Grace Cavalieri Presents Five Books of Poetry

Book World is pleased to present a special poetry month Short Stack by poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri, founder of the public radio series "The Poet and the Poem" -- celebrating its 32nd year on the air -- which she hosts and produces from the Library of Congress. The Annapolis resident's most recent book of poems is Anna Nicole: Poems, and her latest play, also about the late Anna Nicole Smith, is "Beverly Hills, Texas," now in development in New York City.

If, as we often hear, few people read poetry, then why do I have 50 new volumes sitting on my desk? Is it because poets don't read the stats? Don't care if there is no stall in the marketplace? Maybe poetry would like to be noticed but doesn't depend on it. I could be over stating, but one fact is true: the record of human sensibilities is found in poetry. From early times, it is not the land deal or the cattle sale we look to but how people felt and what they thought.

Grace Cavalieri (Photo by Dan Murano)

Whatever the reason, poetry continues to flourish. It's a marvelous way to live and that's why most of us do it. Imagine noticing things for a living. Imagine taking language and standing it on end, turning it around, making it new. Imagine taking words and rinsing them off. Here are five recent books that rinse language beautifully for me. Two of these books, by Spicer and Guest, are posthumous collections.

1. My Vocabulary Did This To Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian.
Here is a book where the blurb on the back actually tells the truth: "The essential collection of a highly original American poet." I'd read single poems of Spicer but had no idea of the scope of his work. He died in 1965 and did pioneer work writing about gay life before it was welcome reading. There is a femme phobic poem or two, and a few addressing homosexuality, but that's not his choice of emphasis. It is a book about love, and said in every language the human mind can fathom. Spicer talks to himself, he talks to us, he talks to the dead. Spicer was an intellectual with a hefty knowledge of the classics so there is plenty to satisfy a reader who likes the last layer in a poem. What I cannot get over is Spicer's ability to write every which way without restraint. I don't know where I read that H.L. Humes' dead father appeared to him in a dream and described life hereafter as finally "getting out of a white suit." This book gets out of a white suit.

2. All That Lies Between Us, by Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
This book just won an American Book Award. Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a straight ahead narrative poet. She's an autobiographical poet. There is forthright beauty in the declarative poem, but it's never an actual picture, because poetry transforms. The reportage of "a life" -- growing up, getting married, raising children -- is nothing we'd care about unless the reality turns into a dream by the writer's hand. I like the way ancestry, family, and ritual rearrange themselves from anecdote, without apology. The poems are colloquial and conversational with an abundance of feeling. This poetry is like eating in an old familiar restaurant instead of one with neon lights and hard chairs.

3. Voices, by Lucille Clifton.
Lucille Clifton talks of race and history. We love her for her humor, parody, and her remembering mind. This new book, just out in paperback, is characteristic of the work we've known -- spare slender poems; a long one is 20 lines. There is a nice feature, a section of Zen-like meditations on ox herding from a series of Asian silk screen illustrations. How, early on, an African American woman in Baltimore raised six children and stayed faithful to the word and to the poem, makes you glad. She won the National Book Award for her previous book, Blessing the Boats, and is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Clifton remains steadfast to her literature, writing without ambivalence, saying exactly what she wants, the way she wants.

4. The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, edited by Hadley Haden Guest.
A lifetime of work cannot be over praised. In a way, language is given to the care of poets so we take this seriously, and read it as one long proposition of human consequence. Most poets write because they have something they want you to hear; others write to play with language. Guest moves away from linear poetry to a more discursive truth. She's not afraid of invisible bridges. She's not afraid the reader will fall off. Her power comes from taking things apart and making something new, arranging words so illumination comes from dismantling, not from sequence. She was an experimental writer breaking new ground with the New York School of poets and painters. I like her because in the 1950's when women were wearing gloves, she took hers off and slugged it out with the literary world and those who owned it.

5. What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009, by Stephen Dunn.
Stephen Dunn won the Pulitzer Prize, and has fourteen collections of poetry. Now we have some of the best of these poems along with new creations. He is elegant in thought, word and deed. If this sounds too much like poetry orthodoxy, no, I'd say there's nothing predictable in Dunn's work. The most rewarding characteristic is narrative suspense; the most attractive, his authenticity; the most enviable, his gentle control. There's something reassuring about a poet who is in complete charge of the form. Never a lump under the mattress, never a wrinkle in his shirt. Dunn's subjects and poetics entice us. It's the same voice we've always known. And in a turbulent world, the truth of him quiets me down.

-- Grace Cavalieri

By Mary Ishimoto Morris |  April 23, 2009; 12:15 PM ET Mary Morris , Poetry
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How refreshing to read reviews of poetry written in the sparkling clean, well-rinsed language of poetry praised so eloquently by Grace Cavalieri. As our civilization sheds what is loathsome and reclaims some of our simpler lost treasures, it's heartening to think that poetry might once more belong to everyone--that its power to enlighten and redeem, enchant and inform, can become part of our human birthright again. Let us teach our children to learn poetry by heart again. Let more poets learn to recite their own verses by heart. Let us remember that poetry and song have always been interwoven, and that poetry--as much as music--belongs to every man, woman, and child.

Posted by: bqwriter | April 24, 2009 1:06 PM

Thank you for your comment, BQWriter.

Hear! Hear!

Posted by: marymorris | April 28, 2009 5:35 PM

"Grace Cavalieri has devoted her career to promoting other poets. She gives selflessly of herself and works tirelessly in a world where most people only care about self-promotion. I wonder where poetry and poets would be today, if it were not for Grace’s generous spirit—she is the guardian angel of poets and poetry.


lovely e-mail message from Avideh Shashaani, posted with permission

Posted by: marymorris | April 29, 2009 3:58 PM

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