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Michael Meinhoff has a powerful poem in this Plainsongs: “The Hardest Question.” End-of-Life issues for our parents have grown to be quite a rite-of-passage for many, and this poem is a small window into the pain. “The hardest question I ever had to answer,” the poem begins, and its issue is pretty straightforward. The poet delivers the question bluntly. “I couldn’t make out / what she had been asking me up until then… ‘Am I going to die?'” How does one face having to answer that question, when only one answer is true? It is a powerful subject, and the answer, and reaction to that answer, add to the gut-wrenching power of the poem.

“Three-Legged Dog,” by Bill Ayres is also a strong work. “If the first tools were weapons, / The first trade prostitution…The first dance was to mock the cripple.” Sometimes it’s the idea that carries the poem, and so it seems to me here: “When to be human meant to run, / the damaged man who made a cane / was something strange…”  The dog of the title is never referenced directly in the poem, which I also like — the indirection adds the power of understatement. And then, the ending comes sudden and so very sweet.

Candice M. Kelsey offers us “Slender and Starry Eyed,” about a photo of Piegan girls of the Northern Plains by Edward Curtis. “Time / captured you…you’ll / now never escape. But you’re accustomed to that…” The poem is grounded in strong images. “Goldenrod muted by this sepia taskmaster…” and “your braids / are like the pearled moonlight.” But there is a darker edge here: “Each scalp-stalk pretends / to hang perpendicular.” A subtle work.

I like the repetition-with-a-twist approach M. Scott Douglass brings to his poem, “Pacing Yourself.” “You’re doing seventy in a fifty-five / in heavy fog…in Tennessee,” is how the first stanza begins. By the third stanza that becomes, “”You’re doing seventy-five in a fifty-five,” then it climbs to eighty, giving a tension and a pace to the poem that becomes hard to resist. The images are at first in climbing a mountain in a rural region, the crush and tension from the other vehicles, the palpable fear. And when “a weigh station sucks the trucks aside…” the end of the poem comes quickly, in a tangle of images. Very effective.

Sharon E. Svendsen wrote “He Looked So Much Like My Dad,” which is a different response to a poetry reading than I recall ever having. “Tall, bald with a side fringe of hair. / His poem was about the Lord. / I wanted to smash and squeeze and mold his face into place.” The more the narrator works on the poet in her imagination, the more he becomes like her father, and the more she wants him to be her father, to “give him a Sunday crossword puzzle…” At last the poem confronts where her father truly is, an effective and powerful ending.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.

 

New Yorker Jul 3 17


Two poems in this issue, the first by Amit Majmudar. This guy is absolutely one of my favorite poets going. He varies between excellent and breathless. In “The Beard,” he begins, “What was I like, before this beard? … what was I not like.” The language is plain, the idea seemingly simple. He runs through the relationship between self-chosen image and identity, with a hint of the religious. “Among believers and atheist, / among atheists a skeptic… all emphatic on the apophatic.” I love words I never knew. Apophatic is the idea of describing God by what God is not. But that’s just a way-station in this poem, where the narrator next finds a man on the TV at his gym club accused of terrorism, who he thinks looks very much like him. “Judging from…glances of flat-footed accountants running / for their lives / to either side…I was not the only one who thought so.” I love that running for their lives aside, the resonance it brings. Because the narrator is running as well, one of them and yet suddenly separate. Now the beard puts him in danger, by its existence. And separates him, an American, from other Americans. Then he adds one more symbol, the shaver: to use it or not, what that means. A deep and thoughtful poem.

The other poem is by Chana Bloch, “Dying For Dummies.” “I used to study the bigger kids — / they’d show-and-tell me / how to wiggle my hips, / how to razz the boys.” So the poem begins with being young, and learning about life. But at the turn it becomes a poem about what old people are learning, including the narrator now. “…watching my cohort / master the skills… of incapacity.” And yet the narrator still is looking to those older than she, though she is old herself. The final line brings the whole theme home very nicely. A poem by turns wistful and disturbing.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.


This is a double issue of Cape Rock, which means a lot of poetry indeed.  J.F. Connolly begins the issue with “Alzheimer’s,” a list poem of metaphors about the disease: “the bump in the night, / the false start of memory’s dream.” A moving, sad poem.

John Grey gives us “The Lone Shopper.” “It is a sure ploy / in separating a lonely man / out from the others.” The tone and swing of this poem are fun, and sting a little (because of the accuracy of observation?). “He bypasses the fresh meats / and vegetables, / for stuff in cans.” He compares the man against other shoppers, but admits, “I’m only clued in on the man…” As with many deeper poems, he turns the poem at the end… or seems to, then instantly turns it again, a clever device. Worth a smile.

Bruce McRae also gives us an upbeat poem, “Toying With A Dime,” with a catchy beginning. “I’m at the corners of Awe St. and Dread… sitting in a bar, counting God’s change.” Then come a series of original lines, flashing past the screen almost to fast to catch. “Space expands, like a mind… Time stutters and stalls.” And at the end, the narrator picks up the coin he’s been playing with and goes. A captivating poem.

I like Charlene Langfur’s “My Leaping Dog.” A narrative poem about the narrator walking her dog, a poem of connection. “This is how I feel about happiness…The incipience of morning,” it starts, and the dog is right there. “lower to the ground than I am…with the agility of a superhero.” A pleasing, deft tone, that leads to some surprising insights. “The surprise of how / we can be something else in the midst of who / we know we are.” That line bears meditating upon, for me. It’s nice to see such reflection in a poem, an aim of something higher than just clever language.

There are many good story poems in this issue, well worth discovering. But a lyrical poem I very much liked was by Kelli Simpson. “Dandelions.” “If the dandelions don’t lie, it’s going to be a dry summer.” Just the whole sense of a conversation with flowers makes me want to read on, and the poem proves worth the attention. “We all drink the red dirt…” A very nice poem.

Too many good poems to mention them all, but I liked “Winter Map,” by Madison Cyr, “Mirabella Pool,” by Rage Hezekiah, “Today I Decide Not To Read About The Vanishing Snow Leopards,” by Ron McFarland, “Sur La Plage,” a clever sonnet by Stephen Thomas Roberts, and “Torbat,” by Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad (“I dropped the h, / the long sigh in my first name”).

A couple of strong political poems show up, “A Dangerous Business,” by Pesach Rotem, concerning a poet in Saudi Arabia condemned to death for writing poetry: “remember that it’s your head he’s talking about / And that he means it literally.” And “He Plans His Funeral,” by Joan Colby. “The gang slogans that will be inscribed…the hand signals displayed…with an emotion that is partly / Theatrical.” Powerful.

The last poem I will mention is by David Brendan Hopes. “In The August Garden.” It starts, “You arise — you don’t know why — past midnight…the August garden…finalizes and takes stock.” I love the sentience of the garden in this poem, the partnership between garden and gardener. “I have put on white and violet / for the sake of love.” Then come references to the ancient troubadours, Villon and all, “confusing God with their lady loves in that charming way.” There’s just a lot going on in this poem, and very entertaining.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as at other fine e-retailers.

 

 

 

 


Each time I read “Spring Cleaning,” by Hannah Marshall, in the current issue of Hummingbird, it gets a little deeper. Always a good quality in a poem. “Shaking winter / from rag rugs…I look up to see the day go fuzzy in gray rain.” It’s a poem of very specific images, and that grounding keeps the reader engaged. Cleaning the rug corresponds to rain cleaning the world. “Snow salt… wash(es) down the hill…to unearth bluebells.” Then the poet gives a sudden, strong twist at the end, with an image that gives explanation to why this is all important. Well done.

All the poems in this magazine are short, which tends to make them compact, precise, and often powerful. JoAnn Chang gives us an untitled poem, starting: “The trees outside the nursing home / are tied to metal stakes // for fear …” and what the fear is gives us a twist of whimsy, and a touch of the apocalypse both. Quite a trick in such a short and image-driven poem.

Lenore McComas Coberly gives us “Unreported,” a poem about maintaining perspective. “blooming marigolds…hunker down…while autumn hail…” Again here, in a quick little poem, it is the turn that gives this poem its understated power. The marigolds do not figure in the larger world, true, but the larger world does not figure for the marigolds either. A clever way to show that off.

There are a number of haiku in the magazine, mostly in the 5-7-5 syllable format, too short to comment on for the most part. But one I will mention is by Bill Pauly. “miles of cornfields — they’ve left one tree…” Just that image and a half spreads itself around in my imagination, setting the stage for the all-important last line that of course completes and makes the haiku work.

Karla Huston has a clear-eyed view of nature as we really experience it, in “Winter On Winnebago.” “Just when you think you’ll never be done with it, the ice pulls back…” But what the ice reveals is not necessarily what we expect. Surprise is important in any poem, to keep us engaged. And Huston uses a trick I believe Henri Cole once mentioned: to present a final image, and then not explain it. It works its power here.

Finally, Jeri McCormick’s three linked poems here give a child’s view of the world, and it is a place fraught with childhood troubles, under a pretty facade. “she knocks on our door…such a cute girl,knocks on our such a cute girl, Mother says to me…go play.” Sweet, but then, “we play dolls she slaps kicks throws them against the wall…” Wow. A tremendous tension fills these poems, handled masterfully.

A great issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as at other fine e-retailers.


I’m doing the poems backwards tonight. The second/last poem in the magazine, “The Soul’s Soundtrack,” by Yusef Komunyakaa, sings more than it speaks, for me. The first and overwhelming impression I get is that the narrator is a man with a soundtrack of old musicians permanently running in his head, and I admit a great part of my enjoyment of the poem was simply stopping at each name and letting the music enter my head. Son House, Joe Turner, and Big Momma Thornton are names to conjure with for me. If you don’t know them, download a song or two. Indeed. The poem starts, “When they call him Old School / he…looks straight into their lit eyes, saying, / ‘I was born by the damn river…'” The narrator remembers the days of these songsters (okay, maybe not Son House so much) and how the music wove in and out of his life, our life. I love this line: “He believes to harmonize is / to reach, to ascend…till there’s / only a quiver of blue feathers / at dawn…” Wow. Poem as witness, to “the Church of Coltrane,” and to “his life / a fist of coins…” I read it and re-read it.

Back to the first poem, “Time, In Whales,” by Emily Jungmin Yoon. The three braided threads of this poem, as I see them, are the love between a young couple, a theme of whales, and being of Korean heritage in America. It starts, “Our legs of yellow skin next to one another, / calves spread, I think of beached whales…clean and gleaming.” So she weaves the threads together deftly right from the start. “You study Korean, whispering, ‘Muroruda’…meaning…’Water rises’ but really meaning ‘to improve’ or ‘to rise in sap.'” I like the awkwardness displayed, people working cautiously through their heritage, feeling their way, an understanding that flips open, piece by piece: a sort of, ‘This is who we are.’ In doing so, the narrator talks of her ancestors, and of the ancestry of whales. Of using music, like whales do, to “detect where / one another comes from.” In the turn of the poem the narrator speaks to her man directly of his own history as a child. “Your foster mother ran after you…wailing your name.” And all is woven together at the end, still deft: “perhaps the world will end in / water, taking… all loving things.” A marvelous, complex poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as at other fine e-retailers.

 

Iconoclast 114


I got a good chuckle out of Rhoda Staley’s “A Golfball,” in the latest Iconoclast. “A golfball / a dimpled homunculus…” it begins. This is a concrete poem, shaped in the form of a golf ball, as you might guess. The narrator takes an amused, even sexy view of men and their golfing addiction. “time to bed savvy guys while / the boys are chasing them- / selves.”

I liked both John O’Dell’s “Learning Archery,” with its “Cormorant hunger stabs a silver flash / in silted waters,” and Daniel J. Langton’s “Notice it’s Getting Dark Earlier,” which starts, “Remember when we were immortal.” Two poems about mortality, the first comparing the flight of birds to the flight of arrows. “Your arrow flies to its target like a lover.” Then, “Neither you nor sated bird can say why.” And the latter, also mentioning lovers, more a narrative with a lover about the ephemeral nature of life. “What will never stop will stop.” Both are in sonnet format, though neither actually use formal rhymes. The two poems are on opposing pages, making it enjoyable to compare and contrast them.

“Ribbet,” by Thomas Donovan Murphy, which is in a formal rhyme scheme, contemplates the similarities and differences between the narrator and a frog. “How strange we two from water rose.” Nor does the narrator consider himself the better of the two. “today / a frog back from my mirror peered…Perhaps we’re not the pinnacle.” A delightful, lighthearted romp.

I liked also “Untamed Places,” by Dennis Ross. “Cities, small towns…do not ring the small silver bell inside me.” The narrator yearns for wilder lands. “mesas holding up an arid sky…” and “a glacier…spirits luring the unwary into crevasses.” He argues, “It cannot be all pavements and iPods.” And I do agree. A satisfying poem.

Finally, let me mention “closet,” by Debbie McIntyre. “last of my ‘vintage clothing’ on the chopping block / vicious tears on dusty devotions…” A poem that starts from clothing and goes on to contemplate various changes in life. The poem lurches as life does. “it’s a new day or some shit / a new sheriff…” I guess I just really like the quirky images in this poem. “…your goofy hat…”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as at other fine e-retailers.


In the Winter 2016/17 Blue Collar Review, Kyle Heger gives us a tough little poem, “Look Me in the Name Tag” “…when you say that, Brother. / Don’t bother with my eyes.” The narrator feels like a cog in the machine of his company. “The / name tag is the only game in town.” The play on the idea that men should look women in the eyes when they speak, for me adds to the irony and weight of the poem, that the eyes “…might as well be blasted sockets.”

I very much enjoyed the poem, “I Was That Man You Saw,” by Flo Oy Wong. “moving around on the palleted floor of the…restaurant…my glasses greasy, slipping down my nose.” Two people here see each other at a distance. “That was you I saw on Wednesdays…with your Baba and Mama…after going to see the Lone Ranger.” It’s a prose poem, and very effective. The sadness is understated, the loneliness palpable, but the poem flips some reader expectations on their heads: “In my room I did not mind the thick musty air.” Such foreshadowing makes the reverse at the end much more effective.

“Floor Scrubber” by Victor Pearn raises a smile, but a rueful one, not amused. “mopping floors for a / home improvement store // is like…trying to row across the ocean // dirt rises in swells.” A short poem with a very punchy ending.

“Merging,” by Alice E. Rogoff,” also struck me. “In Bolerium Books, / I find old union documents…The Women’s Bindery Union.” The poem records differences between those times and ours. “In 1917 the women didn’t have the Federal vote.” But some things do not much change. “Men per week $51 Women per week $25.” A very effective commentary on a struggle far older than the 100 years this poem reaches back to reference.

Finally, I liked the poem, “The Teeth of Jesus,” by Fred Voss — maybe worth it for the name alone? ;-> “we file back into the factory where the little plastic Christmas / tree…sits unplugged.” Such common images, plainly stated, give this poem great effectiveness. “Rex says, ‘You’ve heard of sleepwalking? Well. I’m sleepworking.'” There is much poignancy, and a sense of what has been lost. “Once / we had unions, once we got raises, once…our children could afford to move out.” But life marches on. “We grit our teeth and grab our wrenches.” A powerful 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/ and with other fine retailers.