• Stephen Scott Whitaker

Grace Cavalieri's collected works is elegant and necessary


“The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Faulkner’s oft quoted line is apt when picking up Grace Cavalieri’s selected works, Other Voices, Other Lives, culled by Rose Solari (a sharp writer in her own right) and the folks over at Alan Squire Publishing. Cavalieri’s poems, plays, and interviews for NPR’s The Poet & the Poem are so very now. Cavalieri’s contributions to American letters cannot be understated, and this collection showcases the eye and the ear of a poet and playwright, as well as her role of provocateur and reviewer with the Library of Congress. Poems, and excerpts from her plays are included in the reader, as well as selected interviews from her radio show, including ones with Robert Pinsky and Lucille Clifton.

Lives opens with poems from Anna Nicole, a collection of dramatic monologues from Anna Nicole Smith’s perspective. The poems jump with authenticity and urgency, for Cavalieri puts the reader so deep into the heart of Anna Nicole Smith that one has to shake the glamour off. Smith’s death in 2007 feels like ancient history, and Cavalieri brings her back to life, kicking, and screaming. Smith’s celebrity and personality made her an easy target, but Cavalieri reminds us that celebrity is itself its own mask. Anna Nicole’s wit and humanity is revealed through her experiences as being a professional male fantasy. Every dramatist knows that only with a mask can the truth be revealed, and Cavalieri’s poems do just that.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a fierce advocate of women’s rights, and the mother of Mary Shelley, is the subject of the second group of poems. In “I Can Think of Far Worse Things,” Cavalieri’s Wollstonecraft quips about her physical appearance, as judged by both sexes, “If I lack sparkle/it’s just because/There’s such a narrow light in this room.” A clean cutaway to the heart of women’s issues, beauty, and how it functions as currency. Male privilege is skewered and picked apart by Cavalieri’s Wollstonecraft, and done so with a double edge of anger and elegy. It shouldn’t be so hard, but it is, and remains so today. Cavalieri and Mary Wollstonecraft know that men long to be the great bearer of knowledge and light to women, to be the intellectual gate, and both Cavalieri and Wollstonecraft do their part to break that gate down; a sisyphean task.

Even though the poems are fantasy, I can’t help but marvel how the real Wollstonecraft's ideas posthumously shaped Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a creature equal to or superior to man in every way save for his appearance. In many ways, Frankenstein is the story of a father who cannot bear to pass along his love, his knowledge, or his privilege to his ugly, hideous child.

Cavalieri’s eye and ear and voice also capture the poetry of the everyday, her mask changing the tone to suit. “Dear Reverend Clare” records the wit of Wollstonecraft, again edged with elegy, as if she knows she will never in her lifetime see women given the same privilege as men:

You ask if hope gets me up in the morning,

I say yes,

Not in your house where

Everything exists,

But in mine

Where all things are lost.

And later:

You are talking to a girl with a pencil hidden

In a broken cup

On top the highest shelf

Stained by curdled cream

Behind a ceramic pitcher

Where it cannot be thrown away.

Other Voices, Other Lives includes poems from “Millie’s Sunshine Tiki Villas,”a novella in verse that explores aging, and satirizes the human soap opera that occurs when people live together. Lady Veronica, Muriel, Conrad, and others populate a retirement home (not a nursing home, mind you) that somehow exudes opulence and degradation all at once,“The plastic volcano once went down into the swimming/pool, then it sported a bar along the top crag (with barbecues at its rupture)/now all gone, all dormant, fires out, pool emptied” (from the title poem). The bodies may be old, but the characters emotions brim with the pettiness of youth. These folks are wacky, and Cavalieri has her fun, I can imagine her laughing, hands riffing the keys of her computer, eyes backlit with joy (her ten minute play The Tikki Villas can be found here on the BKR). These characters are still living, and are damn good at it, finding pleasure and creating chaos as they did when they were younger, now perhaps only smoldering instead of burning with passion:

Let us be clear that Conrad liked the feel of ladies’ frocks

but had no intention of going further in them. The absence of all

desire had left him interested only in fabric and texture;

and who is to say we should do otherwise? Would it be more valuable

to pass his midnight hours sweeping leaves from the gutters of

human contact? Or wrapped in the magic of chiffon and peau de soie?

First and foremost throughout the collection is the reminder that self indulgence is emotionally dangerous, as well as self sustaining. Anna Nicole is forever measuring her worth and self on the scales of the male gaze and attention, Mary Wollstonecraft measuring herself and the whole self of womanhood on the scales of privilege. At Tikki Villas, where more or less the fields are lushly even with wealth, the characters consume each other. We are enslaved to our passions, and they lift us up and sometimes deflate us.

Cavalieri’s poems may be fantasy, and her plays fiction, but Cavalieri all along is telling us how important it is to listen to women, and the women and men who are marginalized by race, finances, or class. When Wollstonecraft says to “Mr Johnson:” “I have a body, a mind, a heart. I invite the world to lay its head on my stomach and listen,” she is speaking for the powerless, and speaking to us all.

Infidelity is the setting of the poems from Cora, which explore Charlie, Cora, and Dorothy’s voices, and are written in response to, or inspired by William Carlos Williams poems Kora in Hell. Without being personal, Cavalieri can play wife, husband, mistress, all at once, often revealing the mundane numbness lying within the marriage.

More intimate subjects are explored in the poems in Other Lives. Here, Cavalieri’s work surprises with sensual delight. In “Morning Poem” she writes:

Fish are jumping in my heart,

no, they are real fish dreaming of me,

no it is not a dream,

this is a real heart.

The subject of the poem shifting so casually from nature to the personal, the speaker, and the poet restless, alive, slippery. And how true is that of life, and of aging, and of all we think we know of love, and marriage. In these later poems, family history, and family myth is explored, perhaps best exemplified in“Carciofi” where “One by one things fall away” and memory like Tuscany “never changes.” Memory, however, is warmed by our imagination, shaped by trajectory, speed, depth. And the kicker, memory, like life, is fleeting.

Cavalieri’s sharp wit, her keen dialogue, and her sense of the comic absurdity of life are necessary. We need voices and minds like hers, especially since the current cultural landscape of the United States resembles a troll sprung Medieval trade route with detours through The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler,” and a TV reality show. Sobering, elliptical, and frank, Cavalieri’s voices undercut male privilege, lare bare extramarital affairs, and explore women’s consciousness, and sexuality. Other Voices, Other Lives showcases Cavalieri’s work as a poet, a dramatist, and interviewer, and its spectacular.


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