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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


My favorite recent poem in the New Yorker is “African Grey,” by Benjamin Landry in the June 15 issue. “Listening to the wind when you / have gone…an African Grey…who at night speaks…in your voice” It’s a poem about loss and the little reminders of those who are gone. “One picks up constantly after / the departed.” Such a spooky image, the voice of a loved one only heard now in the intonations of a bird, who may or may not have any scrap of the shared awareness we long for. And the changes that come upon us after such great change. “I try to move carefully, now…” A great poem.

In the same issue, “The Lordly Hudson,” by Adam Fitzgerald uses the repetition of the word ‘replacement’ for an incantatory effect. Paul Muldoon (the editor) seems to like repetition in poems. “After my family died there was a replacement family.” There are also enough strange little constructs in here to keep the odd among us happy. “the replacement version // doesn’t really do much for my replacement brain’s / chronic synaptic degradation.” I especially like those last three words. As a minimalist poet, this sort of work is not my strong suit, but I can appreciate those who do it well. The ending of this poem seems especially tangential, but I liked it.

In the June 22 issue, “Poem in the Manner of William Wordsworth,” by David Lehman, also uses repetition. “I ran with the wind like a boy…when joy surrounded me like an ocean…thus was born my theory of joy.” The references to Wordsworth are not elusive: “a hill of high altitude…” “lonelier than a cloudless sky.” And having read Muldoon’s book, The End Of The Poem, this poem seems very much filled with what he likes — references to a canonical poet as examined from a different angle.

Finally, extending our discussion of repetition, Cecily Parks gives us “Morning Instructions for the Doctor’s Wife,” which again brings in much repetition of phrase: “Accept the window / that gives you glass, the dawn / that gives you the maple branch…” The reader pictures someone sitting at the window, awake all night, as dawn slowly returns the sun. Parks creates theses and then develops them: “Only at certain times / can the body be sexual. The doe…in the meadow / isn’t sexual. When surgeons split / the coughing man’s chest…his body wasn’t sexual.” Another technique here is the use of words with similar sounds in close juxtaposition. Split and scalpel here, Curtains and certain. It’s not quite rhyming, but it brings a unity of sound. Interesting techniques. This is a poem to mull over for me, yielding more upon more thought.”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


The latest issue of Nimrod has a theme of Circulation, and it starts with a poem by Linda Neal Reising called “Navigation.” “…there are many poems / in circulation today, // and I picture them / in their little paper boats…” She muddles together the images of paper boats and blood circulating in the body. “sailing through sixty thousand miles / of blood vessels.” It’s an interesting statistic. One I will not look up. I care more about the verisimilitude of facts in a poem, the ‘truthiness’ of them, rather than the exact accuracy. Maybe that’s just me. ;-> Anyway, the boats become types of poems, and the nautical theme is brought back to close out the poem, a tight, well-crafted work.

A couple poems later, the editor brings us back to the blood theme with Florence Weinberger’s “The Prescription.” “he says / when your blood / turns sluggish / and sleepy / eat something salty.” Again the verisimilitude, which is nice for lending the poem authority, and a reason to read on. ‘Does that really work?’ I ask myself. Weinberger continues: “I’d forgotten salt. / No Chinese food.” We descend farther and farther into salt references, then return to the blood reference at the very end. There are some nice lines here, that make the poem worth reading. “It bites me like a loving old / toothless dog.” And I like to see how the editor is arranging poems, leading us from theme to theme via similar images.

August Donovan gives us “The Tiger of Newton, Kansas,” wherein the poor narrator has an encounter with said tiger, and gets off a few good lines before he is devoured (or not. I won’t tell you the ending). “if something happens once, it will again. // Sneaking out at lunch to get a Scotch. / Sex with my ex who’s like the news: all bad.” Roll those lines around on your tongue a bit. They have flavor.

Then again, Marge Saiser gives us “Beauty With Cat.” A love poem, or love lost. “He gave this gold cap…promised pearls which never came, / painted them falsely here around my neck…He could have placed / roses under my hand… But here instead is Vladimer, his cat. / You know how cats are: …never giving the whole of the heart.” The poems ends with the narrator’s emotions, which I very much liked as a technique, and, happily, a little more cat.

Tina Schumann’s “Overture (anticipation) hits close to home for me. “When my father dies, it will happen / as it always happens; a midnight drive across the desert, tumbleweeds / over headlights…” Such a powerful beginning. And the rest of the poem follows, logically. “it will have nothing / and everything to do with me.” Such a sad, true poem.

Joan Colby has a disturbing take on “The Bones.” “Old bones. My mother shrinking / into half a parenthesis…Or Ron, his spine / rebuilt with cadaver bone, / a half-corpse until he shot himself.” Images that stick with us long after the poem is over.

But maybe my favorite poem in the issue is by Stephen Gibson, “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.” And no, not just because it’s such a fun title. “You will go down through memories that…will disguise themselves to protect you” An elaborate, complex sonnet. “you’ll be looking for that one tool….(it will be missing). It becomes a poem about loss, rooted in concrete imagery, beautifully rhymed, with a breathtaking ending, the last word unexpected and obvious once it’s given.” Bravo.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


The Spring/Summer issue of The Atlanta Review is largely given over to translations of Russian poets, many of whom I did not know. Before I go into their works, let me mention the poem in the U.S. section, “The Castle Of Otranto,” by Maura Stanton, an engaging poem about being young, and getting over it. “mysterious doors, / Faceless monks, statues that moved or spoke: / I thrilled to all that wasn’t ordinary.” The narrator is on pilgrimage to a castle that fulfills all the romantic notions of Gothic novels she read years ago. The reflection on how she’s changed is affecting, how she sees the world now, at last getting to see such an exotic spot. “If the bus / Had only let me off in Otranto back then / Instead of Minneapolis — well, what?”

Another poem that tackles youthful vision versus elder reality is “Old Guy: Super Hero,” by William Trowbridge. “The arms and legs sag, and the waist’s / too tight. Where there should be a large S…there’s Fruit / of the Loom, and on his trunks, Depends.” I’m a sucker for a slant and amused view of reality, maybe. “Like certain sheep, / he doesn’t fly so much as plummet.” I read that line to my wife, it amused me so much. And now I’m reading it to you. A delightful poem.

The Russia section of the magazine was edited by Alex Cigale, who contributed some of the translations as well. One section of a poem he translated by Regina Derieva starts, “Life cannot be parted from the sea — / hurrying headlong in tears into tears…” I just want to quote on and on. Some great images here. “The pearls’ sunrise, rippling, enslaved…all for the sake of dreams.”

Vladimer Gandelsman contributes a moving 9/11 poem, “Historian.” “I bear witness: a clear gaze is granted / not to man, alas, but only to the sky.” The translation is by Yasha Klots and Ross Ufberg. “Let the flames of prophecy envelop the banal.” Great line. And the ending of this poem is worth the entry fee.

Some few of these poets I have read some, and admired. Ilya Kaminsky gives us “Mother Throws Milk Bottles At Soldiers.” A fun and kind of evil little thing. “Momma Galya… is having more sex than you and I… whiskey keeps her conscience clean.” “she flies over the country like / a tardy milkman, / a rim of ice on her bottle caps.” I get the feeling there’s stuff going on here I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter. There’s plenty of marrow to enjoy anyway.

Other poems seem to translate quite clearly. Vadim Mesyats’ “The biggest compliment…” for instance, also translated by Alex Cigale. “The biggest compliment / I ever got…was from a long-deceased friend….everything comes to you easily…whether in jail or in Afghanistan: / you’ll show up and…buddy, buddy… / charm the pants off everyone.”

I am grateful for the editor Dan Veach’s efforts to expand our experience of poetry beyond the narrower horizons of U.S. poets alone. There’s a lot going on out in the wide world. These issues (he’s been doing them for years now) I find very worth following.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Winter Blue Collar


The Winter issue of Blue Collar Review starts with “Ash Wednesday,” a poem about men locked up in jail, by Eric Fischer Stone. “In the drunk tank, red-eyed men / float gangly through their dreams.” It’s a poem very much rooted in concrete images, to good effect. “he can’t smell the dogwoods blush / pink from shimmering wedding dresses.” We get the frustration, and the timelessness of their ordeal. “…in a primordial dinosaur-forest…” A very good poem.

The narrator in Dolores Guglielmo’s “Valley of Ashes” recalls a childhood in a rough world. “I called the desolation / my playground — / Running through eggshells / And rusted coffee cans”. It’s not a pretty place. “the rodents / Their ravenous teeth Bursting half-eaten orange rinds…” But we can’t turn away, fascinated despite ourselves, familiarity helping us to look at rodents in perhaps a slightly different way: “Those unsung martyrs.” I liked this poem.

Robyn Stone-Kraft also writes a solid poem many will identify with, “I Never Wanted to be a Princess.” “Life was fulfilling, sitting at my / spinning wheel.” But conflict arises, of course. “…father wanted / more, and so he / lied, my life on the / thread if…” A great turn of phrase, there. And a good ending.

Templeton-Greene weaves together a story from many pieces in “A Haunting.” It begins, “The paper cuts on my hands / spell the word ‘IF’.” Wish I’d come up w that. There are a number of fine moments in this poem: “The red sores on her knuckles / are holy crosses reminding God…” Very much worth reading.

And I like the poem, “Failure?” by Al Markowitz, editor of the journal. “The book / a graphically clumsy / embarrassment of riches…” It’s a reflection on what it means to have published a book of poems, even if it doesn’t sell many copies. A humble little screed, well worth the time. “people don’t buy poetry / bored to death by the abstract, introverted fluff / that collects dust on the shelves of big book stores…” Now who can’t agree with that? ;-> Mr. Markowitz shows a real touch for constructing a poem himself, after all those years of editing. A great apprenticeship for the craft, I suspect.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


The April 27 (2015) issue of the New Yorker contains two poems. First is “Storm Beach,” by Sean O’Brien: “It feels like an achievement, emptiness / Reorganized. And then, “In the long pool trapped behind the shingle bank // The sky is blue and bitter.” The poem takes place on the beach, but the narrator seems to feel only a limited ability to act. “Leaving only the sublime / By which to take a sun-blind bearing.” and “we ought to broach // The fundamentals wisely put aside…” As the poem continues, there is no move to the abstract — images of the beach persist: “The gulls will do all that.” But ultimately, the protagonists are passive, and we are left with a sense of loss, of opportunity and otherwise. For me, frustration even: “We’re only here to represent the crowd.” A very respectable poem, with some nice images.

The second poem is “For You” by Maureen N. McLane. “”It’s been a long while since I was up before you / but here I am…” The whole poem is a riff on the phrase “up before you.” Who and what is: the sun, the orange cat, “In Morocco…the muezzin” then the sun again (I don’t know why the repetition. It seems to weaken the poem.) And then finally, “Go back to sleep my love for you / are only dreaming…” Huh. Maybe there was no better way to circle this poem back to the beginning. And Paul Muldoon bought it, so it works for him. Me, I’d have liked to see this poem pushed a little farther; an edgier ending, something to give more of a sense of epiphany, maybe. It leaves me with the sense that there is more going on, some sort of context this poem fits into, that I do not know. If I knew more of McLane’s poetry, maybe I’d get it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Missou Reviews


Way behind, way behind here, but I liked some of these poems enough I’ll blog them anyway. The Fall 2014 issue of Missouri Review included a fellow, Lawrence Raab, whose poem, “The Scenario” is wicked funny. “‘Harry,’ someone tells me, ‘for that kind of money / bad things happen to people.'” And with that our narrator is off lost in a series of clichéd noir movie settings: “the street after midnight where I’d be / outnumbered and alone under a bridge…” I like the enjambment in that spot, implying the narrator is forever to be in that place. Just such a goofy poem. “But there’s always another scenario, // and in it the plot will be treating me / quite differently.” The ending of this one poem alone makes the whole magazine worthwhile, for me. Not to put down Raab’s other poems in this mag. They’re also good.

Bruce Bond has several sonnets. A sequence? Anyway, I like “Touch.” “What does not kill you breaks you into pieces…the parts you can and cannot quite recall.” Some great lines here. “Just like a wound to darken as it heals / the dark.” Again, the placement of the line ending here gives the line an extra oomph. Also, his poem “The Fabulist.” “What I love to hate about the dead, / you cannot kill them.” “What we lose is everywhere / the way chaos is buried in the structure…” Good work.

Jill Reid’s first poem here, “I remember,” is also powerful. “that first threadbare year, the tearing away / from home, my once long name…” I don’t remember seeing three poets in a row with such a strong sense of where to break the line. This is an elusive poem, but seems to hold the end of the marriage it references in the beginning: “In frost, blooms rehearse / their exit….”

In the Winter issue, Dan O’Brien gives us a few of his War Reporter series on Paul Watson. I don’t know any more about that than you do, but these are sad poems, for me. His first, “The War Reporter Paul Watson On How To Eat Well” has the lines, “Enjoying a meal owes as much to fear / as to famine.” Then, “A man and woman / bathe a breathing skeleton with a bowl / of mud.” These are like telegrams from the front lines. Another poem, “The War Photographer Lynsey Addario Tells The War Reporter Paul Watson” starts: “On the road to Aleppo, while long-range / missiles spark overhead with sarin gas / for children.” “Hoping to feel / a reason again.” Heart rending stuff.

Sarah Giragosian, in “Lullabye For Cat” starts out, “I miss you / when you are cat / and I am human, / when you are dreaming / and I am peeping.” “We lap at the bowl of our visions.” It’s a well-crafted extended metaphor of a poem. Then in “What I Mean When I Say I Knew You Long Before We Met” she starts: “Our storylines were the same. / As girls, we bucked through screen doors…” And then: “Our passion grew from our patience. / We tracked the snail in the loam…” I am always admiring when a poet can nail a moment, an attitude, that I have had myself. The idea that I knew you before we met. And there are good lines in here about the snails. “They genuflected and leaned back / against their helix shells…” and “the slurring tongue of its body.” Well worth digging out.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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