Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Showboat: A Cavalieri Odyssey

Whisper loudly that, with this review of Grace Cavalieri’s long poem Showboat, her 21st collection of poetry, the Dresser has phoenix-ed the Scene4 Magazine blog The Dressing.

Grace Cavalieri’s Showboat has arresting wires to The Odyssey, the Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, the mythological tome that tracks the hero Odysseus’ dangerous trek home from the fall of Troy. Cavalieri’s sets up her story of being a US Navy pilot’s wife with three quotes that speak to her subsequent approach which mixes low and high art. No where in these lines by American country singer Dolly Parton, German mystic poet Angelus Silesius, and the multi-award-winning American poet Bob Hicok has she tossed the reader a hook alluding to The Odyssey. However, the back cover of this chapbook pulls one up short with this stanza from the poem:

Asleep in the dark whatever may happen
He’s flying over a postage stamp
Landing on a dime without a light
The phone rings   a voice says
I know your husband’s gone
I know you’re alone
I’m watching you

Cavalieri’s stanza 34 echoes how Penelope, who was true to her husband Odysseus and worried for his life, had to deal with unwanted attention from would-be suitors.

At stanza 28, Cavalieri readies the reader for the more overt Greek epic poem connection when she reveals that while she is waiting for the return of her larger-than-life, war-fighting pilot husband, she is reading—to her young daughters, no less—Kazantzakis, the Greek author who wrote Zorba, the Greek and who was nominated nine times for a Nobel Prize without winning one. Something Cavalieri, who has promoted  thousands of poets through her remarkable 42-year-old radio program “The Poet and the Poem” without a whiff of prize recognition, might be willing to speak to.

How to be selective    to live till age 50
My hair up in a barrette
For the mailman
Shelley eats chocolate ice cream
Colleen vanilla with chocolate syrup
Cindy paints on small chairs
Angel listens as I read
         Teilhard de Chardin
Her first steps toddle to the French masters
          Running with Kazantzakis

At stanza 73 out of a total of 75, the poet questions, “How could I a frightened/ Traveler be given so much/ should I list his love…” as well as “How could he be dead/ If his clothes/ Hang in the closet and every day/ I lay out a clean shirt in/ Case it’s needed”. While Penelope busied herself with weaving a shroud for Odysseus' elderly father Laertes to ward off the Suitors, Cavalieri ever true to her husband Ken continues to lay out his clothes for the man who came home alive and whole from his life as a Navy pilot, grew old with her (he too as artist--metal sculptor), and then died. Women have always been associated with fabric as a metaphor for relationship, as the way women take care of their men.

Cavalieri opens and closes her epic poem by setting the telling of the work in a retreat house in New Hampshire. (She in fact has become the Traveler.)  The precursor stanza, appearing alone before the poem starts (call it Stanza 0), reads like a mysterious proem where birds stand in for the jets Ken flew and the poet is “Pressed against the pane” (or should we read "pain"?),  a line that seems to refer to stanza 30 “Women have windows/ From the beginning/ For good reason Mary Ellen and I flew…”. At the end of Showboat, the poet re-evokes New Hampshire and the window pane, writing it is “cracked from the course of time/ It’s just the brink of the abyss/ follies of stained glass”. No reason to stop here, Dear Reader, other themes abound in this surprising, pointillistic poem with artwork by Dan Murano and Cynthia Cavalieri.

Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s tenth Poet Laureate and Showboat is her 21st collection of poetry. Goss183, an artist collective, has published Showboat.


  1. Even if I am the subject, I could not have imagined a more penetrating and elegant understanding than this. These tears, Karren, are for you.

  2. All hail the gracious Grace and her poetry/—and her love.

  3. Can't wait to read Grace's latest. She already is epic in so many ways.

  4. Tears for the work and tears for this remarkable review. I sit here, stunned.

  5. Grace Cavalieri is (thank all the gods!) a living legend. She dwells, and will always dwell, among the immortal greats. I know you agree, Karren! Thank you for this beautifully insightful and touching review of one of the heroes of contemporary American poetry.

    1. Well said, Barbara. She is a whirlwind of good energy, even when she is sad. We all love you, Grace, as you can see.

  6. I so look forward to reading this latest collection by Maryland State Poet Laureate, Grace Cavalieri. Thank you, Karren, for such an inviting review!

    1. Sistah Joy, for me writing a review like this one is as good as writing a poem. It gave me the same level of satisfaction and accomplishment.

  7. Grace Cavalieri, the great Poet Laureate of the state of Maryland, is a national treasure. She is one of our finest, most honest, most penetrating and moving poets. Plus, her generous support of other poets and their work is without match in contemporary American poetry. This insightful review gives us a taste of Cavalieri's brilliance and originality, her weaving of so many disparate elements into her beautiful, memorable poetry.

  8. Fascinating. Thank you for this review Karren. I'm looking forward to reading Grace's new book. --Laura Shovan

  9. You and I left Florida and reached the Washington area about the same time, Grace, and have each been super busy since, helping other poets and writers, and publishing scores of books! And not a few of our own poems and stories...Let us soldier on, and on--
    With love,

  10. Smart move, Grace Jane, to connect with the Odyssey story, and smart review, Karren to see how that epic plays out in Showboat. Congratulations to two of my favorite bright women!

    1. Patricia, We all have a lot to be grateful for in this Washington, DC community to have so many intelligent writers!

  11. What a wonderful review, Karren, of this fabulous new work of Grace's. It sounds fascinating!