July 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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



Books Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited by Farzana Marie, foreword by Dr. Sharif Fayez. American University of Afghanistan. Holy Cow Press. 163 pages.

Our Portion: New and Selected Poems by Philip Terman. Autumn House. 233 pages.

Turning into Dwelling by Christopher Gilbert. Introduction by Terrance Hayes. Graywolf. 187 pages.

Black Cat Bone by John Burnside. Graywolf. 66 pages.

Guy Wires by Elisavietta Ritchie. Poet’s Choice Publishing.103 pages.

Swimming Home by Vincent Katz. Nightboat Press. 107 pages.

Also listed, books by

Katherine Sanchez Espano; Dicko King; Michael Lally; S. Whitney Holmes; Lisa Ciccarello; Maureen Alsop; and Antonio J. Hopson

Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan, edited by Farzana Marie, foreword by Dr. Sharif Fayez. American University of Afghanistan. Holy Cow Press. 163 pages.

After a foreword by Fayez, the founder of the American University in Afghanistan, there are 25 pages of historical information about the poetry of Herat from Farzana Marie. “The scope is narrow: limited to the work of several contemporary Herati women, published post-2001 or post-Taliban.” She explains there was a blackout on work by female poets from the mid-1990s until that time. Also, are general notes on translations; and even a page on the transliteration system, explaining the consonants and vowels designed to make the text more readable. Marie has created a work of eloquence beyond scholarship.

There’s a long section devoted to poet Nadia Anjuman’s life and work, chronicling her subjugation in society and her immersion in poetry as relief. Women’s groups started forming as sewing circles. Laila Raziqi describes these: “We would gather in secret (hidden from the Taliban)…We did have actual sewing lessons at home…but studied other things too.” The women then met at Professor Ustad Rahyab’s home for a course called “The Golden Needle” to throw the Taliban off. After the Taliban fell in 2001, Nadia was looking forward to a formal education when Herat University opened its entrance exams to women. Nadia then got married. Although many sought her hand Majid Nia threatened to kill himself if Nadia refused him. Her family members mercifully implored Nadia to save his life. This tragic story ends when, instead, he took Nadia’s life in one of his frequent beatings. She had borne a baby boy and resumed her poetry studies. Majid Na was apparently jealous of the glory that the slender light of poetry was shining on Nadia. She thus became a martyr and a symbol of domestic abuse. This book is alone worth learning the exceptionally well-written story of Nadia. In the beginning of her journey, Nadia wrote: "...here, in this captive’s cell with Grief and Remorse; / why live, if my tongue is sealed, still.” The stanza ends. “Though melodies drain from memory, stale with silence, / songs waft up from soul-whispers still.”

Before we meet the featured poets we learn about life under the Taliban. We see the development of Nadia and others, their wish to express, the ugly rewards to poets who don’t obey, the talents and the dark matter the women could not ward off. This is the world we don’t know but for abstractions and TV bites and headlines. Nadia’s story is but one example of oppression and her literature fends off destruction, but she couldn’t avoid her own at the hands of her husband. This became a symbol of all the unanswered questions to come above ground and be answered. The fundamental right to speak is what this book’s about. There are eight poets with several poems from each. They’ve faced challenges we can’t imagine. Each is in pursuit of her own ideas. This is a glimpse into the significant world we’re only coming to know, women’s literature — and Afghanistan’s civilization.


They gave no quarter in those freezing nights,

only darkness, filled with laments.

First they crushed the heart’s defenses

then tore limb from every limb of tree and leaf

and gardens blooming tulips in the spring:

they marked them all for summary destruction

(amazingly in the commotion a bird broke free).

As the locust-army marched en masse on rows of wheat

without cause except for ignorance

and blind to the horizon of their history,

they filled their laps with slaughtered innocents.

Don’t speak of the zeal of those bleeding tulips;

their destroyers’ slogans were all Islam and liberation

but they came in anything but peace.

And now the world thinks it knows us

by the famous “valor” of the Afghan nation.


Our Portion: New and Selected Poems by Philip Terman. Autumn House. 233 pages.

Terman writes from the Jewish traditions of scholarship, Bible, folklore, community. To this he brings one of the most beautiful sensibilities you’ll ever meet on the page. In “Abraham’s Breaking Of The Idols” he says, “…Now it’s the Sabbath, another imagined imagining,/ and my own child is sifting sand from sand on a summer morning/ so indescribably beautiful you can’t help but grieve…” and he draws a fine character. “My Mother Argues With Ecclesiastes,” is a three-page poem where the speaker is sitting with a dying mother…” loving all, trusting few, always having/ something in reserve; if she had one, / she needed two, she’d say, // if she had two, she needed three, / the way she wouldn’t trust banks, / a little of her fortune in each, // or her sons, a little of her wisdom/ for each. Not all for one, not the whole/ in one heart, in case it breaks, // and you’re left, she’d say, with nothing…”

Terman proves poetry calls poets to action, not the other way around. It’s as if the story writes the poet — so effortlessly is the language of energy expressed. With religion as his template and his guide, Terman portrays what’s real in the conversation and then lets his Judaism dominate the incident. In this way reverence does not call attention to itself.

His prose pieces also burst with vitality because Terman crosses his own emotional boundaries, mostly autobiographical ones, sometimes humorous. What I like best is the seamlessness of his writing, and words free of desire — they’re not designed to persuade or win us over. They’re clearly streaming from a writer’s soul, making memory for us, using his beliefs to make language good in a permanent way.


Thou shalt walk with your love on summer evenings before supper

to the point with the many peepers


Thou shalt sit in silence and listen to deep-throated trills chorusing

their frog spirits from homes of leaves and sticks and water.


Thou shalt observe the gradual emergence of the Big Dipper, star by star.


Thou shalt not long for anywhere else.


Though shalt clear the mind of affairs of business and duties.


Thou shalt look from the ground to your lover’s face, and press your lips there,

and your tongue, and open your face to your lover’s lips and tongue.


Thou shalt not be afraid of flashing lights of deer spotters and broken pickups, period.


Thou shalt slowly rise and, bopping to the frog’s song, shimmy to the pond

until the wheat field swallows your shadow.


Thou shalt fulfill the frog’s longing and make your bodies bare, and slide

into the water and glisten.


Thou shalt remain until your heartbeats slow down, and the moon appears

above the surface.

Turning into Dwelling by Christopher Gilbert. Introduction by Terrance Hayes. Graywolf. 187 pages.

In “Kite-Flying” Gilbert says, “Every dream is a moment of freedom/ and for the while when the kite goes up, / chest bowed forward, our thoughts race ahead/ like anything light enough to fly; so crazy/ holding the line, my one arm raised ready to flap/ and wing, forgetting the sky has limits, and we/ will suffer the air between two beached stones… Today the gray haddock are utterly silver. / A naked girl rides by on a dripping horse. / Every line of words we say is radiant floss/ let go.” His words are chemistry in our atmosphere. His great gift is to weave his art into a verbal landscape at the same time giving us a philosophy of his art.

Gilbert is deceased now and how we wish we could turn the clock back to give him his just due. I vaguely remember his name associated with Etheridge Knight in the 1980’s but not until I read Hayes’ intro did I get Gilbert’s lifetime. A cultural super nova. It brings up the argument how some get public notice and others truly as great get dropped from the galaxy. Gilbert won awards and was a distinguished teacher and psychologist, but what system dropped its support so he’s not known as others are? It raises a very good question about how colleges keep certain poets alive (who doesn’t know Wallace Stevens?) It’s about marketing at some level and I’m glad Graywolf had the urgency to reissue Christopher Gilbert now. He has no proxy. He’s like no one else. Clearly the black experience is part of his every day, but by any measure, he does not stay there. In “African Sculpture” he begins, “I am staring out the window/’bout to think something; a nameless/ spirit comes through the glass inevitable/ as nightfall. This house against the breeze/ angles as dark as African sculpture/ pouting in a museum exhibit./ In the distance silhouetted the ash tree/ waves its hand of intricate fingers;/ as I trace their bending routes I sense/ the flutter of a black-winged bird/ flush against my mind’s back wall…I’m about to speak. I might be/ a bird’s speech where the air is visible/ as an old language rising up the throat of/ wings, my arms mellow leaves leaning earthward — / but now the traffic outside gears up/ and the tree no longer believes in me/ and the bird flies off; a strange light/ shoots its shiny axe thru the sky.” This innovation of thought separates intelligent life on earth from mere wordsmiths. What is it exactly? The quality of his mind for one thing. In every poem he connects literary work with his destiny. The two are indistinguishable. Ideas are not enshrined but activated. Gilbert’s poems are not “things” — they are living examples of how the writer works — how curiosity becomes an investment in language and how that in turn emerges to truth.

Gilbert has humor too. In a prose piece, “Zeus Getting the Last Word,” Gilbert questions mythology to have it his own way. Zeus marries a Chinese bride so that a relationship then could be of gestures and symbols. “And so it has come down from the gods that all speech is a claim/ for transcendence, an attempt to step forward from one form — /absence — into the pure plane of indifference…”

Gilbert is also a documentarian serving our interests. In “Pleasant Street” he starts “Playing social solitaire in Worcester near Newton Square…I am/ the only black and all my neighbors swear in Greek or Irish/ brogue…” He swings into the greater scene, “The whole country is a commodity the government advises…The line for all this is/ the line, meaning go with the flow or what is real is whatever/ a sign buys. Its value, more or less the appearance.”

Christopher Gilbert is now available to be known once again and taught, we hope, and used as an example of a man so in love with writing he embodied it into poems.

4. Saxophone

My bell is Charlie Parker’s

hatband so few of you who

come to touch me understand

my feeling,

only this black voice.

I am a temple and he comes

to speak through me. I am the dream

lip because

I say what you’re afraid of

facing, Living is intense.


I am bad from note to note

like god’s nostril, I connect

living to what lies ahead

by breath.

You want to know how to feel

in this world, the technology

bigger than the ear? Listen,

I can’t tell you what to hear.

I have no message waiting

for you: you must be-

hold enough to play.

Black Cat Bone by John Burnside. Graywolf. 66 pages.

These poems are the map and marker showing why lyricism is the music of the soul. There’s a lilt to the language- as we’d expect from a Scotsman but that’s just surface glaze—what arrests us is the way Burnside can have a phrase poised in the moment, holding its breath until the next syllable. This is called “having a voice.” No one else could do it exactly this way and no one else could sound this way because the human breath challenges language a different way with each person.

Burnside changes how we look at the world for the way he describes what’s known and noticed. There are many outdoor scenes and this is a medium that serves him well: the woods, the snow, the nightingales cannot be duplicated exactly as Burnside sees them. The act of writing is to respond emotionally and ethically to every field and sky and gull in flight. Words never stumble in the creation here. This is a resource guide or the job of story-telling when the story may be just “leaf and mould” and “slivers of glass” and “ashes in the rain” because from these images a character may appear and have a moment that tells something too tender to hold for long.

Burnside finds “a bobcat dying in the road;” Burnside sees children play “with makeshift hockey sticks.” Burnside writes an 11-page poem “the Fair Chase” which is worthy of T.S. Eliot. (Burnside holds the Eliot Prize.) With images vividly infused with language, Burnside shows us what we are capable of.


They come scattering down to the sky

like fireflies, lit with green.


of the deep end, my own

as random and shy as the others: shy


the cumbersome mammals they were

when they shrugged off their clothes


and descended into the water, recovering

mangrove and marsh, and the sonar that runs in the spine


like a simmering touch, the extinct

and the still-to-come


radioed out in their hands

while the dark flood in


to drowse in the quick of them, homebound

and suddenly quiet.

Guy Wires by Elisavietta Ritchie. Poet’s Choice Publishing. 103 pages.

This is Ritchie’s best book, I think, and she’s written more than 20 of them. There’s a surprising group of poems in the section EXPLORATIONS in the voice of Cecilia (whose notes were apparently found in an old shopping bag, unless it is a Ritchie trick) and they’re terrific. Once Cecelia was a dancer with an “ermine muff” and we watch her decline into homelessness but not without ebullience. “Cecelia Writes A Letter To Her Heart” ends, “So I will dance till sunrise, jog up Everest — / keep up with me if you can. Please try.”

Ritchie’s title poem is about a foreign visitor, a writer. It begins, “You sat yesterday on my balcony…I served you melons and wine, / you spoke of mangoes and palms, / a child throwing stones at a plane…” She ends with the emptiness of the next day, "Alone, still breathless this morning,/ I note a spider skein the cat ignores/ in the slant of sun, guyed from this worn/ wrought-iron chair to your chair.” This poem is emblematic for the book shows a life entertaining international writers and artists, sitting with each as if he/she is the only person of interest to the speaker.

Originally from old Russia, born of a family before Stalin, several poems show enormous attention to that ethos. She has a poem about Mandelstam who suffered poverty, censorship, and eventually prison and death during the reign of terror. She speaks of sisterhood with the Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova; she has a prayer from Tatyana; and she muses on Solszenitzen’s fate. These are powerful comments on the unjust plights of Russian poets in her native country.

Also there’s an arranged society that emerges covering the gamut from the wealthy and learned to the homeless. “On My Own” is a two-page poem about the daily endurance of a homeless man, subtitled “Water in the Coffeemaker Frozen,” ends “But Monday a kindly old-timer forgot a crushed box of doughnuts/ with icing! In my sleeping bag, warm with both cats, I’ll eat my/ fortuitous bounty, read my overdue books, if ink and fingers/thaw, write my own…So I am, I exist, alive.”

World travel from Hong Kong to Morocco cuts through the poetry landscape projecting a person of the world but Ritchie shows a different set of investments. She sees every city or country as a challenge facing the writer to find the fusion of culture and what’s traceable to convert to poetry. What informs her is causality and how it’ll turn on the page. The book is well organized into five sections and it’s a good thing because this is a comprehensive book covering the waterfront of a life well lived. We needed infrastructure to hold it captive.

Ritchie makes demands upon herself; she explores questions about animals; she reveals the system of checks and balances in love and relationship. She takes the mundane and makes it public art. This is a plentiful book filled with gratitude for the world. She comes from a different place than many new to the art. She’s not market driven. She sees poetry as an acceptable use of force. She’s done it all.

Cecelia Tackles the Avenue Again

Must extricate this coat, fragrant with camphor,

forty years old, bought at a thrift: gray herringbone,

finest wool, same button gone, same pocket holes.


Falls to my heels! I’ve…shrunk. No matter. It and I

worked then, will still…A bright orange scarf a flame…


Nobody else wearing coats in this wind. Pneumonia weather!


How noisy now these crowded streets where I’d meet

my lovers at street corners, corner cafes — those days, they paid.


These men today might have been my lovers then…

Now scruffy as curs…they shuffle and limp…Hair

grayed or gone, they’ve changed shades, or vanished…


Then one man holds the door of a new café

where I remember a tavern. So I smile, enter…


And he disappears.

Swimming Home by Vincent Katz. Nightboat Press. 107 pages.

Katz is an art critic and translator. He teaches at the School of the Visual Arts (NYC) so it’s not surprising that several of these poems had accompanied “limited editions” by artists.

His observations lead us to believe that by seeing he changes circumstances. From “Barge” (a 19 verse set of poems) XVl: "The memory of daylight would come, as through/ A veil, filtered light once seen in paintings’/ View of coming through woods to a field,/ A single thin cow at its edge, and the thought/ Of paintings in general, of all one has seen/ Over years and years…” And as he’s deciphering sights a great many poems are about the act of writing the poem. From “Luis” (stanza 1) I was walking along and thinking/ I saw a new way to write a new poem/ in stops and starts, close-ups long-shots, /establishing views of the entire city. / I had one doubt: I thought I should/ be absent, allowing the poem to accrete/ seemingly of its own volition over time, / Then I thought that was not necessary…” It’s unusual that the poet‘s preoccupation with his art becomes the substance and task of the art. The murmurings are the marriage of the artistic and the literary eye. And it’s all about communication; Katz is obsessed with how and why we do this. His every poem seeks the right ambience to write, (from “Barge lV”) “Poetry can’t mean that much, everyone asleep/ Another year, another weight of looking and thinking…”

There’s a suppressed passion in these events, as if the writer wants the perfect warm environment to finally speak and he pays attention every moment to find this. At the same time he’s capable of celebrating the physical properties of a cerebral world. Katz is a “today” poet and has inherited admirers of Frank O’Hara’s fame — so the work comes from a long and rich New York history. Turning language until it’s right never lets us down, as we see in “Sidewalk Poem,”

wet Asphalt, it rained, will rain, but now sunny haze breaks,

blue at edges, under light, white, clouds,

cold of January holds, pigeons in clean gutter,

families walk up avenue, down streets, sidewalk,

what propels them, ancient conveyance, desire,

walking its dog, body that drove one insane, that sudden face,

shift between walking, staying, America, Europe,

light that hovers and expels, families and individuals


I wouldn’t want to be like them…”

Also on July’s List

Mirror Inside Coffin by Maureen Alsop. Cherry Grove Collections. 66 pages.

There are divinations here and magical entries. Also the vivid fact that fairy tales are tethered to the reality of human longing with its frightening claw.


One the high bluff of Huron’s coastline she remembers only

I am not in the room. I’m vibrant gone

on the edge. All over August,

dotted after images of green, everything

last seen around her. Rafters of the house

pixilated in dust, old conversations

polish the wide table with chairs. Ink dries

over her lips. Sleep is water

spilling through cranium. Under her spell,

in my wool coat, a blare at the window, the whole house

boarded in a fresh dark.

Seven by Antonio J. Hopson. Anaphora Literary Press. 58 pages.

A flash fiction writer turns to poetry and speaks of biting love seen in a cosmic light.

Peach on a Tree

(A Note to Eve)

Not an apple…

a peach.

By design, better than an apple.

It is to be seized, savored

and rollicked on the tongue,

its nectar rived and quaffed.

Not the apple,

bitten and chewed

the way a cow masticates cud.

No. A peach is relished.

Silk on the skin, a sweet slow game of


Eve was wrong to choose the apple.

Perhaps the peach tree was hidden in another part

Of God’s garden,

A place where she could not find it,

behind a wall of figs or mangos.

She’d never look there.

Had she done so, the bite would have been worth it.

She’d have kept her tears at bay.

Adam would have understood,

And so would his father.

We’d be thanking her instead.

The Sky’s Dustbin by Katherine Sanchez Espano. The Bitter Oleander Press. 73 pages.

Winner of the Bitter Oleander 2014 Press Library of Poetry Book Award, a smart crisp selection by a new poet with a sure hand.



When the tired seams of my dress let go

of each other, I stitched the fabric with grapevines,

their leaves promising merlots for years to come.

When the heels of my shoes thinned with regret,

I patched them with coquina from St. Augustine,

the shells resisting the siege of pavement

as hard as colonial cannons.

When my necklace unclasped, scattering beads

like ashes, I strung dragonfly fossils on the cord,

tiny wings, forever coasting, imprinted like stamps

The wrecking ball, an aging academic, deconstructs

balconies, kitchens, and nurseries into theories of dust.

Listen to hammers rebuild staircases higher and higher,

each step a lung holding its breath.

Doggerland: Ancestral Poems by Dicko King. Off The Grid Press. 91 pages.

This is a genuine touch of Ireland from every side with the poet as historian, storyteller, and wit at its epicenter.



There would have been one or two snakes

— adder or Irish king drowned in the ankle deep Irish Sea

when we came over —


If no snakes, a memory of snakes.


No frogs, except one, and common.

One toad — the natterjack, without teeth.

One smooth newt, skittish.

One lizard, British.

Swing Theory by Michael Lally. Hanging Loose Press. 123 pages.

Hip, free falling, autobiographical, and overviewed with a new love for the world, Lally once the leader of a poetry movement in Washington, DC, in the 1970s (then an actor in Hollywood, plus other creativities) still has that swing.

And happily, he still writes in tones we remember from his books of growing up Irish-American.


At Night by Lisa Ciccarello (60 pages;) and Room Where I Get what I Want by S. Whitney Holmes (83 pages) both by Black Ocean Press.

Don’t look for poetry that’s familiar here. These poets speak to us in a new life style, leading us forward, flabbergasting us with show-stopper lines you can surrender to, or die trying. Here is a good piece by Holmes:

As a child obeying


Victorian sofas covered in plastic,

a piano with its shoulder

to up, teeth grinning, a frail yellow

lamp with a pull chain.


I take to perform.

Mother is saying, don’t touch, don’t touch,

in time with the pulsing blender.

And one from Cicarello:

The favorite wife dreams: all my body is stone.


Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought one

behind the next, like beads.


I’d wear answers I am waiting to give. The jewelry becomes

as heavy as soil.


My long blink is a scream & a yes. There are things I

have you to say, but they do not yet know the questions they

must ask. & a blink is no word; if they misunderstand —


A heart is just soil. Ask anyone. A heartbeat is a blink. A

long blink is a scream. A longer blink is sleep. All night I am


Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” Her new 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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