Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Before Whose Glory, by Lawrence Kessenich


Before Whose Glory, by Lawrence Kessenich
FutureCycle Press, 2013

There is a lot to enjoy and admire in this collection of poems by Mr. Kessenich, who won the prestigious 2010 Stokestown Poetry prize. Rather than comparing it to another book of poetry, I find myself thinking of Don DeLillo’s 1998 novel Underworld, one of the most ambitious, momentous, and critically acclaimed works in the history of American fiction.

At only 81 pages (compared to Underworld’s 827), Before Whose Glory is naturally a more modest proposition. But it shares its predecessor’s ability to illuminate half a century of American experience by utilizing the viewpoints of multiple characters, in situations ranging from the historically pivotal to the curious to the seemingly inconsequential. Along the way, Kessenich manages to elicit a full range of appropriate emotions—delight, despair, awe, and more than one world-view changing epiphany.

The collection is presented in five sections: Permeable Borders, Even the Biggest Family, Paper Boy, Beauty on the Bus, and Blazing Heart. Along the way the reader learns about—among other things—Fatal Insomnia (a real disease), Henry Miller and ping-pong, what it might have been like to sleep with Jacqueline Kennedy, how the Atomic Bomb changed children’s and adults’ thinking on a visceral level, and the journey of a piano to the top of a mountain.

One of the great things about reading any of these poems is never saying to yourself, “I wonder what that was supposed to be about,” an all-too-common problem with much contemporary writing. Besides poetry, Mr. Kessenich has also published a number of essays, and had several plays produced; it comes as no surprise, then, that he can actually communicate.

If you’re a writer, you’ll probably find yourself shaking your head after reading some of these poems, asking “Why didn’t I think of that? It’s perfect, and it seems so obvious, now.” This, of course, is one of the marks of a great poem.

If you want to get a feel for the evolving, multi-faceted American experience since around 1950, get a copy of Underworld and Before Whose Glory. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

—Kirk Etherton, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

my poems won’t change the world selected poems by patrizia cavalli


my poems
won’t change
the world
selected poems
by patrizia cavalli
edited by gini alhadeff
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
New York NY
261 pages, hardbound, $30

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Patrizia Cavalli’s poems may not change the world but they may change how you look at life. In fact, she is quite direct about not changing the world as seen in:

Someone told me
of course my poems
won’t change the world.

I say yes of course
my poems
won’t change the world.

This simple poem that provides the title to the book sums up how Patrizia Cavalli felt in 1974 and how important it was to her that years later in this compilation of her work these six lines are the summation of a lifetime.

It is possible you have not previously heard of Ms. Cavalli previously. However, when poets with the formidable talents of Mark Strand, Jonathan Galassi (who translated the wonderful volume of Eugenio Montale), J.D. McClatchy and David Shapiro, among others, write translations of Ms. Cavalli, you begin to comprehend the level of respect she instills.

More importantly, as you absorb each page you will realize that she is a great poet, certainly as great as any female poet in the 20th Century. 

I comb my hair
to unwind,
ready or not
here I am.

Behind the bottle
the cat’s whiskers,
I’ll send off those
references later.

I put on a hat,
look in the mirror,
I’m expecting a visit expecting
the doorbell to ring.

Those sleepy dark lovely eyes…

But no love-talk—
I can’t take it.
As for love, I just
want to make it.

She is telling us to relax, to make love without necessarily talking love, without the lies or plaudits or preliminaries.  There is no need to talk about it, just do it.  And perhaps many of us would be better off if we just did it without having to lie to someone or ourselves.

Cavalli repeats this simple philosophy later when she writes: We’re all going to hell in a while./But meanwhile/summer’s over./So come on now, to the couch!/The couch! The couch!

Here she is declaring her independence and freedom to make love with whomever and wherever she chooses. Again, there are no preliminaries no false words of seduction, just the straightforward let’s get to it.
The fact is many of the poems in this book are about sex, love making with or without love.  Yes, there is anticipation. Yes, there is desire. Yes, there is conquering – or being conquered.  Yet despite the seeming coldness of it all, there is hotness of success of getting what one wants. 

There are also poems about life and how it is lived:

Isn’t it amazing that one evening
sliding the bread into its paper sack
I start all over with the same old speech,
reopen the repertory, raise the curtain
to find time standing still, not ever passing?
Nothing has passed, the past doesn’t exist,
born actors never do forget their parts.

Oh my,  I thought, how Cavalli has handed us our lives in seven simple deceptive lines to tell us it all comes back on itself and we know our roles in life and continue to play them:  husbands, wives, lovers, leaders, followers, whatever our role, a variation of Calvinist pre-destination.

There are many more short love poems, and longer stories of life and love, her encounters with the present and past colliding, always amorous, always with subtle humor, yet ever serious reflections of her life and warnings or guides for our own lives.

Thanks to the many shorter works in this volume and translations which give the impression that it is the author’s original work and not the translators attempt to co-opt, as well as Gini Alhadeff’s  excellent editing, one can read and re-read the poems and continuously enjoy a previously hidden (in the U.S.) treasure of poetry.