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Old 03-02-2002, 07:22 PM
Len Krisak Len Krisak is offline
Join Date: Aug 2000
Posts: 539

I thought all Sphereans (oh, what the hell--
what I really mean is please, all Sphereans go
do this) would be interested in Joseph Salemi's
scathing review of Rhina's Wilbur Prizewinning
book on Art Mortensen's website Expansive
Poetry & Music Online (I haven't got the exact
link--and wouldn't know what to do with it to make
it appear here anyway, even if I did), but if you just
search on Expansive Poetry, the first or second
listing should give it to you.

Read and contemplate?

I'd be VERY interested in everyone's responses.
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Old 03-02-2002, 08:41 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Join Date: Oct 2000
Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,807

I for one love Rhina's book, I even blurbed it. Describing her sonnets as the "light carpentry in air" with which she unforgettably describes a bird making its nest. I for one profoundly appreciate poets like Wilbur, Steele and Espaillat, who aren't all doom and despair. For that I can read Murphy!
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Old 03-03-2002, 10:26 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Yorkshire, UK
Posts: 2,287

The reference - I think - is "The Poetry of Nicey-Nice" - Review of Rhina P. Espaillat, Rehearsing Absence by Joseph S. Salemi at

Clive Watkins

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Old 03-03-2002, 10:49 AM
Len Krisak Len Krisak is offline
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Posts: 539

Thanks, Clive.

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Old 03-03-2002, 01:59 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Location: Fargo ND, USA
Posts: 13,807

Just wanted to add that I am furious at Salemi, would rip his little head off if he were here. It's been my privilege to be Rhina's guest in a house filled with light and love and serenity, not at all unlike the mind, the great soul that presides over it. As in Wilbur, the serenity that speaks so calmly in her poems is the triumph of life over its difficulties. To argue that she's turned to country club verse to advance her own career prospects is offensive and preposterous. It's Salemi who's the careerist, an academic who can't get no respect for his own iambic stomping.
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Old 03-03-2002, 06:05 PM
Jennifer Reeser's Avatar
Jennifer Reeser Jennifer Reeser is offline
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Location: Louisiana
Posts: 2,098

I'm going to respond by continuing to read Ms. Espaillat's work, just like I responded to Richard Moore's scathing review of Alicia's book in Edge City by continuing to read her.

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Old 03-03-2002, 08:25 PM
JohnBoddie JohnBoddie is offline
Join Date: Feb 2002
Location: Landenberg, PA, USA
Posts: 199

I'm with Jennifer.

The sincerest way of showing appreciation for a poet's work is to add a few drops to the royalty stream.

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Old 03-04-2002, 03:30 AM
Caleb Murdock Caleb Murdock is offline
Join Date: Sep 2000
Location: New York City
Posts: 800

There is someone out there who doesn't like Alicia's book? Amazing!

Salemi is primarily interested in Salemi. Although he puts down Gioia, he fancies himself to be a straight-talking, no-nonsense Dana Gioia type, imparting the hard truth to a poetry world in denial -- but what he really seeks is notoriety as a literary pitbull. He's an exhibitionist who doesn't realize how small his intellectual "manhood" is that he's displaying to the world.

I don't meant to suggest that he is totally useless. If the U.S. would put him at the base of those mountains in east Afghanistan and tell him to criticize the al Quaeda, he'd have them running from their caves in no time.

Below is the letter that I just sent to Mortensen, who publishes the site:

Dear Mr. Mortensen:

I don't visit your site very often specifically because of Joseph Salemi, who, in my view, is little more than a crackpot who seeks notoriety by attacking people. That you give this terrorist a safe harbor is a discredit to you and your site. Nonetheless, because Rhina Espaillat is dear to me, I read his review of her most recent book, "Rehearsing Absence".

It is not a good review. Salemi doesn't examine the quality of Espaillat's writing as much as he attacks her philosophy and personality. It is not the role of a reviewer to pass judgment on such things. Salemi can't see the evolving maturity of her work because he himself is so immature. He doesn't even understand her work, as he misses the point of many of the poems he criticizes. He is too self-consciously pushing his own image as a literary "bad boy" to comprehend what he reads with anything resembling objectivity.

Espaillat's poetry is elegant, well-crafted and insightful. It isn't "nicey-nice" as much as it is subtle and compassionate. There is a great deal of wisdom in it, much as there is in the woman herself. To label her a representative of the bourgeoisie is to politicize a body of work which is essentially non-political.

If Salemi insists on throwing stones, let him find someone less accomplished and capable. His arms must be tired from aiming at a talent so much taller than he is.

Caleb Murdock
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Old 03-04-2002, 05:02 AM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: Athens, Greece
Posts: 3,208


I hate to say this, and no doubt I am setting myself up for some snide remarks by doing so ("Those feminists! Always whinging about oppression!"), but it is hard to ignore the strong feeling that certain folks on the formalist fringe really do seem to have something against women--or at least women poets. One reads very, very few all-out negative reviews of formal books of poetry in formalist venues--and women poets or anthologists seem to be singled out for a particular kind of venom. No doubt I am just paranoid (I certainly hope so), but it is a feeling hard to shake. Why does he feel the need not only to describe her as, but to introduce her as, a "smiling grandmother from Newburyport"--unless to put us in mind of apple pie and Hallmark verses and blue-haired lady presidents of local Poetry Societies? I dare say many of our senior male poets are grandfathers, but I don't think I've ever seen one introduced as such in a review.

Is Espaillat's poetry beautiful, and therefore pleasant to read? Yes. Does she tackle unpleasant subjects? (And does it matter?--this sort of criticism of a poet's subject reminds me of complaints that Emily Dickinson didn't "take on" slavery and the Civil War.) Well... yes. I mean, it is hard to say that a villanelle on the subject of an obstetrician carving his initials into the belly of a patient is exactly Norman Rockwell territory--especially with a chilling last line such as "Take off your clothes: here is my signature." Yes, there are such poems in this book, at least my copy. She can shock with the rest of them--grit, reality, the whole nine-yards. But what Rhina is especially good at is really much, much rarer--hard-won poems of delight, joy, forgiveness, acceptance. It is a territory where too few lyric poets plant their banners. Really, only Richard Wilbur springs immediately to mind. I suppose he, also, is a poet of Nicety-Nice.

On the other hand, such an extravagently negative review in a field usually given over to scratching the backs of fellow back-scratchers, is undoubtably a sort of compliment. If Espaillat's poetry is nicety-nice, then why is it so threatening that it needs to be taken down a peg? Perhaps it is her mainstream success (on which he dwells) that rankles.

That he claims he is not attacking Ms. Espaillat, but rather a literary clique, is disingenuous, to put it mildly. The coyly-implied link of an apparently ego-centric (?) view of the world based on her status as an only child (a biographical tidbit gleaned by Salemi from the opening poem), strikes me as unworthy of a serious reviewer. On the bright side, I hope many people will buy this book out of the controversy stirred by such a rant.

Is she soft-spoken? Yes. But it is a voice of authority, that doesn't need to raise itself to be heard. So unlike, alas, the Guardians of New Formalism.
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Old 03-04-2002, 06:21 AM
Robert Swagman Robert Swagman is offline
Join Date: Jan 2002
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio USA
Posts: 271

I have often noted that a racist will comment, "I'm not a racist..." just before telling a racist joke. I noted Salemi started his commentary loudly declaring he is not a snob. The resemblance is uncanny.

I suppose if Salemi had his way, the news networks would show nothing but the ugly and horrific on the news, and never the good. Hmmm. Maybe he's been moonlighting as a program director....

Not being familiar with Salemi's poetry, I did a little research. Granted, I found only a small slice of his work, but what I read substantiates my initial opinion of him, which he loudly decried.
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