Nimrod Awards 36 Issue

It is not all that unusual for me to prefer some of the non-winners to the winners when contest results are posted. I think that’s honestly part of the process, doesn’t mean I’m more right, or that anyone else is. It’s just what resonates for whom and why. One of the poems in the current issue of Nimrod I liked very much was “A Request For Color And Spice #3″ by Simon Peter Eggertsen. “When I die, God, let me live on in color and spice.” There are just such lively lines in this poem, things that make me stop and go back. “Drag a star through my body, God, sober me up / with fire…” Lines like that deserve an audience.

Alison Luterman, who has written many fine poems, here gives us, “She for whom I am named” which starts “left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed….Hello, crowded, terrifying boat.” The story of her grandmother, the story of so many American immigrants. “And later in life, after HE died, / kept her pockets full of candy for the children.” It is the ending line that makes this such a powerful poem though, saying so much about how little any of us leaves behind to be remembered.

I enjoyed Arne Weingart’s “World Without Signs.” “The arrows are the first to go / detaching themselves from their places.” It’s a fun poem, as the aforesaid signs gradually deconstruct themselves. “and heading off straight whichever way / they were pointing…the names of places are next…” The ending of such a progression of a poem matters very much, of course, and this one ends well, though I like the lines a few stanzas before the end best: “it is impossible // to give or receive directions / you simply have to know where it is…”

He also gives us a powerful little poem, “Recapturing My Stutter,” which starts: “Ferocious little animal, / I let you out of your box…” which gives us an empathetic view into the difficulties of having a stutter. “you who / had given me so many vicious / bites” And some complicated truths here. “I let everyone lie about you // and pretend you didn’t exist.”

And lastly let me mention “What Words For God” by Kate Kingston. “Here are the day words / — shovel, hoe, melon, orange, mint…” God asks me, / What are the words here? I reply in Spanish: / zebra, leon, gorila, mono, jirafa.” The night words: “gunaa, mujer, woman.” (The first of those three might be Nahuatl). It’s a complicated poem, and worth savoring, letting the parts of it resonate and bounce off each other, in the various languages referenced.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

New Yorker Dec 2014

While I am convinced profundity in poetry can be obtained, or at least improved, mechanically, depth for depth’s sake seems of little interest to the powers-that-be who edit our flagship journals. For any office processing hundreds of thousands of poems a year, as the New Yorker must, a surprising and arresting beginning is easier to spot, while profundity takes mulling. Best to filter out first based on a level of surprise, then take profundity into account later, perhaps.

Take Terese Svoboda’s “Contrail” in the current issue. When a poet muses on contrails, what is the first image that comes to your mind? For that matter, what’s the first word? I’d guess Svoboda threw those initial images out, when they occurred to her, looking for something more shocking, original, intriguing. So she starts her poem, “Whereof fluff rushes,…” Now, I didn’t see that phrase coming, and doubtless neither did Paul Muldoon, the magazine’s editor. We can imagine his interest: okay, where’s she going with this? Here it is: “…muscles through, / pre-pendulous…” I especially love that pre-pendulous. It gets us thinking of movement, of development. We have all seen contrails slowly become pendulous in the sky, and we wonder how she is going to use that shared experience. She gives us: “about to come apart…like // stitching you soak in the rain.” Again, she is not developing the poem in any linear fashion we can expect, and yet she is making sense in hindsight. We have seen contrails come apart as well. Now, I argue that profundity comes from words and phrases that have multiple interpretations. Puns, to be blunt. And in a reference that comes late in this short poem, Svoboda brings in the Bible, directing us to back up and look for those places of multiple meaning in this work, for an extra metaphorical sense to clouds, for instance. The depth comes later, in other words. Then in the last line, she brings us up short one last time, with another phrase that revisits meanings. It’s a slick, professional-level poem that could serve as an example of what it takes to crack the top markets in American poetry these days.

Robert Pinsky, the poetry editor at Slate, is the recipient of many thousands of poems a year himself, and such an experience is going to inform his poetry as well. But his poem “Genesis According to George Segal” starts out less elliptically: “The Spirit brooded on the water…” A straightforward reference to the beginning of the Bible. In fact, his entire first stanza plays it straight. But fear not, in the middle of stanza two we veer off: “What was the Spirit waiting for? /An image of Its nature, a looking glass?” Quickly, Pinksy gets into the nitty-gritty of glass composition, and a series of elliptical references: “a tangle of bodies / made out of plaster, which plasterers call mud.” See the twist: had Pinsky just said ‘bodies made out of mud,’ we would lose interest, learning nothing new in a tired biblical reference. There’s no intrigue. The poem, for me, has a very delicate sense of balance, when to move the argument along, when to surprise with another factoid. The images generally (but not always) take a a biblical tack: “Men in a bread line…waiting / at the apportioning-place of daily bread.” This serves to tie the poem together, as do multiple references to particles, early and late, as does starting with water and dust and then referencing mud, returning to ‘clouds of dust,’ then ending, or nearly so, with a reference to “moist with life.” One could consider this poem a development of images in parallel, rather than a progression of logical argument. Again, I believe many such poems are finding homes in the top markets, simply because they are more interesting to editors who have seen so many poems that are nothing more than an extended metaphor, or a captured, lyrical moment. Honestly, I myself find it very tricky to write interesting poems with such requirements/structures. But it’s sure fun to try. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Poetry Mag For Nov

This is the translation issue, which means a chance to see what an American magazine thinks is worthy of support from overseas. And I have to agree with them on the poem, “The Wind,” by Dafydd Ap Gwilym. “Skywind, skillful disorder,” it begins, “rowdy-sounding, / world hero…” A poem to be read in a stentorian tone. “north wind of the cwm, / Your route, reliable hymn.” (I believe that cwm should be pronounced like coom, same vowel sound as loon, and so a near rhyme, not a perfect one. It means valley, or coomb as in Tolkien’s use). It’s a loud bark of a poem, muscled and alive. Translated by Gwyneth Lewis.

Liu Xia gives us “Transformed Creatures,” a strange, aggressive little poem. “You have a strange pet — / one eye is a cat’s, the other a sheep’s.” I memorized that first line quickly, always a great sign with a poem. The strange creature operates by its own rules, quickly laid out, quickly ended, as the poem is short. The ending gives the poem its great power. Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, translators.

Ko Un is a Korean poet who wrote “Ear”, a very short poem, translated to comprise of a couplet, then a single line verse, then a couplet, by Suji Kwock Kim and Sunja Kim Kwock. “Someone’s coming / from the other world.” A spooky little work.

Finally, Matthew Rohrer writes a series of short poems inspired by the great Japanese haiku artists, Buson, Basho and Issa. None of these are haiku, but they are very interesting and resonant: “The sound of the water jar / empties in the open graves…” wow, what a line, from “Poem Written With Basho.” And from “Poem Written With Buson,” comes “a urine-stained quilt / is the flag of / early summer rain.” Shocking images, even. Definitely poems to return to.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Autumnal Avocet

I liked “Paws For Peter” by Peter Leverich in this issue. But of course, with a title like that, how could I not? ;-> “down from his nursery window / a neighbor’s cat / gives us pause…” A fun, quick thing.

“Before” by Lisa Meserole has some sharp images as well. “when the …myrtle’s in…bloom / and the marigold’s still getting butterfly love.”

Charlotte DiGregorio gives us “Ode To Shade.” “Sooth me, after months / of wasting sun.” I always like double meanings, as with the word wasting there. Lots of good stuff in this work. “maple trees shedding / weightless crimson and gold.”

Carol A. Amato’s poem “Progeny” has such an excellent opening: “Beyond August / dragonflies still stop / to capture precious spots of sun.” That could almost be a poem in itself. I think this may be my favorite poem in the issue, in fact: “monarchs have emerged / from their jeweled inscrutable wombs…” A lot of thoughtful lines here. “the rip-tide wind…”

“October 4″ by Joan Colby is worth reading. “The gilt beans have been harvested / Leaving a scraped and bare audacity…” Interesting to choose audacity over austerity there.

“Pumpkins on the River” by Phyllis Beck Katz has such an unusual idea: pumpkins in a flood floating off down the river. “You could see lines of liberated / pumpkins stretching for miles.” Great image.

Ed Galing’s “The Park” touched me. “It looked so out of place / a small park right in the center / of a busy street.” The very spareness and plain language of this poem lend it power.

Many other excellent poems fill this issue as well, too many all to mention.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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


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