I wish you well in England with
a boiled mutton for a bride.
The tenth poet laureate of Maryland, Grace Cavalieri, a smallish woman, seems to make inevitable her large presence on the American poetry stage. Yes, she writes books of poems, plays too, more than forty of them, all the while promoting the work of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other poets. As in her poems and plays and everywhere, she evinces in her person a generous spirit and the presence of the genuine.
She’s been recognized far and wide, having received the Associated Writing Program’s George Garrett Award, the Pen-Fiction award, the Allen Ginsberg award, the Bordighera Poetry Prize, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the “Annie” Award, the inaugural Folger Shakespeare Library Columbia Award, the National Award from the Commission on Working Women, the CPB Silver Medal, and in 2019, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Forty-five years ago, Grace founded, and still produces, “the Poet and the Poem” for public radio, now coming from the Library of Congress. In 1976, she co-founded the Washington Writers Publishing House. In 1979, she founded The Bunny and the Crocodile Press/Forest Woods Media Productions, Inc., a publishing house and media production company. And Grace still lets no grass grow under her feet in this, her 90th year.
Grace here tells us about this selection of poems:
Notes on the type: Three Women
I like to bring women eclipsed by history back into the light. Here are some poems about three of my women—Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Nicole Smith, and Madame de Stael—and why they matter to me.
In1975, while in graduate school at the University of Maryland, I studied 18th century literature and saw that Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, was all the rage, but that her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism and author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, was hardly noticed by historians or the general public. I wrote poems in her voice, including What I Would Do For Love. Historians may know what she did, but I knew what she felt.
After that, there was nowhere to go but Anna Nicole Smith, the Guess Magazine model whose “handlers” filled her with drugs and propped her up to be a buffoon. I was inspired by seeing her on TV after the birth of her baby girl. She had no makeup, her hair was pulled back in a pony tail, she had beautiful cheek bones. I saw what was genuine in her, and how she had been trampled. In my play, “Anna Nicole, Blonde Glory,” produced in New York City in 2012, I was able to vindicate her! And gave her a happy ending! Writers may not make any money, but they sure can change the narrative. The poems shown here are from my book, Anna Nicole: Poems. They show Anna as a bimbo; more important, they show her heartbreak.
The Secret Letters of Madame de Stael is my most recent book about women in history. She was an 18th century writer, and Napoleon’s greatest enemy, who wrote 40 books and political treatises that helped unseat Napoleon. Yet no one knows her. Although equal to Rousseau, Godwin, and Burke, history silenced Madame de Stael. She was friends with Marie Antoinette, and Madame had a colorful romantic life with the likes of Talleyrand and Benjamin Constant (the best of them), also bearing their children. I thought if I were late to find her, I imagined others would be too, so I wrote imagined letters by Madame Germaine de Stael. All historical facts and dates are true.
from What I Would Do For Love (Jacaranda Press, 2004)
A vicious sound,
“Famous Lady with her book
Telling us how to act . . . .”
I could not hear the rest,
And leaned in closer
To the murmuring,
Until she straightened.
And then I saw she spoke to me!
Mary Wollstonecraft. She held my book,“
Vindication . . . ,”
And shook it at her partner.
My face flushed.
Were it a man speaking
I would not crumble
But now I fear my dream
All women are in danger
Unless we pick the
Bough from the tree ourselves.
Yet a stranger was condemning me
In a public place.
Why not grant me
The courtesy given male authors, saying
“It is controversial”—
Her fury ascends in my body
She said I made her quest for survival
All the worse!
Because I can read and write?
Does that give me a masculine mind?
Or just a mind?
To My Friend, William Blake
Poetry is best
If we do not think
To call it this.
Written over and over,
It is language pulled
Through the heart.
Poets give us
Of romantic love,
Said so well,
It must be true,
But what is the relic
Scrawled upon the page,
Nothing but a journey
Of life through opposites.
I write that mothers
Should tend their own children
Then I leave mine.
The music in my life
Is running after love I cannot have,
The poem is something I can love
After I have run away.
Diary Notes VI
Tonight there is a length of sound
Higher than the shadow of death which
Appeared in my room as a figure with many limbs.
I wake up singing for mercy.
Thankfully I awake before surrender.
I will sleep with a knife under the bed.
Even Death Does Not Want Me
Three weeks in bed,
I cannot even plan
A suicide well it seems.
Dear Diary, you are
All I have. Liza and Everina
Suffer because of my act,
A death gone wrong,
Leaving me this life
As cold as the water.
I remember lifting.
I closed my eyes and
Felt the sweet sweep,
A swirling of relief and then the noise,
The lights, the clamor, cold
People in a circle looking down.
The bright lanterns,
A rough blanket,
A loud voice in my ear,
“Ain’t that funny. It was her skirts
What saved her, billowing up around her arse.”
And then a woman,
“Now she’ll think twice of wearing pants.”
What the living do is die, what the lonely do is love.
God took your words and poured Them over broken glass.
The clothes of this world are our words. God made us in body
And then left us to our own,
To clothe ourselves
Our language is what we wear, the stories of the world.
Gilbert, you cannot steal my cloak.
Anna Nicole Smith
from Anna Nicole: Poems (Goss Publications, 2004)
At the ½ star hotel
the lower lip is painted bigger, to match
her dreams of being a star.
She blessed the lumpy beds, bought her own silk sheets.
This was before the moral issues, the legal issues,
the spirit of the law, the letter of the law,
the causes of death, junkies, drug addicts,
probable criminal cause, bodies exhumed,
frozen sperm, mystery sons,
living in sorrow, wrongful death,
Before the opalescent oceans
where she could never find the truth in things,
where she wanted a photo album so bad,
so she wouldn’t die without memories—
one day, standing at the free continental breakfast
dragging her sleeve in the jelly,
someone walked by, touching her waist like a prayer,
like an enfranchisement,
and she was on her way,
in a dress made for someone much smaller,
trusting a stranger because he said,
The Good Lord can’t see what happens in Hollywood.
Notes From a Distant Glacier
Interviewer: Do you want to be someone of worth?
Or do you want to be famous?
Designer: If they photograph you nude,
It's called art.
Critic: They should project her on the wall, the one WAAY far behind us.
Trainer: In life there can only be one winner.
Mother: Would you please sit like a normal person?
Manager: Take a pill, for God's sake—any pill. Just do it.
Doctor: No medicine can make you stop feeling.
Lawyer: Don't even think about it, Anna,
Death doesn't care about you. You owe it to the world to make it pretty.
Director: Give them heart, give them breast.
Lover: Being a blonde beauty doesn't make you a whore, necessarily.
Anna looks out the window.
She sees the pink azalea outside. So pretty. That color.
So perfect. It must be fake.
Sleeping with the old man made
Anna feel better. It was like
being a little girl when your mother
would make you hug your smelly
Aunt for the sake of her happiness.
Anna felt secure here.
Why in the world a blind man insisted
on a blue-eyed blonde she
Once she held her maid’s baby
against her chest
but it felt like a new rug on a dirty floor.
Where did she put that baby?
The old man said she was in
love with her own face and could
not love anything else.
A lie. A dirty lie. There was much
much more about her body she
loved. She loved how it felt
with the baby.
Undressed To Kill
She thought of all the beds she’d known—
How now becomes then—
the men with broken English,
the porno star
(a special disappointment),
some satisfying, then
unaffectionate references to
the qualities of her mind.
She remembered pillows of dismay,
the origins of self doubt,
how many times the clock hall struck,
glimpses of hand hurting her,
the body’s study in motion,
pine needles under a night sky,
facts and shouts, frozen departures,
men: their capacities for worship, then hatred,
lone figures losses if she didn’t matter,
the casually curved insult,
one’s self disappearing,
the bridge of mist.
Madame De Stael
from The Secret Letters of Madame de Stael (Goss Publications, 2021)
Dear William Pitt,
We can surely be friends and you are most welcome into my salon
at any time even when I am The Baron’s wife. Surely you understand
that I can never live anywhere but France, and I wish you well in England with
a boiled mutton for a bride. I have nothing but the sweetest thoughts of you,
good protestant, noble gentleman. As I always confided in you, I will tell you now,
I love the Baron not, if that brings solace to you. You will be invited among my guests
in the Swedish Embassy, when that wedding occurs, after which I hastily return to France,
lest they keep a prisoner in that land. Never! And if you seek my advice, which men never in fact do—you talk too much, too loud—And you gesticulate in all the wrong places.
In Friendship and Remembrance,
You ask who can love me as I wish to be loved!
No man will ever hold me in his arms as my beloved father does.
No marriage would ever be so merciful.
In confidence I tell you this,
that when M. Hostein de Stael and I danced at our Engagement Ball,
my father pulled us apart and said,
“My Dear Holstein. Allow me to show how a man should dance
with the woman he loves.” Oh Catherine, I was born on the wrong side of time,
denied being a true partner with my most beloved father, M. Jacque Necker.
Do not be shocked, Louisa, My Mother does not deserve the man who genuinely loves me.
At my wedding, do not fear, I shall be a sugar sherbet.
You asked me “why the Baron?” Because of his disinterest!
He will leave me alone. Holstein will allow my intellectual pursuits. Do not chide me.
Your Germaine (Soon to be MADAME)
It charms me not to see these men with wigs of curls,
cupid lips . . . spots of rouge on hairy cheeks.
I would wash their faces clean to see the man behind.
Why not have them worry about England nibbling away at
France’s lands instead of throwing fruit at the
naked eunuch just to see him dance. These men of court
who twist dogs’ ears just to hear them howl—
My books shall twist their ears to make their brains howl louder—
1793, 16 October
The Queen is dead.
Today. Let the date be written in red. Every day I write
for most of daylight hours
but today I will end before dusk with this missive
THE QUEEN IS DEAD
The past is over.
What happens now, no one knows.
The horseman bringing news wept and stayed an hour before his return.
We called the Magistrate to see what more was known
but even he closed the shutters in fear.
Nine months she stayed imprisoned to this end.
Is her death just a beginning of our horror?
I begged the messenger to return with news. Where is her son?
When Antoinette wrote that she had hope, what was it that she hoped for?
Her son’s delivery to a warm cottage in the country?
I cry because I know how to love a child.
I cry for Antoinette who was not a friend, but neither was she an enemy.
Everyone hated her. Now they are satisfied.
Many hate me as well.
They say a woman writer has no power. Why, then,
am I implored by each political faction
to publish in its favor?
Long Live The Queen Our Queen Is Dead