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Avocet Winter 2015


I was very pleased with all the good poetry in this season’s issue of Avocet, starting with the first poem in the issue, Peter C. Leverich’s “Guadalupe.” “So many sentinels / silent and spirited / shrouded in mists / and myths of antiquity.” It’s a description of a shrine, and gives a sense of respect and honor. We come away with marvelously serene emotions.

This is a very sense-oriented magazine. “I Miss Winter in New York City,” by Sara McNulty, stays very concrete. “Roasting chestnuts hawked / by scarf-wrapped vendors…” puts us right in the scene, and we shiver along with her characters: “East River gusts creep up / pant legs…” And I like the ending very much.

Many of the pages of this magazine have a short little poem to complement the longer poem at the top. Several of these poems are by Holly Rose Diane Shaw, and they are always short, very image-oriented, and chipper little things. “Lighting up the dark day sky / filigree star flakes” begins a little six-line poem, “Snow.” It gives a nice, upbeat flavor to the whole issue.

Not all winter has to do with snow, of course. Richard Peake gives us a poem about shell-collecting, “Winter Beachcombers,” with nary a snowflake in sight. “Frantic sanderlings skitter back and forth / while willets stand stolidly on the sand.” Nice sound to that.

“Virtual Footprints” is a meditation on the results animals leave in nature, by Mike Rydock. “A footprint is the character / An animal inscribes / In the ground.” Much stuff happily to contemplate.

I liked Jean Moody’s “Trading Winter.” “I’ve traded winter as I knew it, / gloomy skies, dampness of air…” The narrator’s gone south. Maybe that’s what I like so much, the fantasy of being warm this time of year. ;-> “many mountains bristled / with green trees.”

“A Murder Of Crows,” by Art Elser entertained me. “A large, pompadoured crow / struts, stiff-legged, across the street… A slick-haired punk, / showing off for his peers…” Oh boy, can I see that bird. And the poem develops very nicely, from one bird, to two, to thousands, to a larger question.

But my favorite poem to discuss was “A Midwinter’s Dream,” by Janet A. Hopkins. “There was a wedding late last night, / the groom in black, the bride in white. / The union of two Gods of old, / one the Wind and one the Cold.” Such a supple use of rhyme, surprises waiting around each stanza, marvelous images, and a great ending. Worth the magazine all on its own.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Atlanta Review Fall 14


There are plenteous narrative poems in this Atlanta Review, w a folk-tale sensibility. Well-done, this is just about my favorite type ‘a poem. (And evidently of Dan Veach, the editor).

Mark Belair gives us a fun one with “one thanksgiving.” “…in the mid-1950s / my grandfather won a turkey raffle” and we’re off on a yarn, where the daughters grin as grandma and grandpa have their relationship revealed for all to see. Fun and touching and human, one after the other.

“Georgia Gothic” is another, written by Leon Stokesbury, with the classic opening: “Not that long ago, in a country / not that far away, there lived / a crematorium owner…” And oh gosh, the eel of dread is wriggling in our stomach already. Not so much laughing in horror, as digging into the frailty of the human mind and behavior. “he would wander down / to the brambled woods…” A poem very much worth looking up.

The other thing that struck me about this issue is how many sonnets there are. “Snakes in Paradise” by Richard Cecil starts out, “It’s hard to loaf when it hits five below…” but this soon turns out to be a lyric poem commenting on Joe Arpaio, the Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. How rare it is to see any published poem taking a political stance in American poetry. Blue Collar Review does them, of course, but I can’t remember the last poem in another high-tone mainstream mag w a political slant one way or the other. Well, cheer or hiss, here it is. Since I write my share of such poems, I’m very glad to see it. And it’s a well-rendered sonnet to boot, w a strong voice.

I loved the complexity arising from the repetition in James B. Nicola’s “A boy should not.” It starts, “A boy should not have to teach himself to shave,” and goes all ominous from there.

Nick Norwood’s “Shetland” brought out the cranky and therefore dangerous personality of the Shetland pony the nine-year-old narrator decides to pet. “He was a beast, all right, but so was I.”

“Running With The Bullshitters,” by James Valvis made me laugh. Then I read it to my wife, and we laughed again.

I’m running out of time and energy, but let me mention another sonnet among the several other splendid efforts, “After All,” by Daniel Langston, which is funny and clever, and even though we’re half-watching for it, hard to spot as a sonnet, since the rhymes are so smooth and the language so natural. Also, we’re distracted: “As you know, watching a bra being dropped / is religious in its intensity…”

Joan Colby has four poems very much worth reading here as well.

And I liked Dolores Stewart’s sonnet “Reading Shakespeare At The Senior Center.”

But the one poem I think I read the most in the issue was the one that won the Grand Prize in the contest, “Musical soup” by Joyce Meyers. “Spring just a week away, but this raw / rainy day cries out for a pot / of African peanut chicken soup.” Oh boy, I want a cup myself, just reading those words. It’s an elegy to the narrator’s mother, and a reflection about the future and what of worth she has accomplished, and “What of me will my children / remember?” A very sweet, thoughtful poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

A January New Yorker


I’ve probably started half a dozen sentences here, trying to get my head around the “Sci Fi Violence” poem by Josh Bell. “Would a true prophet use an electric / salamander as a tongue? / That’s what I thought.” it begins. Well, it’s not going to be a linear poem, obviously. Then I started to play around with the idea that there is an intelligible story underneath all these words somewhere… our job, find it. Maybe. Since we open with a prophet tongue, then the next section is maybe the audience. “the enemy collecting like aberrant cells across the river.” But the enemy isn’t simply listening, they are speaking back, in their weird way. “One enemy…attempted / to tongue-kiss my eyeholes.” Well, that’s a bit disgusting, but there you are. There is a speaker in this poem, and he’s living in a sci-fi world with countries and enemies and a dead body at the end to make an elegy over. It’s certainly an interesting poem, though I can’t say as I felt successful in getting to the bottom of it. Still, I re-read it a bunch, so that was fun.

The other poem in the issue is “About The Author” by Elizabeth Willis. “About her: the air, warm as fact. // An imaginary boat heading off to hell…” Each stanza consists of a single line (with one exception, for no particularly obvious reason), and they initially seem to relate to each other like the stanzas of a ghazal. That is, tangentially. But many of the stanzas have a reference to water: “This was not a river. It was Thursday…” With the whiff of the poet crossing the river Styx and going into the underworld, as above. So, going back to the title, it’s a recursive poem about the poet seeing herself as the artistic progeny of Aeneas in the current day, but by the end telling us she only wants to do a season in hell (wasn’t that Rimbaud?). Plenty of subtle references, a basic story of the poet’s journey for those of us who like our poems to follow a structure, and a nice rhyme to end it with. Enough to satisfy me. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

December Poetry Mag 2014


Well, it’s still technically December, so I’m comfortable blogging this issue, right? Anyway, a poet whose work I did not know, Tom Clark, has a couple of poems here, starting with “Then And Now.” This is a play-with-language poem, a kind the mag runs occasionally. “Then it was always / for now, later / for later…years of now / passed, and it grew later.” The turn later gives us a confused sardine with an attitude, then an experiment at which it seems to take umbrage. A reasonably weird little poem. His second poem is a quick-hitting little rhyming number, “Blown Away,” which starts “ephemeral as tinkerbell, / unmoored yet not unmoved…” I like that. These are fun works, nothing too deep. It’s good to make room for work like this.

Robyn Schiff has a poem, “Dyed Carnations.” “There’s blue and then there’s blue. / A number, not a hue…” This is an exploration of falsity, underneath its merry tone, and it grows dark down there. “I held the bouquet / in shock and cut the stems at a deadly angle.” “The white flowers…have a fake laugh / that catches like a match.” A strong ending as well, to a strong poem.

Melissa Broder has three sexy, rebellious poems. First is “Salt.” “How can you go swimming in another human being?” “The forests of disappearing moans / which were rich in in sap but lacked dissolve.” I like ‘dissolve’ replacing ‘resolve’. “Like A Real Flame” seems to follow right along, like another section more than a separate poem. “I want the hole in my ear to be quiet….or I will go to my lover’s mouth / and say oh, my quiet.” Broder does not seem to live in a serene universe. It is instructive to review her opening sentences, and see how creative and original they are. Here is the opening to “Lunar Shatters” — “I came into the world a young man / Then I broke me off.” The point more than anything seems to be to say something that no one could expect. This last poem is more incantatory. “And how I begged him turn me Pegasus colors / And please to put a sunset there… / And me I had to de-banshee / And me I dressed myself…” It has a real ring to it, an attention to the sound of the language that I enjoy very much.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Nimrod Awards 36 Issue


It is not all that unusual for me to prefer some of the non-winners to the winners when contest results are posted. I think that’s honestly part of the process, doesn’t mean I’m more right, or that anyone else is. It’s just what resonates for whom and why. One of the poems in the current issue of Nimrod I liked very much was “A Request For Color And Spice #3″ by Simon Peter Eggertsen. “When I die, God, let me live on in color and spice.” There are just such lively lines in this poem, things that make me stop and go back. “Drag a star through my body, God, sober me up / with fire…” Lines like that deserve an audience.

Alison Luterman, who has written many fine poems, here gives us, “She for whom I am named” which starts “left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed….Hello, crowded, terrifying boat.” The story of her grandmother, the story of so many American immigrants. “And later in life, after HE died, / kept her pockets full of candy for the children.” It is the ending line that makes this such a powerful poem though, saying so much about how little any of us leaves behind to be remembered.

I enjoyed Arne Weingart’s “World Without Signs.” “The arrows are the first to go / detaching themselves from their places.” It’s a fun poem, as the aforesaid signs gradually deconstruct themselves. “and heading off straight whichever way / they were pointing…the names of places are next…” The ending of such a progression of a poem matters very much, of course, and this one ends well, though I like the lines a few stanzas before the end best: “it is impossible // to give or receive directions / you simply have to know where it is…”

He also gives us a powerful little poem, “Recapturing My Stutter,” which starts: “Ferocious little animal, / I let you out of your box…” which gives us an empathetic view into the difficulties of having a stutter. “you who / had given me so many vicious / bites” And some complicated truths here. “I let everyone lie about you // and pretend you didn’t exist.”

And lastly let me mention “What Words For God” by Kate Kingston. “Here are the day words / — shovel, hoe, melon, orange, mint…” God asks me, / What are the words here? I reply in Spanish: / zebra, leon, gorila, mono, jirafa.” The night words: “gunaa, mujer, woman.” (The first of those three might be Nahuatl). It’s a complicated poem, and worth savoring, letting the parts of it resonate and bounce off each other, in the various languages referenced.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

New Yorker Dec 2014


While I am convinced profundity in poetry can be obtained, or at least improved, mechanically, depth for depth’s sake seems of little interest to the powers-that-be who edit our flagship journals. For any office processing hundreds of thousands of poems a year, as the New Yorker must, a surprising and arresting beginning is easier to spot, while profundity takes mulling. Best to filter out first based on a level of surprise, then take profundity into account later, perhaps.

Take Terese Svoboda’s “Contrail” in the current issue. When a poet muses on contrails, what is the first image that comes to your mind? For that matter, what’s the first word? I’d guess Svoboda threw those initial images out, when they occurred to her, looking for something more shocking, original, intriguing. So she starts her poem, “Whereof fluff rushes,…” Now, I didn’t see that phrase coming, and doubtless neither did Paul Muldoon, the magazine’s editor. We can imagine his interest: okay, where’s she going with this? Here it is: “…muscles through, / pre-pendulous…” I especially love that pre-pendulous. It gets us thinking of movement, of development. We have all seen contrails slowly become pendulous in the sky, and we wonder how she is going to use that shared experience. She gives us: “about to come apart…like // stitching you soak in the rain.” Again, she is not developing the poem in any linear fashion we can expect, and yet she is making sense in hindsight. We have seen contrails come apart as well. Now, I argue that profundity comes from words and phrases that have multiple interpretations. Puns, to be blunt. And in a reference that comes late in this short poem, Svoboda brings in the Bible, directing us to back up and look for those places of multiple meaning in this work, for an extra metaphorical sense to clouds, for instance. The depth comes later, in other words. Then in the last line, she brings us up short one last time, with another phrase that revisits meanings. It’s a slick, professional-level poem that could serve as an example of what it takes to crack the top markets in American poetry these days.

Robert Pinsky, the poetry editor at Slate, is the recipient of many thousands of poems a year himself, and such an experience is going to inform his poetry as well. But his poem “Genesis According to George Segal” starts out less elliptically: “The Spirit brooded on the water…” A straightforward reference to the beginning of the Bible. In fact, his entire first stanza plays it straight. But fear not, in the middle of stanza two we veer off: “What was the Spirit waiting for? /An image of Its nature, a looking glass?” Quickly, Pinksy gets into the nitty-gritty of glass composition, and a series of elliptical references: “a tangle of bodies / made out of plaster, which plasterers call mud.” See the twist: had Pinsky just said ‘bodies made out of mud,’ we would lose interest, learning nothing new in a tired biblical reference. There’s no intrigue. The poem, for me, has a very delicate sense of balance, when to move the argument along, when to surprise with another factoid. The images generally (but not always) take a a biblical tack: “Men in a bread line…waiting / at the apportioning-place of daily bread.” This serves to tie the poem together, as do multiple references to particles, early and late, as does starting with water and dust and then referencing mud, returning to ‘clouds of dust,’ then ending, or nearly so, with a reference to “moist with life.” One could consider this poem a development of images in parallel, rather than a progression of logical argument. Again, I believe many such poems are finding homes in the top markets, simply because they are more interesting to editors who have seen so many poems that are nothing more than an extended metaphor, or a captured, lyrical moment. Honestly, I myself find it very tricky to write interesting poems with such requirements/structures. But it’s sure fun to try. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Poetry Mag For Nov


This is the translation issue, which means a chance to see what an American magazine thinks is worthy of support from overseas. And I have to agree with them on the poem, “The Wind,” by Dafydd Ap Gwilym. “Skywind, skillful disorder,” it begins, “rowdy-sounding, / world hero…” A poem to be read in a stentorian tone. “north wind of the cwm, / Your route, reliable hymn.” (I believe that cwm should be pronounced like coom, same vowel sound as loon, and so a near rhyme, not a perfect one. It means valley, or coomb as in Tolkien’s use). It’s a loud bark of a poem, muscled and alive. Translated by Gwyneth Lewis.

Liu Xia gives us “Transformed Creatures,” a strange, aggressive little poem. “You have a strange pet — / one eye is a cat’s, the other a sheep’s.” I memorized that first line quickly, always a great sign with a poem. The strange creature operates by its own rules, quickly laid out, quickly ended, as the poem is short. The ending gives the poem its great power. Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, translators.

Ko Un is a Korean poet who wrote “Ear”, a very short poem, translated to comprise of a couplet, then a single line verse, then a couplet, by Suji Kwock Kim and Sunja Kim Kwock. “Someone’s coming / from the other world.” A spooky little work.

Finally, Matthew Rohrer writes a series of short poems inspired by the great Japanese haiku artists, Buson, Basho and Issa. None of these are haiku, but they are very interesting and resonant: “The sound of the water jar / empties in the open graves…” wow, what a line, from “Poem Written With Basho.” And from “Poem Written With Buson,” comes “a urine-stained quilt / is the flag of / early summer rain.” Shocking images, even. Definitely poems to return to.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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