Spoon River’s Summer

Much good poetry in the Spoon River Poetry Review’s Summer issue. The very first poem is “To Go To Freeport,” by Austin Smith, a kind of melancholy pastoral. “To go to Freeport, you must leave / The road of concrete and take / The road of wheat.” If you know “Directive,” by Frost, it’s kind of the reverse of that. “They will / point you in the wrong direction.” A poem about being trapped in a circular life, if you are not careful. “The map you carry / Is obsolete.” But of course, you do go to Freeport, you do find yourself stuck there, and then one day someone asks…. It’s a skilled poem. I enjoyed it.

Ewa Chrusciel’s poem, “Mourning the Loss,” has a similar sense of the struggle to avoid feeling worthless. “I called the grief support group the other day.” The narrator is given short shrift, as the loss in question is of the narrator’s own clear thinking. A coming dementia? “I called friends’ eyebrows / eyebushes.” A disquieting poem indeed.

Continuing the downbeat theme is Brandi Nicole Martin’s “Dear Happiness,” which does have a certain sly irony to it, directly addressing happiness. “Never mind our tantalizing walks along the Gulf, / the two poodles pursuing…” She delivers a series of very nice images, one after the other. “the blood moon’s vacant, patronizing stare…” and “sea breeze and sugar, opiates and bone.” I’m not sure the narrator is altogether happy with happiness, though: “Dear Happiness, I hate you.” But it is a poem with much to chew on.

Ann Hudson does a triptych of poems, “Work, 1922.” “…every gentleman // with a watch of ours can see the numbers.” “We sweep the hands with paint that glows.” Then in Work 1936,” “The girls were getting sick…Radium Dial closed down. / Six weeks later…we reported back to work.” Then the last poem, “Afterglow.” “The…Factory stood empty, / fenced off.” A great resonance builds up from one poem to the next, leaving us, especially on encountering the last line of the last poem, with a chill up our spine.

Sara Schultz’ “Forbidden Syllables” amused me. “Ivory, a word you’re not allowed to use in poetry.” It’s a poem about shalts and shan’ts, short but fun.

Finally, let me mention Alicia Mountain’s “The Smallest Thaw.” It reminds me of myself, especially in the opening sentence. “During the bleak week that straddled / February and March I became reliant / on potting soil.” Boy, do I know that feeling. “I left a bottle of red wine in the trunk / overnight, not thinking.” With foreseeable results, especially in northern climes. Such a personable, familiar poem. “the smell of dirt said / you are not going to the university, / you are going to your grandfather’s field.” This poem just felt like home, somehow.

Peace in poetry,
P M F Johnson

Late Aug New Yorker

The first of the two poems in the Aug 29 New Yorker is “Blue Heron, Walking,” by Julie Bruck. This poem follows the somewhat standard practice of taking a tiny aspect of some part of life and detailing it…I don’t want to say to death, so let’s say…thoroughly. In this case, it’s a ballet dancer’s feet. “Not one of Mr. Balanchine’s soloists had feet this articulate.” There are many Latinate words, “explicitly,” “retracted,” “secondary function,” giving the poem a sense of detail and complexity. Then it adds in images based on flying. “Leonardo’s plans for his flying machines” and “pterodactyl wings.” The metaphors get muddled until the feet themselves seem to be birds, “snatchers of mouse and vole.” Kind of going a bit too far for me, I admit, though the phrase is fun. ;-> The ending is a quote from Balanchine. It’s a short, but dense poem, the great success for me being the almost indirect metaphor of dancers as birds.

The second poem is “Scout,” by Bridget Sprouls. It starts, “His sentences all ended with the word Austin.” Boy, we get an instant sense of this guy’s character with the one sentence. “so I packed a duffelbag, / overwatered the garden, and set out on foot…” There is always a twist, or little surprise, in top drawer poems, I think. Look at what that word “overwater” does to our sense of the narrator. Two personality descriptions in such an economy of words. Sprouls also plays with a sense of mystery, or drama. “The flutter of engines enchanted me.” What are the implications of that, we wonder. Where is the narrator, that she is hearing fluttering engines? The poem grows less linear as it goes, deepening the mystery. “Thank you, bad-shot farmers, for all the pecans.” Kind of out of nowhere, though there must be pecan farmers near Austin, right? The sense of hearing is referenced in several later images. “Who better to memorize the acoustics of local venues…” for instance. And even the last line, with its reference to air conditioners, still seems to conjure the ghost of Austin. Ultimately, we are left with a sort of odyssey’s history with few details sketched in: “I tumbled after the weeds…” And little clues that the narrator may have lost her way. “So what if I drooled into rock receivers?” So let’s hit the buzzer to chance solving the puzzle: the narrator went to the South by Southwest concert in Austin, got messed up on weed, ate a few pecans and scouted out the bands playing there. You agree with my analysis? ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Atlanta In The Spring

The Spring/Summer issue of The Atlanta Review focuses its international section on Scotland. Of The Scotland poems, let me start with “Life’s Work,” by Angus-Peter Campbell (Anglicized spelling). “If I could bring my father / back to life / I’d ask him / to build me a house…” a beautiful, short lamentation of the cost of loss. “he was the finest joiner / in the whole world.” A comment of multiple resonances, for this joiner is forever gone, leaving the narrator with unanswerable questions, and only a daydream for comfort.

These poems seem more than usually tied to the soil. In “Ever decreasing circles,” by Christine De Luca, “The old dog knows the way: leads us / along narrow paths through forest, over / ice-scratched granite.” I felt the kick of that last image particularly. This is not a poem of alienation from the world, and I love it for that. “Everything about her breathes / what it means to belong.” Such power in such a simple line. Then near the end, a turn to the poet’s mother gives a satisfying depth to the work.

Poem after poem works its magic. In “Pathway,” by Carol Ann Duffy, “I saw my father walking in my garden / and where he walked, / the garden lengthened…” Again this poem approaches loss so delicately. “I heard the rosaries of birds. / The trees, huge doors, swung open and I knelt.” With such powerful imagery, I can relax, trusting the poet to bring me to a worthwhile place, and am not disappointed. “though my father wept, he could not leave…” Powerful work.

And personally, I love to linger over the poems written in dialect, savoring the sounds and working out the meanings. “Sang (After A Hungarian Folksong)” by W.N. Herbert allows this pleasure. “A totie wee birdie fae yestreen’s meh guest” Totie wee meaning especially small, we are told. My fav line in this poem might be, “Laive ma hert tae strachil in the middie mirk o nicht…” for which we are given hints: strachil means struggle, mirk o nicht is dark of night. Great stuff.

Of the non-Scots poems, I enjoyed several. “First & Best,” by Scott T. Hutchinson, is about a kid working hard in the field, who gets an unexpected gift from some guys in a pickup. “You’re thirteen, and you’re employed / cutting grass for the summer.” A story poem, and a fun one.

“The Lovely Miss McKendry, Librarian,” by William Jolliff, is another fun story poem (maybe I have a weakness for these?) “She had the look of cash about her, so / How she landed in our school is hard to say.” But the encounter does not go as the reader might expect. “Maybe it was the romance of the blacklist…” And it’s better for that.

The last poem I’ll mention is “Under Florida,” by Dorothy Howe Brooks. “A river like the Styx flows under Florida.” An unsettling thought, especially in this poet’s hands. “In 1999, Lake Jackson disappeared, / drained down a single hole // into that nether world…” The turn is to the narrator, as more and more things disappear into that subterranean place. The poem is disjointed, fragmentary, and ends in a most disconcerting manner. I liked it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

New Yorker Jul 25

There are two poems in this issue of The New Yorker, first “Evening Poem,” by Alice Oswald. “Old scrap-iron foxgloves / rusty rods of the broken woods…” There is much to admire here. The metaphor of foxgloves, which are vertical flowers, as bits of scrap iron fallen from the sky to stick here and there at random works so well. Then the narrator brings in a Victorian sofa, a heap of shoes, items seemingly dropped at random into these woods. Of course a fox glove would be a kind of shoe, and I believe foxgloves were loved in Victorian gardens. These sort of subtle references deepen matters wonderfully. She moves to a view of the gods, “the hours on bird-thin legs…” and at the end, night. For such a random seeming poem, things wind up tightly, perfectly. Yum.

Yusef Komunyakaa gives us a somewhat longer poem, also set in the woods, “Slingshot.” I kept going back to re-read it. He is one of my favorite poems going these days. On the surface, a straightforward description of a boy putting a slingshot together. “A boy’s bicycle inner tube / red as inside the body…” A poem anyone can enter, and get some enjoyment out of. But of course other things are going on. “a girl he’s too shy to tell his name / stands in damp light…” love that word damp there. So a poem about young love, trying to impress, unable to speak easily, letting his deeds stand for him. “he whittles the true stock, / knowing wrong from right.” More than just a comment on a slingshot. Searching for wrong and right, doing something a bit dangerous, a bit disapproved of, maybe. “the boy…settling quietly into himself.” So much this poem is about what is unsaid to me, what should not be spoken, an essence of manhood in bloom. “& that is when the boy knows…” And it’s what the poet tells us the boy knows that makes us want to go back again and again, looking for God for truth, for love… Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

I really like the poem, “Full Belly Farm,” by Rage Hezekiah, in the Spring issue of Plainsongs. “Bouncing / over farm terrain towards the field, / all of us wield freshly sharpened knives.” A poem about a woman doing what she must to fit in with male coworkers, picking cabbages. It isn’t easy. “The men… hunch / behind each other, faking penetration…” There is suspense in this poem, and sadness, but ultimately triumph as well, the narrator proving herself in a tough world. It stirred my heart.

I also enjoyed William Jolliff’s “To Ask For Less.” “By grace in time we learn to ask for less.” There is a tremendous wisdom for me in just that first line. He goes on to list what might be asked for: “”A little ham, maybe, greasy and sweet.” It is a poem of humility, touching. And powerful when it turns more personal. “my son running his scales, / the repetition of arpeggios.” A poem of gratitude, finally.

“Joyriding To Nightfall,” by Joan Colby, is a subtle, complex poem. “A house on a hill awaits the faithful, / that’s us, redhanded and sorrowful…” The poem piles on a slew of images, on its way. “The storm skirting the horizon to sweep / the harvest into baskets of wind.” is my favorite, I think. It comes to no easy conclusion as it contemplates many images of faith, from many cultures. Worth reading.

“To the Horizon,” by Mark Christhilf, caught my attention. “When I get to where you are / I will have learned / to call myself from myself…” A poem that almost seems like a young idealist, sure of himself, and how he will grow in wisdom. And yet, and yet there is that faint hint that the author knows more than the narrator; there is a whiff of irony and sadness underneath. Beautifully done.

Finally, let me mention “Carried on the Wind,” by Leo Dangel. “In the time before the electric lines…a windmill with an electric propeller blade / stood close beside the house…” A poem of nostalgia, yes, but more of comparing the power of memory against the fainter truth of mere documentation. The narrator remembers hearing on the radio the boxing match “between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott.” It is the world surrounding the memory that gives it heft, the narrator’s church, his sister Rose, the way the announcer fades in and out, a heft beyond what the dry video on YouTube can deliver. A very good poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Kestrel 35

The Spring issue of Kestrel opens with Matt Zambito’s “Easy Breezy, Baby.” “This feral-flower fervor I’ve got going for you, / fibrillating the very hemoglobin…” The whole poem is fun like that, fast-paced, feverish, bringing in tax forms and Congress. “But you, you / soften the blow of knowing we’re slowly / decomposing…” A sweet love poem.

Christine Stroud gives us, “My therapist tells me I should stop idealizing love.” Which starts, “But to stop that sweetness — / to reach down into the wriggle of new puppies.” There are a lot of wonderful, sly images in this poem. “I want that fifth-date romance…” and near the end of the poem, “I will let my love grow into a bad dog.” Bringing the poem nicely into a completed circle. Very satisfying.

I enjoyed a diptych of triolets by Lesley Wheeler, especially “Insatiable Triolet.” “The tide wants in, / each wave a cave of desire.”

One of my absolute favs in this mag was Cathy Barber’s “The Door,” the story of a woman realizing maybe she got an incident wrong in an old relationship: “in those days, I blamed him for / virtually / everything…” This is opening the vein and letting out the blood, an incident of learning too late. Powerful.

Finally, let me mention Ethel Rackin’s “The Moth.” “Mercury rising — / heals bells — lust’s hollow hotels…” I love these sort of intensely rhymed poems, the rhythm rocking us along. The words shift a vowel here, a consonant there, a spiral of a poem, a helix. And a great ending.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


June 27 New Yorker

The first of the two poems in this issue is “Society Of Fireflies,” by Maya Ribault. “…you came with your nighttime show, costing us / nothing.” The narrator reviews her life: “I do enough / careful work to satisfy my bosses. …immerse yourself in the exponential / power of dividends.” Only at the very end does she contrast this with the life of a firefly. “you rise up once more unsolicited from the fields…” Such a strange word there, unsolicited, to describe a firefly. Is it that to her, even a firefly has become a commodity? Is there a certain mournfulness, that so much is lost in computer screens? We know that in Japanese haiku, the firefly is a symbol of the momentary, that which cannot last. This certainly seems to apply here. The author avoids giving any summation, or conclusion. This in itself enhances the terrible sense of something missing.

In “Poem To My Litter,” Max Ritvo also reflects on the animal world, with equally disturbing, though funnier results. “My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way…” he starts. He sees himself as the leader of a litter of mice, who have received his genes in a scientific attempt to cure his cancer. Wow. What a great concept. I forget, sometimes, how powerful a good concept can be in a poem, how supportive of greatness. “My tumors are old, older than mice can be.” Ritvo goes through the difficulties of the science, the camaraderie that grows in the narrator’s mind with these mice, suffering the illness he suffers, even naming them each Max, after himself. “I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.” A poignant poem, finally, one working to transcend sadness. Very powerful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson