May 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

May 2017 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri


Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Joseph Mills. Press 53. 71 pages.

Kafka’s Shadow by Judith Skillman Deerbrook Editions. 68 pages.

Said Not Said by Fred Marchant. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.

Quitter by Paula Cisewski. Diode Editions. 59 pages.

Fast by Jorie Graham HarperCollins/Ecco. 84 pages.

Pink Mist by Owen Sheers. Nan A.Talese/Doubleday. 83 pages.

Winters Come, Summers Gone, Selected Poems by Howard Moss, edited by J.D. McClatchey. Sheep Meadow Press. 197 pages.

Meadow Slasher by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Black Ocean. 61 pages.

PLUS 6 other books of Poems, BEST OF MAY

& Best Periodical & Best Anthology

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Joseph Mills. Press 53. 71 pages.

The reason every poet is a change agent is there are no two exactly alike. Poetry is the voice and the breath and it’s highly personal. Some poets tend toward originality. Others achieve it. And so we have Joseph Mills with a terrific idea. He titles each poem with a stage direction from Shakespeare. Here are some:

Exit Romeo, Enter Juliet

Exit at another door with the body of his son

Enter ghost

Enter prince of Wales

[Exit the Bastard]

In the back of the book is a page with the source of each stage direction — this poet knows his Shakespeare. The poem’s themes spin off from their signposts to present-day references (Budweiser’s, delis, Google, Amazon boxes — and daily experiences) Oh wait, there’re also some classical poems. Altogether this book is original and fun with smart poeting. The poem “Kate” begins: Before  the banquet had even ended, someone had uploaded / her speech from an iphone, and it was being forwarded and /posted and linked…” The poem “Enter the King in his nightgown, alone” goes:She doesn’t know why he seems familiar/until he launches into a soliloquy,/and she recognizes something in his voice./He works at Modern Ford across town,/and last year he had tried to sell her/a used Taurus…”

Apparently, the poetry stage always has room for new ideas. Mills creates a unique environment in each poem and sees what others cannot — because he is, well, Joseph Mills, and no one else is. The functionality of using theater allows heroic moments, edgy ones, and humorous ones — just as plays do; and each of his monographs is different from the other. The Bard connects it all and the titles for once make an important and vital part of the poem. The extra pop is that Mills happens to be a terrific writer — in fact he’s the book’s best human resource besides Shakespeare. I don’t want you to think there are poems that are not lyric, many times Mills has words dancing without losing the melody; other times he’s colloquial, narrative, improvisational. On a scale of 1 to 10 for this book? A definite 11. The blurbs on the back cover are actual quotes from Shakespeare’s characters: “…here’s the  book I sought for so.” — Brutus.

Enter Juliet
Later she would have regretted the naked photos
and lascivious tweets. She would have looked
through yearbook pictures and shook her head
at the hair and clothing and posing, at the sequins,
at how oblivious she was to her own gawkiness,
at how she had thought she knew everything
of importance.  Later. . .
                                                                        but there is no later for her.
No stepping from a shower in front of a mirror
and thinking, My God, what happened to my ass?
No dressertop of expensive creams for her hands.
No nights sprawled on the couch with someone
who, despite her weight and wrinkles and gray,
feels for her in a way that beggars description.
No waking, stiff, together, morning after morning.

Kafka’s Shadow by Judith Skillman Deerbrook Editions. 68 pages.

I opened the book and thought I’d read one poem then pick it up for the morning — you know where this is going — I read and read and read. Biographical historians may know what Kafka did but only a poet can show how he felt. This is a record of sensibilities through every sensual gift a poet has. It occurred to me that perhaps no one likes his/her life’s work more than a poet does — how else could we receive such proportions of thought and emotion, changing our lives with craft and ideas. These poems are congenial pieces that get the soul of Kafka as a feeling-thinker. I can’t imagine what started Skillman on her search that resulted in such completeness. Why does one writer become obsessed with another? The closer Skillman comes to Kafka’s life the broader the scope and the more she arrays his humanity. In this world, we welcome a heart’s work about literary figures who might otherwise be unfathomable.

As Isaac
No anguish in the offering.
Hermann Kafka’s already lost two sons.
This third one’s not quite up to snuff.
Hermann tries with the old stories,
then the insults, table manners, rules.
Nothing eases the burden — Franz
will be unruly, wild, stubborn
in his refusal to take his place
in the family business.
No angst, and less suffering,
God’s will be done. Yes, let’s
sacrifice a boy who leaves
synagogue before the service is over.
What matter that letter,
sitting on the bedside table,
unread? The boy is as if dead already.
Get it over with, he mutters to the ass
who guides them along
the ancient path crevassed with ruins.

Said Not Said by Fred Marchant. Graywolf Press. 73 pages.

The writer is a laborer, and an experimenter: Marchant is as well, and an expressionistic storyteller. He lets language make weird combinations (in a good way) and yet they flow. He’s audacious (in a good way) as in the prose poems, “WOD–OR (Indo-European root for water)” poem “pollution”  features sperm; “well well,” the vulva;  “oil”  Armenians; “gulf” mother’s bosom, yet it works because Marchant’s  loyalty to language shakes it all out to metaphoric sense. Sometimes his poems feel like journeys of a dream or dreams of a journey but filled with life energy. That’s why they keep coming at us so strong (or bigly, as the president would say). Marchant invents himself every single poem making each word catapult and count.

Ghost Ranch
Slits in nothingness are not very easy to paint.
                                                                        -Georgia O’Keefe
Ram’s Head
a horn curved like a petal
layered into a flute,
the bone made to sing
what is hiding in the hollows. 

                   my friend says
                   a poem is a column of air,
                   or a sorrow-flower,
                   a yellow-white star.

Little Hills
the brown earth listens
to what the red earth says,
angry clouds gather
like the Lord’s left hand.

Night Sun
after the killing
a search light
the color of bone
to sweep us clean.

Quitter by Paula Cisewski. Diode Editions. 59 pages.

Glamorous mysterious Paula Cisewski is in the present day but seems from another time — classical, still colloquial. She sweeps into a line with a level of emotion that moves with complexity. Her language singes with introspection and beautiful brooding. She’s like a stage presence processing space with each note — intensity and interior power beneath every important line — She had me at the beginning: “I’m afraid/that there is a prison/at the heart of everything…” and then she proceeds to break through it picking apart stimuli toward song. She’ll give you chills the way she delivers, like an opera singer singing the blues. I’m talking soul.

My Crow-Wife, Rene Descartes
I wanted awareness
and then my third eye popped out.
A crow was right on time to scavenge it. Hey! I said
feeling territorial. We’re married, Crow said, so
this eye is half mine. She popped out
her own third eye and exchanged
her inner vision for mine, as if two rings.
Then she swallowed the third eye
that had been mine, and I saw
her inside out. When she flew
away, something inside me
felt like a jetted seedling,
like it started being
flowers underground.

Fast by Jorie Graham HarperCollins/Ecco. 84 pages.

You have to read this slowly. Even in an MRI machine Graham knows more words and thinks more thoughts than any volume on your desk. The book is about the human body and its medical surveillance — the way we must relinquish ourselves to those helping us, who we hope are pure and strong. This book is a passionate commitment to what houses the life force and how we’re to let it go. It’ heroic because no one delivers like Jorie Graham — relentlessly — line after line, chant-like prayer, interior epics. What I like best about Graham is that she never hides herself away in her language, although there’s a lot of it — and she never holds back. She doesn’t stop until we hear her. This instructs the reader that each emotional connection is true. The poem “With Mother In The Kitchen” is energized with dialogue, interior monologue, and narrative. It becomes all of us. Every one of us has the same mother in the same kitchen in this poem. Another poem that must be read is “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me.” In this five- page poem she moves like liquid gold down page after page, not structured, but channeled, held in performance with an emphatic ending:   

. . .
               afternoon, just slipping,
no one here to see this but me, told
       loud in silence by arcs, contours,
   swell of wind, billowing, fluent —
ink chalk charcoal — sweeps, spirals,
                                the river that goes
        nowhere, that has survived the
            astonishments and will never
  venture close to that heat again, is
           cool here, looking up at what,
             looking back down, how is it
   possible the world still exists, as it
begins to take form there, in the no
being, there is once then there is the
                big vocabulary, loosed, like
a jay’s song thrown down when the
         bird goes away, cold mornings,
  hauling dawn away with it, leaving
grackle and crow in sun — they have
 known what to find in the unmade
      undrawn unseen unmarked and
           dragged it into here — that it be

Pink Mist by Owen Sheers. Nan A.Talese/Doubleday. 83 pages.

Three young boys in Bristol grow up playing war, and when in their teens Arthur, Taff, and Hads — from dead-end jobs — go off to Afghanistan to fight a real one. They come home different men and this book is in their voices, dramatic literature in verse. If you can read without your eyes stinging, you have excellent armor. 'Put a face on war, ‘people always say, ‘put a face on collateral damage;’ and Owen Sheers does. The three women belonging to these men figure in the dialogue: a wife, a mother, a girlfriend who then become war victims as well.

Arthur, one day regrets drawing his buddies along with him to service.

 Arthur: “But the seed was sown. /There in the Thekla’s hull, with the cider inside us, /and Massive on the system. /I didn’t say nothing to Hads right then, /but I knew, I did. /He would come to…Three boys off to Catterick./A suitcase each, a couple of cans./Off to war, like boys always have./Boarding a train, leaving home,/off to Catterick, to reap what I’d sown.” 

Hads loses his legs.

 Hads: “I still feel them sometimes. /I’ll wake and my ankle’ll be itching, /or I’ll need to scratch my toes. It’s frustrating, /cos I can’t do nothing can I? Just got to griz it out. /But yeah, my brain still thinks they’re there.”

His mother speaks of her son’s first tattoo, “That wasn’t Hads. But then, nor was this. A living lie –/This boy in the hospital bed,/dried blood below his ear,/the sheet going flat/a couple of feet too soon,/just nothing after his thighs….”  

Arthur as narrator later speaks of Hads after the I.E.D explosion:
“ Every time./He lies there a moment, recovering in its wake,/his heart slowing, before moving on his side/to try and get some kind of rest./Let’s leave him now, as he curls up under the sheets,/or does what he can./Hads Gullet, twenty-one, half a tall man trying to sleep,/ holding what’s left of his legs to his chest,/as he tells himself,/on hearing his family come through the door,/that of the half of them gone and a half of them left,/it isn’t the cursed he should count, but the blessed.”

Arthur speaks of Taff who blew up civilians, maybe a child, like his own child: “Take this street he’s walking down now, /deserted, empty, Sunday-morning dead./Harmless./But all Taff’s feeling is the threat. /The echo of when a village went like this back there, /when the women and kids melted away. /That’s what he’s trying to keep at bay, /plugging in his headphones, /turning the volume right up… ” 

Taff’s wife, Lisa speaks, of PTSD and what happened that night “Blue on Blue:” Taff was blown off a wall and broke his back in the fall. 

Lisa: “’Friendly fire.’”/That’s the one still makes more sense to me. /Being hurt by those on your side, /by those meant to protect you, /those meant to love you...The drink, the shouting, the lives./The hand on my throat while I slept,/the reaching in panic for the bedside light./The boy you married/lying by your side but somewhere else –/shrinking, out of sight. “

Lisa: “Pink mist. That’s what they call it. /When one of your mates hasn’t just bought it, /but goes in a flash, from being there to not. /A direct hit. An I. E. D. An R. P. G. stuck in the gut./ However it happens you open your eyes/and that’s all they are./A fine spray of pink, a delicate mist/as if some genie has granted a wish…”

Arthur comes home for R&R but returns for just one more month, just 4 weeks, he tells Gwen — but for a roadside LDE he could not have foreseen.

Sheers’ research was with British fighters “The Blues.” I’m apologetic for ripping speeches from the pages, losing the arc, the complete control and flow of this playwright/poet. If horror can be illuminated by art, this book is its experience. In bringing things to life through death Sheers is a virtuoso. If you’re a vet; or a career military wife as I was, this book will break your heart. Only good art can. In all cases, it’s worthy of your best attention.

Winters Come, Summers Gone, Selected Poems by Howard Moss, edited by J.D. McClatchey. Sheep Meadow Press. 197 pages.

Most of us knew Howard Moss as editor of the New Yorker magazine. There were standing jokes about lots of boats in the poems at that time; and his own poems were sometimes featured. This editor’s taste was evident — beautifully structured poetry, often bucolic, always intelligent, conundrums, philosophical thought but never breaking from accepted form. He chose poems where he could see the mind’s work and understand the working of it. He had a distinct idea what makes a poem last and it certainly wasn’t deconstructed thought. Now we have a complete picture of the man in this handsome collection and we see his aesthetic nicely assembled. He’s Keatsian (read “A Winter Come”) he’s urbane: and — what was once considered necessary for writers of poems — he was a cultured man. Knowledgeable in letters, art and music, Moss knew something about love through these; and here we find the spirit of his poetry. J.D. McClatchy writes a thoughtful and detailed intro for Moss and it’s helpful. I liked finding McClatchy’s taste and choices more than anything else. Howard Moss is unlike many poets who discover who they are through writing: Moss seemed to know all along. A great and lasting strength remains.

Small Elegy
In the smart room where Lennie lies,
French draperies are too silk for eyes
That like their hangings plain, like their ties
Thin-striped. Lennie will no more arise
And go now where the cocktail shakers shake
Their crystal energies and pianists fake
Some lovelorn valentines and, on the make,
Mirrored faces join, and part, and break.
And since those wretched limbs, not custom-made
But real, and common, in the last charade
Crumble into peace, who’s to parade
Up Fifth and down with all his tricks of trade?
The chandelier, the chiffonier, the waste
By-products of the golden calf, Good Taste,
Surround his body. To his Never-Faced-
Reality, gentleman, a final toast!
Damn it, he had good taste! That’s all he had.
He knew the nearly-good from the not-quite-bad.
Lennie wore the first vest made of plaid.
Lennie gave it up when it became of fad.
Goodbye, Lennie — fad, plaid, and Madras!
May artificial angel and high brass
Proclaim a high-fidelity Mass
When you step from, and into glass.

Meadow Slasher by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Black Ocean. 61 pages.

Well there’s no information about the author because I’d love to find a context for this approach to poetry maybe by nationality, geography, inclination or occupation. This is a book-length poem. It’s not language poetry, it’s not constructivism, it’s not lyric, narrative, or any form known to me. Maybe something better — beguiling and mesmerizing — one line after another nonsequential and deliberately unconnected — and the phrases are pictorial, interesting and desperate in their continuance. I’m interested in why authors make certain decisions and I believe the drive here is feeling as image because that’s what excels — without reason. We don’t need a reason for emotion. Black Oceans is the press that lets poets do what they were born to do.

Up at Olive & Clark with tea but
Silver Soul is on & I’m back to it
covering my face with a book, scaring some strangers.
I don’t yield out for pity
just a question of what we look like to ourselves
from the bit of future
we’re lucky enough to endure.
So it’s night.
The shore’s lapping.
Heartbreak is having the prepositions
pulse with slashers too.



Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow by Shim Bo-Seon. Translated by Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taize. Parlor Press. 70 pages.

Treading on Footprints, I Head for the Future

They turn their backs first of all.
The dearest things
aimed their guns at memories.
Stay right where you are, guys.
If you want to live, die rather.
Disgusting, Sickening.  Why
are things that are said to be eternal all like that?
I killed nine out of the ten longevity symbols,
I can’t remember which one was left.
Is it a former sweetheart or an ex-wife,
or my footprints left beside them both?
They disappear first of all.
The things I loved most
turned memories inside out and all was just pitch black,
I become uglier day by day.
I smell bad.
Treading on footprints, I head for the future.
Let’s live by the river, blistered feet!

Mean/Time by Grace Bauer. Univ. of New Mexico Press. 72 pages.

Make up your mind, we say
When we mean: choose. decide.
Makeup, we call the colors
some women wear to disguise
what they see as flaws.
(All the ads assure them
they have many worth hiding.)
We kiss and make up,
which makes light
of any anger or betrayal
we felt but now realize
is not worth making too much of.
You made that up! We’ll say
of a story so good
we envy the maker
for the convincing lie
they have constructed and now
believe and live by
as if it really were
that way with the world
which makes up the minds
we are all made up by.

Where Is North by Alison Jarvis. Silverfish Review Press. 75 pages.

Ask Me
You were not the kind of man to take
coffee to your wife in bed every morning,
but if I asked, you would and it pleased me.
I didn’t do it often and I always thanked you
in a formal way like the kind of man you were.
One day before I realized I had stopped asking,
you said, I wish I could bring you coffee
Still each morning you managed to make it,
leaning on counters for balance,
kitchen quiet except for the whistle
you need to cue yourself: Now move: One foot
in front of the other: this is the way
you do it. You tear open the bag
with your teeth.

Ampleforth’s Miscellany by Michael Karl Ritchie. Winter Goose Publishing. 73 pages.

The Floating Library
(1967) A documentary on the Public Library’s outreach to the Ohio River
community, especially during the flood season.
When public libraries sailed out to sea,
books shivered their spines at watery graves;
animals were a faint memory
in bestiaries bound by briny staves.
And none aboard went two by two, but roared
a plenitude of conflicting tall tales
for the Cornucopian ear of God
who snored atop Braille pillows force-wind gales.
From salt to salt the crew evolved a pearl
that pooled its evanescent skein of stars
and leapt an oyster’s tongue in onyx whorl
to dream from words the sounds that heal all scars.
For who knew where this raft of books would go
or which adults might find their inner child
within some scientific tract on snow
or some opulent Xanadu gone wild.

The Bloomsberries and Other Curiosities by Laurie Byro. Kelsay Books. 69 pages.

Virginia’s Constellations
Whatever actually happened at Yang-ping’s house
during that winter, there were seasons before and after
in which nothing happened. Rowboats skiffled along
rain-washed river bottoms, rocky but not impassable.
There wasn’t always a drunken moon or salty stars
in a black bowl of sky. A heron followed the boat
seeking clues about the lady in the wide-brimmed hat,
a blue ribbon trailing at the wind like its mates feathers.
The tale of Scorpio slashed the wild sky. The woman
blinded by icy stars, could have been mistaken for all wizened
“Chinaman,” thousands of years old. The silent river spilled
no secrets about temptation or regret. The woman who navigated
these waters held a conference that could turn her boat around,
change to any direction. She planted her long legs solidly
on its wooden floor, a book open and faced down
beside her written by a man who traveled similar waters.
Many winters before, too many to record in a hand-painted chart,
Li Po paddled a river, his oars dripping stars.

Starlight & Error by Remica Bingham-Risher. Diode Editions. 73 pages.

The mouth holds
a scar that trails the temple
cheek and chin of a man
sometimes called father.
And when the man spoke
even in his right mind
my husband recalls
he’d rehash old warnings:
I told you, you were going to hate me
after the mother or child
climbed the mountain
of his frame settling
near enough destruction
to trace its inward part.


Rattle Volume 23, No 1, edited by Alan Fox. The Rattle Foundation. 91 pages.


4 p.m. Count, A Journal From Prison Camp Yankton (supported by the NEA), edited by Jim Reese. 246 pages.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” celebrating 40 years on-air. Her new poetry book is With (Somondoco Press 2016).

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