July 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

July 2016 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Collected Poems 1974-2004 by Rita Dove. W.W. Norton. 418 pages.

Collected Poems: 1950-2012 by Adrienne Rich. Introduction by Claudia Rankine. W.W. Norton. 1,117 pages.

The Anima of Paul Bowles by Karren Lalonde Alenier. MadHat Press. 80 pages.

The View from the Body by Renée Ashley. Black Lawrence Press. 65 pages.

And They Shall Wear Purple: New and Selected Poems by Jean Hollander. Sheep Meadow Press. 265 pages.

The Doll Collection edited by Diane Lockward. Terrapin books. 123 pages.

Animal Purpose by Michelle Y. Burke. Ohio University Press. 63 pages.

The Age of Reasons: Uncollected Poems 1969-1982 by Ted Greenwald, edited by Miles Champion. Wesleyan University Press. 108 pages.

Un Poco Loco by Richard Lyons. Iris Press. 75 pages.

All My Rowdy Friends by Stephen Scott Whitaker. PunksWritePoemsPress. 71 pages.

Compass & Clock by David Sanders. Swallow Press/Ohio University. 72 pages.

Though We Bled Meticulously by Josh Fomon. Black Ocean Press.105 pages.

Popular Music by Kelly Schirmann. Black Ocean Press. 142 pages.

Collected Poems 1974-2004 by Rita Dove. W.W. Norton. 418 pages. 

If you are a Rita Dove fan you’ll have read each of these books as they appeared since 1980. If you’re new to the earth you’re in big luck. I always thought I’d pick Thomas and Beulah as best; but then every time I read from another book, I fall in love again. Dove has this ability to write at the exact intersection where the mind does its work, and then checks out long enough for the heart to kick in. She’s always on that brink. It’s an outstanding performance Dove gives, along with the voice she uses, to tell the story. Once again, when both are in play, it’s  a fundamental way to define great writing. Dove sings with the body — she can be spirited and fiery — building it to the top like the true vocalist she is, hitting the high notes. She also knows when to pull it in. Each poem is believable architecture shaped from the mind’s rhythm and light. How do we look at this body of work and imagine the poet? She’s a realist — she knows time is passing so she must hold history accountable. She’s patient — she trusts her energy to do the work to change the page. Nothing is forced, nothing false. She turns her world into memory, one thing at a time, bringing new life to our culture, sonically — whether it’s the civil rights movement, or doing the foxtrot on Fridays. This book is a call to action for poetry readers. Because of Dove’s storied career, we’re given a cornerstone for our millennium.

Freedom Ride

As if, after High Street
and the left turn onto Exchange,
the view would veer ontosomeplace fresh:  Curaçao,
or a mosque adrift on a milk-fed pond.
But there’s just more cloud cover,
and germy air
condensing on the tinted glass,
and the little houses with
their fearful patches of yard
rushing into the flames. 

Pull the cord a stop too soon, andyou’ll find yourself walking
a gauntlet of stares.
Daydream, and you’ll wake up
in the stale dark of a cinema,
Dallas playing its mistake over and over
until even that sad reel won’t stay
stuck—there’s still
Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis,
at every corner the same
scorched brick, darkened windows. 

Make no mistake:  There’s fire
back where you came from, too.
Pick any stop:  You can ride
into the afternoon singing with strangers,
or rush home to the scotch
you’ve been pouring all day —
but where you sit is where you’ll be
when the fire hits.

Collected Poems: 1950-2012 by Adrienne Rich. Introduction by Claudia Rankine. W.W. Norton. 1,117 pages.

Much has been written about one of our country’s leading activist poets, but none more persuasively than here, in the introduction of this new book, by Claudia Rankine. Rankine approaches Rich at points of encounter in Rankine’s own literary and political life; and she punctuates the essays with a keen selection of Rich’s poems.

Adrienne Rich was winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, 1951. W.H. Auden selected A Change of World, launching her onto America’s poetry stage. Norton has now reissued the   original in conjunction with this major compendium of collected poems.

If you read about Rich, it’s always curious that she’s described as a “prominent lesbian” before “an award-winning essayist poet and lecturer.” Well, to be truthful in the early 1970s there were fewer noted women with a public lifestyle that served as imprimatur for all they believed. She was certainly at the forefront of women’s liberation, and antiwar activism; and an early pioneer for gay rights. Most profoundly, her poetry is not rant or polemical. It remains more highly developed than any written of the kind; and I believe she single-handedly changed prejudice against politics in poetic discourse. Diving into the Wreck (1971-71) may be one of her most well-known books evaluating the ragged state of our nation at that time. Her pieces are works of extraordinary beauty never diminished by message, because Rich brought power to the table with spirit, argument and gravity. Another observation is that, in each line, she finds herself over and again. Only a poet with superb control can lift language while making her points about social justice, giving us all the more reason to love poetry. To read Rich is to witness passion that will not die. She was transformative to the art of writing, and to the art of progress. Live with this book and take the long incomparable journey.

Our Whole Life 

Our whole life a translation
the permissible fibs 

and now a knot of lies
eating at itself to get undone 

Words bitten thru words


meanings burnt-off like paint
under the blowtorch 

All those dead letters
rendered into the oppressor’s language 

Trying to tell the doctor where it hurts
like the Algerian
who has walked from his village, burning 

his whole body a cloud or pain
and there are no words for this 

except himself

The Anima of Paul Bowles by Karren Lalonde Alenier. MadHat Press. 80 pages.

(Paul Frederic Bowles (1910-1999) was an American expatriate composer, author, and translator. He settled in Tangiers in 1947 and lived there the rest of his life.)

Here is complexity and revelation turned to the best use that language is capable. Alenier has tackled a difficult fictionalized account of the late Paul Bowles and his wife Jane Bowles. Alenier is preeminent as a Gertrude Stein scholar; and her studies coincided with a lifelong interest in Bowles. When Alenier actually visited Bowles in Tangiers, years ago, she probably never imagined how she’d immortalize him in verse. The first thing we notice is rhythm as primary in these texts, appropriately so, since they pertain to a musical master. To describe Alenier’s style is to define the language of energy. She sometimes inherits a jaunty Stein eclecticism; and other times is as present-day as hip-hop. There’s a story line to this assemblage of poems taken (and taken off) from Bowles’ letters interviews, and songs. However, what appears better than facts are the epitomized characters who are outrageously interesting and idiosyncratic. Alenier textures language to sharpen her characterizations, making this body of work the very spice of art. She chronicles true lives with improvisation and ebullience; and makes her monotypes into literary characters that will not soon be forgotten.

A College Boy Finds His Way
1929 Charlottesville, New York, Paris

On his 18th birthday, he flipped
a coin but in truth he said he medi-
tated on a curvy
                        bottle of sleeping
pills.  Time passed.  He couldn’t pic-
ture being dead so
                        Heads! — he fled
to Paris, high-tailed it first to New
York without beloved
                        books and records
to collect a passport, slept with bed
bugs in a seedy hotel, didn’t bother
to tell his mother or his best friend
in Richmond.  There was nothing
to learn at UVA except the way
of the good ole boys
                        was not his. 

The View from the Body by Renée Ashley. Black Lawrence Press 65 pages.

When I read Renée Ashley I read a poet with a deep deep love of language, and an ability to wire it to dervishes. Her poems disappear into a world never imagined and then appear like first poems ever written on earth. What does she want from this? She wants a clear idea pushed to the limits of thought — unified with some mercy — and then to see what happens. I never feel she starts knowing the ending; or even the path she’ll take. Her commitment to the poem is all about risk — and the burst of pleasure after it’s safely brought home. This book is about the corporal state of being — about being in human form — she takes the theme everywhere it can go until mysteries are fully realized. Of course the body is the custodian of its feelings so that’s a changing landscape. Every page is a concertina of words which are ethereal, written to a pace that is human; Ashley is therefore a conceptualist, dreaming through her pen. Each poem answers a philosophical question but most importantly, Ashley connects words like smart lace — no two stitches alike.

Spindle, Lathe

Thirst rose in her from a sitting position.
There was would-this and would-that. 

There was a man. Not as she thought.
Was the lick. Was the try. When she saw 

the sky was broken. When locked her
simple door. Her tongue put out like 

so little fire. The what-was-left. Spindle,
lathe. Latch. The heart like two barn doors. 

And They Shall Wear Purple: New and Selected Poems by Jean Hollander. Sheep Meadow Press. 265 pages.

Other than a 10-page piece of Dante’s Inferno in translation, Jean Hollander is a master of poetry’s short form. She can tell a power-packed story in a very small space, with tone, character, feeling and situation — none goes wanting. In her new poems, the themes haven’t changed  over the years, but her views may have deepened — there’s  still the emotional closure with daughter and son, and a husband, once strong, now diminished;  always her ancestry; and looking at death with wry singularity. This is an intrepid body of work, each page with life-changing events; this is a world she inhabits and this is the world she makes us comfortable to enter. How does a poet do this? Tell stories of primal emotion — given freely — that still provide safety? It’s the truth of every moment that cradles her content, and all her many personal imprints on the page spring from authenticity. No matter the subject, Hollander can expand and solidify, but we believe her because the poet is more than the poem. There’s no grandstanding, just patience and focus, making poetic reactions from reality. We never doubt her. It’s a pleasure to read this book for Hollander is part of the cultural heritage of our time.


If, at 19 I had been shown this fire
this fireplace now glowing down the hall
this kitchen warm with smell of roast and cake
four champagne glasses drying upside down
these Chinese plates, their writing underside
in Mandarin, since Made in China not yet made 

if they had shown me this new year
this burning log aflame for seven hours
this year so still and full of promise still
this hour when returning to the fire
trailed by the black invisible now real
now shadow cat and dog, to see 

the Christmas cactus late in fuchsia bloom —
would I not have chosen, this place,
to live this all again, here now
this moment, this now year. 

The Doll Collection, edited by Diane Lockward. Terrapin books. 123 pages.

The claim is: this is the first-ever anthology of dolls. I think that’s true. But it certainly is a giant step in the evolution of Doll Dom. Dolls are small icons of memory and magic. They tell us much about ourselves — little vessels of love made of porcelain, wood, or plastic — bringing out all that is humane in us. These 89 poems imaging dolls have a surprising literary impact; because every kind of curiosity and caring is revealed — animating the inanimate.

Dresden China Boy

I take you down, dainty
globe-headed perfect you,
small monument of love

that I reach for,
you in the mirror,
dressed in your pout. 

Oh, vacant baby in mid-gesture.
Oh, glass-eyed witness
in my dusty-rose room, 

romantic roulette of my girlhood,
femme-eyed pretty boy,
my glazed baby-cake, 

my Wolfgang,
my Friedrich.
Kiss me!

Animal Purpose by Michelle Y. Burke. Ohio University Press. 63 pages.

We’re all connected: human animal, earth, sky, flowers, water. Michelle Burke writes lyrically and on the edge of possibilities, about the animal kingdom. She has an exceptional ability to translate a common animal into a vision or metaphor with restraint via dignified stanzas that credit the materialized world of creatures. The book is about “spirit” in all that lives, and no intellectual dissertation could capture this essence better than poetry — sometimes representational, and sometimes impressionistic. Each poem is a microcosm of our society that’s in relation to the animal species. She serves to broaden the appeal, for her aspiration is to show connections, trust, something alive and nurturing. Burke understands language is a verbal instrument and she uses it well, for humankind and others.

Saints and Martyrs 

At age nine, I announced I wasn’t a virgin.

I didn’t know what the word meant,
but I knew Mary was one,
and Mary was good, and I wasn’t, not really. 

I’m told my mother consulted Dr. Spock
and her psychiatrist about this. 

During confession, I made things up
to please the priest,
wanting him to like me. 

I still do this, but not with priests.

Our church was called St. Rose of Lima.
There were saints and martyrs everywhere,
pierced by arrows, bludgeoned
with stones, broken on wheels.

They bled and looked heavenward. 

The priest explained, We honor the martyrs
not because of how they lived
but because of how they died. 

The Age of Reasons: Uncollected Poems 1969-1982 by Ted Greenwald, edited by Miles Champion. Wesleyan University Press. 108 pages.

It was a good idea Wesleyan had, in collecting the unpublished poems of Ted Greenwald from 1969-1982, to go along with a previous 1978 book by Greenwald, Common Sense. Greenwald is a prolific American poet with more than 30 books to his credit. Most notable is the many combinations and styles he masters: He’s witty, casual, experimental, sophisticated (not urbane) and fun to read. What comes through both Greenwald books is his good humor turning every observation into intellectual playfulness. The times in which he writes don’t seem to be agents of change in his approach to poetry, as he shapes the components however the hell he wants to, with good results. The huge force field we get from the gentle man is that he loves the environment of language — and he sees people with respect and keen sensibilities. These books together make a starship carrying Greenwald forward.

From Common Sense (1978) Reissue:

Blazing Down Sun

blazing down sun
through glow through window
warn of spring, body
expanding all pores
out to the day that jettisons
its yellow cups
fine fingers with tiny
sources of light move
across the river movement
of the body making
the organism bulb
the mental room light
and airy to stretch out in
saying “look inside, see how”
and after a second smile
a clearing
a clearing of the throat
a song of wonder and surprise
perch on a fence 

From The Age Of Reasons: Uncollected Poems (1979-1982) New:


tongue no spit tonight out
whistling between nerves
the peels urge governing bodies
without or from within 

counting luckiness
the old gun back of my head
tasting of definiteness 

handing out and hanging around

seeing and being seen 

going to sleep and waking

comings and goings

hello loneliness hello happiness hello
sweet caress I think I’m going to die 

Un Poco Loco by Richard Lyons. Iris Press. 75 pages.

Lyons is outrageously wonderful, turning the world into a carousel of sights and sounds and ruminations and wonders that we didn’t have words for, before. The pain of being alive is on every poet’s palette. Lyons opens our minds with ease, wisdom and courage, finding (if I may use such a word) JOY in life, whether it’s a pinching shoe or a jazz festival. He knows music and is at the front of our culture; he can tell a good story by seeing the world that exists, and changing it to something that should exist. His, is neon language with the full-out angst and happiness of a jazz musician.

A Voice from the Spleen

What if the negotiations end in apples or oranges,
oranges or apples, and the old way of cutting a crisp feather
across the canvas is a vast depth of time that up till now
you thought you were supposed to dedicate yourself to?
The words form on your lips like platform divers,
wanting to touch bottom, no splash.  The bloody fingerprint
has degraded too much to provide a match to your identity,
thumb and fingertips rolled in ink.  These records are on file,
but a clerical error has released you to roam at large,
largely harmless and shocking to yourself.  What if your spleen
like a ferris wheel car rocks with night wind, unoccupied —
or like sticks of TNT with a detonating wire that’s come loose —
do you feel uncommitted to the very breath you take?
What if there’s no song for this?  What if the acerbic shrill
of a gilt kazoo is the museum of music you were meant to lisp?
What if Camus was right about the butterfly wing burnt to ash
in a forest fire, a memory so lost it sings with an inhuman voice?

All My Rowdy Friends by Stephen Scott Whitaker. PunksWritePoemsPress. 71 pages.

Whitaker is pretty rowdy and the kind of poet you’d like to have a beer with and talk about fishing. Or a margarita and talk about opera. But beneath the jocular is a longing and sweetness about our basic natures, our dead, our children, grandparents, all we’ve lost and all we hold. He grabs on to language and swings from the branches to wheel out his messages, integrating the knowledge of life in a fly-by. There’s a powerful long poem “Surrender,” a masterful character study that typifies the compassion behind this author’ s fast moving imagery. You’ll meet some hard bitten people in this book, but a sure hand is guiding them.

Winter Fever

 Before the sick boy the buck rolls up his rack,
disembodied neck rising proud
above the lungworm bed, in wall and a part from wall.  Buck is the child
in a way the boy cannot understand or know other than fever.

The child wants to follow the buck, to chase into age.
Fever truth is truth regardless, cold water cupped to lips that ache
in the drafty room above the great iron stove and all its orange worry.

Compass & Clock by David Sanders. Swallow Press/Ohio University. 72 pages.

David Sanders is a poet of craft and beauty. He accepts and supports innovation and cultivates its difficult challenges to perfect phrases. There’s nothing more enjoyable than to read a seasoned poet without one setback in a poem. Good poetry is good management technique, when to suppress, when to exhale. Maybe diligence and practice make for ease, maybe a poet’s disposition factors in, but I’m sure of one thing, it is what the writer RESISTS that makes the poem. There’re no transgressions here, no showboating, or imbalance. These are poems of simple pure vision, calm poems, motivated by a wish to say what is seen, truthfully and clearly. We can relate to all of it, comfortably, poems unattached to their own outcomes.


The living pack us up.
Now that we have gone and died
t’s comforting to them
to know what’s left is tucked inside 

a box, an urn, or closet
here memories, like dreams, abound.
They tend to the mess
our dying first has left around. 

(Letters dried to mica,
clothes gone further out of style,
souvenirs of us
in storage, kept a little while.) 

They allow themselves sadness,
drifting near this windy border.
But grief has raked out its embers,
which cool and die among the order. 

Though We Bled Meticulously by Josh Fomon. Black Ocean Press. 105 pages.

 Popular Music by Kelly Schirmann. Black Ocean Press. 142 pages.                    

Two books from a cutting edge press that continues to lead the way in experimentation and creative documentation. Black Ocean is in the grandest tradition of the small press movement that launched such poets as Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, W.C. Williams, well all of them started in independent presses without corporate funding or conglomerate ownership — just some publisher pouring his/her own coins from the pocket to produce limited edtions of new nerve-racking, glorifying work. These are books with no apologies. Sometimes deconstructed, sometimes letters in a diary, but the pledge is made to acknowledge and stabilize the unprecedented. These books give disparate views on life, but they are immeasurably different.

Are you ready?

From Though We Bled Meticulously

Points of Interest:

h.  to think and think and think and think and think…

w.  when there is demand          i write          demand           i write

e.  distracted by distrust          trussed          in words

a.  hold our sway, our constant spinning

r.  OOOOoooooo — line of symmetry — OOOOooooooo

e.  i transform          for you          means          something

z.  marred with notion          of completion          or lack thereof

13.  fail, duck through

h.  to think and think and think and think and think... 

From Popular Music

I’m boarding the plane
with the other American mystics
I’m eating dried apples & watching their news
There are feelings in the air here
I can’t recognize
A girl with white hair
touching the sides of her short white neck
Back in Phoenix / Big Blank Epiphany
Children & grandparents
wearing scarves as a joke
One person gives another person
the plain gift of cold soda
& all our militaries advance
I’m charging my electronics
In my own little corner
of this cemetery
If everything was really okay
I don’t think we’d need
to remind ourselves

Grace Cavalieri is founder and producer of “The Poet and the Poem" for public radio, celebrating 39 years on air, now recorded at the Library of Congress. Her new book of poems is With (2016, Somondonco Press).

Review copies should be sent to:

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

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus