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

The current issue of the Evansville Review has a bunch of interesting poems. It begins with Tarfia Faizullah’s “In the Month of Your Birth.” “At an all-girl’s school, I watch young Bangladeshi teenage girls pull / their headscarves tighter.” Is this to be a ghazal? No, for the first stanza bleeds into the second. “In the coffee shop, // a man wearing a military coat tells me I am so pretty.” So is this to be a courtship poem, or maybe a poem of war? The continual need to guess, and the twists away from the expected, make this poem effective. We worry for the physical health of the narrator, for danger is hinted at, a repression revealed only in the details. “What / do I know of bullets.” Halfway through the poem, a line almost in passing electrifies us. We think ah ha, we are confronting a poem of infidelity, when suddenly where we are actually going appears: “I will never stop wondering what her name was, the woman who bathed and swaddled your corpse.” Oh, the loss expressed in that sideways line. A power in understatement. It is a long poem, this eulogy, a complex poem, a poem of surprises, deep sadness, and ultimate survival.

Marcus Wicker gives us “Gut Check.” “Think yourself lucky enough to own a window…” Not so much ambition in the narrator… or maybe a great deal, perhaps. Crazy images that nevertheless remain grounded lead to a shocking conclusion.

I liked Kerry James Evans’ “Three Cedars.” “I cut a limb here and there…” One’s imagination goes to all sorts of gruesome silliness, despite knowing the title directs us elsewhere. “I plant thirty branches… Only three survive…” This is a pastoral poem, with unexpected complexities. “They stand like knobby corpses / with disobedient beards.” A poem of diminution, endurance, and finally, enlightenment.

Laura McCullough explores the confusion of contemporary life. “Easier to speak of things, how they connect / or don’t…” We realize this is talking of us, and our own lives, how we treat ourselves as things, minimize ourselves, get lost in minutiae. “…a new economy because our children are indebted / worse than us…” Ultimately, a poem about standing against dehumanization. “…didn’t someone say making / a thousand paper boats was a ritual? … Or was that cranes?” This poem demands multiple readings.

Finally, I like the emotion raised by Lauren S. Cook’s “Christmas.” “mother curling / my hair, the iron here and there / burning my neck.” A domestic scene that deepens quickly. “I’m getting ready to go to my father’s house. He’ll gift / me an excess.” The view of a complex relationship between parents from the eyes of a child, the loss and dissonance of deprivation on the one hand, plenitude on the other. A beautiful work.

An issue deep with poetry, very much worth picking up.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

True Blue Collar

Reading the Winter issue of Blue Collar Review, I was struck once again by how raw the poetry is, how rooted in common troubles. This is not a place to find erudite abstractions, nor the faint irony of a delicate metaphor. It’s a place for blunt truths and shared emotions. The first poem I’ll mention here is “The Three Personalities of Water,” by David Gross. “In our coal town, insulation was / a luxury…water lines froze.” I love the immediacy of the narration. “With propane torches stuffed under our coats…we crawled through drafty…crawlspace.” The shared memory of doing practical things around the house. Wriggling through small areas, a seriousness of purpose. For me it creates a sense of solidarity, that we’re all in this together, with hope out in front: “Listening closely for sounds of melting ice…”

Kyle Heger has a wry take on the world in, “I Haven’t Pleased Enough Machines Today.” Who has not felt at the mercy of the machines in our world? “My fingers couldn’t / make themselves understood on / my cell phone’s touch screen.” As I get older, I am struck by how many machines seem designed by the young, for the young. Arthritis is not taken into account, nor palsy. It leaves millions alienated, and doesn’t improve their view of the young tyros living without consideration of others, I suspect. “God help me: Even though / I had dutifully checked out all my / books…the alarms went off.” The machines watch us, suspicious, resentful, unforgiving. Does anyone else feel this? A great poem.

I like Matthew J. Spireng’s short poem, “Five Minutes.” “It only takes five minutes, my boss / tells me… as he adds another duty.” A quick-in, quick-out poem that quickly wrings emotion out of us, along with recognition. Yes, we all know that feeling.

“Chasing Rainbows in Scranton,” by Mike Faran, is another poem worth checking out. It starts out, “Thunder was kicking in the / corner…” What a great, ambiguous image. We can stop right there and get a sense of the earth of the place, of people at the mercy of greater powers. In this case, it’s a dog. “my girl laughed / and said “wonder what…he’s chasing now.” But there’s a true poignancy to this tale, as we follow it deeper. “she looked down at her coffee cup, / her laughter and smile gone…” But ultimately a story of hope, and love. Very much worth a good rereading.

Ryan Peeters brings back an old memory for me with his poem, “Hard To Work For.” It starts, “Prompt Staffing asked for an immediate drug test.” You know right away this is going to be a poem with the bark on. “At week six and a half, payday, / the big boss handed out checks… ‘you are all being let go.’ // Leonard…took his check and left before the big boss was done talking.” I also have the memory of layoffs, of coworkers who had been through the mill enough to be scarred. Such experiences leave a certain feeling behind, one this poem gets at very well.

All in all, a worthy issue, one that chews over the difference between those sheltered by money, and those fighting not to be at its mercy. I’m glad this viewpoint is still out there.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


There are two poems in this issue, each with a similar tone for me, though they are quite different in approach. Both have a first sentence that presents a reality quickly contrasted by an alternate.

The first is by Charles Simic, one of my favorite poets, called “In Wonder.” “I cursed someone or something / Tossing and turning all night — / Or so I was told…” Was the narrator tossing and turning, was someone else doing so who annoys the narrator? We are given two choices right away. Uncertainty might be the theme. The poem presents a dream thesis, but then turns instantly to a concrete image with a simple simile. “The frost…lay pretty / Like tinsel.” This poem moves along quickly. We are given the next image “a limo black as a hearse” …again a simple image and simile, but this one plays out to the ending of the poem, an implication almost cinematic of dastardly villains, missing whatever they sought, speeding away… leaving behind a last, creepy simile. The movie-like drama brings back the sense of a dream, in a subtle way tying the whole poem together.

The other poem is by Carl Dennis, again one of our great poets. In “Two Lives,” he threads together a pair of story lines to powerful effect. We are warned in the very first phrase of the coming complexity of the poem. “In my other life, the B-17 my father is piloting / Is shot down over Normandy…” We switch between two versions of the narrator’s life, as resulting from different versions of his father’s life. One narrator is an intellectual, a professor perhaps, the other a working class guy as the result of his father’s death in that B-17. It sticks closely to detail, as the great poets do. “In a neighborhood that’s seen better days. / I play stickball after school…” A common life, not unusual in New Yorker poems. But the alternate lives intertwine, the working class self taking a job in the factory the other’s father owns. This play of dual lives for both father and son keeps the poem interesting. “In my other life, I have to leave high school / To bolster the family income…” The narrator reveals an inclination for reading fantasy stories, which puts a meta- moment on top of everything else, as of course alternate histories are a subset of fantasy and science fiction. And let’s just add another twist, that this is a story poem of a character who loves stories. That constant twisting to add loops and complexities creates a resonance and depth that impressed me very much. In the end, as we would expect, the author brings the two narrators together, weaving the story together into a satisfying conclusion.

One can learn a lot by studying either of these writers. Oh, and enjoy the ride along the way! ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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