Poetry Reviews

By Grace Cavalieri



Ripened Wheat by Hai Zi, translated from the Chinese and introduced by Ye

Chun. Bitter Oleander Press. 191 pages.

XX: Poems for the 20th Century by Campbell McGrath. Ecco/ HarperCollins. 119


Poems: New& Selected by Ron Rash. Ecco/ Harper Collins. 192 pages.

Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz. Graywolf. 47 pages.

Friends With Dogs by David Blair. Sheep Meadow Press. 75 pages.

99 Poems: New& Selected by Dana Gioia. Graywolf Press. 189 pages.

Winterkill by Todd Davis. Michigan State University Press. 93 pages.


Ripened Wheat by Hai Zi,
translated from the Chinese and introduced by Ye Chun.
Bitter Oleander Press. 191 pages.

From “Swan” “…On my earth/ on birthday’s earth/ a swan is injured/ as in a folk singer’s song.”

From “Ocean Overhead” “…In the lamplight it seems I’ve met her/She leaps into the

ocean/and the ocean hangs over the barn/It seems the snow/ of my hair and my father’s is


From “May’s Wheat Field” “… Sometimes I sit alone/ in May’s wheat field dreaming of

my brothers/ I see the cobblestones roll over the river bank/ The arched sky at dusk/ fills

the earth with sad villages/ Sometimes I sit in the wheat field reciting Chinese poetry to my

From “Autumn” “... Whose voice can reach autumn’s midnight and ring out there/

Cover our scattered bones—/Autumn has come/ Without the slightest mercy or tenderness:

autumn has come”

Ye Chun, Hai Zi’s translator since 2000, writes that Hai Zi’s suicide in 1989 occurred a couple

of months before the Tiananmen Massacre: “His suicide has come to symbolize the end of

idealism in the 80’s…”

Although psychology and behavior reveal themselves in poems, there is no morbidity in these

beautiful lines that continue long after the poem ends. There’s a halo over the burdens of life that

still speaks of affection. Hai Zi’s range of experience includes much lost love; but beyond the

confines of pain are elements of perception I’ve not seen elsewhere. Each poem evolves through

nature with its message. The devotion and intention articulated by Hai Zi stun me as gold

standards of compassion and dignity.

Also capable of irony, Hai Zi writes a 12-part poem of tiny stanzas from 3 to 10 lines each. He

ends “This Thoreau’s Got Brains” with this verse, “… The sun is the bean/ I plant. It pouts

its lips at me/ I unleash water across the river// This Thoreau’s got brains// Thoreau’s

helmet/ —a volume of Homer.”

Narrative structure is consistent throughout the book, showing us a poet—however young—who

knows the responsibility and consequence of good form. “Hai Zi has changed a whole

generation’s writing of poetry,” says Ye Chun.

On a March day in 1989, Hai Zi laid his body on railroad tracks near Beijing; He was twenty five

years old.

Thinking of a Past Life

Zhuang Zi is washing his hands in the water

a silence spreads over his palms

Zhuang Zi is washing his body in the water

his body a bolt of cloth

Clinging to the cloth are sounds

adrift on the water

Zhuang Zi wants to blend in

with the moon-gazing beasts

Bones grow inch by inch

like branches

above and below his navel

Perhaps Zhuang Zi is me

He touches the bark

and feels close

to his own body

agonizingly close

The moon touches me

as if I’m naked

and enter and exit


Mother is a door, gently open to me


XX: Poems for the 20th Century by Campbell McGrath.
ECCO/ HarperCollins. 119 pages.

McGrath’s not kidding. This is an encyclopedia that shows where we’ve been in the former

century; and what McGrath thinks about it. In these 5 “books” long narratives are made with

natural strength— charismatically and stylistically telegraphed into poetry.

Book 1 chronicles poems from “Picasso” (1900,) to “Wittgenstein; Letter to Bertrand

Russell” (1919.) Book 2 starts with “Mao: On Conflict” (1920,) and takes us to “The Atomic

Clock (1939.) Book 3: “Virginia Wolfe” (1940) to (1959) “William de Kooning;” and Book

4: (1960) “Zora Neal Hurston: Enigmatic Atlas” through to 1979 “The Nation’s Capitol.”

Book 5 starts at 1980 with “Two Poems for Czeslaw Milosz” to end with a 2000 “Prologue.”

Picasso (1902:) “…Yesterday walked across all of Paris in the snow/ with a pastel rolled

beneath my arm,/ a pastiche of doting bourgeois mothers and children/ with a vase of

flowers, no less, utter and complete/ artistic prostitution…”

Orson Welles: The Stage (1935: ) “ …Cast against type, I stand outside of time,/ forger of

destinies, smelter of ore, / my voice like storm-wind swelling every sail…”

The Death of Edward Hopper (1967): “…not afraid of the body but more at home/ with

sunlight infiltrating empty rooms,/ the veneer of bleached calcium on oyster shells,…”

The Ticking Clock (1971:) ” Snoop Dogg is born. Julian Assange is born. Already it is

coming,/ already the new century—…”

Nelson Mandela (1994:) “ …The earth is a single homeland,/ one resting place for every

ancestor. // Beneath the skin we are indistinguishable…”

Poets like to speak and have their say about history and it’s refreshing to have one who, A)

knows history; and B) knows how to structure a narrative in the fullness of a speaker’s voice.

Some of these are persona poems creating the dynamic of theater with character, situation and

plot. I recommend reading 5 poems day to see the making of society through the eyes of artists

and thinkers. Some pages are punctuated by calligrammes by artists, cryptograms, and things I

couldn’t figure out. But boys just like to have fun while writing a historical/poetical treatise, I

guess. Yet in any church, this is High Mass.

Voyager I & II (1977)

Now we begin to speak for you

To greet, entreat, declaim and argue.

The voices we carry are yours, of course,

your melodies and genetic sequences sourced

and etched into our golden cores.

Like spores

from a broken milkweed plant

we float past planet

after planet, their parabolic array likewise

among the elemental designs

we display. Imagine the moment

of contact, in whichever quadrant

of whichever time-lost galaxy,

when they happen upon us and we

rehearse the tale

of how we first set sail

upon these silent interstellar seas,

replay the encoded dreams and histories

which impel a species

to step into the darkness, to leave

the only home it has ever known

in the hope that it is not alone.

Let there be others, in the great night,

we whisper. Let there be light.


Poems: New and Selected by Ron Rash.
Ecco/ Harper Collins. 192 pages.

These are the Appalachians you never hear about except in Ron Rash’s books—the woman who

falls asleep at her machine, taken away covered in blood, returning to work the next day wearing

a wig “She never fell asleep at work again.” These are the people: the little boy sweeping at the

mill whose head is shaved because of all the lint. Rash’s folks are shown at their chores with

grueling jobs stretching beyond capabilities—yet, why does this book read without bitterness?

It’s a quantum field of reverence and gratitude... “Work, for the Night Is Coming” “…but he

will not follow his father / from the field, not until this/ end row is finished with what/ light

windows from the farmhouse,/ where supper cools on the stove…the harvest his father will

reap alone. “ In the line” death-clothes scarecrow a bedpost” is a cold truth. What we take

away is a calculus of appreciation for living, with whatever life brings.

A lesser poet would sentimentalize, or idealize the life hard won in Appalachia but Rash doesn’t

elevate poverty, farmers, and workers, he simply shows us a picture and we’re the ones who see

the chivalry and the dignity. “July, 1949” “… She is dreaming of another life/ young enough

to believe/ it can only be better—/ indoor plumbing, eight-hour shifts, a man/ who waits

unknowingly for her, a man/ who cannot hear through the weave room’s/ soft click,/ fate’s

tumblers falling into place, soft as the sound of my mother’s/ bare feet as she runs, runs

toward him, toward me.”

From the mills, from the mountains, the bottomland, the hay “Belt-buckle high” comes a human

anthem, a tapestry of folks- in debt and in sickness—somehow who get it right. This is because

Rash effortlessly shows beauty, without complaint, in focused moments. He leads us to believe,

without persuasion, that this is our country’s best DNA.

The Trout in the Springhouse

Caught by my uncle

in the Watauga River,

brought back in a bucket

because some believed

its gills were like filters,

that pureness poured into

the springhouse’s trough pool,

and soon it was thriving

on sweet corn and biscuits,

guarding that spring-gush,

brushing my fingers

as I swirled the water

up in my palm cup

tasted its quickness

swimming inside me.


Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz.
Graywolf. 47 pages.

There’s a sweetness in Grotz’s open window through which we see the natural world. Grotz

begins her poems in conversation as if each is “by the way;” then she deepens the image to its

designation and raises the sights of what can be seen in a peacock, apples, poppies. These poems

are aspirational—how life looks rinsed off with clean rain. I believe the best communicator is the

poet who speaks to us directly; and Grotz is gifted in her ability for colloquy, unleashing the

assets of the poem. (Snow) begins : “Rising as much as falling more mesmerizing than fire”

then in part 3; “…in its tiny throes smaller even than mine lizards fire ants/ snakes and

groundhogs that lived underground/ but I never saw snow didn’t see rust only saw green

imitations// of moss hot-glue-gunned on mother’s cuckoo clock…”

Her imagery comes soft and then deepens, (Snow Apples) “There’s a stinging/sensation of

cold on the skin, a singling/ realization, a stuttering that outs itself, has it out/ with itself…”

moving to conclusion “… sad as the stones/ on the lake shore, pink or gray sandstone,/

granite, rusted iron, eroded tale-smooth and uniform regardless—“Every poem is an eye-

opener shared with the reader. A dialogue about how poetry sees. Nature is her paradigm. It’s her

emotional calculus.

The Whole World is Gone

Driving alone at night, the world’s pitch, black velvet

stapled occasionally by red tail lights

on the opposite highway but otherwise mild

panic when the eyes’ habitual check

produces nothing at all in the rearview mirror,

a black blank, now nothing exists

but the dotted white lines of the road,

and the car scissors the blackness open

like the mind’s path through confusion,

but still no clarity, no arrival, only Pennsylvania darkness,

rocks, cliffs, vistas by day that thicken to black. It’s

sensual, though, too, and interestingly mental. What

I do alone, loving him in my mind. Trying not to

let imagination win over reality. Hurtling through the night,

a passion so spent becomes a fact one observes. Not tempered,

just momentarily out of view by the body that perceives it.

So that if it desires, the mind can practice a prayer,

The one whose words begin: Deprive me.


Friends With Dogs by David Blair.
Sheep Meadow Press. 75 pages.

Blair is a poet of the unexpected, making a difficult process look simple with his spontaneous

soundtrack of thoughts. This only works because there’s fluidity and grace. The poems look

conventional at first sight— the vertical, the stanzaic— well, the title poem does experience

space differently, but generally, the forms look familiar. Then something interesting happens, the

poems become actions and sensations. Robert Frost once said that it doesn’t matter what

information we have if we can’t ‘swing it.’ Blair swings in a free-wheeling way; so we never

know what’s coming next. (On Water & Land” (1) Life Forms) “All of us are organs/ of one

body/ but some of us are flippers/ while others cut up. We are determined/ by sight of each

other reductively/ as lumps of meat/ turning rudimentary circles/ on ice, with the shapes/

created by vocabulary.// The flippers have the humors. / The others secrete their moods…”

There’re many ways to achieve tension in a poem. Blair delivers words vigorously and gets

intensity from his juxtapositions—(Formerly :) “… that a possum waddled under his legs in

the darkness, the umbrella still up over the table, the drink turned to water in his glass, the

daylilies not out yet.” And non-sequiturs within the line, (Collies & Sheep :) “We saw two

dogs on a beach, collared, / …the older one game with a limp./ Maybe the dogs had just

met. / Sure, we all screw up at times. / We also found a sheep skeleton…”

Casualness is central to his message, and Blair’s implementation strategy is to write with ease as

if he can’t take credit for any of this because he’s enjoying writing it too much. We call that

tone; and each author has his own. With Blair, it’s word choice + style = originality. (Formal

Feelings:) “Who put all these trees here, / and then soil, bulbs sending up their hard, /

automatic mixers, // so I can’t wait for moonlight on bodega red awning?”

Poem About An Indian Restaurant Downtown

The fewer the details, the more universal the figure of lunch.

Stepped on sidewalk cellar doors eaten away by rust. And then glass blocks

lit somehow with some of them smashed. Eating lunch alone in an almost

empty buffet—the fewer the diners, the denser tandoori chicken, the


Some people leave you all alone with breads. I am one of the people who do

that. Yet I complain too. The sweeter the mango, the more salt on my lips

and pakora.

Late snow falling into crocuses and in between daffodil leaves and stems

on the street, and in the garden, and on the common. The fewer the details,

the stranger and more ginger. The blue god sits bare-chested and vested

among the gopi; blue, the people on their way through the park.


99 Poems: New & Selected by Dana Gioia.
Graywolf Press. 189 pages.

A closing line in his closing poem reads “…What must be lost was never lost on us.” This could

be an imprimatur for this current work. Gioia, in the mechanism of service, has always raised the

bar of poetry with his intellectual brand of firepower. This compilation—the new

work—includes the truest personal narrative we’ve had to date. Craft on Mt. Olympus raises

very good dust added to bold emotional sentiment and declaration. Gioia always sees poetry as a

noble cause, but each book taps into something richer. These poems are more aware of

impermanence, magnifying new strength in the writing. Memories play a central role and I

especially like “Homecoming,” a 15-page 9-part poem that has the making of a personal epic.

Gioia is our modern day wanderer seeing the world as a text to be discerned. In “Shopping”

“…But I wander the arcades of abundance,/ empty of desire, no credit to my people,/

Envying the acolytes their passionate faith. Blessed are the acquisitive,/ For theirs is a

kingdom of commerce.” And able to draw from every venue , (Men After Work) “…waiting

patiently to ask for one/ more refill of their coffee/ surprised/ that even its bitterness will

not wake them up./ Still they savor it…”

There are eight parts to this book. The section STORIES could teach fiction a thing or two about

person, place, and thing— our powerful friends. Plus authentic dialogue. This book is a

marriage of values: writing done exceedingly well; and a heart deeper and stronger than ever.

Gioia has earned his stay in poetry’s future.

Cold San Francisco

I shall meet you again in cold San Francisco

On the hillside street overlooking the bay.

We shall go to the house where we buried the years,

Where the door is locked, and we haven’t a key.

We’ll pause on the steps as the fog burns away,

And the chill waves shimmer in the sun’s dim glow,

And we’ll gaze down the hill at the bustling piers

Where the gulls shout their hymns to being alive,

And the high-masted boats that we never sailed

Stand poised to explore the innocent blue.

I shall speak your name like a foreign word,

Uncertain what it means, and you –

What will you say in that salt-heavy air

On that bright afternoon that will never arrive?


Winterkill by Todd Davis.
Michigan State University Press. 93 pages.

“ Without bird song how would we know the sun is the cut skin/ of an orange rolled into a

circle and laid flat, last fading hour pinned/ to a pine before any star allows itself to be

seen?...” (Whip-poor-will)

Todd Davis teaches us mindfulness in the way he envisions each moment. He makes a passionate

connection with nature—\with every deer, treetop, crayfish, brook trout, cattail, Kentucky

warbler. His panorama is also occupied by family, son, parents—a father we meet before and

after his passing. (Cenotaph) “ I dream my dead father/ spends most/ of the afternoon’s

hours/ stacking rocks he gathers/ from the dried riverbed… (end stanza) “… He calls

them/monuments to dearth, to lack’s own beauty/ and what it allows/ him to make.” And

Davis notices the smallest indentation to each day: (Sulphur Hatch) “… In this half light, our

boy is walking/ home across the early June hay./ Each step he takes/ leaves a shadowed

space/ we’ll see come morning.”

Everything in the world becomes a poem that never ends. Davis’ terrain is the rural land where

chaos and traffic have not yet invaded, and so the poems feel like extensions of a meditative

mind. We don’t imagine him approaching each morning with a mission to document, and

catalogue; instead he has a natural centering, connecting every living thing from earth to heaven.

It’s an exuberance for the mountain, the groundhog— everything given spiritual equity.

Buddhists would call this “the practice of pure perception;” critics might say his is a

reconciliation of thought and form; scholars would praise his knowledge of flora, fauna, biology,

zoology; poets will see the metaphors and aphorisms in nature.

There is death as well as life detailed here, human and animal. There’s illness and suffering, but

overriding is a wholeness in being alive –we might call happiness. This is seasoned writing,

deeply literate, with expertise in the environment. I say we make up a Poet Laureate of the earth

and have Todd Davis every day capture his humility and awe of the natural world, with its

inhabitants—then pass it around like a good, very good, virus.

Self Portrait with Fish and Water

In the world underwater, near the cattails where bass patrol

their spawning beds, early summer light clings to the turquoise sides

of pumpkinseed sunfish, so named because of the shape

their bodies take, not the coloration of their ctenoid scales, tangerine

stippling that stony blue, giving way to a yellow that seeps

to the base of the pelvic fin, an aquatic canvas as if painted

by the artist who cut away his own ear out of love, leaving

a blackened hole the sounds of his joyous screams rushed into,

a coal-dark flap like the one at the side of this fish’s face,

which shows me the world is always receding, fleeing

the shape of my shadow as I walk these banks.


Grace Cavalieri is producer /host of “the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public
radio. She celebrates 39 years-on air. Her latest book is a memoir:”Life Upon The Wicked Stage” (new academia/scarith.)


All reprinted from the Washington Independent Review of Books.