A review of Owning the Not So Distant World by Grace Cavalieri

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Owning the Not So Distant World
by Grace Cavalieri
Blue Light Press
May 2024, $17, 88 pages, ISBN: 978-1421835617

Grace Cavalieri is by turns as sagacious and oblique as a Zen koan, her verses brimming with aphoristic wisdom, and also charmingly chatty, like your best friend in the world, oscillating between aloof and intimate but always appealing. Take the poem, “To Be Perfectly Honest With You,” a title which automatically promises confidences. Cavalieri begins:

this poem didn’t know it was dishonest –
thinking about small children
walking out from morning’s mist
into the safe sun with me
warm and fed
never to sleep within sorrow

The first line makes us smile, not necessarily what we expected, but the warmth of her voice is so reassuring.  “I was thinking of my own small children / I swear it,” she goes on, as if it were a point of contention, before telling us about “another poem” in which children were playing in the dirt; “that is the poem which wanted to be written / although it started with my own secret life.” She concludes the poem, again in the voice of a confidante, “and that is the absolute truth.”

To be shielded from sorrow: isn’t that the ultimate pipe dream? After all, wasn’t the first of the Buddha’s four noble truths that life is dukkha, suffering? Wise as the Buddha, Cavalieri has seen enough of the world in her ninety years to know there’s no protection from sorrow, but she does not succumb to despair, either. Indeed, the prose poem, “The Bride” begins: “SORROW asked me to marry him – he knew I’d fallen for him long ago.” “Wedding Planner,” several poems later, which is for Ken, her late husband, is a short, eleven-line poem, the first ten of which end with the word “we”:

turned memory into tenderness we
hurt each other into love we
did not judge this experience we
transmuted fear we…

Divided into two parts, Owning The Not So Distant World, dedicated to her four daughters, which already tells us much about her convictions, begins with poems involving her personal life. “House” is like a fairy tale riddle about  a man and a woman who loved each other, universal stick figures:

this poem was
written so
they could
sit upon a chair
within the walls

The following poem, “White Suit,” is an amusing story about the poet and her husband to be, the late sculptor Ken Flynn, as awkward teenagers, and then a Depression-era poem about hobos asking for food, followed by “To Judy,” a poem of mourning (“How things got away from us like a book underlined in the wrong places”).  Perhaps the next poem,  “They Say Nothing Ever Dies,” succinctly captures the impulse of the poet’s thinking. “All that beauty around us and in us. It has to be somewhere,” she writes, and the poem ends so wisely and beautifully:

Energy never goes away although I know (well I know) how
perilous time’s pistol can be.
(Still) (yet) because I am (a fool, or brave, or) in pain with
I look back and wave and wave
I am waving and waving and I will (I will) until someone
waves back.

Part 2, “Whether By Good or Bad Fortune,” a suite of some two dozen poems, includes “On My 90th Year,” which also repeats the word “we” and may or may not implicitly refer to Ken. Or maybe it’s the general “we” of experience.

we took advantage of the fact that we were human      with
pockets of imagery
the landscape it’s always dangerous with desire     hot and dry
but cooler sailings promised

The following poem is definitely to her late husband, “Every Night In My Dreams Every Night We Are Back In The Navy Every Night.” “We’ll never see each other again,” Cavalieri writes. “The best part of being in the Navy is this dream: my dead / husband and I decide where we want to retire.”. This is a dream to which we can all relate. Who doesn’t dream of their intimate dead?

The collection ends with the long poem, “Fame,” which is as much a parable as the first poem in Owning The Not So Distant World, “House.” It’s the story of an old man essentially seeking to understand the meaning of his life.  It starts: “What is the part of your life / you can never forget?”

The title poem, the penultimate poem in the book, reiterates Cavalieri’s essential idea of the immanence of beauty in the world that we saw in “They Say Nothing Ever Dies”:

All comfort does not belong to the outside world.
If we are dependent on that
we are dependent on
the tricks of the mind coming home,
attributing falseness to beauty,
thinking it will vanish,
when it has always just arrived.

Yes! it is “as if we were someone the world loves,” the poem concludes. Grace Cavalieri has earned her wisdom, and we are fortunate that she shares it with us in such beautiful verse. Owning The Not So Distant World is a gorgeous collection, as is its cover, Cavalieri’s own artwork.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore. His poetry collection, A Magician Among the Spirits, poems about Harry Houdini, is a 2022 Blue Light Press Poetry winner. A collection of poems and flash called See What I Mean? was recently published by Kelsay Books, and another collection of persona poems and dramatic monologues involving burlesque stars, The Trapeze of Your Flesh, was just published by BlazeVOX Books.