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: