Missou Review

Three poets grace the pages of the latest issue of the Missouri Review. Jenny Molberg starts out with “Fourth State of Matter.” “The day Big Tex burned, it began in the throat — / an utterance that caught fire.” Is Big Tex a relative, a friend of the narrator’s father? We know we are at the fair, but the poet does not hand us the full context, preferring to make us work it out with other clues: “whose 75-gallon hat // mooned over the crowd.” And bingo, if we are paying enough attention, we realize Big Tex must be a statue, or puppet, speaking to the crowd through a loudspeaker in the throat, which catches fire. Why is this a moment worthy of a poem? The narrator searches for her father: “scanned the dune of faces…”and reaches some sort of epiphany. “Later, I saw that my father’s life wasn’t whole // but scattered, and didn’t really belong to me.” So this is a moment when the isolation becomes real, when her father’s grief becomes real for her. She is growing up. Nicely done.

I also like her poem, “Storm Coming,” a short, understated work, again about the narrator and her father. “In his face, // I look for my own…” “The sky swells like an oath.” The approaching storm counterbalances the human interactions. “Dad, he’ll say, how about… we’ll go and get some of those peaches…?” “The storm is birth and death // in only minutes.” Over and over, this author breaks up ideas not just between lines, but between stanzas, emphasizing the gaps, the emptiness in her character’s lives, the distances they seem to feel between each other. A work to revisit, and to contemplate.

Noah Warren gives us the poem “Milkweed.” “The summer morning, / the exploding front,  the rain / a wall falling.” Wow, tricky to come up with an original image about the rain. “One stalk of milkweed…bitten, blind thing, on and on, / by the swarm of bullets.” It brings to mind, for me, the war that is nature, each living thing struggling to survive, eat, make its own way in a battle zone. An interesting metaphor, deftly handled. And I love the metaphor he uses to end this poem.

The final poet is Regina DiPerna. In “The Fortune Our Bodies told,” she starts, “First, pattern: one whisper-thin / hook of material threading to / the next.” And indeed, at times our bodies do seem thin and fragile. “the clockwork // of a heart…a fistful of red clay / contracting and expanding / around each damp, unsteady hour.” Boy, that’s cool writing. I like the conceit of the poem, a series of metaphors about each aspect of the body. “The blood, an army of ants…”

And I love her poem, “I’m Not,” a declaration, a manifesto of independence: “not hanging my head / in the doorway…like ivy growing quiet over your walls. I’m not a canvas for you…I’m not midnight and smashed dishes…” A passionate work, that touches us and makes us cheer for the narrator, and to hope for her.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


I think I’ll start reviewing the Winter 2015 Atlanta Review from back to front. No reason. The last poem in the mag is a sonnet, “Sunday Morning in His Workshop,” by Duane K. Caylor. “…a button-headed brace / rests on the bench awaiting… to spin once more. A poem about a workshop. Things of the hands. “augur bit in place, / it translates languages of mind and hand / into solid, runic poetry.” I am a big fan of poetry that arises out of the practical world, concerning items and tasks nothing dependent on classrooms, teaching, arcane academia. Maybe because I am so far from that world myself. So the power of this poem arises from the knowledge of someone’s workshop, the things he or she intends to build.

In the poem, “Profession of Flora,” Jane Varley reimagines the Nicene Creed in flowers. “We believe in flax, the pearlwort, and coneflower, / maker of heaven and earth.” It’s a one-off idea, and the fun comes in seeing how she rewords the ancient prayer to fit a floral language.  It is by turns, or by reflection, maybe I should say, amusing and mildly blasphemous: “eternally begotten of the fleabane…” It generates the shocks a good poem will, and I hardly think any deity should look askance at such a beautiful effort.

“Outsourcing My Grief,” by Peter Krass,” also has a spiritual bent: “the year after my father died /…I discovered a Chinese factory / where I could outsource my grief.” Again, the shock of the weird adds flavor to the poem. “Now, for just $39.99 a month, the workers mourn / on my behalf, performing graceful lotus kicks…” Of course such an idea must be developed and twisted, and Krass does so skillfully. “I’ve upgraded for an additional $19.99…” What a hopeful poem, kicking death in the eye as it were.

Mike Faran gives us an entirely different theme, in “Santa Monica Sunrise.” “I woke up — bolted up / in a panic / felt for my dog tags…little stamped poems read by / proud parents…” but the narrator is in an unreal place, and gradually realizes it. “I hadn’t worn them in twenty years…” there are beautiful lines in here that add to the disorientation of the PTSD. “The sun speared through / heartshaped curtains.” And there is a moving ending. The power arises so much from understatement, the immediacy of the description. Powerful and sorrowful.

Barbara Lydecker Crane does a great job with a triplet poem (tercet stanzas which all lines follow the same rhyme): “Kicking the Bucket List.” “…here’s a bucket list / (not complete, but it’s the gist) / of things I think are better missed.” You get the idea. Humor is hard to do well, and so much to be appreciated, I think anyway. And the ending plays on the triplet structure perfectly, with the narrator’s fear of disappearing. Brava!

“Barracuda,” by Ron De Maris is great and shivery: “Shadows edge forward in a slow languid mass like a / Cloud of logs…”

“Chestnut Mare,” by Dion O’Reilly, speaks beautifully of loss. “I have no reason to walk / to the pasture anymore…”

There are a few excellent horse poems in a row, actually. Barbara J. Mayer gives us “From the Horse’s Mouth,” St. Paul’s horse on the road to Damascus, specifically: “it’s always / the horse’s fault when his rider / hits the ground with such bone-cracking / force…”

Way too many great poems in this magazine to mention them all. That’s not unusual with the Atlanta Review, of course, but let me mention one last one, Tracy. K. Smith’s “Transit.” “Someone is waiting for us / Down through that grove of ferns,” a subtle and complex pantoum about death, about rebirth, about magic and a grove. “And the season shifts now slowly to the east / where whatever must begin beings.” Wow.

Get this mag as you can.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Indie Writers Blessing

Indie Writers Blessing

May your sales all come without refunds
and your discount days be few.
May your covers shine, your rankings climb,
and reviewers flock to you.

PMF Johnson

Plain Plainsongs

Many American poetry magazines seem to me almost interchangeable in their tastes. Complex, ironic poems that never take anything too seriously, where clever lines matter more than the subject being tackled. Plainsongs is not one of these. Poems found here gamble with the truth, say what they have to say, sometimes in plainspoken ways, trusting us to notice the power in the understatement. I believe there is room in poetry for both these approaches.

The Fall issue opens with “Barn, Razing,” a fine work by John P. Kristofco. “With snap, smash, wood and glass collapsing…eighty years descends into an instant” lets us know right away we witness the moment of an ending. The next stanzas develop the context, giving us the labor and detail that went into creating the barn. “blueprint stretched across a table in the sun.” But the details never descend into the mundane. There are always surprises here, a different way of seeing. “…that very day, spiders started in…refuting the audacity.” And all ending with a satisfying conclusion.

I liked “Folk Art, Detail from #34” by Carol Hamilton. “How the egrets stand / in the chocolate water…all necks arched / in unison.” Just a very strong presentation of the feeling evoked by a work of art through selected details of the work: “the whole / world stuck, silent in a perfect moment…”

I have to mention “Where We Grew Up,” by Jennifer Lagier. “The walls had hooks, wire barbs / reaching from the stucco to rip a child’s skin.” Wow. Not a pleasant place, but so evocative. “I remember the hot breath / of an invisible presence / standing between my sister and me.” Then the poem moves to such a powerful, sad place. “…we could hear distant cries / of injured late shift cannery workers…pulling their crushed limbs / from relentless moving cogs.” That’s telling it like it was. And a haunting ending. Very moving.

Not every poem comes from such a hard place, however. “And Home Again,” by Mark B. Hamilton, brings comfort. “The wheat was golden past the divide, / seagulls bunched and swooping…” Ah yes, the great plains as I have seen them. “Her apartment offered a fish tank…we fixed her VW…the brewed morning coffee talks.” There comes a deep and instant familiarity with this world. We know this place. “…vases fill with wildflowers plucked / from tall grass.”

A most worthy issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

The autumn issue of the Midwest Quarterly has all the poetry in a clump in the middle of the mag. I like this, it makes it a straight, easy read. We start with “To a Burred Seed I Pulled from My Pant Leg,” by Jose Alcantara. “You are all prickles and spines / a tear of longing to be cried…” Huh. Why a tear of longing? We don’t dawdle to find out, we’re on to the next thought. It’s a light poem, and delicate, comparing the ride of the burr with love. “You have used me, / in your love flight…But I hold no grudge.” A fun poem.

Dan Campion essays a sonnet, “The Cardinal,” which starts, “He ascends the leafless ash…this morning’s Thackeray anti-hero/seeking a mate…” The poem pictures the bird as the hero of various Victorian era novelists, returns to a prosaic view, “Such things just are, no matter what we say,” and gives a fine final couplet of conclusion.

I really like Jeanne Emmons’ “First Rain.” “…the ground / dissolves to mud, almost breathing.” What a beautiful, succinct way to capture that moment winter is turning into spring. “We have waited…to resign / the cold, with its air of finality…” It’s those tiny shocks of recognition I admire. And the move toward freedom, chaos, life: “these passions running / in the gutters. We are dissolute.” And even a hint of sensuality. “we need no longer / maintain our vigilance, our celibacy.” Great poem.

Finally, I will mention Geri Rosenzwieg’s “Wheat God,” a poem that comes from a place as ancient as the pyramids. “The miller’s stone grinds…fluent as grain poured into Pharaoh’s bins…” Not fluid, fluent. Nice slant. Ostensibly about baking bread, this is also a poem with extra meanings and textures. “patted and plumped / I enter the fire…” The poem also has its detours and surprises: “Dusk when the owl crosses / the field with a mouse in its beak…” A poem worth taking the time to savor.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Iconic Iconoclast

See, I just had to use that title. Too much fun. ;-> Iconoclast #111 hits its stride quickly with the poem “legacy,” by normal. Yes, that seems to be the pen name. He/she’s probably had a huge career, maybe I’ve just always been going out the door just as normal was coming in. ;-> Anyway, the poem starts, “here & there i’d see his poetry / he’d probably seen mine in the same places…i liked his work…” Very familiar aura for me, as I also notice so many writers publishing in the same mags that I do. Always a good sign to see that universal moment in a poem. “once i thought i’d write him & / tell him so / i didn’t…” The very stripped down nature of this poem gives it power, for me. “5 yrs ago i heard he’d died…” One cool thing about this poem is how it doesn’t end with this moment, a natural spot for such a poem to end. That normal goes on and finds a chunk more universality to end with is a bit of a surprise, and that, too, is a sign of a good poem. I liked it.

Let me quickly touch on “Picnic at Turkey Creek,” by Martin Kirby, which starts as a reminiscence, “On the gravel bar / Where long-gone alligators used to laze, / We knew the hardboiled elegance / of quail eggs…” flips into a quick little love poem, and ends with a fun little flirt. But the poem is maybe most memorable for me in the phrase about a minnow, “…Laughing when one tore upstream, / A calciferous trophy in his mouth…” That just really appeals to me.

Christine A. Gruber gives us “Fandom,” a mournful poem. “He lost seven years of his life / to a hobby, an obsession…most of his time spent / in solitude…” Such a sad depiction of a life. “…one day / he kicked his addiction…only to find / it was much too late…” We are left to wonder why it was too late, what prevented the person in the poem from coming back from that down place, what if, what if… But no answer is given.

Jean Esteve delivers a gut-punch of a poem, “NOTEBOOK: Sunday,” which has a beautifully high-toned beginning: “All on a summer Sunday…” but declines in tone rapidly: “hungover…he knelt by…Mary / begging forgiveness, did Papa…” and then a short quick ending as effective as any poem I’ve read in years.  Ms. Esteve has a full-length book out, and has published in some very nice places, and it is easy to see why she’s had such success. Brava, I say.

Finally, let me discuss “Minimum Comfort,” by Donald Lev, a comfortable shoe of a poem. “Woods. I’ve never quite felt safe in them. / I’m from…Forest Hills, / which boasted neither forest nor hills…” That sort of sweet, sort of fun tone continues. “Enid and I / were looking at a house once…It had eerie stone stairs / and cellars…” “…the real woods are scary, full of / sharp snouted animals…” Just a declaration of love for houses and city and safety away from the wild. It made me smile.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Blue Collar Blog

So in the spring 2015 Blue Collar Review (the latest one I have, bet I get another soon) the first poem is by that famous writer, Anonymous. “9 AM Break, Line 3, Engine Assembly” tells us of a worker on the line who can’t take a bathroom break due to the team being shorthanded. “The horns sounds and the line freezes / and your first five free seconds are wasted…” We are very much there in the moment with the narrator, and the tough life. “…you want to run to the phone / to call your girlfriend and apologize / for not calling last night…because you woke up in a chair / with the TV blaring at 11:30 / and that was just too late to call…” A very powerful poem in its simplicity.

Then Carol V. James gives us “Automobile Mirror Assembly Line,” which starts “All we want is time to live…And all we have to buy time with / are lives…” It pairs well with the previous poem. There are pithy turns of phrase here, and wise ones. “My past is tailgating me.” A very worthy poem.

Gotta like Mike Faran’s “Are We Robots Yet?” The introduction throws us right in the deep end: “The last time I scratched my ass, / felt like skin…” The narrator is lost in a world rapidly vanishing. “I’m simple as a Remington / typewriter.” And yet there’s much sly fun here. “I / told you that Pac Man was a form of / Devil worship.” A poem worth looking up.

As promised, this is poetry that takes sides. Stewart Acuff’s poem, “Richest Member of Congress” makes that clear. “America’s richest member of Congress / said America’s poor are the envy of the world.” You know where this is going. “Our poor can’t miss a step in their whirl / of two jobs and days that go 12 to 14 hours / and kids that feed themselves on less and less…” If you don’t agree with that point of view, this may not be the magazine for you.

But ultimately, these poems ask questions more than they give answers. They dig into issues that may not have simple answers, and the poets know that. But still we get calls-to-action, as with Robert Edwards’ “Manifesto # 94.” “Now is the time / to make a few enemies / to burn a few bridges / of my own.” A great didactic effort: “Now is the time / to set the wind free in the house…and take the safety off my hand.”

I enjoyed this issue very much.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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