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Rachel Hadas is the first poet in this issue, one of our current masters of the formal poem. “Love And Dread” is constructed in a series of deft couplets, beginning, “A desiccated daffodil. / A pigeon cooing on the sill. / The old cat lives on love and water.” How do these things relate to the title? Do we dread the daffodil shrinking to a desiccated state? The reader may not get that at first (or at least, I didn’t), deferring understanding for the moment. Sure enough, we are rewarded with more clarity a few lines onward: “The fulcrum is our life on earth, / beginning, ending in a bed. / We have to marry love and dread.” For a time the poem settles into a call and response, what we love and what we dread, including references to the larger world around us: “The daily drumbeat of the lie, / steady—no, crescendoing.” The reader is rocked back and forth, until what we love and what we dread become intermingled, and confused. The poem lies in the flux between the two, the tension, the uncertainty. We love life, we dread death, though this is never stated explicitly. A powerful poem.

Billy Collins authored the second poem, “Downpour,” which touches on the similar, even resonant theme of death amidst the little details of life. It begins, “Last night we ended up on the couch / trying to remember / all of the friends who had died so far.” Collins so often deals in such plain language, and deceptively simple speech. This allows the reader to embrace the poem directly. The narrator’s contemplativeness goes on to the next day, when “I wrote them down / in alphabetical order / on the flip side of a shopping list.” It is the tension between the quotidian and profound, juxtaposing grief and loss with the immediacy of life, that strikes us. “I was on the lookout for blueberries, / English muffins, linguini.” We are discovering connections, some quite rueful:
“I stopped to realize… / that I had forgotten Terry O’Shea / as well as the bananas.” It’s like a finely woven blanket, the weave shuttling back and forth between poles, until we see how these things are related, and feel it even more than see it. As often happens with Collins, he leaves the poem suddenly, almost dropping the theme without closure. It is only in the silence after reading that the poem reaches conclusion, and we can say yes, this is how it should be.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The Missouri Review – Summer 2019

Iconoclast – Issue #118

The New Yorker – Aug 19, 19

 


The first poet in this issue of The Missouri Review, Allison Hutchcraft, seems to feel the world in herself and herself in the world. “Swale” starts: “In my winter by the sea, I fashioned / a new habit… walking… through mud and leafless alder, their branches // cupped by the plush green of mosses…” I like where the enjambment of the first line happens. Not after winter, when we are struck by decline; not after the sea, where we would pause to imagine the landscape; but in a place that drags us along to see what is being created here. Subtle and cool. And I like that word ‘plush,’ not the perhaps more expected ‘soft,’ or some other more commonplace word. So, what is being created here? “the marshy banks transformed / by that lunar clockwork // on which my hours turned.” The narrator puts herself in this world, she is changed as it is changed. She belongs. “the water looked like the creek I felt in me.” The dissolving of the separation between self and world becomes powerful, mysterious, beckoning us into a place where not all can be understood by the mind, it must be channeled through the body. “When I swale,” she says, becoming the landscape, a landscape that acts on its world. A fascinating poem.

Chris Hayes’ world is also front and center in his poetry. “Heartland” starts, “I’m talking to R. about… wildfires, Trump, Nicaragua, / moving from one slice of unnatural disaster to the infinite next.” This world is more jumbled, encompassing a wider swath, and perhaps forming more judgments as it goes. I admire the adjectives chosen, ‘unnatural’ and ‘infinite.’ Not words I expected, and I like a surprise or two in poetry, when they fit the line, and deepen the meaning. His world flows past, perhaps surprising the narrator as well. “It occurs to me that we haven’t heard from Kansas in a while.” There is a gap here between ideal and reality. “we all have to get along but don’t really.” And of course, there is humor. “where else might we go besides ecumenical Wichita.” A light touch about serious subjects: how we live with each other, and can we remain as one.

The third poet in this issue is David Kirby, one of our most esteemed poets. His poem “High School” starts, “It would have been a joke if prisons were jokes.” Certainly most of us have felt that about school at one time or another. The shared experience draws us along. He has sympathy for the teachers. “our science teachers meant well…” but “As far as / social studies, forget it.” It’s a poem about limitations. “None of us could / sing at all. We should have practiced more…” And, being about a high school boy, of course it veers into fantasy before the end. A fun, sweet poem that made me smile.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Iconoclast – Issue #118

Plainsongs – Summer 2019

The New Yorker – Aug 19, 19

 


I like the positivity with which the poem, “The Cup,” by Marvin Glasser starts. “It’s all right to keep going on. / There’s no guilt attached… Nature after all is playing a strong hand.” It’s like having an old friend on your side, speaking in a commonplace tone with commonsense words. But there’s a quiet edge to this poem that soon sneaks out. “…aware the while of the vial in the drawer.” Is life too much for the narrator? Is the grief too great? The poem does not quite answer that.

Vernon Waring gives us a poem that serves as both paean and elegy to Whitney Houston, “almost home. ” “and now we sing of whitney…nothing can / contain her.” Poems that remind us of beauty, and of what we lost, serve a common purpose, to bring us together. “beading like quicksilver / in constant motion.”

t. kilgore splake can surprise us. Here’s it’s “wilderness surprise,” which starts “black clouds rapidly moving / taste and smell of rain.” A familiar moment to us all, perhaps as we rush for shelter. And then, more appears. “suddenly feeling strange presence / invisible mysterious being.” That moment where we feel we are only a small part of a larger whole, that more is out there. “light raindrops falling.”

Lyn Lifshin is always good for a professional poem. “The Mad Girl Goes Into the Mist” is her contribution to this issue. “and for what reason, disappears / inside dreams of stained glass and shadow.” A poem of shifting identity, and uncertain perceptions. “She / could have gazed at magical / women behind glass.” Who is this person? The narrator? Perhaps not: “…consider, I don’t live / anywhere near those trees…” We are left with the mystery. Fun.

“Deviant, obsessive me — a conversation” is a poem by Pamela Thomas to make us think. “The insides are untrustworthy. / Aren’t they?” The narrator seems uncomfortable, agitated. “I need anarchy / Careful.” Then there is a turn to another, with a shared worry. “the mirror you’ve created / Is it unpleasant still, now?”

Finally, nancy l. dahl gives us a poem of solidarity, one of the main themes mined by this magazine. Her poem is “Let us never forget…” which starts: “where we came from / wherever we go to… that we take a look behind.” Not that we are all in lockstep, but that we care for one another. An uplifting poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Plainsongs – Summer 2019

The New Yorker – Aug 19, 19

Blue Collar Review – Spring 2019

 

 

Plainsongs – Summer 2019


The first poem that really struck me in this issue of Plainsongs was “Detox,” by Thomas DeFreitas. “A hurt woman of thirty, thirty-five… paces, hazy, puzzled to be alive.” It’s a sonnet, and a dandy one. The language is so simple, every day. Very hard to do in such a formal structure. And the narrator shows such compassion, and familiarity with the situation of people in detox. “She manages both defiance and defeat.” This is a Plainsongs Award winning poem, so the editor does some analysis of the poem, which I will not repeat here. Buy the issue, it’s good stuff. There are no soaring metaphors in this poem, no tricks of language. Just a caring portrait, the more powerful for its plain language.

I liked “Secondhand,” by Yvonne Zipter. “The Sixth on Lawrence Avenue offers / a cocktail infused with smoke…” One cool trick poets can use is to avoid exposition, to the point of leaving the readers with a puzzle. It takes a moment to figure out that the Sixth must be a bar of some sort. It’s like listening to a speaker muse on things we only catch a glimpse of. We have to understand things through their context, which somehow draws us in more, makes the place more real. Such intuitions are required throughout this poem. “But I prefer the old way: the honeyed voice / of Chet Baker… like the blue smoke…” Prefer what old way? To what? Again, we are coming in at the middle of something. And even Chet Baker we may only know through faint rumor. An old jazz singer? Blues? That the poet considers him worth mentioning makes him intriguing to the reader. And the vagueness adds depth to the background. A wonderful atmosphere poem.

“When She Told Me,” by Cecil Morris, uses metaphor to excellent effect. “The clunk after clunk of the knife brought down / through hard carrots…” Because the image is so specific, we can easily visualize a specific scene. “…through orange root to cutting board…” We are there. It creates an anticipation, a foreshadowing that is resolved halfway through the poem. “That’s how her words felt going in my ears.” And suddenly we are wrenched into a higher view of the moment, seeing the whole poem as metaphor, but also as an immediate image. A woman speaking as she works. Saying things hard to take in. “…and I could not speak… and she continued cutting.” Very nicely done.

“A Montana Message,” by Travis Truax, is almost a life-declaration. “Moving here, we pulled / the mountains around us, / close, kept the south / best we could.” The common diction puts us in a rural world, ranchers or farmers working for a living. The originality of that first metaphor draws us in, keeps us reading. The simplicity of the declaration renders what is being said important. “We kept what mattered.” A beautiful poem.

I also liked “And Yet,” by Richard Luftig. “Yesterday I saw two lone daffodils / out by the toolshed,  their heads / poking out… like newborn twins. This morning, I must report / they looked a little discouraged.” Humor always draws us in, and when rendered like this builds empathy. The joy of Plainsongs is its focus on what’s real to folks in the middle of the country. Common scenes, characters we have all met. A good counterpoint to so much currently being published. “…we must / make do in this only time, / this always place.”

“The Smoker,” by Elsa Bell, continues this approach. “Outside in the mist, wrapped in a long overcoat… the smoker / stands, gaunt as an ancient tree.” Maybe I like it so much because it is my world, one I am familiar with, these people striving to make something out of tatters and bits of a life. “Like birds, his delicate hands / flutter to shake the match flame out.” The poem says, this is important. This is our life. Pay attention, and honor it. What more are any of us bound to do?

Finally, let me mention “The Quarry,” by Phillip Howerton, who has built a career out of mining such themes. “The rolling hills and Brown Swiss / never made… the father rich, but the son / was determined to make the farm pay.” We see already a subtle commentary on different views of things. “He saw thin dirt / as an obstacle… and sold topsoil to blast limestone… made fools of the old folks / by turning rock into gold.” Wow. To show us how destructive such a forward-looking view of the world can be, to show us, through discussing nothing but the son’s success, all that is lost in such an approach to life. This poem can break your heart.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Aug 19, 19

Blue Collar Review – Spring 2019

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019

 


Megan Fernandes in the August 19 issue of The New Yorker takes on the challenge of writing an original, interesting love poem, with “Scylla and Charybdis.” “I like when the choices are both ugly…” she starts. Notice how deftly she threads a few needles, how quickly. If she had said “both hard,” we would be instantly bored, as that follows naturally from the title. If she had started with “I hate when…” We would also expect that emotion from the title, (or at least not be surprised by it) and some interest would have been lost. My view is, that’s how carefully one must write to publish here. It’s why The New Yorker poems are consistently among the best. Nor is any of this how a conventional love poem would start. “Odysseus chose / Scylla and I, too, would have opted for / a terrestrial evil…” As the poem develops, it goes into details of the two lovers being separated, one on a water vacation, one at work in NYC. “Soon you and I will exist in different time zones… you swim in open Spanish waters… I spin in a street of yellow cars.” As with the best poems, the thesis is not pursued too long, new water is poured into the poem (as Henri Cole once said). “you face the queen medusas in the water… you are facing me. I am them in hundreds.” And the strange image, the twist keeps us interested, as the poet meditates on love, on separation, and on how fear for the beloved underlies any such time apart. A very skilled poem.

Ciaran Carson wrote “Claude Monet, ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil,’ 1880.” “Today I thought I’d just take a lie-down, and drift… yesterday, some vandal upended the terracotta pot of daffodils / In our little front garden.” When a poem tells a story, I’ve noticed, it often does so with many little digressions, diversions, meditations, and insights. So it is here, and they deepen and enrich what we are reading. “I thought of…Poussin… and his habit of bringing back bits of wood, stone, moss…” We may not know the references, or even the painting being referenced (Google it, it’s a famous work) but the plethora of images creates a feeling of richness, of importance, of welcome that draws us in. “Etymologies present themselves, like daffodil from asphodel.” Me, I love to meditate on how words have developed over the years, and I suppose a great many people who love poetry do so as well. This is a poem for the aesthete, perhaps. Those who take their pleasure in references echoing down the years. “Strange how a smear of color, like a perfume, resurrects the memory.” Exactly. And thank goodness that we can share such moments through poetry.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar Review – Spring 2019

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019

The Missouri Review – Spring 2019

 


I’m glad that a magazine like Blue Collar Review exists, that poetry with a caring point of view has not vanished, that not all attempts at poetry are simply academic, or intellectually driven.

There are some fine poems in this issue. I liked “So Far Away from the Nightingale,” by Fred Voss. “It is 6:05 am and still dark in the L.A. basin and one of the men / on the shop floor has… thrown open the big overhead tin / doors…” it begins. “we tap / with hammers turn screws lock cutters… and no one mentions the drought / or global warming…” A poem about hard work in the context of our larger world, of the larger troubles we all face. “we handle parts that will fit into spaceships.” The irony inherent in blue collar work geared at helping someone, someday, escape the mess our world is becoming. We need work like this.

Al Markowitz gives us a poem comparing a person’s life to a butterfly’s in “April Butterfly.” “Emerging / from the wintered-over chrysalis… to be born / under a bad sign… emerging flawed.” It’s a straightforward poem, which gives it a strength and even a touch of humor, and a smile of recognition for the reader.

“Windscreen Washer,” by Christopher Palmer, recognizes a moment many of us have experienced. “A footy shirt zigzags / among all the passers-by… working the corner of Northbourne and Hunt… this intersection; it’s his patch, his beat.” We feel the vulnerability of the fellow hustling for a few scattered dollars. “questioning with his eyebrows.” A fine understatement here.

Boy, I liked “Over Broken Bottles and Rivers,” by Millicent B. Accardi. Such a wonderful voice. “We sailed, unequaled amid / a stupid sea of hard knocks. / You were no sharp match / for me, a somber artifact…” This poem is an education in how to use adjectives as spice, to accent or invert meanings just enough to make the story interesting. Very nice.

Finally, Joan Colby’s “Blame,” has a real bite. “It was not secured therefore it toppled / When the child tried to climb.” An indictment of carelessness among manufacturers. “An innocent object, a dresser…” The actual moment of disaster is not pictured; instead, the author turns to a larger view of our lives. “Who can sleep through storms? / Who finds relief in changing passwords?” A reflection of the dangers of our modern world, of how little we can protect ourselves from, at last. Powerful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019

The Missouri Review – Spring 2019

Rattle 64 – Summer 2019


It generally takes me days to read the poetry in each Nimrod, a deep pleasure. This issue is like a waterfall of different points-of-view, different approaches. Mind-expanding. This issue opens with “Performance Day in the Vaulted Theater,” by Myronn Hardy. “Because this is an ending   they / stand in the stage’s center.” The subtitle explains this is “for my… Moroccan students.” The images bring forth the culture. “You’ve prepared the rice salad   that / signifier of ending   that tradition.” Ironically, the poem serves as an opening into a new world, a beginning in that way. “Farewell to locks,” it says. A worthy start to an issue dedicated to Middle East and North Africa voices.

Many poems bring the sense of an extra dimension, a sideways space. Nashwa Gowanlock exhibits this in “The Story of Ka.” “I was born when an African bracelet burst / and its stacked record beads scattered….” The notion of record beads makes me pause, wonder what is being saved, what transmitted. It adds to the impact of the poem. “I learned to watch war / with the volume down.” Which, excuse me, reminds me of a senryu I wrote some years ago: “the war / on the TV / in the background.” I feel the shock of solidarity, of fellow-feeling across years and space. We hear ourselves in other voices.

Aiya Sakr gives us “Broken Ghazal: Seven Hijabis.” “Fabric enfolds you hair to elbow, respects your mother’s modesty.” A meditation on modesty, among other things, with each stanza of the ghazal containing the word. And arresting language. “Your unloosed curls glow in the new sun, a twisted rope ladder to God.” And a little mystery, in that there are eight stanzas to describe the seven hijabis. A beautiful poem.

Often, the world depicted has hard edges, harsh rules. “Welcome the Night, in Which We Are Hidden,” by Sara Elkamel, touches on this. “You ask if the lingering… of the / (police) is the reason I let go of your hand.” But while the tension is clear, the answers are not always so. “(I want to ask) who was it that let go of whose hand, and… why.” The uncertainties of youth, of situation.

Poetry, when done well, unifies us, reminds us we face the same situations, maybe not every one, but so many, so many. Lori Levy brings this forth in her poem, “Nursing Home Lies.” “We begin to lie when we visit… just to cheer her, or ourselves. / You’ll walk again, we say. You’ll go home.” The naivete of youth, not understanding that their elders have seen much more, survived much more than they, thinking the old must be protected from how life truly is. From the truth of their own dying, which they feel in their bones. I have seen this play out, the concern and the cost, and the poet seems clear about it as well. We share a life, in these acts and feelings.

Lastly, let me mention “Spaciousness (al-Inshirah),” by Mohja Kahf, a tremendous sonnet in not-quite-sonnet form. “You would have liked a poem strict as you… exacting in its form… as you were precise.” It’s a kind and gentle poem: “A spaciousness, I wish for you, an ease… a move from fear to joy.” Each word fits perfectly, like a prayer. This poem alone is worth getting this issue for.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The Missouri Review – Spring 2019

Rattle 64 – Summer 2019

The New Yorker – May 20 2019