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

Summer Missouri

The summer issue of the Missouri Review features the work of three poets. Miriam Bird Greenberg’s first poem here,  “Would You Believe,” challenges us to believe the narrator saw a series of remarkable events. “We climbed from the mouth of a volcano / all year…” it begins, in discussing the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the hustlers who survived it. “Brother, // one told me he’d said, we can be afraid / of each other again tomorrow.” The volcano seems to be used metaphorically, the incidents seem narrative. “Sometimes / I’d lift my hand to the lip– // look out over the volcano’s rim and there, / in a crevice, a scrap of paper shining…” the result for me is an interesting mix of trust and suspicion in the story, and a continual wondering why each incident appears. The narrator is affected by the loss and confusion around her: “I’m afraid // one day I’ll find myself trash picking…” Her next poem, “Ophidia,” seems almost a continuation of the first, in a different place: “The days were already burning / when we crossed the river…” The same narrator lost among the hustlers and struggling people of our world. “Do you need / anything, I asked. Water, / a little money? …He was on his way to Houston / for a check…and his dead brother’s unclaimed disability pay…” The heart of this poem, maybe of them all, seems to me to be the line, “How can one lonesome ghost, / I wondered, spin his own rope // to rappel us in the end / into the underworld…?” Haunting poetry, this.

Jennifer Barber has a series, “Motion Harmony #1”, “…#2”, “…#4”: “The first / leaf-stripping rain / reaps a summer’s worth by evening.” Don’t blink, or these poems will be past you, they operate so fast. “The pears that dropped…are pale bronze…Already riddled with wasps.” Tight, efficient language here, almost Imagist. Poem #2: “By pear I mean pear, not a buzzing, riddled heart. / At least I think I do.” A sly humor that catches us unawares. And the ending of each poem gives us the emotional keys to what we’ve just read. Very nice.

The third poet is Doug Ramspeck. His “Black Flowers” is a prose poem. “The old men are dreaming of black flowers…The men have their memories as hymnals, but still the crows make blossoms of their wings, and oar out above the yard.” It’s that sort of metaphor that makes this poems worth reading, though I found it hard to follow any narrative arc. His second poem is more successful for me, “Snow Prayers,” about an incident that happens to his father, and the effect on the whole family. “The first time my mother pushed me / to my knees to pray…” What a great way to start a poem. “You come from God-loving / stock, she pointed out…as though all love / is infinite, as permanent as stone.” Lines like that really help us feel the boy’s ambivalence and unsureness. The ragged belief, the need for belief, the fear belief may fail us, it’s all here. Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Late Aug New Yorker

There are two poems in the Aug 24 issue of The New Yorker. Ellen Bass gives us “The Small Country,” which starts, “Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation / when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten.” It’s a poem about two people in love, and the difficulties in describing the relationship. “What words reach the way I touched you last night…” And ultimately, how we cannot know the same meanings. “Even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us…” An honorable theme for a poem, the two of us in our own world. Straightforward.

In contrast, Eileen Myles gives us nearly the opposite in “Dissolution.” She starts, “sometimes I forget what country I’m in…I got this bug bite / that could be anything.” It’s kind of a scribble drawing of a poem “scribbled version / of empty… A kid could draw this world” and “My coloring book / why not is so / like a movie.” Do commas belong around that ‘why not’ — which would imply a gamble, a dare? Or should ‘not’ be underlined, so we are talking of rejection and emptiness? What may be the key verse is jumbled in among the others: “You forgot / to call your family / & now you’re ready to write an / explicit / bible of love.” This is a poem one has to go back and reread to dig out meanings. It does seem to be about the damage to a relationship, metaphorically: “You left / it outside  now you want to save / it?” But that bug bite does not reduce simplistically, and there are other depths hinted at: “It’s still good / and that’s your secret.” Ultimately, a fun poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

starts with a poem by Amy Newman, “Howl,” a riff on Ginsberg’s breakthrough work. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by wedding / planners, dieting, in shapewear…” An amusing rewrite, with depth (as all the best humorous writing will have, I think). “who left the university…for the rez and the old alcoholic lover family father temper crack…” A somewhat updated view of our world, though with many references to drug lists the old Beats would likely recognize (methaqualone i.e. quaaludes… “speed crank coke & codeine”). An interesting and brave work.

Paul Batchelor gives us “The Discoverer’s Man,” quite a long poem. “His handkerchief, a pin or coin he’d touched…Men came to shake his hand, or rub their warts / upon his famous skin…Blood of a witch!” The story of a witch hunter and his effect on a boy he hires as a scribe, the narrator of the poem. The poem is set in 1645, and tackles the theme of what is the truth. “Ask not what justice mercy can afford.” It’s a spooky, unsettling poem, with heightened language. “Touch a needle, watch it scent about, / quivering after its true north…such was I.” I love declarations of truth in a work, evidence the author has thought about things, and isn’t just shooting off the mouth to impress. Such depth is definitely the case here. “We are as we were made.” Worth the price of the magazine. A wonderful poem.

We get a bunch of Edward Lear’s limericks served up with commentary by Anthony Madrid, none of which impressed me much. “There was an old man with a backpack: / No body could beat him at blackjack.” I seem to recall Lear doing a better job with many of his limericks than the ones quoted here.

There are a number of poems by teens, which seems to be getting to be a thing with this mag. Of these, Britney Franco gives us “Inward.” “I am the broken bones you find on the beach / on your lonely vacation.” A nice image.

So, quite a bunch of different stuff this month.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Nexting The Missouri

Alexandra Teague is the first poet in the Spring Issue of the Missouri Review. In her poem, “Letters To Phryne, From the Sip ‘N Dip Mermaid Bar, Great Falls, Montana” she contemplates a courtesan in ancient Greece who sought pity from a judicial court by baring her breasts. “I’m trying to understand pity that might / just be lust… it must be nice to be a mermaid…Virtue: / sure, yet amphibious.” She brings the story forward. “We still fall in love with what hurts us.” A satisfying poem, better if you Google Phryne, though, to understand her allusions better. Teague addresses a woman’s place in the world in multiple poems here. In “From Mexico, New York” — “Before she went mad, they say she put an ad / in the paper: Seeking any man as beautiful / as myself.” Teague seems to favor long lines, with complex sentences. “Found…an aviator, who never fell from her sky.” But a woman’s role, Teague seems to argue, can erase her: “A model put out to pasture. / In her thirties. Of course fashion skinned her / and kept on unrolling.” I like that line a great deal. And in “From Carrera, Italy” — “I like the idea that the stone decides something: / Michelangelo’s last Pieta devouring // all bodies to air.” And another great line for me: “as if your nudity were more capable // of living outside itself than other people’s?” She tackles interesting themes.

Sally Wen Mao also tackles women’s effacement versus her public face. In “Anna May Wong fans her time machine” she starts, “I’ve tried to hard to erase myself. / That iconography — my face / in Technicolor, the manta ray // eyelashes…” And in “Anna May Wong blows out sixteen candles” “When I was sixteen, / I was an extra in A Tale of Two Worlds.” I am struck how the poems by both Teague and Mao seem to be variations on the same poem; or developments of a single idea, maybe I should say. But thematically very tight. I suspect this is what folks mean when they talk of poetry being written as projects. These will all fit very nicely together into a book, with ideas and themes so cohesive the book should be easy to sell. (The quality of the poems will help, of course!) Don’t know how I feel about this. These are good poems, but they almost feel like poems written for the purpose of selling a book. Yet the poets are exploring interesting ideas; their images are striking; their work very approachable. No hiding behind obscurity here. And there are many examples of great art being created within limited strictures, and an argument those very strictures bring forth the power of the art. I’m willing to follow along with these poets to see if that’s where they are headed.

The last poet here, Anders Carlson-Wee, writes an earthier brand of poetry. In “Butte,” he starts: “My brother bolt-cuts a hole through the mesh / over the Family Dollar dumpster…I lower myself through.” His characters are living low, hustling hard to make it. “I hand up the tub of yogurt…” A poem about dumpster diving, powerful through the immediacy of the images, the desperation we feel in these survivors. “After a while you can name what you feel.” In the poem “Moorcroft,” the narrator has been hitchhiking, and runs into a character on the road: “You gave me a ride when I was lost / in Wyoming.” Love that enjambment. And here the piling on of detail adds to the uneasiness of the character. “Showed me your gun collection…They were old and unloaded, / you told me…” again the use of the line ending to create a hesitation that affects the emotions of the poem. “I was careful not to flinch / as I watched the double-barrel / raise and train on my face…” What a terrifying moment. Great poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers