May 2014 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri

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

Graffiti Calculus by Mary-Sherman Willis. CW books. 86 pages.

The Hunger of Freedom by Shelby Stephenson. Red Dashboard LLC Publishing. 76 pages.  

Pachinko Mouth by Michael Gushue. Plan B press. 35 pages.  

In Defense Of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011 by Peter Gizzi. 221 pages. 

Selected Poems and Songs by Robert Burns, Oxford University Press. 417pgs, includes 200 pages of notes on the poems and songs. Paperback.  

Box of Blue Horses by Lisa Graley. Gival Press. 88 pages.  

Imperial by George Bilgere. University of Pittsburgh Press. 60 pages.

Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems by JD McClatchy. Alfred A. Knopf. 225 pages.


Me First by Ann Curran. Lummox Press. 101 pgs.

Watered Colors by Michael H. Levin. Poetica Publishing Co. 25 pgs.  

Beyond the Wall by Bob Buchanan. Cardinal House Publishing. 117 pgs.

The Library Of Congress And The Center For The Book, Historical Essays in Honor of John Cole, edited by Mary Niles Maack, University of Texas Press. 161 pgs.

Graffiti Calculus by Mary-Sherman Willis. CW books. 86 pages. 

Willis writes from a unique state of mind, but one that all parents dread.

In spite of guidance, a teenage boy runs away from home, making the search after him an Odyssey for both the child and the speaker. The poems are about where one goes to get answers. The boy’s life is under construction, and he is off on the high octane fuel of adolescent rebellion which then manages to present an artistic prism through which we reach clarity, identity, and authenticity. Not easy when grief is the buoyancy. And fear. But head to heart, the writing is an agent of change— at once a personal life review— then, introspective looks at the seeker and the one who is sought. 

Why would a person half-grown give up a comfortable life within the skin of care and security to live out desperate needs on the cold streets? Even healthy relationships can yield unexpected results and this poet uses new questions to find her way through language. This heart torn journey could only be presented in carefully controlled couplets. The writer needed to contain turmoil. The reader needed turmoil contained. It is twofold, yet form is ultimately only as good as the person writing. And this is successfully done.

This book brings up an ethical question about who gets to write our history. The speaker is careful to speak only for her own quest, never violating the morality of others, even the lost boy. The poems lead the poet through undiminished longing to find, and perhaps to heal. Each page rebuilds a strength of purpose expertly drawn; there’s no telling the actual outcome of the story, but we have one person’s inner motivations, and that makes for known consequences: a journey of excellent poetry.


Other mothers hunted their sons alone in the city. We reconnoitered

in each other’s kitchens and told

of sons absconding, leaving only their stink, a memory of their sweet

heads, soft kisses, their bodies

now only wisps, spinning blue holograms to reach for in the dark.

                  Then the calls from school –

he gets up in the middle of class to look out the window; he draws 

on the board while I’m talking;  

always late, never there. Get him tested. It became our brand, to have  

                  a boy we put into a school,  

then have to drug to keep him there. The drunk pickups, jail calls,  

                  the names of lawyers. The meds.  

We mouthed enabling, in denial, intervention, tough love like pebbles.  

                  You left me your marks to follow.


Part two of the book turns to what we always do in order survive— we transform: become fable, become legend, become myth. And here is where Mary Sherman Willis and her book triumph.  

The Hunger of Freedom by Shelby Stephenson. Red Dashboard LLC Publishing.76 pages.


Sink your feet deep into the mother earth with Stevenson’s classic poetry of the South. With compassion for his land and its aching history, each page enunciates the past. Slave names are listed, a list of those sold in 1861. Each name is like a shock from silence – each story found, here, is of how life used to be— a compilation of graveyards, harsh winters, country preachers, family heritage. It’s as if Shelby Stephenson’s self-confidence says “that’s what books are for,” making a presence of the past, parading it in front of us, scars of shame and joyous reconciliations.

The poems are ballads that could be song. The first piece is the telling— what happened; and the next pieces are the flourishing of language and the challenge of speaking the good news and the bad. The great thing about these poems is we know exactly what we’re looking at, whether it’s a green cloth awning or tobacco in the packed house. This writer seeks not to confuse – his writing says this is really significant, then he focuses on the task of proving it to us and we find writer and reader together, understanding, and seeing the same thing. The bounty of the work is that we take Shelby Stephenson at his expressive word.


Clematis climbs the basketball post 

around a nail were hunters cleaned small game hamstrung

dogs yelping for the hides 

Daddy grinning pulling skin over bodies

shot–holes inflamed in tender meat  

cats behind the hounds meowing.

Pachinko Mouth by Michael Gushue. Plan B press. 35 pages.

I had to look up Pachinko and found it’s a Japanese game. Happily Gushue has a glossary in the back – utterances from many languages,  all of which are embedded in  his poems with great irony and imagination. Most poets never know what to make of themselves or their work. The rest are lying. Gushue is a magical example of going forth on one’s own inimitable way without looking back, thereby cracking open new ground, and having enormous fun in the meantime.

Michael Gushue is by nature a classicist, by profession a government policy writer, the father of five, a husband, a fearless poet who begins poems  as he says “inappropriately “ with lines by Marianne Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein , Robert Graves “with Dean Young interrupting it,” and who could interrupt  Gushue;  and why would we want to? My favorites here are his Valediction poems, especially the final one in sweet couplets:  

A Valediction For When Words Fail

it’s wrong to say I know what you are thinking,

but it’s wrong to think you know what I am saying


because language is a blunt instrument,

it’s a game of battleship where we float

rules and then torpedo and submerge them, 

shelling each other, shrapnel raining down.


All the Pachinko sounds that spill out of us,

the clicks obstruents, sonorants, implosives –




We are part of the same capacitor;

two bodies whose difference collects ardor.


That stock of touch is our habitation. 

the hive we weave to save our ambered lives.

In Defense Of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011 by Peter Gizzi. 221 pages.


Who’s afraid of Peter Gizzi? Not I, says the reviewer. Although another friend embarking on reviewing In Defense Of Nothing thought it challenging to describe. I agree with that. It’s as if most poets are the tip of the proverbial iceberg; but Gizzi is the whole iceberg with a rainbow caught inside. How to tell about it in the best possible way? To impart, to reconnect, to get inside the poems? To find the motor? To become as unsafe as the poet?

In the creative industry of poetry there are superstars in particular schools of writing. Peter Gizzi is a lingual indicator of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein and that uber world. Poetry is data. Poetry is meta-data, and some writers handle it pragmatically in a direct field of vision, and others, like Gizzi, give clues about the way the world is known to them. These selected poems from five books are helpful in understanding the architectural gifts of Peter Gizzi  studying his extended productivity show us the overall force of his work.

  Gizzi’s early poems are inner reflections placing himself smack in the center of the  quandary of timeless truths. Death of course. In THIRTY SENTENCES FOR NO ONE, he cites a quotation,  “death is not being able to communicate but no longer being able to be understood.It’s a strange grammatical construct but it seems to be his mantra through the book, Periplum, And Other Poems. From that same book is a beautiful bright prose piece DESPITE YOUR NOTICES, starting,

 This is my poem. The one I was afraid to show you. A poem to/ provide against the voices that will ultimately ensure my failure/ in this endeavor. This poem is a pillow, small and embroidered, / the satin death pillow used to prop up the face for one last view/ing.” … 

It seems as if this entire book is an attempt to be heard against impossible odds. Another poem, PSALM, starts “No one lives there…” 

HARD AS ASH is a stunning 10-page poem that’s a Rorschach test of autobiography; and, a philosophical statement about identity with its strong prospects and improvised hope:

“… Father tell me what you think /of me. Is it a face or a factory? Come here / to distinguish the burden of a smile. Attached/ to lightning. As the world was revealed then returned/ to your sandwich. I am who sent me. / Obvious and otherwise a trope was. This laundry/ line strung from year to year reaches/ to the woman I am becoming. Always leads to my fear./ The difficulties of ambiguity…”

From the book Some Values of Landscape and Weather is a fine poem REVIVAL written for Gregory Corso (1930 –2001.)  It  begins with satire, and a gut punch, “It’s good to be dead in America…” and then it becomes the pageantry of life with its falseness, but also talking about poetry as a life force, however difficult, “…What does it mean to wait for a song/  to sit and wait for a story?/  For want of a sound to call my own/ coming in over the barricades,/ to collect rubble at the perimeter/ hoping to build a house, part snow, part victory, / ice and sun balancing the untrained shafts,/ part sheet music, part dust, sings often – / the parts open, flake, break open, let go. ..” Although the last word in this six-page poem is the word “dust,” the time spent getting there that is far from dust. It is energy—often cynical, often squeezed from a rock, but true illumination. Gizzi is an anthropologist of the soul.

I knew the least about the first books mentioned above, and so wanted to spend more time there. But I like the last book best. In Threshold  Songs, there’s a visible turn of the wheel in Gizzi’s writing—more reverence— just as much pepper, but more that is cherished. I find a lustrous quality to these later poems –the same Gizzi substance, but more simplicity and, forgive me Peter, more mercy. 


The good poets defy things 

with their heart

This is how a fragment

enters the people 

Don’t say beauty say the beautiful

say the people 

Say it is through chants that writing

entered the people


Their imagery and love of nature,

englutted flowers


This place of fleshlessness

Here is my song


the only recourse of sun

Even its smallest syllables


can be sewn into the mouth

It is on the tongue the sun abides

Two syllables fastened 

to each end


To stretch the vocal pattern

Its linenlike  thread


Selected Poems and Songs by Robert Burns, Oxford
University Press. 417 pgs, includes 200 pages of notes on the poems and songs. Paperback.



The reader will be relieved to know that although Burns experiments with voices, forms, persons and rhyme schemes, he is readable. It requires a little willingness, not scholarship. Burns’ 18th century life covered the times of the French Revolution, American Revolution; and his first book Scotch Poems was published in 1786, offered by subscription: “The work to be elegantly printed in One Volume, Octavo, Price stitched Three shillings.” The call produced a run of 612 volumes. This interesting book is here again in its original tongue, an amalgam of Scottish and English shifting from one to the other, sometimes from one word to word, sometimes between one line, one stanza. The poems preserve forms appropriated from all poetic forms known to him so it’s a good resource book for linguists who I’m sure can decipher some Celtic, Irish and Welsh lilt as well.

The book has poems separated into those in Scottish dialect, Kilmarnock 1786, and those from Edinburg, 1787. You can congratulate yourself for not getting scared off by contractions and punctuation, like many gnats settling on the page. But I swear there are no vulnerabilities of language, just dozens of styles that become more cohesive and musical by the inch.

I thought it would be harder to read but once you surrender, the flow goes in spite of itself and becomes hypnotic. And songs too! We all know “Auld Lang Syne” but what else do we remember by the Scottish Bard? The songs are unbelievably interesting. These, from the Scottish Music Museum, dozens of songs and verse which apparently took great liberty and challenged musicians to figure out the music, which Burns thought could be improvised here and there. Poems here published posthumously also; but what I like best are the “Contemporary Reviews” of his work and portions of the letters.

Box of Blue Horses by Lisa Graley. Gival Press. 88 pages.

This is at once an epic story, a psychological delineation, and an extended metaphor. This book uses horses as a significant expression of passage. Part of the power of the book is the service of the horse as a primal force within our lives, love, and work. These beasts live in a culture of encounter: workhorses, show horses, mythical animals, imaginary creatures. All represent our own exodus from the firewall of the fake world to the passionate ones we truly own. 

The horses suffer, are in danger, but rebuild their strengths, and the poet reveres and glorifies their endurance but the stamina is really our own. The magical creatures cannot affirm themselves so it is us, the writers, who must extol them. In a way, then, it is a book about our spheres of influence and how the artist is driven, like the animal, to pioneer and – under all circumstances – to perform.

Horses are the poetic materials used so that Graley can make the experience visual; yet, what we are told is that, in a world of perpetual change nothing will stop the horses— for they are—in our fleeting existence, what endures. 


What figures are these

filtered through brume, 

tempered by sun and saltwater?

The horses are storming, 

times we can feel them

though her eyes be blinded

by white sheets changing shape

in the wind and sand.


Imperial by George Bilgere. University of Pittsburgh Press. 60 pages.

George! George Bilgere! Make us laugh and make us cry again. Tell us things we feel and do not say –about attending a banquet we wish were in our honor; or not grading the Robert Frost essays lying on the floor; or stopping at the Piggly Wiggly for wine. 

Let’s put this book in a time capsule so the next millennium will know who we really were— folks holding onto our youth for dear life; people standing in the checkout lines fantasizing of the perfect person before us; or avoiding an argument at the marriage table  by complimenting the pork chop.

As George Bilgere’s golf courses turn to even bigger Walmarts, he becomes poetry’s town crier who lifts us out of The Truman Show and lovingly put us down into moments of truth. His nostalgia kicks ass. His longing restates what wishes can be. In the sea of the present, George Bilgere pops up to the surface gasping for the last light air of profundity and hilarity in the every day – and by the way, there isn’t a flaw in his flow. He has this golden pen that makes no mistakes at all, and it’s as if he’s made a vow to shift the conversation of thought to the page    easily, unrolling a ribbon.

His preferential options are talking about his parents, lost in their unfulfilled lives, but poetry makes this lustrous and unforgettable.  His emotional arguments are with himself, scorning his vanity and what he wishes he could be proud of.

His assets are that he’s effective in getting big results from small funny beautiful stories – glimpses of people, snatches of remarks said to him, and what’s overheard at the next table. How does he get there – so amused and dismayed by his own life, and the lives of those pushing mortgage papers across the desk at him.

He plays the long game – one with no conclusions – he just looks around and writes one hard call after another. This book is recommended for two reasons: one, it is wonderful, and two, I love it. Bilgere makes a good case for why every taxi driver and prizefighter, as well as academician, should/could read poetry.


The slender, balding fellow next line

walking out of the yoga center

with his neatly rolled up yoga mat 

and seraphic, post–yoga glow

probably thinks he is superior to me

as I clump down the sidewalk with my poor posture 

and relatively limited spinal flexibility, my failure

to think deeply, if at all, about my breathing.

Which is fine. He’s entitled to his opinion

However, what he doesn’t realize

is that I live on the same street as he does

and I happen to know, from walking past his house

on garbage day, that he makes no effort whatsoever

to recycle. Newspapers, bottles, plastic containers –

the things you’re supposed to put in the blue bag – 

he just sticks in the white bag, along with the coffee grounds

and cantaloupe halves and the rest of the so-called wet trash. 

Even beer cans are in there (a cheap, off-brand beer, I might add).


I guess saving the planet isn’t that important to him,

compared with mastering down dog up dog or whatever.

So here he is feeling superior to me,

whereas in fact I am the more evolved being,

and I give him a glance of cool, skeptical appraisal 

which I hope conveys this.  

Plundered Hearts: New and Selected Poems by J.D. McClatchy. Alfred A. Knopf. 225 pages. 

Anything McClatchy writes is of vital interest and his selected poems from six books, plus new works, contribute to our understanding. 

I’m struck by the idea that the themes in this book seem to be an example of the Ghost in the Machine philosophy— the idea of dualism –the relation of the body to the mind.  The title “Plundered Hearts” is a line in a poem; these poems are, many times, evidence of a division of thought and feeling. A most explicit example is from the sixth book, Mercury Dressing (2009,) A View of the Sea, where loyal friends are humiliated in order to receive a promise. The conflict and duality of betrayal and longing are characteristic of McClatchy and at the root of his writing.

In most of these poems there’s a transactional moment having to do with love, loyalty, friendship, ambiguity, and misplaced trust. But how many poets have the craft to house their vulnerabilities in perfectly made poems. Courage is at his heart, even when plundered. Artistic courage, in appraising relationships, comes in all magnitudes – at the top of the rector scale is Edward Albee in his play “Goat.” Right up there is McClatchy in Plundered Hearts, for the poems call into question our most valuable resources—human connections. McClatchy makes these delicate tethers a term of art. His technical abilities do not disagree with conventional poems: He’s seasoned in craft and has a handsome line.  And, how many poets can manage a nine-page poem without losing tension? Reality plus myth, always part of the infrastructure.  The secret to the long McClatchy poem is that he layers it in a perpetual state of change, bringing in new material, making it expansive, holding the end game out of sight until he’s achieved the balance he wants – usually a crisis resolved.

McClatchy anchors his work in history, philosophy, legend, classics. He dominates these with everyday reality. This accounts for his readability because we better understand the graffiti on the bathroom wall, mammograms, tattoos, the close of a window, sealing a person’s fate—a background of arts and sciences would be of no use without the utility of everyday functions and observations.

Each poet sees the world differently, but how interactive the reader (or consumer) is with the page tells how successful the poem is. It would be difficult to read McClatchy without getting involved. He’s sometimes horrific. As in “Proust In Bed” from Ten Commandments (1998:) After an erotic Interlude, this, 

“… For three days, each rat furiously circling//The pain of its own hunger.//Side by side the two cages//Are placed on the bed, the foot/Of the bed, right on the sheet/ Where he can see them/ Down the length of his//Body, helpless now as it waits there. /The rats’ angry squealing sound so far away. / He looks at his mother—touches/ Himself—at her photograph on the dresser, /… At once the rats leap at each other/ Claws, teeth, the little// Shrieks, the flesh torn, torn desperately,/Blood spurting out everywhere, hair matted, eyes / Blinded with the blood.  … – he keeps touching/Himself –...

To be fair the spacing in the poem, not shown above, helps to soften the story.

Then there is his well-known poem, “Penis” from Hazmat (2002,) an exegesis on that poor organ, shocking at the poem’s end (as McClatchy plans it to be) with these lines:  

“… Asked by nagging reporters once too often/Why, despite the count of body bags, /we were in Vietnam, LBJ unzipped/His fly and slapped it on the table.” Gentlemen, this is why, “he barked. “This is why.” 

McClatchy can be as lyrical as he is startling. The magnificent 15 stanza poem, ”Kalim” (The Rest Of The Way, 1990,) the end stanza:  

The force of habit’s taken order to its heart, 

As if bodies were the soul’s ornaments,

Reproduction’s glistening egg-and-dart


   A light on the mountains now, as planned 

  As if everything we’ve known we understand.



Me First by Ann Curran. Lummox Press. 101 pgs.  

There is absolutely nothing better than intelligent humor and lyrical energy elevated by stylish writing.  

Watered Colors by Michael H. Levin. Poetica Publishing Co. 25 pgs.

Calm observations showing poetry makes us as alive as we can be.

Beyond the Wall by Bob Buchanan. Cardinal House Publishing. 117 pgs.  

Finely balanced writings, irresistibly clear-eyed and linked by truth.

The Library Of Congress And The Center For The Book, Historical Essays in Honor of John Cole, edited by Mary Niles Maack, University of Texas Press. 161 pgs. 

A treasure trove of the history and historiography of the Library of Congress, honoring the Director of The Center for the Book, John Cole.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and playwright. She produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.

Review copies should be sent to:

Washington Independent Review of Books, attn: Becky Meloan
311 Tschiffely Square Road, 
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20878.


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