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Poetry Mag Mar 15


I’ve been going back and forth about which poem is my favorite in the current issue of Poetry, but I think I’m going to settle on Austin Smith’s “Factory Town,” cuz of the cool metaphors. “The factory stands on the train / of your town’s wedding gown” it starts, then reviews the people you meet. “Who knows what bright things / they conceal in their coats” and before the end refers to the river as “that gray, dappled, / broken thing.” Just such a nice use of language.

Jessica Fjeld has a concise and engaging poem, “Political Theory.” “In a famous painting of a founding father / and the back end of a horse.” As you know by now, I do love my judicious humor.

And Aram Saroyan presents a poem, “Film Noir,” which beautifully captures the spirit and language of noir in a series of one line sentences. “He took her into his arms. / She let him in and walked out of the room. / He ran down the escalator….He waited in the rain.” You get the idea. And it ends as it needs to, on a sort of poetic fade-out.

I liked Charlie Bondhus’ “Sunday In The Panopticon,” I think purely for the sound of the words. “The sun reflected off / the glass and my table was an inscrutable / tower of light from which I peered…” Boy, that’s a neat image. And notice how the line bounces where the sun reflects off it, and then again after the word inscrutable, as though the light became suddenly blinding there, making us avert our eyes. Subtle and beautiful.

Finally, I like Jillian Weise’ poem, “Future Biometrics.” “The body that used to / contain your daughter // we found it…” It becomes a meditation on the growing consequences of identification in the information world. A quick poem, but all the more powerful for that.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


The longer I go, the more plain my titles become. Utility over poetry. Why does that seem wrong? ;->

This issue starts off with the amusing “Gibby and Flo,” by Lynn P. Elwell. “They often dressed in matching costumes…” It’s a story poem about the dangers and chuckles to be had when drinking and boating mix. The earthy couple at the center of it all are fun and familiar. The poem won a Plainsongs Award, and I can see why.

I enjoyed R. Steve Benson’s “Monday Talking,” also a stroll on the humorous side. “Car won’t start? … Umbrella broken? … This is Monday / talking baby. / Forget about / lazy breakfasts … and crisp wings / of newspapers / flying you around / the planet.” There’s a very deft use of language, here. The poem builds, getting crazier as it goes, with a most satisfying ending.

My attention was caught by “Regarding The Fantastic,” by George Young, what I’ll call an interleafed poem. There’s probably a technical name for it. Two separate poems riffled together into one, trading lines. “On interstate seventy-six, at seventy-five, / You live with the expectation / heading west into Denver…” The challenge and intrigue of one of these poems is to see how the two poems interact, knock sparks off each other, raise a deeper meaning. I’d like to see more of these attempted, though I suspect they are a classroom exercise many places, and so maybe don’t get enough respect.

I really liked “The Seventh Year of Their Marriage,” by Lucy Adkins. “That bridge out / with no sign, // that dirty trick, / that detour…” The extended metaphor raises tension, has us feeling compassion for the players in this marriage, with their cost of living each day, and the shakiness even after success. Again, a Plainsongs Award winner here.

I love the contrast between the terrifying news received, and the do-something actions of the narrator in “She Tells Me Not To Worry,” by Mark Hiskes. “The day after the bone scan / I go down to the workroom, / grab two planks of cedar…” His actions tell us how much he cares, how hard the news is for him to face. A touching poem.

As always, there are many other good poems in this issue worth exploring as well.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Avocet Winter 2015


I was very pleased with all the good poetry in this season’s issue of Avocet, starting with the first poem in the issue, Peter C. Leverich’s “Guadalupe.” “So many sentinels / silent and spirited / shrouded in mists / and myths of antiquity.” It’s a description of a shrine, and gives a sense of respect and honor. We come away with marvelously serene emotions.

This is a very sense-oriented magazine. “I Miss Winter in New York City,” by Sara McNulty, stays very concrete. “Roasting chestnuts hawked / by scarf-wrapped vendors…” puts us right in the scene, and we shiver along with her characters: “East River gusts creep up / pant legs…” And I like the ending very much.

Many of the pages of this magazine have a short little poem to complement the longer poem at the top. Several of these poems are by Holly Rose Diane Shaw, and they are always short, very image-oriented, and chipper little things. “Lighting up the dark day sky / filigree star flakes” begins a little six-line poem, “Snow.” It gives a nice, upbeat flavor to the whole issue.

Not all winter has to do with snow, of course. Richard Peake gives us a poem about shell-collecting, “Winter Beachcombers,” with nary a snowflake in sight. “Frantic sanderlings skitter back and forth / while willets stand stolidly on the sand.” Nice sound to that.

“Virtual Footprints” is a meditation on the results animals leave in nature, by Mike Rydock. “A footprint is the character / An animal inscribes / In the ground.” Much stuff happily to contemplate.

I liked Jean Moody’s “Trading Winter.” “I’ve traded winter as I knew it, / gloomy skies, dampness of air…” The narrator’s gone south. Maybe that’s what I like so much, the fantasy of being warm this time of year. ;-> “many mountains bristled / with green trees.”

“A Murder Of Crows,” by Art Elser entertained me. “A large, pompadoured crow / struts, stiff-legged, across the street… A slick-haired punk, / showing off for his peers…” Oh boy, can I see that bird. And the poem develops very nicely, from one bird, to two, to thousands, to a larger question.

But my favorite poem to discuss was “A Midwinter’s Dream,” by Janet A. Hopkins. “There was a wedding late last night, / the groom in black, the bride in white. / The union of two Gods of old, / one the Wind and one the Cold.” Such a supple use of rhyme, surprises waiting around each stanza, marvelous images, and a great ending. Worth the magazine all on its own.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Atlanta Review Fall 14


There are plenteous narrative poems in this Atlanta Review, w a folk-tale sensibility. Well-done, this is just about my favorite type ‘a poem. (And evidently of Dan Veach, the editor).

Mark Belair gives us a fun one with “one thanksgiving.” “…in the mid-1950s / my grandfather won a turkey raffle” and we’re off on a yarn, where the daughters grin as grandma and grandpa have their relationship revealed for all to see. Fun and touching and human, one after the other.

“Georgia Gothic” is another, written by Leon Stokesbury, with the classic opening: “Not that long ago, in a country / not that far away, there lived / a crematorium owner…” And oh gosh, the eel of dread is wriggling in our stomach already. Not so much laughing in horror, as digging into the frailty of the human mind and behavior. “he would wander down / to the brambled woods…” A poem very much worth looking up.

The other thing that struck me about this issue is how many sonnets there are. “Snakes in Paradise” by Richard Cecil starts out, “It’s hard to loaf when it hits five below…” but this soon turns out to be a lyric poem commenting on Joe Arpaio, the Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. How rare it is to see any published poem taking a political stance in American poetry. Blue Collar Review does them, of course, but I can’t remember the last poem in another high-tone mainstream mag w a political slant one way or the other. Well, cheer or hiss, here it is. Since I write my share of such poems, I’m very glad to see it. And it’s a well-rendered sonnet to boot, w a strong voice.

I loved the complexity arising from the repetition in James B. Nicola’s “A boy should not.” It starts, “A boy should not have to teach himself to shave,” and goes all ominous from there.

Nick Norwood’s “Shetland” brought out the cranky and therefore dangerous personality of the Shetland pony the nine-year-old narrator decides to pet. “He was a beast, all right, but so was I.”

“Running With The Bullshitters,” by James Valvis made me laugh. Then I read it to my wife, and we laughed again.

I’m running out of time and energy, but let me mention another sonnet among the several other splendid efforts, “After All,” by Daniel Langston, which is funny and clever, and even though we’re half-watching for it, hard to spot as a sonnet, since the rhymes are so smooth and the language so natural. Also, we’re distracted: “As you know, watching a bra being dropped / is religious in its intensity…”

Joan Colby has four poems very much worth reading here as well.

And I liked Dolores Stewart’s sonnet “Reading Shakespeare At The Senior Center.”

But the one poem I think I read the most in the issue was the one that won the Grand Prize in the contest, “Musical soup” by Joyce Meyers. “Spring just a week away, but this raw / rainy day cries out for a pot / of African peanut chicken soup.” Oh boy, I want a cup myself, just reading those words. It’s an elegy to the narrator’s mother, and a reflection about the future and what of worth she has accomplished, and “What of me will my children / remember?” A very sweet, thoughtful poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

A January New Yorker


I’ve probably started half a dozen sentences here, trying to get my head around the “Sci Fi Violence” poem by Josh Bell. “Would a true prophet use an electric / salamander as a tongue? / That’s what I thought.” it begins. Well, it’s not going to be a linear poem, obviously. Then I started to play around with the idea that there is an intelligible story underneath all these words somewhere… our job, find it. Maybe. Since we open with a prophet tongue, then the next section is maybe the audience. “the enemy collecting like aberrant cells across the river.” But the enemy isn’t simply listening, they are speaking back, in their weird way. “One enemy…attempted / to tongue-kiss my eyeholes.” Well, that’s a bit disgusting, but there you are. There is a speaker in this poem, and he’s living in a sci-fi world with countries and enemies and a dead body at the end to make an elegy over. It’s certainly an interesting poem, though I can’t say as I felt successful in getting to the bottom of it. Still, I re-read it a bunch, so that was fun.

The other poem in the issue is “About The Author” by Elizabeth Willis. “About her: the air, warm as fact. // An imaginary boat heading off to hell…” Each stanza consists of a single line (with one exception, for no particularly obvious reason), and they initially seem to relate to each other like the stanzas of a ghazal. That is, tangentially. But many of the stanzas have a reference to water: “This was not a river. It was Thursday…” With the whiff of the poet crossing the river Styx and going into the underworld, as above. So, going back to the title, it’s a recursive poem about the poet seeing herself as the artistic progeny of Aeneas in the current day, but by the end telling us she only wants to do a season in hell (wasn’t that Rimbaud?). Plenty of subtle references, a basic story of the poet’s journey for those of us who like our poems to follow a structure, and a nice rhyme to end it with. Enough to satisfy me. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

December Poetry Mag 2014


Well, it’s still technically December, so I’m comfortable blogging this issue, right? Anyway, a poet whose work I did not know, Tom Clark, has a couple of poems here, starting with “Then And Now.” This is a play-with-language poem, a kind the mag runs occasionally. “Then it was always / for now, later / for later…years of now / passed, and it grew later.” The turn later gives us a confused sardine with an attitude, then an experiment at which it seems to take umbrage. A reasonably weird little poem. His second poem is a quick-hitting little rhyming number, “Blown Away,” which starts “ephemeral as tinkerbell, / unmoored yet not unmoved…” I like that. These are fun works, nothing too deep. It’s good to make room for work like this.

Robyn Schiff has a poem, “Dyed Carnations.” “There’s blue and then there’s blue. / A number, not a hue…” This is an exploration of falsity, underneath its merry tone, and it grows dark down there. “I held the bouquet / in shock and cut the stems at a deadly angle.” “The white flowers…have a fake laugh / that catches like a match.” A strong ending as well, to a strong poem.

Melissa Broder has three sexy, rebellious poems. First is “Salt.” “How can you go swimming in another human being?” “The forests of disappearing moans / which were rich in in sap but lacked dissolve.” I like ‘dissolve’ replacing ‘resolve’. “Like A Real Flame” seems to follow right along, like another section more than a separate poem. “I want the hole in my ear to be quiet….or I will go to my lover’s mouth / and say oh, my quiet.” Broder does not seem to live in a serene universe. It is instructive to review her opening sentences, and see how creative and original they are. Here is the opening to “Lunar Shatters” — “I came into the world a young man / Then I broke me off.” The point more than anything seems to be to say something that no one could expect. This last poem is more incantatory. “And how I begged him turn me Pegasus colors / And please to put a sunset there… / And me I had to de-banshee / And me I dressed myself…” It has a real ring to it, an attention to the sound of the language that I enjoy very much.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Nimrod Awards 36 Issue


It is not all that unusual for me to prefer some of the non-winners to the winners when contest results are posted. I think that’s honestly part of the process, doesn’t mean I’m more right, or that anyone else is. It’s just what resonates for whom and why. One of the poems in the current issue of Nimrod I liked very much was “A Request For Color And Spice #3″ by Simon Peter Eggertsen. “When I die, God, let me live on in color and spice.” There are just such lively lines in this poem, things that make me stop and go back. “Drag a star through my body, God, sober me up / with fire…” Lines like that deserve an audience.

Alison Luterman, who has written many fine poems, here gives us, “She for whom I am named” which starts “left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed….Hello, crowded, terrifying boat.” The story of her grandmother, the story of so many American immigrants. “And later in life, after HE died, / kept her pockets full of candy for the children.” It is the ending line that makes this such a powerful poem though, saying so much about how little any of us leaves behind to be remembered.

I enjoyed Arne Weingart’s “World Without Signs.” “The arrows are the first to go / detaching themselves from their places.” It’s a fun poem, as the aforesaid signs gradually deconstruct themselves. “and heading off straight whichever way / they were pointing…the names of places are next…” The ending of such a progression of a poem matters very much, of course, and this one ends well, though I like the lines a few stanzas before the end best: “it is impossible // to give or receive directions / you simply have to know where it is…”

He also gives us a powerful little poem, “Recapturing My Stutter,” which starts: “Ferocious little animal, / I let you out of your box…” which gives us an empathetic view into the difficulties of having a stutter. “you who / had given me so many vicious / bites” And some complicated truths here. “I let everyone lie about you // and pretend you didn’t exist.”

And lastly let me mention “What Words For God” by Kate Kingston. “Here are the day words / — shovel, hoe, melon, orange, mint…” God asks me, / What are the words here? I reply in Spanish: / zebra, leon, gorila, mono, jirafa.” The night words: “gunaa, mujer, woman.” (The first of those three might be Nahuatl). It’s a complicated poem, and worth savoring, letting the parts of it resonate and bounce off each other, in the various languages referenced.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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