Blue Collar Blog

So in the spring 2015 Blue Collar Review (the latest one I have, bet I get another soon) the first poem is by that famous writer, Anonymous. “9 AM Break, Line 3, Engine Assembly” tells us of a worker on the line who can’t take a bathroom break due to the team being shorthanded. “The horns sounds and the line freezes / and your first five free seconds are wasted…” We are very much there in the moment with the narrator, and the tough life. “…you want to run to the phone / to call your girlfriend and apologize / for not calling last night…because you woke up in a chair / with the TV blaring at 11:30 / and that was just too late to call…” A very powerful poem in its simplicity.

Then Carol V. James gives us “Automobile Mirror Assembly Line,” which starts “All we want is time to live…And all we have to buy time with / are lives…” It pairs well with the previous poem. There are pithy turns of phrase here, and wise ones. “My past is tailgating me.” A very worthy poem.

Gotta like Mike Faran’s “Are We Robots Yet?” The introduction throws us right in the deep end: “The last time I scratched my ass, / felt like skin…” The narrator is lost in a world rapidly vanishing. “I’m simple as a Remington / typewriter.” And yet there’s much sly fun here. “I / told you that Pac Man was a form of / Devil worship.” A poem worth looking up.

As promised, this is poetry that takes sides. Stewart Acuff’s poem, “Richest Member of Congress” makes that clear. “America’s richest member of Congress / said America’s poor are the envy of the world.” You know where this is going. “Our poor can’t miss a step in their whirl / of two jobs and days that go 12 to 14 hours / and kids that feed themselves on less and less…” If you don’t agree with that point of view, this may not be the magazine for you.

But ultimately, these poems ask questions more than they give answers. They dig into issues that may not have simple answers, and the poets know that. But still we get calls-to-action, as with Robert Edwards’ “Manifesto # 94.” “Now is the time / to make a few enemies / to burn a few bridges / of my own.” A great didactic effort: “Now is the time / to set the wind free in the house…and take the safety off my hand.”

I enjoyed this issue very much.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Summer Missouri

The summer issue of the Missouri Review features the work of three poets. Miriam Bird Greenberg’s first poem here,  “Would You Believe,” challenges us to believe the narrator saw a series of remarkable events. “We climbed from the mouth of a volcano / all year…” it begins, in discussing the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the hustlers who survived it. “Brother, // one told me he’d said, we can be afraid / of each other again tomorrow.” The volcano seems to be used metaphorically, the incidents seem narrative. “Sometimes / I’d lift my hand to the lip– // look out over the volcano’s rim and there, / in a crevice, a scrap of paper shining…” the result for me is an interesting mix of trust and suspicion in the story, and a continual wondering why each incident appears. The narrator is affected by the loss and confusion around her: “I’m afraid // one day I’ll find myself trash picking…” Her next poem, “Ophidia,” seems almost a continuation of the first, in a different place: “The days were already burning / when we crossed the river…” The same narrator lost among the hustlers and struggling people of our world. “Do you need / anything, I asked. Water, / a little money? …He was on his way to Houston / for a check…and his dead brother’s unclaimed disability pay…” The heart of this poem, maybe of them all, seems to me to be the line, “How can one lonesome ghost, / I wondered, spin his own rope // to rappel us in the end / into the underworld…?” Haunting poetry, this.

Jennifer Barber has a series, “Motion Harmony #1”, “…#2”, “…#4”: “The first / leaf-stripping rain / reaps a summer’s worth by evening.” Don’t blink, or these poems will be past you, they operate so fast. “The pears that dropped…are pale bronze…Already riddled with wasps.” Tight, efficient language here, almost Imagist. Poem #2: “By pear I mean pear, not a buzzing, riddled heart. / At least I think I do.” A sly humor that catches us unawares. And the ending of each poem gives us the emotional keys to what we’ve just read. Very nice.

The third poet is Doug Ramspeck. His “Black Flowers” is a prose poem. “The old men are dreaming of black flowers…The men have their memories as hymnals, but still the crows make blossoms of their wings, and oar out above the yard.” It’s that sort of metaphor that makes this poems worth reading, though I found it hard to follow any narrative arc. His second poem is more successful for me, “Snow Prayers,” about an incident that happens to his father, and the effect on the whole family. “The first time my mother pushed me / to my knees to pray…” What a great way to start a poem. “You come from God-loving / stock, she pointed out…as though all love / is infinite, as permanent as stone.” Lines like that really help us feel the boy’s ambivalence and unsureness. The ragged belief, the need for belief, the fear belief may fail us, it’s all here. Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Late Aug New Yorker

There are two poems in the Aug 24 issue of The New Yorker. Ellen Bass gives us “The Small Country,” which starts, “Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation / when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten.” It’s a poem about two people in love, and the difficulties in describing the relationship. “What words reach the way I touched you last night…” And ultimately, how we cannot know the same meanings. “Even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us…” An honorable theme for a poem, the two of us in our own world. Straightforward.

In contrast, Eileen Myles gives us nearly the opposite in “Dissolution.” She starts, “sometimes I forget what country I’m in…I got this bug bite / that could be anything.” It’s kind of a scribble drawing of a poem “scribbled version / of empty… A kid could draw this world” and “My coloring book / why not is so / like a movie.” Do commas belong around that ‘why not’ — which would imply a gamble, a dare? Or should ‘not’ be underlined, so we are talking of rejection and emptiness? What may be the key verse is jumbled in among the others: “You forgot / to call your family / & now you’re ready to write an / explicit / bible of love.” This is a poem one has to go back and reread to dig out meanings. It does seem to be about the damage to a relationship, metaphorically: “You left / it outside  now you want to save / it?” But that bug bite does not reduce simplistically, and there are other depths hinted at: “It’s still good / and that’s your secret.” Ultimately, a fun poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

starts with a poem by Amy Newman, “Howl,” a riff on Ginsberg’s breakthrough work. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by wedding / planners, dieting, in shapewear…” An amusing rewrite, with depth (as all the best humorous writing will have, I think). “who left the university…for the rez and the old alcoholic lover family father temper crack…” A somewhat updated view of our world, though with many references to drug lists the old Beats would likely recognize (methaqualone i.e. quaaludes… “speed crank coke & codeine”). An interesting and brave work.

Paul Batchelor gives us “The Discoverer’s Man,” quite a long poem. “His handkerchief, a pin or coin he’d touched…Men came to shake his hand, or rub their warts / upon his famous skin…Blood of a witch!” The story of a witch hunter and his effect on a boy he hires as a scribe, the narrator of the poem. The poem is set in 1645, and tackles the theme of what is the truth. “Ask not what justice mercy can afford.” It’s a spooky, unsettling poem, with heightened language. “Touch a needle, watch it scent about, / quivering after its true north…such was I.” I love declarations of truth in a work, evidence the author has thought about things, and isn’t just shooting off the mouth to impress. Such depth is definitely the case here. “We are as we were made.” Worth the price of the magazine. A wonderful poem.

We get a bunch of Edward Lear’s limericks served up with commentary by Anthony Madrid, none of which impressed me much. “There was an old man with a backpack: / No body could beat him at blackjack.” I seem to recall Lear doing a better job with many of his limericks than the ones quoted here.

There are a number of poems by teens, which seems to be getting to be a thing with this mag. Of these, Britney Franco gives us “Inward.” “I am the broken bones you find on the beach / on your lonely vacation.” A nice image.

So, quite a bunch of different stuff this month.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Nexting The Missouri

Alexandra Teague is the first poet in the Spring Issue of the Missouri Review. In her poem, “Letters To Phryne, From the Sip ‘N Dip Mermaid Bar, Great Falls, Montana” she contemplates a courtesan in ancient Greece who sought pity from a judicial court by baring her breasts. “I’m trying to understand pity that might / just be lust… it must be nice to be a mermaid…Virtue: / sure, yet amphibious.” She brings the story forward. “We still fall in love with what hurts us.” A satisfying poem, better if you Google Phryne, though, to understand her allusions better. Teague addresses a woman’s place in the world in multiple poems here. In “From Mexico, New York” — “Before she went mad, they say she put an ad / in the paper: Seeking any man as beautiful / as myself.” Teague seems to favor long lines, with complex sentences. “Found…an aviator, who never fell from her sky.” But a woman’s role, Teague seems to argue, can erase her: “A model put out to pasture. / In her thirties. Of course fashion skinned her / and kept on unrolling.” I like that line a great deal. And in “From Carrera, Italy” — “I like the idea that the stone decides something: / Michelangelo’s last Pieta devouring // all bodies to air.” And another great line for me: “as if your nudity were more capable // of living outside itself than other people’s?” She tackles interesting themes.

Sally Wen Mao also tackles women’s effacement versus her public face. In “Anna May Wong fans her time machine” she starts, “I’ve tried to hard to erase myself. / That iconography — my face / in Technicolor, the manta ray // eyelashes…” And in “Anna May Wong blows out sixteen candles” “When I was sixteen, / I was an extra in A Tale of Two Worlds.” I am struck how the poems by both Teague and Mao seem to be variations on the same poem; or developments of a single idea, maybe I should say. But thematically very tight. I suspect this is what folks mean when they talk of poetry being written as projects. These will all fit very nicely together into a book, with ideas and themes so cohesive the book should be easy to sell. (The quality of the poems will help, of course!) Don’t know how I feel about this. These are good poems, but they almost feel like poems written for the purpose of selling a book. Yet the poets are exploring interesting ideas; their images are striking; their work very approachable. No hiding behind obscurity here. And there are many examples of great art being created within limited strictures, and an argument those very strictures bring forth the power of the art. I’m willing to follow along with these poets to see if that’s where they are headed.

The last poet here, Anders Carlson-Wee, writes an earthier brand of poetry. In “Butte,” he starts: “My brother bolt-cuts a hole through the mesh / over the Family Dollar dumpster…I lower myself through.” His characters are living low, hustling hard to make it. “I hand up the tub of yogurt…” A poem about dumpster diving, powerful through the immediacy of the images, the desperation we feel in these survivors. “After a while you can name what you feel.” In the poem “Moorcroft,” the narrator has been hitchhiking, and runs into a character on the road: “You gave me a ride when I was lost / in Wyoming.” Love that enjambment. And here the piling on of detail adds to the uneasiness of the character. “Showed me your gun collection…They were old and unloaded, / you told me…” again the use of the line ending to create a hesitation that affects the emotions of the poem. “I was careful not to flinch / as I watched the double-barrel / raise and train on my face…” What a terrifying moment. Great poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My favorite recent poem in the New Yorker is “African Grey,” by Benjamin Landry in the June 15 issue. “Listening to the wind when you / have gone…an African Grey…who at night speaks…in your voice” It’s a poem about loss and the little reminders of those who are gone. “One picks up constantly after / the departed.” Such a spooky image, the voice of a loved one only heard now in the intonations of a bird, who may or may not have any scrap of the shared awareness we long for. And the changes that come upon us after such great change. “I try to move carefully, now…” A great poem.

In the same issue, “The Lordly Hudson,” by Adam Fitzgerald uses the repetition of the word ‘replacement’ for an incantatory effect. Paul Muldoon (the editor) seems to like repetition in poems. “After my family died there was a replacement family.” There are also enough strange little constructs in here to keep the odd among us happy. “the replacement version // doesn’t really do much for my replacement brain’s / chronic synaptic degradation.” I especially like those last three words. As a minimalist poet, this sort of work is not my strong suit, but I can appreciate those who do it well. The ending of this poem seems especially tangential, but I liked it.

In the June 22 issue, “Poem in the Manner of William Wordsworth,” by David Lehman, also uses repetition. “I ran with the wind like a boy…when joy surrounded me like an ocean…thus was born my theory of joy.” The references to Wordsworth are not elusive: “a hill of high altitude…” “lonelier than a cloudless sky.” And having read Muldoon’s book, The End Of The Poem, this poem seems very much filled with what he likes — references to a canonical poet as examined from a different angle.

Finally, extending our discussion of repetition, Cecily Parks gives us “Morning Instructions for the Doctor’s Wife,” which again brings in much repetition of phrase: “Accept the window / that gives you glass, the dawn / that gives you the maple branch…” The reader pictures someone sitting at the window, awake all night, as dawn slowly returns the sun. Parks creates theses and then develops them: “Only at certain times / can the body be sexual. The doe…in the meadow / isn’t sexual. When surgeons split / the coughing man’s chest…his body wasn’t sexual.” Another technique here is the use of words with similar sounds in close juxtaposition. Split and scalpel here, Curtains and certain. It’s not quite rhyming, but it brings a unity of sound. Interesting techniques. This is a poem to mull over for me, yielding more upon more thought.”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

The latest issue of Nimrod has a theme of Circulation, and it starts with a poem by Linda Neal Reising called “Navigation.” “…there are many poems / in circulation today, // and I picture them / in their little paper boats…” She muddles together the images of paper boats and blood circulating in the body. “sailing through sixty thousand miles / of blood vessels.” It’s an interesting statistic. One I will not look up. I care more about the verisimilitude of facts in a poem, the ‘truthiness’ of them, rather than the exact accuracy. Maybe that’s just me. ;-> Anyway, the boats become types of poems, and the nautical theme is brought back to close out the poem, a tight, well-crafted work.

A couple poems later, the editor brings us back to the blood theme with Florence Weinberger’s “The Prescription.” “he says / when your blood / turns sluggish / and sleepy / eat something salty.” Again the verisimilitude, which is nice for lending the poem authority, and a reason to read on. ‘Does that really work?’ I ask myself. Weinberger continues: “I’d forgotten salt. / No Chinese food.” We descend farther and farther into salt references, then return to the blood reference at the very end. There are some nice lines here, that make the poem worth reading. “It bites me like a loving old / toothless dog.” And I like to see how the editor is arranging poems, leading us from theme to theme via similar images.

August Donovan gives us “The Tiger of Newton, Kansas,” wherein the poor narrator has an encounter with said tiger, and gets off a few good lines before he is devoured (or not. I won’t tell you the ending). “if something happens once, it will again. // Sneaking out at lunch to get a Scotch. / Sex with my ex who’s like the news: all bad.” Roll those lines around on your tongue a bit. They have flavor.

Then again, Marge Saiser gives us “Beauty With Cat.” A love poem, or love lost. “He gave this gold cap…promised pearls which never came, / painted them falsely here around my neck…He could have placed / roses under my hand… But here instead is Vladimer, his cat. / You know how cats are: …never giving the whole of the heart.” The poems ends with the narrator’s emotions, which I very much liked as a technique, and, happily, a little more cat.

Tina Schumann’s “Overture (anticipation) hits close to home for me. “When my father dies, it will happen / as it always happens; a midnight drive across the desert, tumbleweeds / over headlights…” Such a powerful beginning. And the rest of the poem follows, logically. “it will have nothing / and everything to do with me.” Such a sad, true poem.

Joan Colby has a disturbing take on “The Bones.” “Old bones. My mother shrinking / into half a parenthesis…Or Ron, his spine / rebuilt with cadaver bone, / a half-corpse until he shot himself.” Images that stick with us long after the poem is over.

But maybe my favorite poem in the issue is by Stephen Gibson, “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.” And no, not just because it’s such a fun title. “You will go down through memories that…will disguise themselves to protect you” An elaborate, complex sonnet. “you’ll be looking for that one tool….(it will be missing). It becomes a poem about loss, rooted in concrete imagery, beautifully rhymed, with a breathtaking ending, the last word unexpected and obvious once it’s given.” Bravo.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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