Since 1996


Poetry Reviews

By Grace Cavalieri




Dome of the Hidden Pavilion 
by James Tate.
(James Tate passed on before this review could be released.
We honor his Memory.)
143 page

It’s a good thing when a new book is not the sum of a poet’s work but a completely new turn of events. I remember when The Lost Pilotwon the Yale Prize and how many times I read it. I’d never recognize these present poems as written by that same author,although there is a flavored style of humor and grace. Also silliness, and that greatest force in poetry –levels of imagination. 

This is a writer who doesn’t look back over his shoulder at his reputation. He bridges over to the rhapsody of the new, the unthinkable, making a rhythmic frame of art and play. That he personalizes with his humor should go without saying. The requirement of poetry is that it has a unifying principle: These poems are all prose poems with characters, dialogue, supernatural possibilities and extraordinary outcomes. They’re really funny.

Part of the fact of Tate’s success then and now is the vocabulary of the truly free poet who flourishes because he knows limits are just something to push through.   He doesn’t look back.

In memory, this poem from "The Lost Pilot" written in honor of his father.

My head cocked toward the sky,

I cannot get off the ground,

and, you, passing over again,

fast, perfect, and unwilling

to tell me that you are doing

well, or that it was mistake

that placed you in that world,

and me in this; or that misfortune

placed these worlds in us.



Denise Levertov. A Poet’s Life
by Dana Green.
University of Illinois Press.
229 pages.

 "reprinted from The Washington Independent Review of Books"

Levertov is remembered as a political poet who believed that poets should be active in the

world; she lived this. She was a game-changer when few other women poets were writing

about American foreign policy and our country’s internal combustions. She was among the

most prominent voices throughout the 1960’s anti-war movements; and, while a peace activist

and demonstrator, her poetry never suffered. Levertov took on the Viet Nam war and Iraqi war

as Mary Wollstonecraft did the French and American Revolutions

DL exceeds our imagination because she is such a self-created myth. Biographer Green unlayers

a life showing how every move was structured to build a monument of her own thoughts

through poetry. This was a woman who was a poet first (mother, wife next) since she only

understood the world by what she wrote. She attempted to apply rational thought to an

emotional life and this made her a meta-thinker and writer but never at peace with

relationships. Dozens of poems address strategic questions about our society, elevated to

statuesque language –not easy to convert public issues to prosody. In later life, she turned to

religious questions, and lyricism deepened.

Levertov’s personal life – eros, pathos – was self-absorption to high art. DL was also a rolodex

of psychological disorders, not your sweet sister. She was arrogant and needed to be adored by

men. She was critical; and yet unable to take criticism: “exacting and inflexible;” “bossy and

demanding;” “she lacked sympathy for people.” This biography shows a great talent within a

prison of need for approbation. Sex was one way she found assurance. This may describe any

number of poets but DL is significant because, as poet Roland Flint said, “The work is all” and

she was, and remains a major figure—industrial-strength, even today. Dana Green proves to us

that DL’s work is essential in the development of American poetics. Although Levertov was a

woman who rationed mercy to people, her poetry is merciful and compassionate.

She did not like the language poets.

She was homophobic.

She craved orthodoxy.

She struggled with American cadence and her English phraseology.

Yet we can see DL as a corrective to the poetry of the 50’s, with its inwardly confessional bent.

The Cultural Revolution brought her poetic power to full force. She was a risk-taker, a rule

breaker, but her poetry was classical in form. She had an intellect to match the dynamic of the

greatest minds of our time.

DL’s stridence is what disturbed the order of her life. Yet, the friends she chose for their loyalty

were lifelong companions and were with her until her dying moments in 1997. Some she

fastened forever: Carolyn Kiser and Lucille Clifton, James Laughlin, Sam Hamill, Robert Creeley,

Al Young, Eavan Boland. Galway Kinnell, among them.

It was not her contemporaries’ opinions DL sought. She needed to define herself by thinking

her way through philosophers, spiritual leaders and then write of her metamorphosis. She

longed for the union promised by God, but lacked the luck of faith; so she tried to think, study,

and argue her way to Heaven. Faith is actually just skipping all the questions, but that was not

her way. She was born into a family of Hebrew scholarship and needed liturgical conviction

through compelling ideas. She converted to Catholicism in later years.

As DL’s public trajectory put her at the top of poets in the 60’s-90’s, her personal life left a few

broken people in its path like a son who could never be reconciled and some poets who

differed from her. I believe her rant against Lesbians was to provide a plausible deniability for

her very stern stuff.

John Felsteiner said “…she was a unique presence because more than any other poet (sic)

since Yeats had everything come together in an organic whole poetry, religion, history and

politics, the natural world and people.” Greene ends the book with this Levertov quote: “Not

farewell, not farewell but faring// forth into the grace of transformed/ continuance.”

Biography cannot easily summarize this woman yet Greene seems to distill DL’s actions and

behavior as a result of original rejection which sought fullness through writing. The purpose of

our wounds is to show where the hurt is; and, their value? Time is deciding well for Denise

Levertov. This biography makes clear the strivings and benefactions of Denise Levertov’s life

and work; and we are the better for it.


Grace Cavalieri celebrates 38 years on-air with “The Poet and the Poem” on public radio, now from the

Library of Congress. Her new books of poems (2014) are” The Man Who Got Away” and “The Mandate of



A look at Mayakovsky: A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt

Seventeen-hundred grams of genius. That’s what Vladimir Mayakovsky’s brain weighed after his death in 1930 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His brain weighed 360 grams more than Lenin’s, “a bit of a headache for the ideologues of the Brain Institute.”

There’s no other chronicle of a Russian-born poet so richly detailed as Mayakovsky: A Biography (University of Chicago Press). Swedish author Bengt Jangfeldt researched materials never seen before to give a full account of the “Futurist” poet’s private life and public turmoil.

The book stayed by my fireplace most of the winter waiting for its (sometimes) five-page-a-day reading. Friends would walk in and say, “Hmm. Mayakovsky’s still here.”

The book’s fascinating, for sure, but the complexity of Russian politics before World War I is a lot to unscramble for someone who knew nothing of the power factions except the Bolsheviks — and no less complicated are the love affairs, marriages, abortions, betrayals, trysts, and suicides.

The book is a maelstrom of free love that makes Haight-Ashbury look virtuous. Jangfeldt traces all the (many) female relationships that influenced Mayakovsky’s art and life. The poet began as a lyricist, with love and idealism at the center of his work, although his poetic form was far different from classical antecedents.

He broke from tradition to create new phraseology on the page. Remember what Russian art looked like with Dadaists and deconstructionists leading the way? Americans got their first look at this new art in NYC’s 1913 Armory Show. Old molds were broken to create new forms, and this influenced the writing of American poets.

Mayakovsky entered the scene as a young art student in filthy clothes, with rotting, yellow teeth, carrying his own drinking cup because of germ phobia. From this, he rose to enter the monied class of aristocrats and artists, scrubbed up and supported, initially, by the married couple Osip and Lili Brik.

(In fact, he was the third party in this marriage — an unusual arrangement for even today’s most liberal thinkers. In a triangle, there’s always an odd man out; in this case, it was not Mayakovsky.)

Why do I speak about sexual gossip at the book’s core? Because romantic turmoil fueled the art — the source and context for Mayakovsky’s writing — even during the time he turned his work over to the state for Lenin’s approval.

Conflicts, internal and external, finally took a toll on Mayakovsky’s life, and he died at age 36. There’s conjecture that his death was a murder and not suicide; the bullet didn’t match the gun, and two shots were heard. It’s still unresolved.

Mayakovsky wanted to be a part of his country’s restoration. He wrote utilitarian poetry for “the cause,” saving his finer art for the stage, screen, and page. He was a spokesman for the Communists, spilling out propaganda and didactic materials.

We have a confounding view of a man who never actually joined the Communist Party but wanted its support, love, and protection — a friend with benefits. This sounds reductive but shows the riddle that was the man, and a metaphor to better understand his life.

He spoke at rallies and became the voice of the Revolution. He was a member of the “Left Front of the Arts,” editing its journal, LEF. Mayakovsky was a unique individualist now preaching for artists to abandon individualism to make the arts better for communism!

Although Stalin appreciated “futurism” far less than Lenin did, Mayakovsky enjoyed privileges and was allowed to travel to European countries as well as Mexico, Cuba, and the U.S. Among Mayakovsky’s books is My Discovery of America.

In 1921, Mayakovsky had an affair with the artist Liya Lavinskaya, who then gave birth to his son. The son grew up to become a sculptor of the state. In 1925, while visiting America, Mayakovsky met a Russian émigré and, after a brief affair, Elly Jones gave birth to a daughter, Patricia J. Thompson.

Thompson ultimately became a professor at Lehman College in New York City; she wrote the book Mayakovsky in Manhattan about her parents’ love affair. Thompson waited for Perestroika before revealing her identity. Her mother had kept this secret, especially after Trotsky’s murder in 1940. Emigrés had much to fear from the long arm of Soviet reprisal.

The book concludes at the Reign of Terror sweeping the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s. Socialist Realism was then the only “viable literary form.” Mayakovsky and Gorky were “its leading exponents.” Boris Pasternak survived the purges — and, thankfully, so did his Doctor Zhivago — but Soviet authorities forbade Pasternak to accept the Nobel Prize in 1958.

Joseph Brodsky is mentioned briefly; American poets regard him as a contemporary. Before immigrating to America, he spent seven years in a Soviet Labor Camp for using folkloric language rather than state-assigned rhetoric.

Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky: A Biography is a history book with characters we care about: Anna Akhmatova, Marcel Duchamp, Maxim Gorky, Sergey Diaghilev, Osip Mendelstam, and dozens more who shaped culture under a terrifying regime. And as for the writers? Some cooperated. Others expired.

Grace Cavalieri is producer of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress.” Her latest books are The Man Who Got Away (newacademia) and The Mandate of Heaven (Bordighera).


F/Poems/ Franz Wright. Alfred A. Knopf. 79 pgs. 

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

You know the “there” no one wants to go? Prepare yourself to go with Wright’s new book. I am always waiting for a new poem from Franz Wright. Who tasked him, before he was born, to come and take on every feeling known to us, sacrificing himself to the gustatory pain of existence, so we, and poetry, could be more vulnerable: i.e. the human side of language. This could be the source of passion—an abhorrence of the past leaving nothing possible but a faith in the future. Is the nervous system able to take this reconciliation? The book opens with the poem Four In The Morning.

Wind from the stars.

The world is uneasily happy—

everything will be forgotten.

The bird I‘ve never seen

sang its brainless head off;

same voice, same hour, until


I woke and closed my eyes.

There it stood again:

wood’s edge, and depression’s



shade inviting me in



No one is here.


No one was there

to be ashamed of me.

And so the tone is set and page by page from the land of silence a lucidity so compelling that we close our eyes from astonishing moment to astonishing moment. From Section lll, the poem Learning To Read: “ If I had to look up every fifth or sixth word/ so what. I looked them up./ I had nowhere more important to be. // My father was unavailable, and my mother/ looked like she was about to break, /and not into blossom, each time I spoke.// My favorite was The IlliadTrue,/ I had trouble pronouncing the names; but when was I going to pronounce them, and// to whom?/ My stepfather maybe?/ Number one, he could barely speak English—// two he had sufficient cause/ to smirk or attack/ without prompting from me.// Loneliness boredom and fear/ my motivation/ fiercely fueled.// I get down on my knees and thank God for them.// Du Fu, The Psalms, Whitman, Rilke./Life has taught me/ to understand books

I especially like the fifteen-page poem, Entries of the Cell with Wright’s restless expansion of form—single phrases, the gift of space, long paragraphed stanzas—an outpouring he so handsomely leashes. Part of this is conjecture about the speaker’s name as he roams hospitals, bombed out churches, rooming houses, ‘lower depth rehabs.’ The poem finds the letter F in an old notebook:

It’s a capital F that takes up a whole page


My name, or grade in life?

Who names their child Franz and throws him to the boys of

American grade schools?


Franz. It would make a good name for a dog. Some retired

Shepherd, perhaps…

In this contemplation, one more thing could be added— that the poem itself is the meaning of eternity on earth with an awakening every new word of its writing. We are grateful that the person who has been tasked to say the most is the most earnestly accurate to the task.




In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, author Jane Hirshfield asks, “What do these words want of me?”

What does this book want of the reader?

The book tells us to see clearly with 10 essays that are “windows.” Many of the truths come from Hirshfield’s blood memory; others, from a life lived within an intensely emotional, intellectually ordered world.

Each chapter is a tiny universe of subliminal ideas turned to thought, with poems used as illustrations. The purpose is not to popularize poetry but to guide deeper appreciations, and when the book is done, it is obvious that Hirshfield can change our knowledge for the better.

Every chapter answers a big question, so Ten Windows becomes an existence that stays after the reading. Chapter one is about seeing through language, hearing through language, centering on Gerard Manley Hopkins‘s poetry.

Chapter two is about the cycle of destruction and repair becoming the “writer’s despair” and, also, the greatest gift. Chapter three is an introduction to haiku. (Hirshfield is knowledgeable in the field, having brought our great haiku writers to public attention.) Chapter four is about “the Hidden,” concentrating on the “underwater portion” of a poem’s life.

Chapter six is titled “Close Reading: Windows”: “Every poem — every work of art — is already working when considered as a whole, as a kind of window: art is a way to release our attention from immediacy’s grip into gestures that encompass, draw from, and remind of more expansive constellations and connection.” Hirshfield calls this “an enlarged intimacy.”

Ten chapters of diverse subjects — each is discrete in form and content. You can enjoy any part out of sequence. Pick the book up in the middle; it’s okay, because the book’s dynamic is Hirshfield’s intellectual and technical skill bringing harmony to the range of topics. She gives high energy to understanding the quantum field of poetry.

Poems are used to invoke new ways to listen to “the word,” with philosophical principles from science, history, and literature as reasonable accommodations. The book is a perfect course in poetry. I’d love to teach a chapter a week for 10 weeks.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio. She recently received the Washington Independent Review of Books’ first-ever lifetime achievement award.




All reprinted from the Washington Independent Review of Books.