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Iconoclast – #116


The two poems that begin this issue have gotten into my head and resonated. Always good. “An Architect’s Life,” by Harry Compton, begins “Life itself is / a continuous remodeling job… trying to keep options open / in case we discover a structural surprise.” Very apt, to my way of thinking, as the surprises contractors discover when they tear out the old walls or pull out the old concrete can be suddenly, horrendously expensive, and “the only certainty seems to be our / inexhaustible personal ignorance.” An enjoyable poem, with a wry, pointed ending.

The next poem is “Coney Island,” by Eugene Carrington. “The mind drifts to Coney Island / the scent of ocean waters / the joyful shrieks… the high-pitched squeals…” A poem of deep place, bringing in the sights and sounds, the people, the temporary nature of it all. A poem to make us turn back to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind,” with its similar sense of loss, time passing…

I like the dialectical nature of “Headlines From The Times,” by E.P. Fisher. “He said: lay-off, pay-off, one-way ticket… / She said: beauty, color, innocence…” A poem chock-full of images, and thoughts to bring you up short. “But after Pentagon budget loopholes for top-secret holocausts…” There’s a lot going on here that’s worth the price of entry.

Matthew J. Spireng presents us with “Black Vultures, New Paltz.” “The view at breakfast / on the second floor / of the Bakery is… roofs where black vultures / perch on each chimney.” What a great image. I can see those heavy, clumsy, patient beasts, waiting like death for the next mistake. And Spireng has a strong image to finish.

“Brother William’s War” is a poignant offering from Amy Sparks. “My brother William / Lives in my garage… His wife kicked him out / After he threw a bowl of potato salad.” A delicate, indirect look at the cost of war on a personal, practical level. “We talked and fished / Before purple scalloped clouds / From the west / Filtered in.” I love that image. A great poem.

Finally, let me mention Rhoda Staley’s “Upon Seeing a Ripe Fig.” “I doubt the apple. // Passionless / a woman can caress / the puritanically austere.” What a great beginning. It shocks you into paying attention. Staley has a deft mastery of the powerful punch, and though the poem is short, it fully satisfies.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Aug 13, 18

The New Yorker – July 23, 18

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

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In his poem, “Bottle Of Wine,” Carl Dennis cannily uses emotion to draw us through the work. “I like to park a few blocks from the house… and walk… the tree-lined streets,” he begins. We understand right away this will be a jaunty, happy little poem, no terrible angst and world-changing despair. And working the emotions is central to the work: “A bottle of wine showing… that I’m grateful / to be included… eager to do my part.” A narrator living within himself. “I’ve set aside the need for transcendence.” The immediate, the quiet, pleasant emotions matter in this poem, and how we each fit within our world. “traditions once honored / are… adhered to… with patience, with pride.” A master work in how to structure a poem on an emotional arc, ending, of course, with hope.

A.E. Stallings uses a difference approach, drawing us in to her “Swallows,” with details of the natural world, viewed with a tone of amused sympathy.  “Each year the swallows… put their homestead in repair… A handsome pair.” The steadily surprising choice of words is one technique that keeps us intrigued: “the two conspire // To murder half the insect race…” And Stallings raises similarities between the swallows and ourselves. “They seem to us so coupled, married, / So flustered with their needful young… harried.” And again, the use of emotion to connect with the reader. But she is going somewhere more archetypal. “Ovid swapped them in the tale… the sister who was forced / Becomes instead the nightingale.” And now we’re in the midst of the seemingly unending battle of women against cruel realities. But Stallings is deft enough not to linger there, and her emotions keep us connected. “These swallows… don’t have the knack / For sorrow… spend no time mourning.” Business, industry, duty even, underpin her subjects, and continuity is the final blessing. Marvelous poem, with an effortless rhythm and rhyme scheme.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – July 23, 18

The New Yorker – July 2, 2018

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

 


Gabrielle Calvocoressi has a real challenger in this issue. “Mayflower Cistern I Feel My Pilgrim Worry” starts out: “All day long I feel my pilgrim / worry. Crude and unforgiving / as the buckle on my boots.” Certainly a opening to get your attention. Her pilgrim does not seem to be a particularly nice, nor lovable person, I must say, starting out his/her town by building a fence, a pillory and a scaffold. There are strange lines in here to keep us guessing: “I hurl / my brittle body at the pines.” Not an image I can quite picture, though. Lot of undirected rage. “…my heart. Which I hate / for its hopeful sounding.” Calvocoressi definitely could hear the voice of her narrator here, clearly and powerfully. But at the end, ya feel like telling the guy, ‘Hey, lighten up. In a couple hundred years around here, it’ll be a lot better.’ A poem I went back to a few times, to chew over the ideas.

The other poem is by Robert Pinsky, “Repetition.” “Writer, blighter fighter — what do you want? / I want to repeat myself.” This is not quite a villanelle, as we revisit thoughts, lines, and sounds (as above). But often, what we revisit has already changed. The Chorus of the Many becomes The Chorus of the Money (I love that). The mixed chorus on every page becomes the mixed chorus on the cover and every page. And the meaning/purpose of all this? The poem does turn off from a list of repetitive desires with this line: “The prophecy says you turn your back on the ocean…” From there, hauling your oar inland to where folks have never seen an oar before. Does this mean the narrator wants only something new? Some peace? It’s a poem that leaves the reader with various such questions.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – July 2, 2018

Hummingbird – 28.1

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

 


The two poems in this issue of The New Yorker couldn’t be more different. First is Safiya Sinclair’s “Gospel of the Misunderstood,” a breathless fever-dream of a poem. “I want to be the blade striking / knotted brown, to kiss the nape of any hunger…” Words twist under our eyes, morph into something else. Meaning detaches and reattaches in strange ways. There is huge desire underneath the words: “warm branch / of man pinning me here…” and, “Nameless, I haunt for god and love / in extinct places.” One must keep going back to the words, revisiting lines, to keep from vanishing into the poem. Desire mingles with religious fervor, and in the latter half of the poem the narrator’s brother and father appear, seemingly unable to fathom her. And in the end, a frustrating angel appears. Very worth reading.

The second poem is by Barry Gifford, a far more grounded offering called “American Pastime.” “When I was a little kid… Jimmy Yancey, the great blues… piano player, / worked as a groundskeeper / at Comiskey Park.” The poem states the irony of such a talent in such a mundane job, and doubles it in declaring that even the narrator, who honors Yancey by trying to learn his piano style, does not know Yancey’s parallel history and greatness as a ballplayer in the Negro Leagues. “…throwing down / his best curves… on both / the black and white keys.” That sentence becomes a keystone of the whole poem, resonating between the worlds he occupied, black and white, sport and music, showing how they integrate each into the other, forming a whole man comfortable in many worlds. (Love that ‘throwing down,’ btw). A declaration of the power of the human spirit. And a poem that we can hope gets more people to search out his music.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Hummingbird – 28.1

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

The New Yorker – Apr 30 18


There are so many good poems in this issue. The “Anxiety Monster” series of poems by Emilie Lindemann made me think. In “Anxiety Monster 8,” we get “there is nothing but body. / seaweed-sponge surface / the kicky legs.” Many images that make you stop and think. Why does this make the narrator anxious? Just watching her children swim, maybe? Or, in 12, “But even wheelbarrows of thistles / can’t cover her up (not for keeps…)” So engaging. In 14: “…you trail a kick-line of women…” I very much enjoyed revisiting these little poems.

The danger of reviewing such short poems (Hummingbird is “The Magazine of the Short Poem,” after all) is that many wonderful poems cannot be quoted to show their beauty, as that would pretty much reveal the whole work. But let me mention “Circle Ceremony at the Highground,” by Jane-Marie Bahr. It shows us an awkward moment, a touching act of kindness and respect despite a tongue-tied instant. All in 5 lines.

Jane Vincent Taylor’s “The Woman Who Makes More of Everything.” “I say I’m tired of this shade of red. / She says that color used to sing / at night.” This poem reveals a beautiful, touching moment. Spare and elegant.

Chet Corey gives us “Field Note,” an observation about birds any one of us could have made, but he is the one who did. And we can only say ‘yes, that’s true, you are right. Thank you for pointing that out.’ How fun.

Hummingbird wants to challenge and stretch the form of poetry, and the poem of Kim Kayne Shaver, “Thirty Minute Backyard Rensaku” does so as presented. Rensaku are a series of haiku that contemplate a single subject from different angles. The fun thing about these three haiku is they may be four haiku instead. The middle poem is divided down the middle by the page break; so the reader does not know whether to read the words as two haiku, one on the left page and one on the right, or as one haiku stretching across the pages. Joining two spaces. I choose to believe it must be read both ways at once, a Shrodinger’s cat of a haiku. One is left not knowing if the poet intended this, the editor intended this, or they collaborated. One is left with a happy uncertainty, and a sense of incompleteness, that fits with the aesthetic of haiku nicely.

The juxtaposition of Frederick Wilbur’s “Autumn Leaf,” and Joan Halpin’s “First Week of Spring,” seems so exact and correct. From his “At the verge of the darkened forest,” to her “beneath the heavy sky / I teeter around pools of / slush.” Just wonderful to read them one after the other, back and forth.

And there are many other good poems (Bruce Ross’ two haiku) in here. Definitely worth picking up and enjoying.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

Blue Collar Review – Winter 2017-18

The Nation – Apr 9 2018

 

 


Let me start with “Elemental Intelligence,” by Conrad Geller. “What interests me… is how a raindrop / nibbles down the windowpane…” Just the precisely correct word, ‘nibbles.’ Such a drop does seem alive, hesitating and darting as it moves. “contemplating when to make / the next, best move, then coursing… in seeming triumph.” And the poem has us consider what makes something alive. What patterns do we share with the inanimate world? Or not inanimate exactly, for there is life in such a drop. I love poems that arrest me, make me think about the world in a new way.

Maybe the most original and creative poem in the issue is by Caroline N. Simpson. “Choose Your Own Adventure: The Galapagos Mating Dance.” “You are a single woman, about to embark upon your most challenging and dangerous mission.” The header explains what ‘you’ are to do — discover a useful mating ritual. Then it’s on to Chapter One: “You are a blue-footed booby. / A male approaches you… He offers you twigs and grasses.” The tone is so fun, the parallels with human rituals so apt. There are several chapters in this long poem, each describing the rituals of a different creature, with many laughs, but often rueful ones. There is such a loneliness underneath — they say true humor arises from the truth, and that is true here. Ms. Simpson is very much an ecologist of the heart. As the Chapters unfold, the reader is allowed at points to choose to move to a different section, depending on whether this current ritual appeals or not. What a genius structure. And the ending Chapter, Seven, has a most satisfactory conclusion. A poem worth hunting down this issue for.

Anne Starling has a moving poem, “Compassionate Friends.” “Almost immediately, we feel / we are too advanced for this group / of grieving parents, his father and I;” What a brilliant use of tone. Bringing the attitude of competition to a grief group. Shocking the reader with the commonality, and the recognition that we, too, have had such inappropriate reactions in gatherings. And then the buried pain buried with this approach, that we are there for grief as well. But we deflect notice from that. We do not ourselves work on that. And yet we are still going to such a group. We still need it. We don’t know how to participate in a straight manner, using this sort of sideways superiority as our defense mechanism. Wow. All that delivered in three lines. But the narrator does rally, is able to speak of her child, is able to touch her grief, for a moment anyway.  Just a first-water effort, all around.

The theme for this issue is Athlete Poets, and there are intriguing poems in this section of the magazine. My favorite here might be “Strangers,” by Lazlo Slomovits. “A man is running hard / to catch the bus that just left… the driver… stops // and opens the accordion door.” So it starts, and yes, we see the man as an athlete. But as the poem unfolds we rethink that into athlete in service of: “…the man does not get on– // he points back to an old woman / who has not run a step // in a very long time.” We are witnessing an act of kindness. “…then walks back slowly / still breathing hard // toward us…” The moment hangs suspended. “What can a group of strangers / do at a time like this?” It is a question gratifyingly answered, and a poem of unity of strangers with each other. Bravo.

The last poem I will discuss is by Stephen Dunn, who is the poet interviewed in this issue as well. (A marvelous interview.) The poem is “Little Pretty Things.” “As insects go, lacewings seem to have nothing…” Well, that’s an intriguing start, fun and challenging. And it quickly develops: “I imagine they envy / wasps…” And deepens: “…lacewings have nothing to do but be beautiful, / and so are dangerous.” Now we are in human territory. “I’ve known a few / of their human counterparts, and… have forgiven a meanness.” The parallels are enlightening, and disturbing. A great use of metaphor, a thought-provoking poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar Review – Winter 2017-18

The Nation – Apr 9 2018

The New Yorker – Apr 30 18


I got this issue of Blue Collar Review a little late and I’m a bit tardy on getting to the review. But here we go. I like the incantatory aspects of the poem, “Lament of the Shade Tree Mechanic,” by T.K. O’Rourke, which opens this issue. “These hands are not hammers but craftsman’s hands / meant to hold a knife or file…” It’s a meditative poem about hands, very grounded in the specific. “…meant to move across the face of rock… for splicing lines on sailboats.” A worthy poem, with a proper ending.

I like Adele Gardner’s “Grip,” a story-poem about a construction worker, working high steel. “I never got to thank him, this man perched / on the end of a girder.” It tells a story of loss, despair, and support, with the danger of such work constantly looming. “High steel work isn’t for everyone.” Though the poem is long, to give away more I feel is to give away too much. It’s a good read, worth looking up.

This is Blue Collar Review, so there are plenty of tales of a hardscrabble life. Such is “Better Buy Blue Bell,” by David Gross. “My father worked there when he was a kid, / shaking hides of cattle, some already maggoty.” Tough bosses, unions and strikes, such is the life in this world. “a greasy union boss brought back / their final offer — fifty cents.” And such stories often have a tough ending, as does this one. A solid poem.

I liked Joan Colby’s “New Year’s Eve.” “It’s midnight, New Year’s Eve / So on our road all the neighbors / Are shooting.” I first ran into this tradition many years ago in Santa Fe, and it is startling to hear. “They celebrate the curve / Beyond the solstice with / A barrage of bullets.” Great language in a taut poem.

#MeToo has its place here. Sarah M. Lewis gives us “Memo To Men.” “You don’t own women. // You don’t punish women / if they don’t like what you do.” A stark, blunt piece.

There are just a lot of really good poems in this issue. But the last one I’ll mention is “The Power of Peace,” by Bernard M. Jackson. “Not from the crank / who would pose with a tank / to further his future career…” it starts. The rhyme scheme gives it a lilt and a catchiness that rewards the reader. It is a poem of hope, as many are in this issue, and I’m glad to see that. “Only in time, by the people who rhyme, / will a moral be found for the story…” A fine work of art.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The Nation – Apr 9 2018

Convergence Online Journal – Spring 2018

The New Yorker – Apr 30 18