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

New Yorker News

The only poem in the March 30 issue of the New Yorker was “The Orange-And-White High-Heeled Shoes,” by Ellen Bass. Fortunately, it’s a good one. She starts, “Today I’m thinking about those shoes…” then it quickly becomes a meditation on her relationship with her mother. “We used to shop like that — / trying them on side by side.” And the tribulations of the sales clerk. “He would think he made a sale…” It goes on to deeper considerations. “Why is there such keen pleasure in remembering?” And ends with a trio of exquisite similes that very much satisfy. It’s an interesting poem for the New Yorker. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to have the desperate need for a new shock every other line or so, so de rigueur these days, proof that the poet is brilliant, intellectual, Post-Whatever. It’s straight, no-chaser, nowhere to hide. With a bit of fun, some interesting twists of language, depth and worth. Let me encourage, however I can, the continued success of poems like this. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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


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