True Blue Collar

Reading the Winter issue of Blue Collar Review, I was struck once again by how raw the poetry is, how rooted in common troubles. This is not a place to find erudite abstractions, nor the faint irony of a delicate metaphor. It’s a place for blunt truths and shared emotions. The first poem I’ll mention here is “The Three Personalities of Water,” by David Gross. “In our coal town, insulation was / a luxury…water lines froze.” I love the immediacy of the narration. “With propane torches stuffed under our coats…we crawled through drafty…crawlspace.” The shared memory of doing practical things around the house. Wriggling through small areas, a seriousness of purpose. For me it creates a sense of solidarity, that we’re all in this together, with hope out in front: “Listening closely for sounds of melting ice…”

Kyle Heger has a wry take on the world in, “I Haven’t Pleased Enough Machines Today.” Who has not felt at the mercy of the machines in our world? “My fingers couldn’t / make themselves understood on / my cell phone’s touch screen.” As I get older, I am struck by how many machines seem designed by the young, for the young. Arthritis is not taken into account, nor palsy. It leaves millions alienated, and doesn’t improve their view of the young tyros living without consideration of others, I suspect. “God help me: Even though / I had dutifully checked out all my / books…the alarms went off.” The machines watch us, suspicious, resentful, unforgiving. Does anyone else feel this? A great poem.

I like Matthew J. Spireng’s short poem, “Five Minutes.” “It only takes five minutes, my boss / tells me… as he adds another duty.” A quick-in, quick-out poem that quickly wrings emotion out of us, along with recognition. Yes, we all know that feeling.

“Chasing Rainbows in Scranton,” by Mike Faran, is another poem worth checking out. It starts out, “Thunder was kicking in the / corner…” What a great, ambiguous image. We can stop right there and get a sense of the earth of the place, of people at the mercy of greater powers. In this case, it’s a dog. “my girl laughed / and said “wonder what…he’s chasing now.” But there’s a true poignancy to this tale, as we follow it deeper. “she looked down at her coffee cup, / her laughter and smile gone…” But ultimately a story of hope, and love. Very much worth a good rereading.

Ryan Peeters brings back an old memory for me with his poem, “Hard To Work For.” It starts, “Prompt Staffing asked for an immediate drug test.” You know right away this is going to be a poem with the bark on. “At week six and a half, payday, / the big boss handed out checks… ‘you are all being let go.’ // Leonard…took his check and left before the big boss was done talking.” I also have the memory of layoffs, of coworkers who had been through the mill enough to be scarred. Such experiences leave a certain feeling behind, one this poem gets at very well.

All in all, a worthy issue, one that chews over the difference between those sheltered by money, and those fighting not to be at its mercy. I’m glad this viewpoint is still out there.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


There are two poems in this issue, each with a similar tone for me, though they are quite different in approach. Both have a first sentence that presents a reality quickly contrasted by an alternate.

The first is by Charles Simic, one of my favorite poets, called “In Wonder.” “I cursed someone or something / Tossing and turning all night — / Or so I was told…” Was the narrator tossing and turning, was someone else doing so who annoys the narrator? We are given two choices right away. Uncertainty might be the theme. The poem presents a dream thesis, but then turns instantly to a concrete image with a simple simile. “The frost…lay pretty / Like tinsel.” This poem moves along quickly. We are given the next image “a limo black as a hearse” …again a simple image and simile, but this one plays out to the ending of the poem, an implication almost cinematic of dastardly villains, missing whatever they sought, speeding away… leaving behind a last, creepy simile. The movie-like drama brings back the sense of a dream, in a subtle way tying the whole poem together.

The other poem is by Carl Dennis, again one of our great poets. In “Two Lives,” he threads together a pair of story lines to powerful effect. We are warned in the very first phrase of the coming complexity of the poem. “In my other life, the B-17 my father is piloting / Is shot down over Normandy…” We switch between two versions of the narrator’s life, as resulting from different versions of his father’s life. One narrator is an intellectual, a professor perhaps, the other a working class guy as the result of his father’s death in that B-17. It sticks closely to detail, as the great poets do. “In a neighborhood that’s seen better days. / I play stickball after school…” A common life, not unusual in New Yorker poems. But the alternate lives intertwine, the working class self taking a job in the factory the other’s father owns. This play of dual lives for both father and son keeps the poem interesting. “In my other life, I have to leave high school / To bolster the family income…” The narrator reveals an inclination for reading fantasy stories, which puts a meta- moment on top of everything else, as of course alternate histories are a subset of fantasy and science fiction. And let’s just add another twist, that this is a story poem of a character who loves stories. That constant twisting to add loops and complexities creates a resonance and depth that impressed me very much. In the end, as we would expect, the author brings the two narrators together, weaving the story together into a satisfying conclusion.

One can learn a lot by studying either of these writers. Oh, and enjoy the ride along the way! ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Winter Plainsongs

Lot of good poems in this issue. The first I’ll mention is “Adorn,” by Gabriella M. Belfiglio, a Plainsongs Award winner. “Daughter, / we bought you a dress…covered in little / violets.” A sweet, sad song, eulogy for a child who passed in childbirth. If you haven’t read Plainsongs it is notable for the commentary the editors make on their Plainsongs Award poems (one editor for each Award). Especially insightful on this one.

“Total Immersion,” by Mark Hiskes, itself immerses us into the scene, a boy who loves to read, his teacher awed by his intensity. “Brandon, too, walked the old tracks.” Such a resonant opening. (Paraphrased from Bradbury. Always riff off the masters!) He walks railroad tracks while reading. The hint of danger and foolishness in this act gives the poem an extra interest that carries us through to the delightful ending. To put such tension in a poem, and hold it unresolved throughout, is an advanced trick, stolen from storytelling I think, and makes any work better.

“Nadine” may be the most fun poem of the bunch (it’s by Mike Faran). “Nadine Funderhouse is our new Poet Laureate / up here in Ax, Alaska.” Kind of a shaggy dog poem, with such a powerful voice.  “Not too many know it but poetry is a / pretty big deal up here…” The line enjambments support the conversational tone, the comfort we feel in the hands of an expert. The interplay between Nadine and her woodsmen admirers forms the power of the poem, and the ending is extremely satisfying. Bravo!

“The Ghost of Tammy Thompson,” by Robert L. Penick gives a grim tale of aging. “…dragging / her pitted, bent aluminum walker.” Great images here. “With a reptile’s precision.” Never thought of how precise a reptile must be, but it’s one of those lines that always should have been, that Penick found and gave us as a gift.

I like “Packing,” by Lin Lifshin. She’s written a lot of good poems, and here’s another one. “tho my birthday is under / the sign of the crab, who / takes his whole house / with him when he goes…” So let’s review just this much (as Arlo Guthrie once said). She implies, humorously, in these few lines that she can be crabby when she has to move, and she is out of her element when moving, and she may be a bit of a packrat, making it worse. All that in the same few lines. Now that’s packing a lot into a very few words. ;-> And the very next words do it again: “…I swear…” Wherein we see her cussing as she works, and vowing to do better. Wow.

And while I am run out of time here, still I must mention Phillip Howerton’s “A Shelf Of Old Hammers,” which is one of those poems that after you’ve read it, you would swear has been around forever. It has that deja vu quality of a great poem. “They had their heads knocked / hard for too many years…now they have scarred, blunted faces.” Subtle use of rhyme, and a perfect ending.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Had some big changes in my life recently, so I haven’t blogged in a while, but here we go now.

In the Fall 2015 Blue Collar Review, I was much struck by Carole Mertz’ pantoum, “Hard Times.” She uses the form to powerful effect. “He likes to hold his temper in the face of adversity / even though his hours are reduced.” The repetition of lines reminds us of the grinding nature of work, and of bosses who make things harder: “Even though his hours are reduced / the manager hovers over him.” Well done.

“Mine,” by Ed Werstein, reminds me a bit of George Harrison’s “Taxman,” with its grim humor: “Mine is mine, / and those things you thought were yours? / They’re mine.” But this is Blue Collar Review, so the poem will ultimately have to do with work. “The mines are mine. / All the mines that miners mined…”Great, ironic word play, and a strong ending.

I very much enjoyed William Joliff’s explanatory poem, “Briarhopper Ted-Talk: What To Do With Spam.” “The trick is getting it thin enough…Done right, fried Spam won’t be soft / in the middle. There is no middle.” The earnest tone adds to the fun. “I smashed a lot of Spam to learn it.” And a perfectly Blue Collar ending to top it off.

The poet roibeard gives us an engaging poem. I like the fun of “Mission Creep 3.” “Thursdays, / the fear of failing myself / must play pattycake with someone else.” There are a lot of slick little turns of phrase: “barleycorn buffoonery is at my beck & call.” (Yes, this line scans, which adds something delicate to its lilt). And, “There’s also the matter of my cradle-Catholic wife…our lady of the chickens.” The poem is an enjoyable read.

Finally, I’ll mention “On HGTV,” by Joan Colby. It starts, “They are obsessed with stainless steel and granite.” Surely we can all identify with the narrator, watching the unreal people on TV. “Which makes me determined…to abjure the island around which / Everyone congregates.” I like that word, abjure. There is a fine sensibility for language here. “I want to smite that arrogance / of want.” A line worth going back to and contemplating. All in all, a very worthy poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Missou Review

Three poets grace the pages of the latest issue of the Missouri Review. Jenny Molberg starts out with “Fourth State of Matter.” “The day Big Tex burned, it began in the throat — / an utterance that caught fire.” Is Big Tex a relative, a friend of the narrator’s father? We know we are at the fair, but the poet does not hand us the full context, preferring to make us work it out with other clues: “whose 75-gallon hat // mooned over the crowd.” And bingo, if we are paying enough attention, we realize Big Tex must be a statue, or puppet, speaking to the crowd through a loudspeaker in the throat, which catches fire. Why is this a moment worthy of a poem? The narrator searches for her father: “scanned the dune of faces…”and reaches some sort of epiphany. “Later, I saw that my father’s life wasn’t whole // but scattered, and didn’t really belong to me.” So this is a moment when the isolation becomes real, when her father’s grief becomes real for her. She is growing up. Nicely done.

I also like her poem, “Storm Coming,” a short, understated work, again about the narrator and her father. “In his face, // I look for my own…” “The sky swells like an oath.” The approaching storm counterbalances the human interactions. “Dad, he’ll say, how about… we’ll go and get some of those peaches…?” “The storm is birth and death // in only minutes.” Over and over, this author breaks up ideas not just between lines, but between stanzas, emphasizing the gaps, the emptiness in her character’s lives, the distances they seem to feel between each other. A work to revisit, and to contemplate.

Noah Warren gives us the poem “Milkweed.” “The summer morning, / the exploding front,  the rain / a wall falling.” Wow, tricky to come up with an original image about the rain. “One stalk of milkweed…bitten, blind thing, on and on, / by the swarm of bullets.” It brings to mind, for me, the war that is nature, each living thing struggling to survive, eat, make its own way in a battle zone. An interesting metaphor, deftly handled. And I love the metaphor he uses to end this poem.

The final poet is Regina DiPerna. In “The Fortune Our Bodies told,” she starts, “First, pattern: one whisper-thin / hook of material threading to / the next.” And indeed, at times our bodies do seem thin and fragile. “the clockwork // of a heart…a fistful of red clay / contracting and expanding / around each damp, unsteady hour.” Boy, that’s cool writing. I like the conceit of the poem, a series of metaphors about each aspect of the body. “The blood, an army of ants…”

And I love her poem, “I’m Not,” a declaration, a manifesto of independence: “not hanging my head / in the doorway…like ivy growing quiet over your walls. I’m not a canvas for you…I’m not midnight and smashed dishes…” A passionate work, that touches us and makes us cheer for the narrator, and to hope for her.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


I think I’ll start reviewing the Winter 2015 Atlanta Review from back to front. No reason. The last poem in the mag is a sonnet, “Sunday Morning in His Workshop,” by Duane K. Caylor. “…a button-headed brace / rests on the bench awaiting… to spin once more. A poem about a workshop. Things of the hands. “augur bit in place, / it translates languages of mind and hand / into solid, runic poetry.” I am a big fan of poetry that arises out of the practical world, concerning items and tasks nothing dependent on classrooms, teaching, arcane academia. Maybe because I am so far from that world myself. So the power of this poem arises from the knowledge of someone’s workshop, the things he or she intends to build.

In the poem, “Profession of Flora,” Jane Varley reimagines the Nicene Creed in flowers. “We believe in flax, the pearlwort, and coneflower, / maker of heaven and earth.” It’s a one-off idea, and the fun comes in seeing how she rewords the ancient prayer to fit a floral language.  It is by turns, or by reflection, maybe I should say, amusing and mildly blasphemous: “eternally begotten of the fleabane…” It generates the shocks a good poem will, and I hardly think any deity should look askance at such a beautiful effort.

“Outsourcing My Grief,” by Peter Krass,” also has a spiritual bent: “the year after my father died /…I discovered a Chinese factory / where I could outsource my grief.” Again, the shock of the weird adds flavor to the poem. “Now, for just $39.99 a month, the workers mourn / on my behalf, performing graceful lotus kicks…” Of course such an idea must be developed and twisted, and Krass does so skillfully. “I’ve upgraded for an additional $19.99…” What a hopeful poem, kicking death in the eye as it were.

Mike Faran gives us an entirely different theme, in “Santa Monica Sunrise.” “I woke up — bolted up / in a panic / felt for my dog tags…little stamped poems read by / proud parents…” but the narrator is in an unreal place, and gradually realizes it. “I hadn’t worn them in twenty years…” there are beautiful lines in here that add to the disorientation of the PTSD. “The sun speared through / heartshaped curtains.” And there is a moving ending. The power arises so much from understatement, the immediacy of the description. Powerful and sorrowful.

Barbara Lydecker Crane does a great job with a triplet poem (tercet stanzas which all lines follow the same rhyme): “Kicking the Bucket List.” “…here’s a bucket list / (not complete, but it’s the gist) / of things I think are better missed.” You get the idea. Humor is hard to do well, and so much to be appreciated, I think anyway. And the ending plays on the triplet structure perfectly, with the narrator’s fear of disappearing. Brava!

“Barracuda,” by Ron De Maris is great and shivery: “Shadows edge forward in a slow languid mass like a / Cloud of logs…”

“Chestnut Mare,” by Dion O’Reilly, speaks beautifully of loss. “I have no reason to walk / to the pasture anymore…”

There are a few excellent horse poems in a row, actually. Barbara J. Mayer gives us “From the Horse’s Mouth,” St. Paul’s horse on the road to Damascus, specifically: “it’s always / the horse’s fault when his rider / hits the ground with such bone-cracking / force…”

Way too many great poems in this magazine to mention them all. That’s not unusual with the Atlanta Review, of course, but let me mention one last one, Tracy. K. Smith’s “Transit.” “Someone is waiting for us / Down through that grove of ferns,” a subtle and complex pantoum about death, about rebirth, about magic and a grove. “And the season shifts now slowly to the east / where whatever must begin beings.” Wow.

Get this mag as you can.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Indie Writers Blessing

Indie Writers Blessing

May your sales all come without refunds
and your discount days be few.
May your covers shine, your rankings climb,
and reviewers flock to you.

PMF Johnson


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