May 2019 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

American Samizdat by Jehanne Dubrow. Diode Editions. 63 pages.

Even Then by Michael Wurster. University of Pittsburgh Press. 76 pages.

The Tiny Journalist by Naomi Shihab Nye. BOA Editions. 128 pages.

Against Translation by Alan Shapiro. University of Chicago Press. 96 pages.

Small Sillion by Joshua McKinney. Parlor Press. 100 pages.

Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air by Elizabeth Jacobson. Parlor Press. 102 pages.

Immediate Song by Don Bogen. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages.

The Bower by Connie Voisine. University of Chicago Press. 80 pages.

Fan Mail from Some Flounder by Lisa Vihos. Main Street Rag. 56 pages.

Wild Fennel by Marisa Frasca. Bordighera Press. 108 pages.

Bitter Bites From Sugar Hills by Sara Fruner. Bordighera Press. 108 pages.


American Samizdat by Jehanne Dubrow. Diode Editions. 63 pages.

“Samizdat: the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, especially formerly in the communist countries of eastern Europe.”

Dubrow cuts across the grain of America with sharp urgency, clearly undressing the state of this nation, ripping away its atmosphere with the power and harshness usually ascribed to a male voice. Political toxicity today is something we cannot deny. Moving back and forth across time, the poet recalls living in the diplomatic world within Europe’s oppressed countries — this is part of her theme. That the poet can still beautify this subject with language is what we admire most. Anyone can list dissent. It takes someone precise in every note to lyricize a frightening political environment.

Interpersonal relations have been Dubrow’s forte and this book widens the lens with greater feelings — full thrust; shifting shapes — every phrase a surprise. Technology, its bombardment, our addiction and distaste, amplifying loneliness; leaders who refuse what’s human in us — these are the currents lifting the line, and turning our poverty into poetry.

Affairs of state seen through this woman’s eye and this woman’s sensibilities, are extraordinary. Men are classically the writers who lay down government in a tough way; but with Dubrow’s natural abilities and a philosophy all her own, we have the letter of the law AND the spirit of the law. She has a personal knowledge, enlarged, about the state of this country and our humanity. Maybe Samizdat is the only “American effort” we have left, and I’m proud this one is in a woman’s voice.

I mute the mouths. I stare
until the screen has turned to snow.

Good night I say, walks flickering reflected light.
How real the faces I have seen.

Someone else will have to rise,
the cushions like a cave in their collapsing.

Good night I say, gripping the remote.
I press a button with the word OK.


Even Then by Michael Wurster. University of Pittsburgh Press. 76 pages.

This isn’t a book of poems; it’s a living thing where people walk in and out of its paper; where we go on a magical tour of impressions; and where a poet says exactly the right amount of words, exactly as needed, to take us by surprise. Strong stories here; even the dreams are real. How can this be? It’s the sureness of the pen put to paper, a writer who does not doubt his words so that everything becomes authentic. This is an edgy, sardonic writer, so sharp in observation and detail that you’re inside looking out. He writes as if there’s nothing to lose. What is true? This book is true.

The Hat

A man with his hat ablaze
gets on the bus.

The passengers ignore him,
as if he were some demented one
making loud conversation with the air.

The hat burns,
but is not consumed.

Am I the only one to see this?


The Tiny Journalist by Naomi Shihab Nye. BOA Editions. 128 pages.

Shihab Nye’s work has always featured a backdrop of her Palestinian heritage. Now, this beleaguered country is brought to the foreground — in nearly 100 poems — some featuring “Janna,” a young videographer. “These are my words imagining Janna’s circumstances via her Facebook postings and my own knowledge of the situation she was born into and lives with on a daily basis…a blending of stories…My father’s, Janna’s…and my own personal experience living there,” (Author’s note).

(“Small People”): “Janna says the camera is stronger than the gun. /I can send my message to small people/and they send it to others…”

Only a seasoned poet can modulate fury into poetry. Each verse gives a piece of the tattered puzzle which is Shihab Nye’s native country, more than Middle East historians could tell us, because the core of a country is here — its skin is on the bodies of father, grandfather, friends, mothers of sons. This book can wake us up, because it’s not of policy — it’s the flesh of people who know who they are, in a land so mistreated. Also, there’s gracefulness here. I love the beginning of the poem “Positivism”:

“My friend in Gaza writes to me:

Gaza Strip is really so wonderful…Regardless of the siege…The seaport, /the green fields, peaceful roads decorated with many red, pink, white and/orange flowering trees, decent people, elegant restaurants and hotels with/fascinating views…We wish…The crossing borders are always open/where we can travel freely and friends can come to visit us freely as well…”

This poet, always America’s sweetheart, has shared her life with us through her career, warmth, and wisdom — earning our validation — and now, even more, she makes emotion and the world meld, to give an in-depth analysis of her besieged land, letting us know how it appears from inside. In connecting the land and the sea, possibilities and tragedies, poetry reaches the high bar.


To forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do
Replay a scene over and over in mind
Change it         change
Apologizing to our own story             handful of soil
I could have planted something better here

To walk without remembering another walk
To wash off the hope of a darkened day
Make a new one

This is normal here, the fathers say
bombs exploding
tourists stepping carefully over grenades
Excuse us        this is not the life

we would have made or the way
we would have welcomed you
tear gas billowing over our streets
We are so tired


Against Translation by Alan Shapiro. University of Chicago Press. 96 pages.

Prose poems dominate this collection and they’re the ones I’ll remember. Shapiro goes back to his growing years, and younger life, to find what was lost. Friends die, parents disconnect — first love, first awareness, first ambition — these amplify, but cannot replace, the moment before they happened; and that’s where the void is — one that can never be filled. The poet’s voice cuts through story, making the past current, being harmonious with sorrow, never writing a dull moment; presenting a reality, beautifully stated, that’s truly virtual before that word became co-opted.


In the same way the sunglasses I’m wearing in the snapshot, the
sunglasses I never failed to wear throughout my later years, could not
prevent or slow the macular degeneration that made those later years so
awful, so humiliating, so tedious for everyone, my wife especially, that
when my death did come they all rejoiced, however guiltily, behind
their show of grief, so you yourself should never think this snapshot of
the two of us on the beach together more than sixty years ago, of me
shirtless in long white pants, black socks, black shoes, holding you a
naked toddler in my lap, neither of us smiling, enlarges you by linking
you to me, or that it could in any way shorten the distance between
here and there, or that these words in a language I never spoke, that
you pretend I’m speaking now, might ever look out from behind the
shades I’m wearing and see what I was seeing at the moment when the
shutter closed.


Small Sillion by Joshua McKinney. Parlor Press. 100 pages.

McKinney cherishes every moment in the natural world, noticing and naming, recognizing and appreciating the outdoor environment almost as prayer. This could describe other poets, but no one tells as much about who he is through field studies; and no one writes it better. Each poetic encounter in Small Sillion is startling, and if words could give off light, they would, every phrase. McKinney’s purpose is to examine the surface of the earth and hold it in conversation with poetry. Each bird entering the page finds the poet participating in its existence. Things that crawl and fly are connections to McKinney’s spiritual life, and he makes us love the living in all ways. This poet has a bright future, but more importantly, a brilliant present, and we’re extremely lucky to share nature’s beauty and mystery through his gifts.


While I stood there, bewildered,
I must have looked a long time
back to that other world,
which held the best of me —

the pasture with its broken tractor,
an old roan who loved sugar,
a brother dead before birth,
the summer cool of a storm cellar,

its rich odor of dirt. I don’t remember
much before the pungent colors chimed
to charm the wary creatures forth.

Eyes shining, they led me here
unharmed. Earth’s common light
was strewn about; my eyes were strewn
with weeping, also with flowers.


Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air by Elizabeth Jacobson. Parlor Press. 102 pages.

At times ruralist, Buddhist, naturalist, mother, lover, this poet feels as if she’s someone you know. True candor and natural music are her keynotes, and every story is as fresh as the moment. Ordinary words are in the right spot at the right time and move on to become powerful phrases. Jacobson can bring a poem home with non sequiturs clever enough to shift the energy, but not overly clever so as to distract. Additionally, unity is her strength, for the poem is dependable, and we enter into good hands all the way, with someone in control. In one tale, the speaker tries to behead a live turkey, and although she fails, the poem (“Killing a Turkey at Belle’s”) does not. Strong phonics and beautiful redundant sounds are always the best raft over the writing, and this poet is visceral and ethereal at once. So, I’m going to follow her star, which is definitely ascending.

Vice Versa

I feel your sand
in our bed

and am at first
angry about this mess

but then I remember
your swimming legs in the sea

how they break at the knee
to kick away and then back

your long mind in agony
over what your body is doing

because you love the ocean
but dislike being in water

just as you desire me
but dislike the taste of

bitter greens
on your teeth


Immediate Song by Don Bogen. Milkweed Editions. 96 pages.

This book features past eras and will be good for every era, especially my own. Do I remember correctly that Bogen refers to Ernie Kovacs? Who else remembers Kovacs? These recollections from the 1950s would appeal to everyone, but they speak intimately to my own memories. The bank, the general stores, yesterday’s theater now abandoned — there’s nothing sentimental in this nostalgia, it’s more an archaeologist matching shards into patterns we recognize.

Part one, “On Hospitals,” is a 13-section masterwork in 10 poems, a retrospective, with the speaker documenting places — waiting for his sisters to be born; carrying a newborn baby back to a hospital; the place his wife had mono as a young person. He examines the ambience with a camera’s eye for description and detail. Hospitals have been featured in many poems for sure, but Bogen’s work is such deep consideration, they’ve never been seen this way. The poems in Immediate Song are clear, perfect stanzas containing interior music, a man’s conscience, and his crystal reflections. He starts with small notions and expands these tiny essays with ideas and pictures that go on after the book is closed. And some fine lyrics: “When my heart was sick, /I rushed to make a song…” (“Sick Song”).

Sick Song

When my heart was sick,
I rushed to make a song,
beneath that white window
as the rain slipped down.

I lured my sad desires
into their little rooms.
The things I couldn’t do
grew fast there, thick and blurred.

When the rooms were full,
I trimmed and scrubbed the song.
I probed it like a wound,
listening for its note.

What could I hear it say
that would transpose my guilt?
Could I secrete my shame
beneath its knitting skin?

I tried it on my tongue,
I breathed it in my lungs
and went on making it
more clear, more wrong.


The Bower by Connie Voisine. University of Chicago Press. 80 pages.

Meditations, ruminations, history, nature, fables, folklore, family, and travel — daily events; painterly scenes — all carefully crafted within the city of Belfast and delivered in 80 pages of phrased couplets. There’s a lot that can be contained within Voisine’s chosen structure, and it moves from fable to fact with liquidity. Hidden within the texts are stories of betrayal, greed, love, war, and a poet’s sensibilities that bring together disparate elements into choreographed meaning — more symphonic than operatic. It flows.

I wake. I am older, old enough to not be quite
beautiful, my skin no longer smooth. I could say

I used to, I used to, but that desire too is fading. I’ve dyed
my hair the brown it used to be and can hear my husband

making coffee in the kitchen. D must be writing in her room
as she often does because I don’t hear her singing one of her

made-up songs, like “Happy Day to the Prisoners!” Arias
in a private opera. I ponder all the stories she shares. Today,

a fawn is separated from her beautiful mother, chased
by both bear and hunter, then rescued by friendly chipmunks.

Reunited, doe and fawn have a good laugh. She’s come to read it
to me, begins as I lug myself up onto the pillows. H whistles

while he putters, as usual; the music drowns in the kettle’s noise.


Fan Mail from Some Flounder by Lisa Vihos. Main Street Rag. 56 pages.

A vigorous book by activist/poet who’s generating 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a children’s reading garden in Malawi, and more goodwill through poetry — especially this book of unforgettable poems, from a leader in life and literature.

 How Poetry Came
for Pablo Neruda

Poetry came to find me,
came to search me out
and shake me up.

I heard no voice,
saw no word, felt no kiss.
There was no pole star,

no guide post, not even
a silent wind. Did it come
from winter or river?

Did it have wheels
or wings? I don’t know.
I don’t know anything

about it. I only know
it came lurching out
of the shadows, wide-

eyed, waving its paper
and stub of coal, needing
a meal, a place to sleep.


Wild Fennel by Marisa Frasca. Bordighera Press. 108 pages.

Frasca’s textured verse chronicles the resilience and plights of immigrants with the curative power of poetry. She verifies the Sicilian experience, at the root, that couldn’t be said better. She reaches us with her photographs of humanity and powerful relationships that tell their stories vividly.


The heart once a child grows old
Forgets to uphold internal law
Develops irritable bowel syndrome
Shies away from eating friggitelli peppers
Shining like red bullhorns
Why risk another spike of heartburn
Feed yourself bland soup
No more forbidden behavior allowed
No being beaten & blown about
Complete bed rest. Right you are
There’s nothing as peaceful as being walled-in
Days & nights are more predictable
Rust grows around you like a halo
One morning you’ll wake paltry & gray
& hovering in the air
The smell of an old woman’s underwear.


Bitter Bites From Sugar Hills by Sara Fruner. Bordighera Press. 108 pages.

When a poet writes in English as a second language, we get a more precise understanding of words. This is a terrific portrait, paying tribute to Manhattan, and Fruner nails the city with clear, fresh perceptions that work like silk on the page. She owns her words with personality and originality in this high-caliber collection.


wearing pink air
as a balaclava
and first concocting
then humming
a crispy war cry
it is sabotaging winter
heading to outshine

criminal and terrorist
the only legitimate
green card holder
has entered the country
smuggling in a cargo
of color and wonder

Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s poet laureate. Her latest books are Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishing, 2017) and, recently, a chapbook, Showboat (GOSS183, 2019). She produces “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now from the Library of Congress.

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