Poets Publishing Poets

Review of Cave Wall 5 (Winter/Spring 2009)

When a young prize-winning poet decides to publish her own poetry journal, readers learn whether her taste matches her talent. In Cave Wall, editor Rhett Iseman Trull, winner of the Anhinga Poetry Prize, shows that she can pick as well as write a good poem. Arguably, the first poem in this issue of her magazine is the best, Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s “Threshold,” in which the lines form a zigzag pattern on the page, mirroring the poem’s second word, “jagged.” Her dog has left a “jagged trail of pee” from porch—threshold—to middle of the house. It seems the well-trained dog has lost bladder control in sympathy for her owner, the narrator, who is undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer. Kirkpatrick’s focus on the dog helps her to avoid any self-pity (“no offering to the gods, / . . . no threshold ritual”). Wisely, Trull has placed this poem at the threshold of this issue.

Twenty poets appear here, twelve women and eight men; most have at least two poems, two have three. Free verse, in various patterns, is the norm. One prose poem is included, but there’s no room for formal verse. The first-person pronoun distinguishes many of these poems as personal lyrics or brief narratives. Poems begin in these ways: “The fortune teller said I was fertile,” “I stroke the pew’s velour,” and “I’d like to grab Nietzsche by the collar.” Impersonating someone else, J.P. Dancing Bear wryly considers “What If Hamlet Had Drowned Instead of Ophelia,” in which case the speaker is Hamlet himself, who reflects that his survivors “do not reflect— / as I so much liked to do.” And in Bill Griffin’s “Bear,” the speaker is a bear who concludes, “if you hear me / it will only be because / I didn’t hear you first.”

The best-known poet here is probably Christopher Buckley, whose eight pages are the most allotted to anyone in the issue, and whose “For the Saints” is the longest single poem. It bears his academic pedigree, with an allusion to Yeats, the ironic juxtaposition of St. Michael with television personalities of the 1950’s, and a French epigraph. (Hélas, this threshold contains a typo: Rein for Rien.)

This issue of Cave Wall also includes Paul Sohar’s translation of two contemporary Hungarian poets, János Szentmártoni and Péter Vasadi, whose “On That Day,” wittily depicts human beings on the Day of Judgment as tossed on a pile like “onion stems” and then “spread . . . for manure / on infinity.” The Hungarians’ poems again show Rhett Iseman Trull exercising good judgment in putting together an issue with a blend of emotion, invention, and wit.