudden clarity– not in linear thought – but in a new tone everywhere. We are rinsed off. The poem Loneliness begins: Loneliness is not an accident or a choice./It’s an uninvited and uncreated companion./It slips in beside you when you are not aware that a/choice you are making will have consequences./It does you no good even though it is like one of the/elements in the world that you cannot exist without./It takes your hand and walks with you. It lies down/ with you. It sits beside you. It’s as dark as a shadow/but it has substance that is familiar./It swims with you and swings around on stools. It/boards the ferry and leans on the motel desk…
Howe’s poetry is flavored with innocence as in the title poem, Second Childhood.
I have a fairy rosary called Silver who answers
questions when I dangle her in the sun at the window.
So I asked her if I have a big ego and she swings
from side to side to say no.
We have other children for friends.
We don’t understand why we are here in the world
with horrible grown-ups or what the lessons are that
we are supposed to learn.
It’s not helpful for us to hear ourselves described in
Religious, geriatric or psychological terms, because we
don’t remember what they mean.
One cruel female said, “Don’t laugh so much. You’re
not a child.”
My cheeks burned and my eyes got hot.
Fanny Howe’s substantial ideas are distilled to symbolic thought, becoming an internal monologue—philosophical and practical at once. She has a great 12-page poem called Progress that may be about our many incarnations in one lifetime. It seems as if the tastes, sights and sounds are captured for us, and it ends:
Yet a fresh light was shed
for me climbing the stairs
firm foot first.
Everything was in the banister:
crows on branches, crickets,
architects, handsaws and democrats.
Red moon at 3 a.m.
Transport of the Aim by Maxine Silverman. Introduction by Judith Farr. Parallel Press.48 pages.
Come with Silverman to the 19th century where poet Emily Dickinson and Cecilia Thaxter lived. Bring in Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lavinia Dickinson, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, William Austin Dickinson, and others; and you have a “garland of poems on their lives” loyal to our best beliefs about them. And what is the story told? It is of flowers and curiosity, how the tapestry of myth is perpetuated; it’s about human conduct in gratifying unified verse – how famous lives appear to us now – it’s as if these personalities appeared full-born in Silverman’s dream to give her their messages – how they wish to remain in our memory. The poems teach us never to underestimate the power of a highly civilized word although it shows a single tear at the corner of the eye and never full flow. These are, after all, Victorians. Silverman takes her time to create their portraits – some are persona poems, some epistolary. It’s a benefit to have the Dickinson scholar and Dickinson author, Judith Farr, laying the context for the poems; Farr’s lyrical introduction is a perfect entry way to present the stylized-warm blooded – suddenly alive – figures from history. There is an imagined letter from Celia Laighton Baxter (1835 – 1894) to Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886,) answered by Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (1833 – 1899.)
25 September, 1886
Dear Mrs. Thaxter,
Be assured you do not intrude, but I regret
to inform you that my sister died in May,
on the 15th. Our grief has no words
and even today my pen stutters on the page.
With respect for Emily’s ever kind friend,
I send bulbs as you requested,
her favorite, the cow lily, often called tawny
daylily or August lily for when it blooms.
So weak, she could no longer write herself,
Emily dictated instructions, also enclosed,
for their cultivation.
Very truly yours,
Lavinia Norcross Dickinson
MEMORIAL: A Version of Homer’s ILIAD by Alice Oswald. Afterword by Eavan Boland. W.W. Norton & Co. Paperback. 90 pages
While reading Alice Oswald’s Memorial, I had a reaction through my body. I thought of my husband, a Viet Nam veteran walking slowly toward the Viet Nam Memorial for the first time, looking for the names of his dead. This is like that. This book generally tracks The Iliad, but safer to say, was inspired by it. The first time I read Homer a translation was just out by Kazantzakis. 1959. Next times, for teaching. And now this “version.”
Sometimes death is so beautifully spoken you almost know why it exists. Reading this is to know light comes from dark because, if Oswald can make such a book from the destruction of men, there isn’t a better definition of hope and trust that I can find. The overarching story is of the expedition to Troy and the Trojan War, and comes from a tradition of oral poetry, originating in Mycenaean Greece 750-659 BC, burnished by poets throughout the ages, until the myth was made story. The Afterword, is written by Eavan Boland:
Alice Oswald begins her luminous poem Memorial with two hundred names. As the work unfolds these names follow their owners into the hullabaloo and upset of war. Each one comes with a nanosecond’s visibility, a camera flash of passionate lyric. For a brief moment—too soon to know them, but long enough to mourn them—we see these young men leaping, screaming, running forward into dust and confusion…
“Energeia” is how the ancients praised The Iliad, and Oswald translates this as “bright unbearable energy.” She sustains the epic with repetitive stanzas as connective tissue between poetic biographies. These men “prayed every day the same prayer,” but no prayers are answered in war, as Oswald says,” At last at evening a lion appears/ A huge angel wandering the hills laying claim to the dead/ and the dogs scatter…”
AND ALSO on the Summer Best Books List
All At Once by C. K. Williams. Farrar Straus Giroux. 82 pages.
The Language of Moisture and Light by Le Hinton. Iris G. Press. 58 pages.
Finding the Last Hungry Heart: A Novel in Verse by David K. Leff. Homebound Publications.164 pages.
Love of a Kind by Felix Dennis. Illustrations by Eric Gill.Bloomsbury.156 pages.
Underground: New and Selected Poems by Jim Moore. Graywolf Press. 275 pages.
Gazelle in the House by Lisa Williams. Western Michigan University.88 pages.
The Wish Book by Alex Lemon. Milkweed Editions.113 pages.
Your Moon by Ralph Angel. Western Michigan University.64 pages.
Church of Needles by Sarah Sousa. Red Mountain Press.79 pages.
Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes by Kerrin McCadden. Western Michigan University.82 pages.
Grace Cavalieri is the producer/host for “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” now celebrating 37 years on-air. She holds the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ “George Garret Award for Service in Literature.”