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I enjoyed the “shock of discovery” aspect to Gail Eisenhart’s poem, “Flapper,” in the Main St. Rag. “She said… ‘Sit down, I’ll tell you a story. / After the First World War claimed too many / …young men.'” It’s a girl listening to her grandmother describing her youth. “I flaunted / my rolled rayon stockings…exposing my knees — accidentally.” Quite a fun poem, with an arch, amusing ending.

Bill Glose gives us another of his powerful war poems, “War Trophies.” “…we sought war trophies amid the wreckage / of another country….feelings clenched in fists.” I love that description. “Nothing new, // this desire to appropriate images / of our intended demise.”
Glose compares the trophies of earlier wars with his own, but interestingly, he ends up with more mundane treasure. “familiar logos // of Coke and Pepsi transformed / by Arabic lettering.” I love his irony, showing how the world has shrunk since those days, how those who buy our products nevertheless become our adversaries. It is a strange world indeed.

I love Joan Wiese Johannes’ “Lullabye,” a form where each line in the first stanza is repeated in reverse in the second (forgive me forgetting the name of this form). A delicate poem, and subtle. “Aunt Ruby sings her witching song, / enfolds us in a purple light…my infant sister sleeps.” I love going back over the same lines, which are slightly strange in appearing from another direction, with a sense of deeper meanings.

Peter Grandbois gives us “All We Remember Is Wind,” about how we are trapped in our lives. “There’s no clean getaway,   no Icarus, / feathers in a frenzy, making it…” There are beautiful images in this poem. “As if we could keep / despair nested   in the branches…” and “we flock back / to the broken.” And a tremendous ending to this one. A very satisfying poem.

Finally, let me mention “Ford Pinto,” by Bern Mulvey. I like how The Main St. Rag chooses some poems based on their presentation of interesting characters. This is a good example. “Six months I’d saved up, fry master, / McDonald’s cap…stomach / noisy rumbles…” There’s generally nothing tricky about such a poem, the enjoyment comes from the quirks of character presented, in this case a young kid trying to buy a car to impress girls and generate a little independence. “…off to the car lot, / though no one would help me, seventeen, acned, / knees knobby.” We ache over his vulnerabilities, and how the world treats him coldly. And the narrator recognizes this, so the poem ends as a nostalgic look back. I like that kind of a poem, more than the sophisticated, ironic stuff that doesn’t dare to show any flaws.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/

 


In the current issue of Poetry Magazine, Swanie Morris meditates on “Clothespins on the Line.” They “look like birds…Some look west… Stiff in the cold & / remote. They haven’t been loved.” So, a fun poem. But I do believe what editors at the top magazines yearn for most is something new and unusual, and this poem does not disappoint. Soon we are off on a meditation on birds. “Each day / your thumbs grow paler, nails coarser, evolving / toward the ptero- / dactyl.” Ptero being derived from the Greek word for wing/feather, dactyl from the word for finger. (And of course it is a measure of poetic meter.) So the playfulness goes on. The poem grows goofier and goofier, rambling through dreams, therapists and Druids before ending with a sudden, delightful conclusion. Long, but satisfying.

S.J. Fowler also gives us a poem quite unlike the usual work, in “Violence on the Internet.” It’s drier than most poems, or maybe I should say technical. “A circle. / What was needed was a circuit, / and a good operating system.” And then a sentence that brought me up, made me go back and study its meaning: “What’s within is without being seen / to be so.” Huh. It does apply to the Internet of course, as does the next line: “Optical anomaly as unexceptional.” It’s intriguing to apply each line back to the title, seeing how each applies. “Similarity wars upon their lines, / planes…” comes further along, maybe nudging us towards the violence. I don’t know that there is a lot of linear logic overall, but the poem certainly does get one to fiddling with the ideas behind the phrases.

George Bowering’s poem, “Taking Off from an Old WCW Poem,” is very much shorter than the previous poems, but powerfully gripping for all that. I love the beginning. “Imagine that — my last words / might have been spoken to the dog.” It’s the sort of beginning that will get you to read the whole poem. And this one does not disappoint. The narrator considers what that last phrase might have been. Implying, thereby, he does not remember. Then there is an ambulance, and a doubling of images in a skilled and effective way. I really admire this work.

Finally, Maria Hummel gives us an amazing poem, “Recess,” describing the life of a lone child. “This is the sound of the bell,” it begins, a deceptively simple beginning. And in the same way, the first stanza follows a straightforward AABBA form. But the second stanza subverts that, like a jazz master playing against the melody, then the final stanza riffs even further on the form before bringing us abruptly back to the start. But I have little power in such a limited space to describe the amazing places we visit in between. “Time should hold no meaning / for him yet. You don’t learn / how to play; you forget.” The pain of childhood is all implied here, and it’s the more powerful for the indirection. There are so many lines to cherish, to sit with and be amazed. Gosh, I like this poem!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/

 


Don’t know that I’ve blogged an F&SF mag before, and this will be a short blog, as there is only one poem in the current issue, “Spacemail Only,” by Ruth Berman, a fun poem, extending the idea of the post office into the future: “The new commemoratives are / For Spacemail only.” Ir is amusing to think how stamp collecting will be affected by interstellar mail. “The Post Office / Promises delivery within the century…” Ouch. Another little bit I really enjoyed: “They’ve issued / Many attractive sheets of sf writers…” Well, and when they do, I hope Ruth is one of those honored.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available widely, including on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/AgainstTheNight


I loved Gary Boelhower’s poem, “How The Light,” in the current issue. It’s a paean to his aging parent, set in a series of statements each beginning with, “How…” “How you didn’t want anyone…to see you in the hospital bed.” “How the light streamed in…onto your hunched shoulders.” Maybe it affects me so much since I just went through a similar experience with my own father. “How to say goodbye, how to touch the losses.” Such a delicate poem.

Right after that poem comes a sonnet by George Held, “How Might I Say.” Which again begins with “How,” and so dovetails nicely with the previous poem. “…with Shakespeare’s subtlety / That I have ‘gored’ another one or three.” This poem’s theme is infidelity, however, and the struggle to return to spirituality. “but peccadilloes / Now are in my past.” A skilled and amusing poem.

And the very next poem is “All I Do Is Get High on Melodrama,” by Kiara Letcher,” which begins, amusingly enough: “I am satisfied being a toothache.” The narrator fixated on a lover, evidently. “I thought being sugar / crystallizing / through your blood / would be enough.” A reference to crystal meth, sometimes referred to as sugar? The desperation increases, the images grow wilder, and she ends with a fun couplet. Well done.

I much enjoyed “The Dart,” by Elise Hempel. “Each time I mow I look for it..” Who among us does not have such rag-tag memories from long ago, irrationally tugging at our thoughts? “I know // some day in my back-and-forth I’ll find / it spearing a branch.” A sweet poem, finally, and masterfully rhymed.

Sometimes I just need a full-bodied poem, one not afraid to be poetic in the old sense. Such is “One Tempestuous Spring Day,” by Bonnie J. Manion. “west winds churn towering / glowering rain clouds in…” The language is throwback, the adjectives thick on the ground. But for all that, the poet gives us something richly satisfying: “a high-pitched / throbbing trill, and you notice / buds swelling.” There’s a sensuality here that matches the joy of spring, but it’s not overstated. And the ending seems to me just right.

Finally, I’ll mention one last sonnet, Thomas Zimmerman’s “Pioneer Woods Quartet.” Again the rhyme scheme is subtle, not calling attention to itself. “I’m walking in the woods, with smells of smoke / and sweet decay.” A great start to a poem about remembering parents, “they were sweet / sometimes…” while adding details of the landscape in with a sense of loss and mortality. “crows in the branches eye me, living meat…” There’s also a braid of musical images woven in. A most satisfying poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available widely.


Haven’t seen a newer issue, so there’s still time to blog this, right? ;->

I like the poem, “Not Impressed,” by Mike Faran, a poem that holds up the paraphernalia of success for a squint-eyed view. “I told my wife…they had given me my own office.” “She asked if I had my name on the door…I told her they couldn’t remember my name…” It’s dryly amusing, as the narrator and his wife go back and forth about how he’s doing in the work world.

Susan Yarborough gives us “Onion Rings,” a sweet poem about working a hamburger joint. “Behind the plate glass…The air is thick with the shout / Of orders and hot oil.” That nice turn of phrase puts us in the scene instantly. Then the central character is introduced: “she stands / Before the shiny metal table, / Long knife in hand…Sweat circles her armpits.” It’s a blunt, blue collar view indeed. Which gives it power. In the second stanza, she leaves her work. “the odors / Stalk her to the bus stop / Like a jealous lover.” Great phrase. So far this is a beautifully drawn rendition of her life. But it’s at the end of the poem, with the sudden expansion of her life, that we truly see the power of the poem, and how moving it is. Very nice.

Winston Derden has a poem that gives us two characters living together, in “Living Wage.” Part of the power of the poem arises because the relationship between the two is not clearly spelled out, so the import of the narrative becomes ambiguous. And the definition of character through understatement is very slick. “I was surprised to find Clyde / on the … couch in the middle of the afternoon….’Got fired again,’ he exhaled.” The explanation of why Clyde got fired seems to put the blame on Clyde’s cantankerousness. “I had to broach the question, / ‘Got a job lined up…?” Such a realistic scenario, delicately handled. Great poem.

It’s difficult, I think, to pull off a longer poem without getting gassy, but in “Lake County,” Joseph S. Pete takes a good shot at it. “Steelmaker for the world, / Or at least North America, / Forgotten appendage of Chicago…” And indeed, the poem reminds us of Sandburg’s “Chicago,” rolling out a similar list of attributes, but updated for a new century. “Flourescent-lit warehouse floors glisten.” It is a more tentative world now, and the poem reflects this, but still there is pride of place. “Lake County, / You built 20th century America…You boned the skeletons of skyscrapers.” And the defiance is still there. “Indiana wants no part of us…” And a most satisfactory ending.

Lastly, let me mention “The Tet Offensive,” by J.R. Connolly. “All that winter, snow owned the valley.” So the poem begins in a conversational, confident tone, a rural tale, leavened by irony and understatement. “We thought we were rich and the Walkers poor. / I worked our farm every day after school.” It shows what I like to call breath control, the ability of the poet to pace the poem beautifully, to a rising effect. And I love this: “My mother…prayed for the country. / She prayed for the ‘Papists and Jews.’…She tended her husband till the tumor took him.” We know this woman, we know these people. It is a sad poem, ultimately. “Donny came home in a flag and the salute of rifles…” So powerful. And the images deepen at the end, and the loss grows deeper. And the last line is heartbreaking. A poem very much worth reading.
Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available widely, including on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/AgainstTheNight


As is not unusual for The Missouri Review, there are three poets featured, each with multiple poems, and the series of poems each represent a theme or topic. The first poet, Bill Glose, explores military life. In “Theories of Flight and Forbearance,” he starts “In the rumbling gloom of a Starlifter’s belly, / they sit shoulder to shoulder…” The paratroopers here are compared to the hoplites at Thermopylae, and despite the modern situation, “wedged tight / as an M4s detent pin, bodies interlock…” we get a shared sense of history between the fighters of different eras. Waiting for battle, “they empty minds like a guru.” A powerful poem.

His second poem, “Among the Crenellations,” begins with the epigraph, “Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives,” quoting Moni Basu.  “Like wolves in packs of four and five, they lope…” gives us the image of soldiers on a training run. But this run ends in a different place than we expect. “They stretch beside the flush stone slabs of a pet cemetery.” This jolts to life a resonance between veterans and loyal dogs. The end of the poem refers back to that epigraph, and so we start reading the poem again. And again. Such blunt poems, taut with import.

Jessica Jacobs gives us the next set of poems, starting with “When Your Surgeon Brought Snapshots to the Waiting Room,” which seems to work hard to surprise us at each turn. “People say eyes are the windows…but…it’s actually a pithy incision / into the navel.” But these are not surprises for their own sake. The poems go someplace, using an extended metaphor. “This was not the garden / you’d abandoned in Kentucky…” There is a back-and-forth between the body as real thing, and an attempt to explain a confusing reality. “I wanted to report / that inside you I’d seen a vision…” The body as a holy place, then a shabby neighborhood. Her poems, as so often happens, are an attempt to describe the indescribable. Her poem, “In the Days between Detection and Diagnosis,” says, “it’s / easier to sketch the space around a tree / than the tree itself.” Again we have the body, again the hint of something terrible gone wrong. Poems very much worth sitting with, absorbing slowly.

The last poet, Morri Creech, gives us more austere poems that follow a tight pattern, thirteen-line poems of thirteen syllables, each on the subject of a still life painting. These are elegant and complex works, of heightened tone, and they come at their themes only slowly, indirectly. The title is repeated as the first line of each poem. So “The tragic undertones that mar our best achievements” gives us the theme of the first poem. “The footsteps of the past fade down the long hallway,” it says. Each poem has a turn, this one moving from the more general and conclusive in the first few lines, to the more specific in the middle. “The pears at rest in their dish…by the sugar bowl.” Then we draw back again, for perhaps a deeper understanding: “Time, in passing, has given / Them…timelessness.” A nice flavor, here. There is a tension between each still life, as described, and a hunger for movement. “When you think of the past, what comes to mind is the dead / Peacock you once saw hanging…” one poem begins. “You were the girl…who…thought…nothing has ever looked so still.” But there is movement that cannot be described by paint alone. “your father held the knife…whistling while the tendons snapped.” The poet works this tension between the frozen moment and the implied movement very well. And not always a physical movement, either: “you knew…you would keep this memory.” I like these poems, and more on each rereading.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available widely, including on Amazon at
http://tinyurl.com/AgainstTheNight

Jan 23 New Yorker


The first poem in the New Yorker this week is “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” by Frank Bidart. It has an attention-grabbing first line: “We were born into an amazing experiment.” Then, as so many current poets will do, having made a bold statement, he immediately walks it back. “At least we thought we were.” Nothing is given easily to the reader. That line ends with a fun enjambment: “We knew there was no” and we must ask ‘no what?’ Peace? Honesty? Rum? Later, Bidart adds a second bold statement: “Every serious work of art about America has the same / theme” (Again the play with the enjambment). And so the poem proceeds, bold step forward, sly irony while backing off, all the while twining two themes, America and the family. “My mother’s disgust / as she told me this.” It’s a longer poem, needing the elbow room to develop. Its final synthesis can be seen as a proper summation of both braids: “To further the history of the spirit is our work.” But of course this final bold statement gets challenged, as the poem takes on a more contemporary political dimension. And even the last, beautiful, singing line one may expect in a grand contemporary poem is used as a counter to the previous statement, creating an ending dipped in irony. Very much a poem worth reading.

The other poem in the issue is “On Distance (Quondam/Quantum Overdue Notice).” A puzzle poem, at least for me: i.e. what is going on here, what is the poet trying to say. “There are clues.” is the first stanza. So it even starts as a puzzle poem. Then in stanza two a man refers to Julian of Norwich as a he, and the narrator says, “politely, ‘Isn’t it ‘she’?'” There are not close parallels between these two stanzas, so maybe this is a ghazal, I think. Certainly, things refer to each other in the most oblique fashion. Except the 3rd, 4th and 5th stanzas all reference the narrator doing work in a library. So, not a ghazal (ghazals are not to follow directly, stanza to stanza). However, the sixth stanza maybe gives us some orientation: “I go home with Kathryn Davis.” Well, she’s a novelist. So that’s a book she got out? Then, “I ask, as one does, when ravished: Where did you come from.” (By that line I’m guessing the narrator liked Davis’ novel!) And in the next stanza: “…here, again, is Julian of Norwich…in this book.” By Jove, the whole poem now comes together. And the summation is, in my view, this demonstrates that the narrator is not alone, that there are synchronicities and resonances in our world (that create meaning?). So even the title, with its reference to quantum theory, makes sense. And I’m happy, having solved the puzzle.

Peace in poetry,
P M F Johnson
P.S. My ebook of love poems, “Against the Night,” is available widely.