The first poem in this issue of The New Yorker, “Esposito & Son,” by Anna Scotti, is a kind of an homage to a piece of furniture being hauled off. “When the men arrived…to haul the big table away, / I ran my hand down the battered length of it.” Each of the three stanzas is heavy with words, an almost pedestrian language. But the narrator is ambivalent about losing the piece: “a sudden rush of absurd remorse. I’d never loved it…” and deep within the stanzas hide a few, a very few internal rhymes, reflecting the almost lost grace of the table, or maybe the feeling she has towards something owned a long time. I love the line “the tabletop itself was…scarred: ruthless curator of memory.” She discusses the chairs that go with the piece, and only in the third stanza do we pull back to consider the men hauling it away — father and son, we are given to understand by the title, “eager to be done with it.” The rest of the world does not share our absurd hesitations, or romance about battered things best left behind. An elegant poem, finally.

“Old West Days,” by Brian Russell, weaves several motifs together in a non-linear way. “It was just after the war of course…” it begins. The Civil War, does he mean? But then he references buses, so we are left rootless, contemplating how many wars it could be talking about. Sad thought. A great deal of the strength of this poem has to do with lost little lines like that, creating a scattered landscape. The next thread comes in a one sentence third stanza: “…it was a great year to be a queen.” A series of rather absurdist comments are thrown in, e.g. “when they still made the sun out East,” until it becomes a pastiche of the present and the past, of History, of the narrator’s own family, and the contrasts along each of these threads. “as if seeing for the first time a photograph of your / grandmother / when she was your age.” I guess what I enjoyed most was the striking images, rendered in neat turns of phrase. “While the parade waded by…” An oddly satisfying poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My book of love poems, “Against The Night,” tells of loving a woman ensorcelled, fevered, her raiment camouflage, a woman marooned, scrawling for help with a sharpened spoon. A tale of two fireflies in flight through the urban overglow, who seek their patch of intimate night.

I think you’ll like it.

“Against The Night,” by P M F Johnson is available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers.

Missouri Review 39.2

Been a while since I’ve done a Missouri Review, so I’ll do the Summer 2016 issue. The first poem, by poet William Woolfitt, is “Field Holler.” “Because the field was galled, blotched with yellow hardpan…he had to fork and spread pond ooze.” Stanza one is a statement of facts about a farm hand singing as he works. Stanza two is about a woman singing as she weeds a garden. The poem ends when they hear each other. It’s the plain details of their lives that give resonance, the loblolly, frostweed, broomsedge. Only the very last word of the poem brings us to a sudden depth, a vision of their world beyond this plain place. Woolfitt’s other poems here mine the same vein, showing black workers and prisoners singing as they work, blues, spirituals, and hollers. These are poems not so much looking for an epiphany, as generating emotions out of the minutiae of grinding life. “He cradles and counts // bones and the splinters of bones.” Reminding us how tough life was, back in the day.

Corey Van Landingham gives us “Taking Down the Bridge,” which starts with an arresting image. “Treasure Island is on fire.” Okay, we want to know more. “Or so it seems, torches smoking / through the cantilever truss, / hiding even the men…” a series of provoking statements keeps us reading on. “the old bridge is cut in two… How quickly we abandon the past.” We get the sense of impermanence, of valuable things being lost. Then, “You told me / how you would bring old relics…an antique shoehorn…” and a sadness slowly grows. “…the earrings that will…be made from / the…picked-apart skeleton…will reflect / nothing…”

Finally, Peter Cooley gives us “Hunter’s Moon.” “He will not always be here in the fall.” It is a poem made out of denials, in a sense. “He’s not the world’s witness to this.” A lyric poem about a man trying to reassure himself he fits in, perhaps. But things are going on, things are changing, and much is uncertain. There is a certain absurdity running through Cooley’s world. In “Interpolations,” he references the mountains of New Orleans, and: “The countries beyond imaginations’ grasp.” It is an uneasy place, but one worth visiting, for the thought-provoking ideas, and the disturbing familiarity.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. Please consider buying my book of love poems, “Against The Night,” available now as an e-Book.


New Yorker Oct 24 16

There are two poems in this issue, the first, by Annelyse Gelman, is “Conch.” This reads like a ghazal, but with one-line stanzas. “Sang into your mouth but there was no slug inside.” It starts out so, but the next line, as with any ghazal, goes in an entirely different direction. “The brain begins to feel claustrophobic, fossilized.” The themes in each stanza seem to relate to history, evolution, death. The items a person, or a species, retains: “vestigial traits, coccyx, wisdom tooth…” and the inevitable loss: “rot is the fruit of the fruit.” There is a sense of survival, however wounded the survivor.

The second poem is just downright fun, in an evil way. “Itch (The Flea’s Retort)” by Alan Jenkins, views a hotel stay by a pair of lovers from the point of view of the flea who feasts on them. “It must have been their first time — first shared bed.” The first stanza talks of their innocence, “They hid / Their guilty fears by doing what they did.” The next stanza discusses their discovery of the work of the flea, “Inflamed in parts / They’d barely known” And the last stanza moves from their reaction to a larger view of the battle between human and flea. A most masterful work, and oh, what a great rhyme scheme to each stanza: ABBACCCDDA, with a flip of the two last rhymes in the last stanza to indicate the conclusion. That sort of subtle surprise is very difficult to even conceive. When done, it gives a fillip of satisfaction. Yes, what a great ride.

I have just released my first book of poetry, “Against The Night.” These love poems tell the tale of a marriage built in parts like a bicycle, old-fashioned as fudge. It is available as an ebook from fine retailers everywhere. I hope you enjoy it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Spoon River’s Summer

Much good poetry in the Spoon River Poetry Review’s Summer issue. The very first poem is “To Go To Freeport,” by Austin Smith, a kind of melancholy pastoral. “To go to Freeport, you must leave / The road of concrete and take / The road of wheat.” If you know “Directive,” by Frost, it’s kind of the reverse of that. “They will / point you in the wrong direction.” A poem about being trapped in a circular life, if you are not careful. “The map you carry / Is obsolete.” But of course, you do go to Freeport, you do find yourself stuck there, and then one day someone asks…. It’s a skilled poem. I enjoyed it.

Ewa Chrusciel’s poem, “Mourning the Loss,” has a similar sense of the struggle to avoid feeling worthless. “I called the grief support group the other day.” The narrator is given short shrift, as the loss in question is of the narrator’s own clear thinking. A coming dementia? “I called friends’ eyebrows / eyebushes.” A disquieting poem indeed.

Continuing the downbeat theme is Brandi Nicole Martin’s “Dear Happiness,” which does have a certain sly irony to it, directly addressing happiness. “Never mind our tantalizing walks along the Gulf, / the two poodles pursuing…” She delivers a series of very nice images, one after the other. “the blood moon’s vacant, patronizing stare…” and “sea breeze and sugar, opiates and bone.” I’m not sure the narrator is altogether happy with happiness, though: “Dear Happiness, I hate you.” But it is a poem with much to chew on.

Ann Hudson does a triptych of poems, “Work, 1922.” “…every gentleman // with a watch of ours can see the numbers.” “We sweep the hands with paint that glows.” Then in Work 1936,” “The girls were getting sick…Radium Dial closed down. / Six weeks later…we reported back to work.” Then the last poem, “Afterglow.” “The…Factory stood empty, / fenced off.” A great resonance builds up from one poem to the next, leaving us, especially on encountering the last line of the last poem, with a chill up our spine.

Sara Schultz’ “Forbidden Syllables” amused me. “Ivory, a word you’re not allowed to use in poetry.” It’s a poem about shalts and shan’ts, short but fun.

Finally, let me mention Alicia Mountain’s “The Smallest Thaw.” It reminds me of myself, especially in the opening sentence. “During the bleak week that straddled / February and March I became reliant / on potting soil.” Boy, do I know that feeling. “I left a bottle of red wine in the trunk / overnight, not thinking.” With foreseeable results, especially in northern climes. Such a personable, familiar poem. “the smell of dirt said / you are not going to the university, / you are going to your grandfather’s field.” This poem just felt like home, somehow.

Peace in poetry,
P M F Johnson

Late Aug New Yorker

The first of the two poems in the Aug 29 New Yorker is “Blue Heron, Walking,” by Julie Bruck. This poem follows the somewhat standard practice of taking a tiny aspect of some part of life and detailing it…I don’t want to say to death, so let’s say…thoroughly. In this case, it’s a ballet dancer’s feet. “Not one of Mr. Balanchine’s soloists had feet this articulate.” There are many Latinate words, “explicitly,” “retracted,” “secondary function,” giving the poem a sense of detail and complexity. Then it adds in images based on flying. “Leonardo’s plans for his flying machines” and “pterodactyl wings.” The metaphors get muddled until the feet themselves seem to be birds, “snatchers of mouse and vole.” Kind of going a bit too far for me, I admit, though the phrase is fun. ;-> The ending is a quote from Balanchine. It’s a short, but dense poem, the great success for me being the almost indirect metaphor of dancers as birds.

The second poem is “Scout,” by Bridget Sprouls. It starts, “His sentences all ended with the word Austin.” Boy, we get an instant sense of this guy’s character with the one sentence. “so I packed a duffelbag, / overwatered the garden, and set out on foot…” There is always a twist, or little surprise, in top drawer poems, I think. Look at what that word “overwater” does to our sense of the narrator. Two personality descriptions in such an economy of words. Sprouls also plays with a sense of mystery, or drama. “The flutter of engines enchanted me.” What are the implications of that, we wonder. Where is the narrator, that she is hearing fluttering engines? The poem grows less linear as it goes, deepening the mystery. “Thank you, bad-shot farmers, for all the pecans.” Kind of out of nowhere, though there must be pecan farmers near Austin, right? The sense of hearing is referenced in several later images. “Who better to memorize the acoustics of local venues…” for instance. And even the last line, with its reference to air conditioners, still seems to conjure the ghost of Austin. Ultimately, we are left with a sort of odyssey’s history with few details sketched in: “I tumbled after the weeds…” And little clues that the narrator may have lost her way. “So what if I drooled into rock receivers?” So let’s hit the buzzer to chance solving the puzzle: the narrator went to the South by Southwest concert in Austin, got messed up on weed, ate a few pecans and scouted out the bands playing there. You agree with my analysis? ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Atlanta In The Spring

The Spring/Summer issue of The Atlanta Review focuses its international section on Scotland. Of The Scotland poems, let me start with “Life’s Work,” by Angus-Peter Campbell (Anglicized spelling). “If I could bring my father / back to life / I’d ask him / to build me a house…” a beautiful, short lamentation of the cost of loss. “he was the finest joiner / in the whole world.” A comment of multiple resonances, for this joiner is forever gone, leaving the narrator with unanswerable questions, and only a daydream for comfort.

These poems seem more than usually tied to the soil. In “Ever decreasing circles,” by Christine De Luca, “The old dog knows the way: leads us / along narrow paths through forest, over / ice-scratched granite.” I felt the kick of that last image particularly. This is not a poem of alienation from the world, and I love it for that. “Everything about her breathes / what it means to belong.” Such power in such a simple line. Then near the end, a turn to the poet’s mother gives a satisfying depth to the work.

Poem after poem works its magic. In “Pathway,” by Carol Ann Duffy, “I saw my father walking in my garden / and where he walked, / the garden lengthened…” Again this poem approaches loss so delicately. “I heard the rosaries of birds. / The trees, huge doors, swung open and I knelt.” With such powerful imagery, I can relax, trusting the poet to bring me to a worthwhile place, and am not disappointed. “though my father wept, he could not leave…” Powerful work.

And personally, I love to linger over the poems written in dialect, savoring the sounds and working out the meanings. “Sang (After A Hungarian Folksong)” by W.N. Herbert allows this pleasure. “A totie wee birdie fae yestreen’s meh guest” Totie wee meaning especially small, we are told. My fav line in this poem might be, “Laive ma hert tae strachil in the middie mirk o nicht…” for which we are given hints: strachil means struggle, mirk o nicht is dark of night. Great stuff.

Of the non-Scots poems, I enjoyed several. “First & Best,” by Scott T. Hutchinson, is about a kid working hard in the field, who gets an unexpected gift from some guys in a pickup. “You’re thirteen, and you’re employed / cutting grass for the summer.” A story poem, and a fun one.

“The Lovely Miss McKendry, Librarian,” by William Jolliff, is another fun story poem (maybe I have a weakness for these?) “She had the look of cash about her, so / How she landed in our school is hard to say.” But the encounter does not go as the reader might expect. “Maybe it was the romance of the blacklist…” And it’s better for that.

The last poem I’ll mention is “Under Florida,” by Dorothy Howe Brooks. “A river like the Styx flows under Florida.” An unsettling thought, especially in this poet’s hands. “In 1999, Lake Jackson disappeared, / drained down a single hole // into that nether world…” The turn is to the narrator, as more and more things disappear into that subterranean place. The poem is disjointed, fragmentary, and ends in a most disconcerting manner. I liked it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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