The Mandate of Heaven by Grace Cavalieri
Bordighera Press 2014 $11.00
A review by Sonja James
Grace Cavalieri's The Mandate of Heaven is a warm and expansive homage to Cavalieri's Italian ancestors. Cavalieri, who writes with great feeling of her grandparents and parents, captures her Italian-American childhood in Trenton, New Jersey in poems that are as breathtaking as they are poignant. Cavalieri as poet is a gifted philosopher of the imagination in the service of memory, and this blend of memory and imagination yields poems that stun and delight us with their beauty.
In "Letters," which is the opening poem in the volume, Cavalieri invites us into her work by establishing the common ground we stand on as she prepares our entry into her world: "If you ask what brings us here,/staring out of our lives/like animals in high grass,/I'd say it was what we had in common/with the other333333…444444" The poem concludes with her stated purpose: "What is found in this beleaguered/and beautiful land is what we write of."
In "Ancestors," she sets the tone for her exploration of her Italian heritage: "I have followed the slow vine/from where they came-/that country with olive trees/and more-to find it not/that different from my own." With impressionistic grace, she darts from one-line word pictures of her grandparents to the development of a philosophy of memory to a description of her childhood.
The poet then shifts modes and celebrates her own arrival in the world with the poem "Birth": "a child is born." The poem concludes with her description of the freedom she feels as she finds her place in the world: "She will find attachment, amazement/She will be free/to surround herself with her own life."
From this liberating vantage, she creates poems out of childhood memories of life in Trenton and also imagines the life of her grandparents in Italy.
In the title poem, "The Mandate of Heaven," she sets a goal for herself: "the power in the writing wants to be released/during this one lifetime." Her project is simple:
If we could finish the unfinished
what would we say, what themes would we play today,
what violence, death, abandonment and loss would
we see333333—444444how would I seek the inner harmony
which you speak of, but have left undone.
Several of her poems are devoted to specific childhood memories. In "The First," she recalls her mother's friend, Mrs. Conti. In "Dates," she writes with particular intensity of being a third grader in public school. An equally intense poem, "Time Travel," is about her father.
"Trenton Transit" and "Angelo" are two other poems where she recalls her relationship with her father. "Angelo" is especially poignant. In this poem, she lovingly recalls how her father would prepare spaghetti sauce for her to share with her poet friends.
In "Replacing Loss," she returns to the theme of childhood as she remembers her now deceased childhood friend, Jan: "When/you were three months/old, I was born to be your/friend, and live just/down the street,/where we played."
"Markings" is another elegiac poem in which she remembers her sister, Judy: "This is the night, when later we speak/About loss/will be the night we have lost."
Perhaps one of the most moving poems in the volume is "Palace of Listening," a poem in which the poet's dead mother appears through the medium of "the face of a man/sitting on a doorstep." This poem is a summation of the ease with which Cavalieri gives life to her ancestors through the medium of poetry.
As a whole, Grace Cavalieri's The Mandate of Heaven celebrates the beauty to be found when memory is placed at the service of time. Ancestors and children have a home in the imagination of a poet who frees the reader to experience the continuity of life from continent to continent in words that proclaim the unique beauty of each and every individual life.
Sonja James is the author of Baiting the Hook (the Bunny & the Crocodile Press, 1999), Children of the Moon (Argonne House Press, 2004), and Calling Old Ghosts to Supper (Finishing Line Press, 2013).