OTHER VOICES, OTHER LIVES: An Appreciation
By Richard Harteis
This book represents a lifetime achievement in the literary arts. Grace Cavalieri has the Midas touch and every genre she touches turns to gold. And as the very last line of the book says, “love is the bed of gold we lie on.”
For years, critics have celebrated this extraordinary “force of nature.” As Robert Pinsky says, “It is a blessing to American Poetry that this radiant, giving spirit, with her appropriate first name, is there in our capital city: a light amid fog.” Rose Solari writes in her introduction, “Poets from Seattle to San Francisco, from Miami to Manhattan not only admire her work but have stories to tell about her generosity, her enthusiasm, her wise critique of poems that haven’t quite found their final form. Her gift for friendship and for building community is legendary, yet her attentions always feel very personal.” Or as Linda Pastan says, “Poetry, drama, the interview – Grace Cavalieri has mastered all of these forms with intelligence, imagination, and a gift for language. Her wide-ranging work is beautifully crafted and always alive with emotional resonance.”
The goal of this review is to look carefully at each of these forms to see exactly how she works her magic. “Each of us has a pond. Mine is deep,” she says in one of her poems. I’d like to plumb the depths of this pond to understand and possibly illuminate this unique voice in American literature.
OTHER VCICES, OTHER LIVES is like a vaudeville show, with each act outdoing the previous performance. The final poem of a book is the organization of the poems according to Frost. Here, Cavalieri is the top-hatted Ring Master announcing the various acts that have startled and entertained her readers. Poems, plays, and interviews drawn from 40 years of work as a writer explore a wide range of subjects from pop culture, to women’s history to autobiography.
One of Cavalieri’s greatest talents fuelling all of her work is her ability to enter into the consciousness and emotional lives of her subjects, a Mistress of Negative Capability. Like an uncanny scene from invasion of the body snatchers, Cavalieri becomes Anna Nicole Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the star-crossed demented lovers in Pinecrest Rest Haven. She achieves this verisimilitude, this eerie channeling with brilliant dialog, metaphor and an ability to imagine how her characters imagine the world they find themselves in. In some cultures, it is forbidden to take a photograph of a person because it is felt a photograph captures
the soul of the person being photographed. Cavalieri has no such shame as a photographer. In an early poem, “Negative Capability,” Cavalieri actually announces this idea as Anna’s psychological defense mechanism against rape: “Once she heard on TV that if a man rapes you,/ he steals your soul./ That had always stuck with her. That’s why she always gave in to men, so she wouldn't have to be raped, so she could save her soul.”
As a dramatist, Cavalieri is exquisitely aware of the old rubric for fiction writers, “Show, don’t tell.” She knows the importance of detail in setting the scene so we can see the actual subject living her life “He was a PhD student working his way through anthropology./ She bent down and took his head and arms./ Now what would she do with her unused understanding./ There under the bed, she saw her other satin slipper. Somehow she knew it would fit.” Cavalieri adds another level of meaning with the allusion to Cinderella, Anna Nicole’s twin sister, if you wish.
It is said that Robert Frost needed only to point at a section of a poem for the poet to realize what was needed or had been achieved. This working method can best show her brilliance by quoting stunning lines that shock and delight throughout the book.
The dramatic monologs in Anna’s voice are bejeweled with unforgettable metaphors to fix the emotional landscape. At one point she can not pry the fingers off the old lecher who has taken her to dinner. It was, “not his actions that saddened, but the flat wet hand of grief/against the hot cement of her heart.” Meditating on her true love, the poet pins Anna like a beautiful butterfly struggling against the chloroform men would overcome her with: “Since Nature was the mouth of the heart,/ Anna stuffed it with cake and waited. At night she/ made noises and banged doors. That way she knew/ she was alive. She could prove it.”
In the next section of the book, Cavalieri takes as her subject, the groundbreaking eighteenth-century feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft. She focuses on the lesser known details of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life rather than Mary’s famous daughter, wife of Shelly and author of FRANKENSTEIN, or Wollstonecraft’s untimely death at age 38. When Lady Kingsborough castigates Wollstonecraft for writing Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (“Really now. A masculine mind, Mary?/ A governess with a man’s mind?”) and daring to suggest that “parents/ should raise their own children/ instead of servants” the only guilt Cavalieri imagines Mary Wollsonecraft feels is “guilt for being light of heart./ No one else but myself to care for.” Cavalieri is wise enough to know that while Mary fought for equality with male intellectuals, she also wanted their love. In a poem for Mr. Johnson, her publisher she remarks, “I have a body, a mind, a heart./ I invite the world to lay its head on my stomach and listen.” In the end, she ruminates on a solution for that life which makes her (and Cavalieri) heroines to young women then and now: “Teach yourself how to think, Mary!/ For no one will do it for you./ Be the knife.” I had the pleasure of reading my own work with Grace last year, and watched as young women flocked to her after the reading to hear more from “the knife,” as I stood idly by like a vendor selling snow cones in the middle of winter.
In the next sections of the book, our Poet Ringmaster presents Mille’s Sunshine Tiki Villas, a retirement community where residents compete with each other in search of romance and revenge. Similar love trouble plays out in CORA, a suite of poems styled after William Carlos William’s improvisations, KORA IN HELL. (Among her many awards and honors, Cavalieri is the recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award.) The poems are simply a riot, with titles such as “My Boss Thinks I’m Great,” and “Some Plain Talk About Shoplifting.” A reader can take real pleasure in these poems once he has plugged into the kaleidoscopic often zany shape of Cavalieri’s mind. A taste: Her character Muriel remembers, “Years later I would own many a diamond ring and will have won an award from the Wendy Ward Show as the best mistress of events at the Mongtomery Ward’s fashion show for children under eight.”
But in the next section of OTHER VOICES, OTHER LIVES Cavalieri returns to her inspirations with theatre pieces based on Anna, Mary and Mr. and Mrs. P from the Tiki Villas. It might have been less head swirling if each character had been matched with the poems and plays, each put in their own bed as it were – my only criticism of this book. But in the theatre pieces, Cavalieri gets at the heart of the matter with a different optics.
All writers know how difficult it is to write humor, but in Cavalieri’s case it is the little engine that drives all her work really. Here is Anna’s agent addressing an aside to the audience:
“HORSHEL: Frankly, as good as she looks – as big, as blonde – as dazzling as a drag queen at three a.m. – I’m told by my clients that her sex just lacks conviction. Whatever you think of her – whatever you think of me – without me she’d be just one more ice cube in hell.” Horshel’s brainstorm for Anna’s career is POP PORN (“They put it in the microwave while they watch you having sex on video.”)
But the masterpiece for me is PINECREST REST HAVEN, a kind of Hotel California, where Alzheimer’s patients, Mr. P and Mrs. P no longer remember they’re married and fall in love (and hate) again and again. True to the disease, the only reality they have in life is the present moment, which in the case of the philosopher Ekhart Tolle (THE POWER OF NOW) is a good thing, but at Pinecrest turns out to be WAITING FOR GADOT on steroids. Anyone over 70, or even younger on occasion has this tragedy in the back of their mind. I recall a famous poet with Alzheimer’s who crossed his ankles nervously when he realized he had inadvertently put on two socks of a different color. Watching his sly confusion and attempts to cover his mistake was heartbreaking. And so it is with PINECREST REST HAVEN. A brilliant strategy and an absolutely in the moment portrayal of one of life’s most fearsome challenges. The widow of the poet I mention finally gave up and institutionalized her husband when she realized the kernel had disintegrated and the only thing left of the man she married was the empty chaff of a person who ultimately did not even recognize her. This excerpt shows Cavalieri’s remarkable talent for dialog:
“Mrs. P: I wish there’d be stewed tomatoes for supper, don’t you? I used to know how to make them. My mother taught me when we lived in Vermont, on a yellow tablecloth. You went to the country and turned left. That’s where Vermont is.
Mr. P: (Still puzzling over wedding picture.) I have a postcard just like that in my room.
Mrs. P: We must have been to the same place. Mr. P: Once.
Mrs. P: But that was then.
Mr. P: Will you be my beloved wife? Mrs. P: (Demure) I don’t talk to strangers.
Having the young Mr. P and young Mrs. P follow them around like ghosts from the past only heightens the dramatic effect of what the characters have become and who they were. Erie and beautiful. There is no spoiler alert here. We all know how it ends, or doesn’t end. But going on the ride with them is comic and tragic at the same time and a very intense look at the human condition. Sooner or later, diminishment comes to us all in one form or another, and we might as easily laugh as cry, the poet seems to say.
Given her many years as an interviewer at her Library of Congress radio program, it is logical that her editor would wish to include examples of important interviews she conducted. As Rose Solari outlines in her introduction, the three selected “display the erudition and warmth that are the hallmarks of Grace’s interviewing style, as well as showcase three very different poetic sensibilities.” But what struck me in reading the interviews was the way she asks tough questions in what is always a sympathetic and cordial dialog. She is never patronizing or acts the sycophant. She is always one poet speaking to another with years of experience both as poet and interviewer like one cabinet maker comparing notes with another.
In ending the book with autobiographical poems by Cavalieri, the editor, like the sommelier at Cana has saved the best for last. Some poets think that when they turn their mind to some mystery or other, to describe it and get at its heart in language, they think they have written a poem. In Grace's case this is actually how it works. But this is not automatic writing. Stream of consciousness works only when the informing consciousness has been created by a lifetime of living with and perfecting the written word.
If there is an answer to life and dealing with death, the answer must be love, “the bed of gold we lie on.” But in the final poems of the book, this answer is far more than a cliché line from a Beatles song. “All we need is love.” Yes. But to see how she has loved and been loved in these poems give us important signposts for living. If one has ever been truly loved in life, it is enough they seem to say and can sustain us. She knows there is a very thin line between life-and-death. She crosses the line with courage and impunity like a Valkyrie astride Pegasus, driving death back into the shadows, searching for light in the lives of those she has loved and lost especially her own dearly departed fly boy Ken. Two artists sharing a life, the proximity of blood, intimate beyond even the children engendered, this meeting of spirits like rods going critical accounting for the glow of a nuclear reactor. Like a Frostian critic, there is perhaps nothing more to say, only point to one elegy pulling at the heart strings, but transcending the lacrimae rerum, the question. And another, the answer.
Everything Is Smaller
Than the Truth
Richard Harteis is a writer with 15 books to his credit. MARATHON (W.W. Norton) became a 35-mm feature film in 2000 and has taken awards in NY, LA, Mexico City and Las Vegas. He has received NEA and Fulbright fellowships among other awards. He is president of the WilliamMeredithFoundation.org and directs the publishing house, Poets-Choice.com. He lives in Uncasville, Ct. and West Palm Beach, Fl.