May 2015 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- May 19, 2015
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
Heliopause by Heather Christle. Wesleyan Univ. Press. 91 pages.
Christle is stunning and we could learn a few lessons in philosophy from her perceptions and speculations. She sees an ordinary moment, a fruit fly following her through the room, then she masterfully finds a tipping point in the observation - writing herself out of the situation where she’s changed everything in the process. Nothing is too small or too large for her clever poetic conjectures. Take heliotrope, for example; at first glance I thought it was the flower but found it’s the region around the solar system. There are lots of outer space references, including an elegy for Neil Armstrong, and all seems fitting because Heather Christle knows we’re like her in consciousness — on the moon or over it — she’s just the one bold enough to write a good scenic analysis. The way I know a superpower is if she seems to write without trying, liberated and licensed to say and do anything—burnishing thoughts enough to put them under bright lights on the page. This is an era where we’re used to space talk; and Christle makes the stratosphere as close as the scarf around your neck, and more fathomable than life on earth. There are a series of letters to “Dear Seth” unpacking a new edge on friendship. I wish she’d write me a series of letters making me part of her eminently fine evolution.
It’s an Empire Out There
I saw you walk
past the window box
and brush against
I saw you
readjust your jacket
saw you kiss
whatever needs our dying
Whatever feeds us
tells us don’t exist
The Glory Gets by Honorée Fannone Jeffers. Wesleyan Univ. Press.54 pages.
This work is voluminous in feeling and relevant in meaning. That’s not all — context is everything. Jeffers writes in the light of black history, Christian belief, and what she calls “hoodoo.” Some book sections are named “Fear,” “Beauty,” “Wit,” so you know there’s some good storytelling coming. But how are these sounds of history framed? Jeffers designs a scene, and then elevates it onto the world’s stage by her ideals. It may be in a poem fashioned after James Weldon Johnson “Draft of An Ex-Colored Letter...” or it may be a 6-page poem for Lucille Clifton exalted by the author’s devotion. There’s also a kind of futurism in her writing about the past because Jeffers isn’t frozen in time. She’s on the wing and we’re catching her midflight. Her poetic forms are venturesome — a different sound and tone to every poem; and when a persona comes into play, it’s High Holiday. The poem “If Free, Then” is after Wallace Stevens’ and Raymond R. Patterson’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; “It’s deconstructed to say what a black bird really means: “1. A woman is a bird:/Birdy Black. / A patched being/ against sky and earth.//2. Birdy rises early/ with no consolation/ not even a measly worm. // 3.The swelled knuckles/ of Birdy’s hands. // this time arthritis. Next, Child, / you better move…”
Anarchy makes art.
When Jeffers is not polarizing lines to a new design she writes faithfully to traditional verse. The Section “Blues” is in the voice of Mary Magdalene, beautiful in simplicity. I need to quote a few last lines to show the way Jeffers can bring a poem home.
“…Have you seen my Jesus/ Tell me pretty please”
“…Bread is good/ Water is good. I wish he’d stop calling my name.”
“…&that woman wouldn’t stop/ God knows I wished she would stop”
“…Touch me not, you told me—/ & then I knew you for a man.”
Jeffers is consistently original and unafraid. And, in a modern world environment scattered and twittered, she proves books are still the best solace.
APOLOGIA FOR SOMETHING
Fall in love with someone’s poetry and thus, fall in love
with that someone. How many times can I explain this?
I’m running out of water. I’m not a child anymore.
I’m talking to you.
I’m talking to myself, repeating a harpy’s creation,
the chatter of disappointed women.
Child, get yourself together.
I’m closing a book as my father’s door was closed, as he locked
himself in a small room. This is not a metaphor. It was nearly a cell.
How did I know? Daily, I sneaked in there.
He was gone.
The times he was present, maybe he was locked inside. I can’t say
for sure. I can say what he forbade me: his presence.
A knock at his black man’s hour.
He had a soul. I know that. It was lined with the approximation
of tears. It was a hunger for scabs and scars. For life
to finally be over. He couldn’t take his children and wife with him.
He wrote so many poems.
I believe I’ve read them all. I read so many others. I’ve tapped the covers,
lifted a weight to my ear, hoping it would grow light in my hand.
Congratulated to catharsis,
but catharsis isn’t healing and my love isn’t love. It’s something else—
I’ll get it together and I’ll reopen the book. You’ll reread this poem and fall
in love with me. Drive someplace I’m not. Cry one, two, three tears.
My Feelings by Nick Flynn. Graywolf Press. 82 pages.
There’s a kind of humility in Flynn’s poetry where he consistently says he doesn’t understand what he’s just written. That’s because he’s interested in how artists talk when they’re lost in their work. He also likes to search for what hasn’t been done before with a thought as it reaches the page, conquering it at the last minute with new imagination. Flynn is non-linear but you don’t need a map because you’ll want to take risks with him — he bonds us with words, and vulnerability, providing a cradle for our own feelings. Alcoholism, first verse of six:
Once I fall from my stilts once the elephant
steps over my body once the strong man tosses me
& everyone like me into the hay once I step out of my little car
once the enormous hammer crushes my tiny flowered hat
once I climb the rigging once I leave the cannon
once sawdust becomes my sea
The poems with his daughter lighten the air — while others of his mother’s death permeate, but do not dominate, because Nick Flynn is just educating us about the unreasonableness of life — joining us to a community of hearts that, once broken, are wider and more open than ever with an even greater capacity.
BELLY OF THE BEAST
at the edge of what was,
the river held back
by the stones it has carried,
the knife in your hand
rain. Inside this day
without beginning or end, it cannot
stand still inside you.
One day I’ll leave — not you
but all this — this hunger
that pushes each wave.
The Lunatic by Charles Simic. Ecco. 84 pages.
What if the world were a funhouse mirror where, walking by, you saw the edge of something significantly noticeable - then you realized it represented the whole damn truth of it all? That’s what Simic does to us in his crisp tailored poems. They are like jazz to a note; even if you can’t dance to it, it makes you alive. How do we describe the colors of Simic’s voice? He writes by the seat of his imagination and every poem is in the moment. You are present with the poem — with the gentleman burglar who cannot make up his mind what to steal, or a girl running barefoot in a wedding dress yelling Where the fuck do you think you’re going — or say, a goldfish some kid threw in a puddle. These moments are immaculately said and remind me of William Carlos Williams seeing a piece of green broken glass on the hospital sidewalk. YOU ARE HERE. Like the sign in the mall says. In Simic’s poetry, you are here.
Simic controls his humor and reins it in, for he knows, by the genius of irony, that if he didn’t the reader would. His inspiration comes from his very core, sensibilities so rare and individual, what critic could ever criticize? Who would not buy this book for a friend?
Have you introduced yourself to yourself
The way a visitor at your door would?
Have you found a seat in your room
For every one of your wayward selves?
To withdraw into their own thoughts
Or stare into space as if it were a mirror?
Do you have a match you can light
To make their shadows dance on the wall
Or float dream-like on the ceiling
The way leaves do on summer afternoons,
Before they take their bow and the curtain drops
As the match burns down on your fingertips?
Selfish by Albert Goldbarth. Graywolf. 164 pages.
Goldbarth brings everything to life: Darwin, Jung, Dickens, Goldbarth’s father, Grandpa Albert, etc. He’s a bringer of life in poems that exceed much that’s being written today in scope, ambition and sheer doggedness. It takes a seasoned poet with knowledge and ingredients to write the long poem. Well, of course, anyone can fill up the pages, but the integrity is in how well the connections stand up with inserts of signifiers and ideas. First, it takes information outside of poetry: science, psychology, literature. Goldbarth is a brain trust, and he knows how to compile and stack thoughts to make a page visually readable and where to put the silence.
Goldbarth has a distinct voice, tone, energy. You’d know him anywhere. He also has the ability and self-will to change his melody from poem to poem. Selfish is big data about our world, today and past, impacted by its cruelties, and prisons of desire. The poet has a sincere investment in society’s values beyond making them into a poem. His work challenges us in a serious way to regard evolution, space ventures and what we think we’re doing here. The poem World is in couplets: “You shake it, and a spherical confusion/ of white — A dazzle — lifts and settles// on the lovely miniature world inside/ a snow globe: but there is no market// for dust globes, even though the Great Depression//is worth commemorating, with tiny men//and women and their tiny, tired persistence/ on a long road, carrying babies and pans, and earth// the dirt, and Earth the planet, whirling against each step.
A poet is who his art is, and this one knows what he’s doing. Along with an interest in transformational systems, he has a reverence for family and its origins. It’s as if he feels an obligation to –- as long as he’s breathing— let in the ones “who are leaning on the rail of the ferry as it hops in place in the water,/ itching to be let loose in Manhattan…” (On The Way.)
Lineage is the common thread from a genesis of plants and atoms, rocks and liquids to visions of ancestry, Goldbarth is a spokesman for humankind with its great story — one that will not end with him but you can be sure he’ll stretch its readership.
“Ignorant armies clash by night,” says Matthew Arnold
in “Dover Beach,” the armies of ten-year-old African children
who think God makes them bulletproof, the armies
of drug cartels removing faces with X-acto knives
and leaving them on the families’ stoops, the armies
of petro-nations shouting oil oiloil the way the frat boys shout
for pussy under sorority house windows all night, my sister
the Civil War, my sister the Korean War, the Afghanistan War,
my sister a tiny engraving of the Iliad, all of its blades
and running blood, my sister a Cliffs Notes
for the story of the Trojan Horse, my sister
against a background of nations drawing
swords, spit-shining missile silos, the war
on drugs, the war on poverty, if there’s a war
on cancer does it imply that cancer wages war
on us, my sister so little,
my sister her biopsy,
my sister with her fingers crossed,
my sister may the earth and the sky
convene at the horizon
and negotiate détente.
Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn. Harper Perennial.114 pages.
The reason we keep reading is because we never know when the next book will knock the bejesus out of us. I think I found it. Dark Sparkler enters the lives of 38 women celebrities who were transfigured by rejection, false gold, drugs, death, and the elemental truth that Hollywood eats its girl children. The greatest sadness is that each story is one of a desperate love to succeed, to please, to star, or even to be noticed. We could add the addiction of applause. The poet confides in us and writes lost souls to salvation through the virtue of caring. Every tale is anguish and grief but for the women who luckily got away. The total roster is an exploration of how meaning and purpose can be removed from a woman’s life simply by the breaks she gets in show business, and the calloused place it occupies in the world where greed and commerce are the bottom lines strangling so many. There are other cases (Sharon Tate) who lived and died a funny kind of romance with fame. Some names of actresses I knew, some we all know, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield. I’d wondered whatever became of Susan Peters. The prose poem on her is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve seen in a long time.
The poems never get too morose because Tamblyn changes them up with current names, places and phrase, but if your heart is not affected greatly after reading, it’s time for a checkup. We want our stars to be happy because they are America’s alter egos, just like football fans want their players to win. The rich, the famous, the gifted are the fantasies of theater and film. If it were not for enthusiasts there’d be no celebrities. Tamblyn implies that when a woman is popularized for exploitation she’s not longer a living breathing thing. She's an image, and how this image is treated, abused, and destroyed is the wreck coming toward the train. These startling poems are definitions of our culture. We all think actors and actresses are a different species so we treat them without humanity. Tamblyn stands up against this by naming names and making poetry from life incidents but the anger and tears did not start with her. What a fabulous book of poems: this is where all the help in the world cannot help celebrity, and while we say, “Well, that’s what they wanted.” Please remember the translation of the Italian word FAME is “hunger.” And how beautiful above all else that dies, dies the hardest.
Your neck was a study of the asterisk,
the silken shape of Sanskrit,
the sucker punch of succulents.
Your neck pinning glacier,
fine as the grind of a blade curve,
Soft as a K in a known word
long as they say about slow burns.
Your neck the place where pearls retired
below the face your girls admired.
Your neck was a fortune you did not spend.
Your neck is what they’ll remember the most.
Your neck in the end.
Breezeway by John Ashbery. Ecco. 105 pages.
I’m wondering how to describe Ashbery to one who hasn’t read him. In Heading Out he writes “A single drop fills the rainbow glass…” He begins By the Bypass “Pucker your ankles. Don’t freeze the weapons, or/ at this hour a lot of places are going to be cooling down…” And in Psychic Bitters starts “Did he describe the blue stripe again, / unelected governor? /…”
Ashbury makes me happy because who else do we have like him? People say he is of the New York School etc. but he’s of no “school,” He’s John Ashbery. His writing is ceremonious and cordial. His word choices are quirky and elegant. He depends on relativism and all that he does not say we accept. Ashbery must have no sense whatsoever of what can go wrong and I would term his work improvisational animation.
The confluence of ideas blends even though no two are alike and so we enter the atmosphere and the Ashbery climate of wizardry. But don’t get me wrong, he’s not seeking our approval. But I think he would like us to drive 0 to 60 if we want to keep up. Breezeway is the fruit of his work. I can relate to family matters in this closing line from A Greeting To My Brothers And Some Brothers-In-Law “…So. /You’ve been asleep/ because he remembers it. / Now I’m supposed to be here.
Once the giant tickler is out of your system
its equipment equivalent will be brought to you.
Use it for goatseed.
plagiarizes his own authors. For shame!
Dopey music all the time.
All those don’t render the house unresonant.
Do what I can
in this unsuccessful world.
Don’t smile that way.
River House by Sally Keith. Milkweed Editions. 63 pages.
“I do worry I miss what I might have loved” says Sally Keith in her (untitled) poem # 13. This is the soul of the book, along with missing what she did love dearly. It’s about a Mother’s death and a daughter’s life. The sea is a character as well, and the moon and life understood through the memory of literature and art.
Keith mirrors her journey with others’ phrases: C.S. Lewis (describing mourning as a surprise); John Singer Sargent (made painted diaries of his trips); Kandinsky (called the point a connection between two worlds); Dickinson (writes “You cannot fold a flood”); Louise Gluck (“Don’t listen to me, my heart’s been broken”); Francis Bacon (“not the sort of gay man who spent his adolescence staring at a mirror asking, ‘why am I not normal?' ”); Elizabeth King (“Memory changes the size of things”); Herodotus (said dreams act like mirrors); Clarice Lispector (“I let myself happen”); Basil Bunting (“A strong song tows us”); Peter Gizzi (“Being/ It’s a small word.”)
I name Keith’s names above, not to rip the poem apart from its moorings but to show the supreme gift of knowledge used in the development of the story about her family (Mother as centerpiece) and the act of remembrance. The strong feelings from other artists convey her own emotions making them actors in her tableau.
The 63 poems are carefully drawn in stanzas of 2, 3, never more than 4 lines. Poems in couplets preserve the conversation well because tumult is then contained in form. Control works for Keith because her changing perspectives are made trustworthy with stanzas narrowed into the right line lengths. The work is a compelling unveiling, page by page a life recalled whether the speaker is cleaning out the river house to take clothes of the dead to the thrift shop; or the speaker is eating pesto and prosciutto salad “for the first time without my mother…”
These are elegies. They say we are all the same in grief and Keith calls upon painters, writers –contemporary and ancient voices—to help add to the thriving practice of shared pain. She shows that great thinking never dies; even as everything around us, and those we love, turns to dust.
I’ve lost my sense of humor.
I don’t care about the supermen.
It was Florida, but cold.
Even the alligators were not acting normal,
Sleeping heavily as tourists stepped over them.
The cheese sandwiches had harissa.
We ate in jackets, looking for birds and trees.
Metaphors were abundant:
Nurse logs, solution holes, and
A River of grass everywhere.
From the sofa in Jane’s apartment
I waited, hoping to see a shark in the bay.
We had had a Cuban coffee.
Of course, the problem isn’t memory.
Sprinkler systems alternated.
Transportation took me home.
Birds on Elephant by Ted Bernal Guevara. Anaphora Literary Press. 63 pages.
This is strong direct poetry with a distinct sense of “self” at the center. Writing is always a question of how much freedom a poet allows him/herself in a poem. This is part of the human discipline we call craft. Guevara knows how to exercise the spirit just right — each gesture exactly the result of the lines before and after. He connects effortlessly to the reader as if we’re friends, telling us his stories. He can be lyrically beautiful. Listen to these lines from Song of the Maya: “I shut up when the heart speaks, when it says it / must put things aside, make one announcement./ Not that I don’t listen to the dropping of wings./ Find that sprite voice covering a cry or an ache./ I’d wish it’s coming from me…” He can also be political in a nonabrasive way. In Read Adrienne Rich: “I take it that she was more armed than me, / more bullets in her rifle, her scope more adjusted/ and her aim more accurate…” Every poem seems a different discourse sharing Guevara’s transformations.
How to be with a with a Heart
See how the sunrays fall on you?
You no longer need those.
Close your eyes; shut all the tiny cracks
within. For they will only disturb
the voice, the smooth whine;
the crescendo rolling
down your spine, lingering deep and up to redefine
notes allowed to lull you are ears,
filtering your thoughts of continue;
filtering eye shadow anguish,
Blue-eyed soul is your blinders
for the stark
And if you happen to flutter,
down will be there to be scolded.
The Strait by Andrew Jarvis. Homebound Publications. 82 pages.
Jarvis is a naturalist and his landscape is the Pacific Northwest, a plentiful homeland of visual beauty, prowling animals and local characters. There’s a joyousness about his observations, figurative and representative at once. He knows when to compel silence in exact line lengths and expert phraseology. After you read a poem you’ll step back and see even more; reread to see how a good poem recreates itself. This poet’s knowledge of his land makes us comfortable readers.
A Greeting from Raven
The Christmas card depicts Raven in black.
The bird disguised himself and stole the earth,
and then he stole the sun and moon for men.
He tricked Sky Chief into his awesome theft
by transforming himself into cedar
to be swallowed by Chief’s only daughter.
And he became the babe who squawked all day,
the boy who cried all hours for food and gifts.
They gave him toys so he would smile before
he robbed the box that held the world’s daylight.
The card contained his wings, and eyes, and beak.
It may release his trick and steal the sky.
So leave it closed to keep the stars for us.
Lunette by Pamela Davis. ABZ Poetry Prize. ABZ Press. 73 pages.
Davis is charismatic. Each poem becomes charged, changing the calcification of words to living encounters. I like so much the poems about her father, grandmother, mother, family. Her father was a mortician and a gambler. “After work he soaked his arches in formaldehyde. I’d stare at his white feet, flat/ as bottom fish…/// …Nights he sat up drinking, he’d look in as he passed our rooms…” (Nobody’s Business But Ours). And her mother ailing in a group home can break your heart; “…Mother sleeps. Is washed and changed. Today they’ve put her in another patient’s clothes—/ pink fleece kittens. When I was little I was terrified I would lose her at the market…” (Huntington Beach, November). She speaks of marriage too and colors each word in a way not seen before. From The Other Side of the Bed: “… You can grow to hate the way his head/ dents the pillow like his mama’s lap, / mouth open. Greedy baby…” Davis is not afraid to show the kinds of truth in love.
There are travel poems. A new look at Paris with a mobile heart. This is not poetry of illusion and fantasy. These are real poems in a real world, marvelously stated. She goes down roads we do not know — speaking of wanting a baby — with the great gift of indirectness — working it through another’s story. Davis creates keen caring poems where we find out who the speaker is with a new sense in every poem, each in a different kind of language. What a feat to be so versatile, to have such inner resources — poetry as lines of inquiry into our complex existence. There’s much speculation about the life and death cycle, beyond family, even to birds, and dogs, and dead cats, but never over-elaborately. Always just right. This is a substantively important poet who knows who she is — then, we learn more who we are, by the reading.
On Saturdays our mother dropped off my brothers
and me at the First Church of Christ Scientists,
drove off with a cigarette burning in the ashtray.
We sat straight in hard little chairs while God was spooned
into us like exotic salad – omnipotent, omnipresent –
that was better for you than it tasted. We wanted to be Methodists
like our friends. Wanted to be pals with cool Jesus in their Easter
coloring books. When they went to, we bent
to the Bible and Mrs. Burrell, who said pain
was on our heads. Our bottoms froze. Mother ran late,
always, half the day lost. Confined to bed, Grandma read
the Sunday lesson from Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures
fingers stiff as crickets clamped to the page. She refused
aspirin and spirits, convinced to the end that death
was just a misunderstanding.
Kamikaze Dance by Amy Barone. Finishing Line Press. 30 pages.
Amy Barone owns her work and it’s strongly singular. There’s a focus point within each poem — a disappearing thought into the horizon — an avoidance of the obvious.
We Became Summer
Long before we needed protection,
we formed tribes and pick the chief.
First-borns have a knack for stirring idolatry.
Bike rides energized us one innocent mornings.
The sun perfumed our fresh skin
before self-awareness replaced laughter
and possession replaced play.
At dusk, seduction set in.
Bruises faded and mosquitoes fled.
Lightning bugs appeared, as beer-soaked dads
threw teen neighbors into backyard swimming pools
and we invited boys into the playhouse shed,
before ennui replaced embracing fear of the unknown.
The Only Gift to Bring by John Fox. Seasonings Press. 26 pages.
Fox is a spiritual writer. He speaks at a very high level with a sweet melody and a harmonious structure of meaning. There are crescendos and diminuendos. He delivers a message.
Consider What Happens
Consider what happens
upon hearing a poem
that moves you. The nod
of your head, tucking
your chin close
to your chest, as if
stopping to rest, as if you could cry now
in the middle of a long journey.
Here, whatever you regret having forgotten
even with your aching tiredness
(which you cannot forget) all of a sudden
turns to surprisingly vibrant sky
as your eyes widen ever-so-slightly
in a recognition that shimmers
under your skin, wells-up
into a calm line-of-sight
that is your own and goes on
astonished, you walk outside breathing
and slowly stroll in the fresh air
suddenly aware that back in your house
someone new, a stranger you like,
A Green River in Spring by Matthew Thorburn. Autumn House Press. 20 pages.
Thorburn shows his love of classical Chinese and Japanese. These poems bear the imprint of their origination and elements — natural observations, yet these are happening for us right now in new poetic territory by a master writer.
The sun breaks like an egg over everything
east of here. Stop stop, enough enough,
the sparrows say — or that’s what Lao Wen says
they say in Chinese. Take your tarnished
born, your wooden flute and break
this silence — alone beside the dark water, desperate
for the birds to get to work — delicate
as the last skin of ice on a winter river’s wrist.
Boxing Without Gloves by Barb Reynolds. Finishing Line Press. 26 pages.
Relationships! The value and the poetry of relationships!
The other day, you told me
that I’ve become old; that life
has left its imprints on my spirit,
a little on my face, mostly
around my eyes.
It’s the letting go, the letting oneself go.
A recalcitrant surrender.
But you’re right, I have aged.
Time no longer feels vast and limitless,
or for wasting. Life has overtaken me
more than once and the climb back up
gets harder each time: the digging out,
the searching for air pockets, the dreaded
piling-up of casualties. Crawling around
on all fours, collecting myself.
I told you
that every time you threaten to leave,
a little part of me goes away.
Grace Cavalieri is the recipient of the Washington Independent Review of Books Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by publisher/historian David O. Stewart at “Books Alive” Washington Writers’ Conference, 2015. Her new book is a memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage (New Academia/Scarith, 2015).