November 2018 Exemplars: Poetry Reviews by Grace Cavalieri
- Grace Cavalieri
- November 15, 2018
A monthly feature that looks at books of and about poetry.
Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of the Year, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. Edited by Fiona Waters. Nosy Crow. 336 pages.
George Bilgere was born to write and — value added — born to observe psychological changes in himself and others, making poetry funnier and sweeter than it was before. He lives the life he has — as professor, father, husband, with stories welded with rhythm — making trips to the swimming pool, sitting at happy hour, or walking behind the neighbor — nothing less than tiny epics — with originality, a force of its own, making unforgettable events.
We know humor is about the unexpected; but it’s also a form of candor. So Bilgere works his poetic gifts to tell anecdotes with uncommon progressions, level changes, and killer last lines. Life is hard, so why not take our everyday trauma and turn it into magic? Here’s his plan: Start with a wide scope and narrow it down to notice the quality of every moment, set the pace, and keep it moving, release more energy with surprise, and give it a happy/bittersweet outcome. That’s the formula, and it’s a good day for poetry’s progress. He needs — no, he should have — the Mark Twain Award for his service in making us all so happy.
My four-year old son walked up to me
in his pajamas and said, “Father,
I would like to personally thank you
for bringing me into this world, a world which,
despite its moments of darkness and confusion,
is a place of immense wonder, where beauty
and joy are just around the corner. Being alive
has been extremely impactful for me.”
And I looked at him and said, “Son,
if I ever hear you say ‘impactful’ again
in any context whatsoever,
you can just kiss your late night chocolate milk
and tater tots goodbye.”
Which is called “tough love.”
Party diary, part confessional, sexual, emotional, and openhearted — the whole family is here, the lovers, the lies, Julie’s betrayals, all made graphic. Each page is a chapter in a buoyant uninhibited life with specifics. Mayda Del Valle is equally girlfriend and goddess in this full and glorious disclosure of experience and feelings. It’s the Big Tell in candid detail. I love the way cities and rooms are described, the vernacular of food and drink. This may be the most sensual writing of the year. Missy Elliott and John O’Hara blend to make the sounds channeled through this hip-hop soulful and romantic.
I am 8, staring out the back
window of my daddy’s Chevy
on a Saturday afternoon down 71st St.
before it became Emmett Till Road.
Black dots hover in the sky,
sound and chopped air engulfs the car.
Before my tongue can even wrap around these syllables,
before my mind can wrap around their meaning, I see
the wave of red, black, and white flags, swastikas,
shirtless skin heads, KKK emblazoned on chests, combat boots
and black leather clad shoulders, visible between the wall
of blue: silver badges and night sticks,
police cars and restless horses enveloping Marquette Park.
Hear that word my ma told me I should never use,
see it printed, black and bold on poster boards
This is America.
I can’t think of another writer who honors the shark as the driving dream of a poet’s consciousness. This is the way Carney explains the world — philosophically, environmentally, and emotionally. We learn about the shark in its actuality and we learn about the creature as a life energy — scientific and poetic, accurate and dreamlike. Carney has found a form and context for his own journey. Uniformly stunning couplets unfold an impeccable story. And at the heart, the storyteller is an American boy telling a tale of great range and true hearted poems in tasteful commentary.
The cousin of a shark is a manta ray;
and the cousin of a manta ray, a hawk;
and the cousin of a hawk is lightning, the ocean reborn,
returned skyward and alive with storm;
and the cousin of storms is a waterfall;
and the cousin of falling is the wind;
and the cousin of wind is erosion
leaving rock, the bones of the mountains, scattered;
and the cousin of the mountains is a row of teeth,
and another, and another behind;
and those teeth are the cousin of the manta ray,
lightning, the wind…
Once in a while, we remember that poetry is born from beauty. As much as the tempo of the time presents the fierce edge of reality, we are grateful for the silky prose of a refined mind. Sereno does no high dives — isn’t a risk taker — she doesn’t go for grandstanding. Instead, she chooses harmony in meaningful structures. She writes as if every day is a bright new day.
The sky is always falling.
But what drops in November
carries weight: nuts and leaves,
needles and seeds, the coarse
and tumbled lament of geese.
And in the afterglow, the silence
that falls on the fields.
The world has always longed
to take back the sky.
This is what Einstein and his friends
always miss when it comes to gravity.
With hunger for its root
and a homesick heart, gravity
is one of the names for love.
This is truly the most terrifying book I’ve read this year. The training manual imitates the teachings of a slave master, one Colonel Hap Thompson, who, for the sake of rearing good slaves, gives methodical/technical lessons in their handling — yes, “handling” is a term used for training animals. What’s most chilling is the academic presentation, as if in good faith, teaching dehumanizing, the lowest form of human conduct. This account, were it presented any other way, would be intolerable. But Everett strikes a resonant chord by using the elevated and refined language of an educated “trainer.” The power is in actual reckonings — brute force so that individuals become subhuman; and if they do not comply, subjecting them to dehumanization again and again. It’s torture dignified by logic, philosophical beliefs, and white man’s rhetoric.
A good long whip, long
enough to tear flesh, is necessary,
but must be short enough
to be wielded indoors as well as out.
A common snaffle bit is handy
for use in early training
when employing the lash.
It is important to note that the lashing
need not be administered
only as punishment.
Especially in training
it is effective to introduce the lash
as not only a reminder
but as an educative tool.
Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship by Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo. Milkweed Editions. 336 pages.
“March 14, 2014
“I loved seeing you after Stage Kiss and meeting the wonderful Victoria. You both brought me great joy and the feeling that the play had been received!”
Sarah Ruhl, noted playwright, taught Max Ritvo at Yale. (Click here to read Exemplars’ review of Ritvo’s last book.) Letters between friends. Their correspondence will break your heart, not only because Ritvo has succumbed to his disease, but because conversation between artists is distinctly different, and truthfulness is never boring. The intention beneath every letter is love and these are just two dear friends and colleagues talking, but because of who they are every page is an original sound.
Birnam Wood (El Bosque de Birnam) by José Manuel Cardona; translated from the Spanish by Hélène Cardona. Salmon Poetry. 96 pages.
There’s something about Spanish poetry, this particular poetry, where nothing appears lost in translation. Its bold, declarative tone, elevated content, mystical moments, contemplation, and fire show through in Spanish and now English. Especially memorable are the 20 poems to Circe.
We had taken a seat
next to the Sphinx alone
on the cliff. We evoked
the shipwreck of those days
with caresses and trumpet sounds
the unbridled frenzy of dawns
that will never recur
in the snow and sleep.
of merlons ablaze
and the howl
of the hound that in our procession
would remain petrified on the shore
or agony of a yawning world.
The Little Book of Passage (Libretto di transito) by Franca Mancinelli; translated from the Italian by John Taylor. The Bitter Oleander Press. 97 pages.
These are beautiful little vignettes, prose poems — four, six, eight lines — with lyricism at its best in translation. This is a psychic journey of deep observation and awareness — self-reflection not done well would be self-absorption — but Mancinelli’s work is intentionality made pure. Genuine thoughtfulness is the common thread from page to page with remembrances through imagery and sentience. Clean, clear, and true writing.
You’re tired. You’re making the buds break out. The bark is
splitting apart, no longer resisting. With closed eyes, you keep
fighting. The earth is a rock, crumbling into tiny pieces of
gravel. It is a wall and a door. Keep sleeping. The leaves are
speaking to each other like brothers. From the heart to the
crown of the tree, the leaves are thinking up a sentence for you.
Born in Ukraine, a citizen of New York, living in the Bay Area, this ubiquitous poet, performer, jazz scholar, and Jewish community leader writes of everything from Baal Shem’s teaching to Yom Kippur to a dog pissing on Niagara. Who would not want to read him?
End of the Semester Remarks
a deep reader, your son
but not an intellectual
there’s simply a brooding
machine somewhere inside him
that comes into purview
reprocesses it all with soot
none of what he says is original but
it is profound
in a way confusion is profound —
along with its noble source
and randomness with which it inhabits
the aforementioned machinery
I only happened to have fed it
this one semester
What is a woman’s body? Who owns it once touched? How does one restore self-identity? McFarland, in verse — then in pointillistic dialogue with the poem — explores the issues not resolved ever since Eve was touched.
I won’t compare my state to a season
What you’ve done cannot be parsed
You are leaving without a decent reason
Left me spinning — a stunned shell in the dark
You promised you would always listen
You promised you would let me touch you
And I was full enough not to question
Whether all you whispered was real or such
Crap. I’m left wondering why a Ph
D in cuckoldry would prove to be a
Shitty mystery and abscond with my
Heart and my so-few bucks. What the fuck?
I guess thee could compare me to winter
This masterwork is pure body heat about the humane and the inhumane — how we treat each other — in anecdote, narrative, personal, and historical poems. A spectrum of stories is rooted in the Midwest with indelible characters and memorable events. Smith can sound like your next-door neighbor even while lacing cruelty and sweetness neatly together. He’s captured the heart of rural America and navigated its conscience brilliantly.
These are four of 18 haiku:
SOME HAIKU FOUND SCRAWLED
IN THE MARGINS OF THE OLD
FARMER’S ALMANAC 1957
No one owns
In the window
The farmwife moves
To a different pane.
Museum in winter —
In the dinosaur skeleton,
A few bones missing.
Late-night diner —
A lot of silverware
For one mouth.
Aragon’s new chapbook is a collector’s item. The poet memorializes the Spanish poet Ruben Dario in poetic dialogue with the present. In Section II, Aragón also presents seven Dario poems in original language. The physical book, as work of art, reminds us that this is an object to be cherished. The paper alone wants the book held to us. Each flyleaf is made of handmade paper from banana leaf by paper artists. In every way, Aragón shows the consequence of poetic intelligence, passion, and esthetic virtues.
Ox I saw
as a child, breath
of steam, vivid
in the sun, Nicaragua
a fertile ranch
tropic, dove in a forest
of sound — wind,
bird, bull, ax:
of me are these
and these I praise
yes, ox: lumbering
you evoke tender
dawn, the milking hour
when days were white
and rose, and you
was all was
When we realize there are just so many subjects all poets can write about, we marvel that Riehl writes beyond herself to find new beginnings for old themes — recreating and releasing language never said before, always natural to her personal visions. A lost child, an aged mother — these are not without precedent, then why does the knife go so perfectly/so beautifully through the heart?
It came like a hailstorm,
how we were caught
in the updraft,
breath sucked from our
air-hungry lungs, swirling
up and into each other until
we were condensed, layered.
The extreme drop and lift,
the growing weight of us —
how were we to know
the hot and cold of it?
I could have stayed there
forever. But I couldn’t stop
the rapid descent,
how everything blurred
against the glowing white
of our fall.
Solonche is master of the short form. His epigrammatic tidy poems are philosophic gems. Solonche sees humor and encapsulates it; he frames a thought in perfect verse. The adage is, “I don’t have enough time to write something short.” Add, “and even less time to make it art.” But Solonche manages.
on the lake
do not care
the bottom is,
but only how
deep the top is.
And here is a significant “found” poem:
did not have
a white shirt
or cloth on
When you open this book, the energy pops off the page. It’s a free-wheeling, lack of fear of language. Maybe the confidence that lights up the word comes from years of writing novels, sharpening so many pencils and ideas. Whatever makes for the holy fire, I love it. Tracy is so real you can almost touch her with her observations, mishaps, wry information. There’s sadness here, too. Who can avoid this? But something wonderful holds everything up like a gleaming net under an acrobat’s high-wire act.
I fell from a Bible. A half-blonde tease.
With a good good start, I struck out
God-filled and thrilled to claim a spot.
Here? Where? There? I touched grease,
dough, steels. Raised my low country hem.
Up. Up. I met the butcher, the baker,
the transmission maker. What next? Girl-girl
sin? Boy-girl err? No. No. Trouble came.
Pure purr. He led me off a hat-flat roof.
All swish. He spun me near a slippery crag.
And I let him, let him. It wasn’t all bad.
Trouble makes trouble and soon Trouble went poof.
It’s not a sin or err I live down now. Wow. Wow.
But his act, so thoughtless, like a bull mounts the cow.
What strikes me most are the emotional variations Colson can imagine. I like especially the poems that interweave the real and the surreal in conversation. Common threads throughout are love of family, grief, and memory, but these are no ordinary verses: Check the way the poet enters each poem differently, how he uses the page. And notice his range of subjects, interests, and desires. Colson’s is an infectious and reflective voice at poetry’s fine table.
From The Wrist And Reaches
It is hard to remember him,
but I can see my father in his quiet August:
a young man, handsome and blue-eyed,
his smile not yet crooked and small.
I see him in the garden picking tomatoes
from their strangled green vines —
the time of year that opens from the wrist and reaches —
he smells of summer and dirt. Hot and alive,
a wire in my throat.
Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Each Day of The Year, illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon. Edited by Fiona Waters. Nosy Crow. 336 pages.
A Child’s Garden of Verses is something we grew up with. Such books should be given to a child, family, early on to grant the best possible life. Some poets you love are here, and new ones, too. Each month has its index of daily poems, and I’m glad I didn’t have to obtain the copyrights. So what if it weighs a pound on the bathroom scale? Keep it on the coffee table for its vibrant colors and gorgeous visuals.
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
(By Robert Frost)
BEST WRITER’S MANUALS
How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach. W.W. Norton. 176 pages.
Voice, rhythm, figure, song, repetition, image. Thank you, James. Even seasoned poets need this! I’ll use this book for teaching.
We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress by Craig Morgan Teicher. Graywolf Press. 176 pages.
A new approach to tracking poetry via essays. READ the last chapter on how Gluck progresses! Then you’ll then want to start page one.
Send review copies (2019 releases only) to:
Washington Independent Review of Books
7029 Ridge Road
Frederick, MD 21702
Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio and podcasts. Her newest book is Other Voices, Other Lives: A Grace Cavalieri Collection (Alan Squire Publishing).