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Fall Plainsongs


James Longstaff gives us an interesting poem in the current issue of Plainsongs with “Single Link, 1951 Or 2.” It starts out “In Sunday’s solstice between the preacher’s / ‘May the Lord’…and my mother’s call, ‘Come! Eat!’…Uncle Jack pulls his new-used Nash…into our yard and pops the hood.” It’s a poem of plain life, men considering a car’s engine, then listening to the game. A sweet slice of life, with a satisfying ending.

It’s complemented nicely by “Our Dad,” by Barry Benson, with some fun shaggy dog moments. I like the humor in this poem.

This seems to be an issue of little moments rising to poetry. Ruth A. Smullin follows this approach with “Old Letters,” sort of a paean to the letters the narrator’s mother collected, and an elegy by the end. Worth the read. “A blizzard of words, lives in flux.”

“The New Owners,” by Cathy Porter also takes a small moment for relection on a loss. “When I drive by, I see things are about the same.” This resonates: my wife and I sometimes drive by the house we gave up years ago, just as happens in this poem, reviewing the changes the new owners have made. “One time I saw a young man working / the front yard in the same way you used to…” We are not surprised when this poem too becomes an elegy.

Lastly, I’ll mention “The Pile,” by Ivan Hobson. “It started with a 5% pay cut, the strike, / the clumsy scabs…” A work world that has almost vanished, looked back at by the offspring of those who lived it. “For over five years we played army…around that rust pile.” I love the way this poems ends, as well.

A solid issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


We are, in the modern world, of course forced by our calendar bravely to ignore superstitions and so the New Republic bravely published on the 13th. Fortunately not a Friday, right? But luck seems to be with them anyway. The poems are good. ;->

First comes “The Crazy Dog Lady Recognizes Spring and Is Momentarily Bouyed by a Joy She Had Wholly Forgotten,” by Renee Ashley. Now a title like that implies run-on sentences, but not so here, except that she does dispense with periods. “The dogwood bracts horizontal on their boughs The iris still in its / papers” I don’t get the purpose of losing the periods, and I don’t know how the poem is benefited by forming a square visually on the page, but neither really bothers me. The images are surely interesting: “the one eighteen-wheeler the color of night’s blue sky with its / cab the starry green of a sea beneath foam.” I’m failing to picture that green, though. The sea beneath a night sky is generally black, except maybe when lit from within in a painting. I’ll grant you phosphorescence, but I don’t get to green. Still, the poem has me thinking. Always good. There’s a nice balance of flowers and dogs early on, and then repeated at the end, with differences: e.g. we go from dogwood to woodchuck. There’s probably more in this poem that escapes me, but it entertained me, anyway.

“Gnawa Boy, Marrakesh, 1968″ is by Charif Shanahan. “The maker has marked another boy to die…” it starts, and the poem is uncompromising. “black legs jutting out…the tips of his toenails translucent as an eye.” Our focus is kept firmly on the boy dying, through the first half of the poem. Then we turn to the moment of death. “he passes…into the blue / porcelain silence…no song of final parting, no wailing / ripped holy from their throats.” It is a somber elegy, and very moving.

Wendy Salinger gives us “January,” which contrasts the narrator’s daughter first encountering the world with her father at the end of his life. “she took my hand / to see the houses outlined / in their Christmas lights. // ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ she said.” Then, “He kneels before my mother / and he weeps.” A great image to end with, as well. An effective, affecting poem.

The last poem is “Tears,” by C.K. Williams. I have had my difficulties with some of his poems, and I am no fan in general of ghazals, but this is a good poem. (And Mr. Williams has certainly hit his share of home runs in the past). My wife especially liked this one. It follows the theme of young and old that Henri Cole seems to have quietly selected for this issue. “Baby next door crying, not angry crying… _hungry_ crying…sweet to think of her at filling station of bottle or breast.” Williams then considers the implications and resonances arising from the idea of “our” for narrator and child. He gets to believing: “Too late for that — too late even for _please_ — please stay…” And the last stanza is very delicate. He shows a great balance and breath control throughout this poem — not overstepping his images anywhere, not growing too heated. It’s a poem of that resonant sadness we feel when living too much in the world, the loss of things. Almost like a haiku that way.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Sep 29 NY…er


The September 29th issue of the New Yorker has two poems, the first by Catherine Bowman, called “Makeshift.” And oh boy, is this what we read the New Yorker for. “From two pieces of string and oil-fattened feathers he made a father. / She made a mother from loss buttons and ocean debris…en masse assemble a makeshift holy city.” I take the poem to be about two people with a jumbled, patchwork past making their own world together. Maybe their folks haven’t been able to function as full parents, so they have to take on the task for themselves. Such beautiful images, line after line. Then in the middle of the poem, right at the “makeshift holy city” line, the poem reverses, and we see the same lines come out in reverse, with subtle shifts in meaning, creating tremendous power. For instance “Lacking a grave, they embottled themselves” becomes “Embottled in grave lack.” (Just to think of the word embottled is cool.) A moving, deep work of art.

The other poem is “Chives,” by Julie Sheehan. “You chop an onion, bone a breast, cradle / an artichoke’s…crown.” This poem shows a great precision in word choice. We start with such details, then move to the more general. “You agitate for justice.” An interesting mix of cooking and the larger world. She sustains the metaphor throughout: “craving the bitter,” using the tiny particulars to illuminate a life. Very well done.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

September Poetry Mag


This issue starts with a few Ashbery poems, my fav of which is “Bunch Of Stuff.” As far as I can tell, Ashbery’s technique is to take a phrase and invert one or more words into some analogous word that casts light on the original. So this poem starts: “To all events I squirted you / knowing this not to be this came to pass.” Well the first phrase could be “At all events.” But being squirted to events makes a loopy sense. ‘Squirt’ gives this an irreverent feel, as we might feel going anyplace where someone would bring us “at all events”. Of course squirt could have been squired, but wasn’t, here. (And other readings come to mind). Deconstructing “this not be be this” might give us ‘not to be that…’ It’s an unexpected twist that keeps the poem fresh. A little later, “Why wouldn’t you want a fresh piece / of outlook to stand in down the years.” Well, people DO come to stand in an outlook. (Sometimes with their feet hardening in concrete.) ;-> An outlook that might flavor how they feel about going to the above event. And creating a resonance between a fresh piece of outlook and tail, say. Which gives another flash of irreverent amusement. And joining up with a new person generally does change our outlook, of course. He even tells us to “Poke fun at balm…” as he is doing it. A first-water poem, for me, with all those meanings crashing down one after the other.

Henri Cole’s poem, “Dandelions (II)” keeps bringing me back to reconsider it. “He drew / these dandelions…when the only // solace / was derived / from the labor / of getting / the…stems / and… seed heads / just right.” I don’t know who the artist might be, but I guess it doesn’t matter. “‘Nobody there,’ / the new disease / announced…” It’s a sad poem, sketching the death, evidently, of an artist, then turning to a surprising exterior image in the last stanza. As though the grief were too great to face directly, but must be angled toward, hinted at only. Very powerful.

D. Nurske has a fun, not particularly linear poem called “Venus.” Which is about the planet, at least at first: “Death is coming / and you must build a starship / to take you to Venus. // Make it from a catsup bottle…” It rattles on goofily like that for a stanza, then turns more serious, and in the last stanza again goes off on a complete tangent. I’m guessing Don Share likes that finishing technique, as generating something original, though I admit I’d like a final stanza resonating more with the rest of the poem. Maybe the moth image in the last stanza symbolizes the spirit, and so we (maybe) transcend after death. A bit oblique for me, but the editor obviously liked it.

Let me end with Kay Ryan’s “In Case Of Complete Reversal.” “Born into each seed / is a small anti-seed.” She always has such subversive ideas, and works them out in ways I rarely expect, with breathtaking language. “If we could crack the…shell / we’d see the / bundled minuses…” I cannot imagine anticipating that phrase, ‘bundled minuses,’ and yet it feels perfect to me. That’s harder than it seems, I have come to believe from years of trying to do it myself. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


Didn’t know the first poet in the September 1 issue of The New Yorker, Marylen Grigas. But I like her “About Muscle,” a sort of natural history poem. “If there’s no need for movement, then no need for a brain…a fact demonstrated by the sea squirt…it settles on a rock. Then it devours its own brain.” How can one not like such a poem, so fun and weird? “Evolution of the brain is about muscle. Just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Are you kidding me? A poet who teases Schwarzenegger? Yay. ;-> From there the turn has the narrator speak of herself, “moving and arranging boulders last fall.” Then she draws a powerful conclusion in her surprise ending. Yep. A very satisfying poem.

The other poem, by Michael Dickman, “Mouse Hunt,” is far more challenging a read, though much can still be teased out of it. “Your little eyes / brake lights…scrunched up beneath / the house.” I get that image — the little eyes reflecting light. Though I admit I’ve never seen that with a mouse. “Your pleasure center radio antennae checking the latest / score” Then the poem bounces out of the car metaphor, going into a series of more and more loopy non-sequiturs: “Bumblebee marbles full of shit.” “Your tumors dancing…” Interesting lines, but kind of pointless for me. He does always bring it back to the mouse, though, right to the last line. Still, I left the poem feeling dissatisfied, as though the poem promised depth but never delivered. It’s certainly possible the depth was there and I just missed it, however.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

TOTU Poetry


Tales Of The Unanticipated came out with a new issue after several years on hiatus. I’m glad these poems got to see the light of day.

Ruth Berman gives us a fun poem, “Witches’ Checkout,” concerning all you may buy “At the Witches’ supermarket.” “enchanter’s nightshade, /poisonous mushrooms canned or dried…” the list goes on, as the poem features Berman’s dry, amusing tone. “Variety meats move fast.” And a fun ending.

October Avalonne contributes “Sleeping Beauty In Red Stilettos.” “In our dimly lit prison / we spin for them.” A reasonably creepy poem: “I weave / with bolts of skin, skeins of tresses…flirt with a golden tanned man…” that goes off in an unanticipated direction, as I suppose it should: “But sometimes / when she spins with me, / her long hair sweeps across my arm…”

F.J. Bergmann gives us a fun, complex poem, “Alpha Centauri,” that isn’t quite an abecedarian: “A peels an instrument panel from the wall…Shrieking, B hurls it to the floor.” The letters of the aphabet get mixed up, drift out and back in, and generally contribute to the fun.

The last poem I’ll discuss is Kristine Ong Muslim’s “Resurrection Of A Rag Doll,” another poem shading from sadness towards horror. “My button eyes itch / in their nonexistent sockets….Girls like me live much longer / when we cannot see.” Powerful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Summer Avocet 14


In the latest Avocet, Peter C. Leverich, the former editor, gives us a light poem, about a ride in a boat, called “Lift.” “…one sharp tug on the leeward sheet / and the sail breaks loose, / rustling and slappy.” The poems put me back on a sailboat, where I have not been in more than a while. Really, it’s the ending that makes this poem work for me, uplifting, but not sappily so.

Joan Colby’s “Evensong” is an adept poem: “Dark stem floating / Like a long bird into an ambush of cloud. / It is twilight.” Too short for a sonnet but with that sort of movement and sweep, and a strong ending.

David S. Pointer gives us a fun little haiku, starting with “old go cart track” — I like the pairing of this line with the second image very much, and breaking away from the 5-7-5 format seems wise for this poem.

Nick Adams goes deeper with his poem “Birds And Looks” than a simple describing of a natural scene; the narrator is hauled along on a bird watch without necessarily wanting to be there: “She invites me…to watch birds. / I think we should leave them alone.” That amused tone carries well throughout the poem. “We’re after the ones who shun us and / find us troublesome…No matter, it makes her happy.” Worth re-reading.

John L. Wright gives us “The Western Red Cedar,” about the narrator’s relationship to a tree. “I’ve done the talking, / but you…nearly symmetrical, have been the teacher.” Again, there is more going on here, as the narrator evidently has the tree cut down at the end; we are not sure why. And it points out how limited such a relationship really is: “I feel a twinge of emptiness, of angst really…” Not everything in poetry is a huge deal, some losses are small, though real.

Lastly, Joanne Stokkink gives us “July Cinquain,” an almost imagist poem that works very well for me: “with sticks / longer than the / crow locked in its beak / the crow stops…” Again it is the ending that makes this poem, but of course to read it you should send off for the magazine. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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