This magazine restores my faith in poetry (actually, several magazines do, but this one especially today). Here are powerful poems that do not intend to slip and dodge their own challenges like some aging boxer against younger competition. These are poems that say, ‘here I am, this is what I am doing,’ with nowhere to hide. And of course it helps that they are good!

The issue starts with Joseph A. Chelius poem, “Stockboy.” “sent like a shepherd / after a herd of carts…strayed / from the pasture of the parking lot.” Now I’ve been a stockboy, and corralling carts is exactly what that part of the job feels like. Unsung cowboy, and all that. But what I really like about this poem is its wry humor. “To have the honor of going out again in his zippered fleece…” I love humor in poetry, when well-done with a deeper meaning, beyond simple verse, and I want to cheer it on here. “…empty boxes of Contadina tomato paste…So lucky for him.” Fun, and a little bit wistful.

The delivery of emotion matters to these poets. Heather Finnegan gives us, “When I Run An Art Museum I  Will Feature / Every Artist I’ve Ever Slept With.” It’s bawdy, it’s funny, and there’s an underlying toughness, an underlying tear or two. “When I run an art museum, whoever calls me slut / will not be standing by the nightstand.” “I know the woman in the red / sweater will probably say, I just don’t understand…” Well, the enlightenment is a bit shocking and disconcerting, that’s for sure.

These are poems we can relate to, they speak to our shared experiences. In “Rambler,” Donna Hilbert meditates on a first car. “the color of dirt / and stick-shift to boot, / but cheap.” And a great tone. “‘It’s transportation,’ said / the husband.”

Michael Sears, on the other hand, gives us a very sad poem, “My Mother And I Beat A Dog.” “There was something my mother and I hated in that dog.” The power of this poem comes from its irony, juxtaposing comments like that with the story of the narrator’s babysitter, Maggie, who is murdered. A sort of we-are-our-own-enemy reflection. Something deeply disturbing hides here, a helplessness in the face of evil. The narrator’s family go to see Maggie’s family after the funeral. “Eventually, during one of those silences, Maggie’s father began to speak about her.” Grief flows through this poem, for the dog, for the girl, for us all, but it is partnered with fear.

There is a section of Rust Belt poets in this issue. I love the grittiness of the poems. They show a world where things matter. People are fighting to improve, though often it’s more of a rear-guard action.

In “This Should Be A Good Poem,” Steve Abbott’s narrator is a poet who never quite fits in. “I’d never heard of a fire tornado until a late summer newscast…My wife looked up. Said, ‘That would make a good poem.'” But it’s everyone around the narrator who lives on a different wavelength; over and over, they catch a bit of news and tell the narrator that would make a good poem. “Most…are normal people, largely immune to poetry / except as a courtesy to me.” Such a wonderful idea, deftly handled. In the poet not fitting in his world, somehow, it helps us fit better into ours.

Let me mention “New Fruit Humming,” by Cameron Barnett. This is a relationship poem, and again, the poet’s ear for subtleties is what makes it so good. “I’m here to say sorry. / Because you definitely said splotchy.” Now, is the narrator really thinking their partner said something else, and is saying this to make peace? Is this perhaps admitting wrongdoing, or is there a passive-aggressive element underneath? The ambiguity of tone whirls us along. “Because I was wrong to believe you were afraid / of anything.” Then in unwrapping that statement, the depth of the poem staggers us. They have broken up? Lies ruined their life? There is a final revelation, that opens up a world of grief.

I don’t have enough room to mention all the good poems. But George Bilgere gives us a wry “Pancake Dilemma,” Eric Chiles does a wonderful villanelle about registering for Medicare in “Medi-Maze,” Todd Davis nails the carelessness of teenagers in “Cracks,” (How many meanings can that title have?) and Kelsey Hagarman documents an awkward parental moment in “The Visit.” Every poem has an irony, or a sadness, or some other sharp point-of-view. There are no poems that confuse the heck out of us hoping we’ll be impressed by the muddle. I’m going to be glad to read more of this magazine.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

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The more I review poetry magazines, the more I can see editors lead with what they consider their best poem. Makes sense. In this issue, that’s “Working the Register at K-Mart” by Zara Raab. “She angles just so her forceps / in the black threads that tangle / around the action DVDs.” Blue Collar poems show people at work, probably more so than all the other magazines I read put together. I like how the word order highlights the meaning… the ‘just so’ in a spot not exactly unnatural, but considered. It’s an ode to a retail clerk, and its language is plainspoken. “coughing up the phlegm / of a last cigarette.” But it’s tender, too. “enclosed in what I might call love.” A wonderful, quiet poem.

Scott Blackwell gives us “Footnote,” continuing a theme of poems about the retail experience. “I run into this small grocery store… to make an excellent soul food feast tonight…rice, greens, yeah.” These poems bathe in the specific. “is it only / my own surly glum and boredom?” A nice play of words, as well. The focus of this poem is the resonance between today and previous times, though, as presented in an old photograph. “I walk past the large blow-up / of an old black and white photograph, circa 1930.” The narrator feels history alive today: “I feel somehow that we here… are already up there on that wall.” A nice elegy of days gone by, we might think, except the shared experience is more how difficult life was then, and still is. A grounded poem, and all the more powerful for that.

In “Hear the Wind Blow,” Krikor Der Hohannesian riffs on the ecological effects of the steel industry. “1953, westbound from Boston…we hadn’t yet reached Gary but / you could smell it for miles out…” I remember driving past Gary back in the day, with its hovering plumes of pink and green and brown smog. It was a ghastly stench. “the sickly sweet / of sulfur and God knows what else.” But the narrator gets closer to the action than I ever did. “the blast furnaces / aroar with white-hot heat…the Bessemer converters / ridding pig iron of impurities.” Such attention to detail gives the poem great effectiveness. The poem is dedicated to John Beecher, an activist poet who worked in the steel industry, and that plays in at the turn. “I think of Beecher, his poems…who knew good steel by the look of it.” And it concludes with a encapsulation of Beecher’s life, a shout-out to the struggle of labor against overlords.

Paired with that poem is the next, “Smelter Shelter,” by Neal Wilgus. “I was probably eight or nine / when I began to understand… the smoke was down / and we had to stay inside.” It is interesting to consider how often blue-collar labor and environmental degradation went hand-in-hand, and how the hardest costs were so often borne by the workers and their families. “the thick cloud / of sulfur dioxide…from the copper smelter.” A poem to make you think.

Gil Fagiani wrote “Don Antonio,” about how the travails of labor carry on from generation to generation. “Don Antonio sits on a bench…He talks about working in a fireworks factory.” It is rough work. “Sometimes the ball overheated / and Don Antonio… asked if it was OK / shut shut down the machine / to…cool off…the boss always shook his head no.” And the cost? “workers with their clothes on fire…their skin melted.” The heartbreaking part of this poem isn’t just the cost to him and his coworkers, but that his daughter has gone to work in the same factory, and faces the same unimproved dangers.

Finally, roibeard gives us “Sticks & Stones,” which is a mix of fun and grim. “Friday night, / a skeleton is arrested for quietly protesting.” Seems the skeleton has a social conscience, but knows his rights. “He’s…vigorously exercising his right to remain silent.” Not that it helps. “everyone can identify him.” Using humor to advance the cause is an old-time tactic, of course, but nevertheless doesn’t grow old.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ and at other fine e-retailers.

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New Yorker – Aug 21 17

The first poem in the issue, “Privilege,” by Elly Bookman, seems to discuss white privilege, but indirectly. “Into this sky which has / more airplanes… (I) see half a dozen / small whitenesses passing / like tired stars.” Is the narrator a lifeguard? An observer? We have to hunt for clues. “I watch them instead of…the woman… in an oversized T-shirt that clings / to her body like slime…” There are a number of arresting images like that, giving the poem power. It’s hard not to read this as allegory, with white people being the tired stars, the introduced child with some protections and some distant dangers, and so on. But it is kind of fun to solve the poem as such a puzzle, and there is a depth that rewards close reading: “planes fly / low and heavy…practicing war.”

The other poem is by Bob Hicok, “Origin Story.” It starts, “Metal shavings on the bottom / of his wingtips, my father / would come home in the dark…” A poem about a boy admiring his father, missing his father, doing what he can to make his father’s life a little easier. His father works hard for the family, leaving in the dark in the morning, even. Then there’s a shock of a turn: “My father the vampire. / My father the bank.” Wow. Summing up the boy’s resentments and small selfishness as slick as that. His father evidently worked in the auto industry. The boy’s mixed feelings about that continue through the poem. “…which is how I got addicted to wind…became a bird… who rejected gravity, steel, middle management.” It’s the jostle of images placed one beside the other that create the power and depth of this poem, give us a poignant tweak, and a feeling of sadness mixed with hope for the narrator, by the end.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is a sweet, rueful look at a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, as well as with other fine e-retailers.

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Katie Bickham leads off the poetry in this issue with her “Nice, France, 1890.” “In the night, Josephine dreamed of saints and monsters.” A poem about midwives at work, grounded in specific images, freighted with the import of their duties, in a time different from ours. “St. Gerard’s blessed handkerchief settled on a dying mother’s / belly… the baby came, the mother saved.” But this is not a carefree world, the girls are often in trouble. “She’d…thrown herself from a terrace to crush / the quickening life.”

This is the first of a series of poems here by Bickham about births over the last hundred years, in different cultures. In “Magdeburg, Germany, 1912,” she writes: “The American woman knew that bodies had withstood / the agony for ages…This was a new world for women: a blessing, too…not to be home howling by the hearth.” Now the doctor has ether, and puts her under. “like a child herself, led // into fitful slumber.” And then, “A child born…from the flame of her forgetting.” There is a poem set in Tehran in 1941, during the war, and one set in Los Alamos in 1945 focused on Elizabeth Graves, who is having a baby while working on “The bomb she built.”

The effect of having a series of poems about childbirth, for me, is to honor the act, this most holy moment, in the very earthy reality of it, among all the circumstances of life. They are very powerful poems, taken together, and the images, because they stay so close to the physical, “we cannot outrun our bodies,” give these works a gravitas not found in most poetry. They remind us what matters most, and what the costs are, far too often, of making life in defiance of this world of death.

Joyce Schmid gives us deceptively simple poems, staring with “Slow Motion.” “A breeze is blowing on…sun-flashed hills / splotched…with trees.” The metaphors are almost like sleight-of-hand. Look quick, or you’ll miss how slick they are, how apt. These are poems of transformation in a different way, transformation brought about in tiny increments. “A boy is standing at the water’s edge,” we learn, and he lives out the day, immersed in summer. At the end, “his mother thinks / he is the boy he was, but he is not the same.”

In “The Idle Ants,” too, the changes are subtle and you have to watch quick to see. “Not the ones who clean the colony, / not the ones who go outside… I mean the other ants, / the ones who only stand and sense // the universe.” The world is a large place around us, and through indirection, these poems reveal some of its power and purpose.

Rebecca Macijeski is the final poet here. She starts with “The Long Cold.” “The world remembers how to drink the sun, how to become earth…” Every one of these poets is deeply grounded in the sensual, making sense of the world through the world, not lost in abstractions: “a bear’s monolithic hand hungers through that sweetness.” Such an apt image, once again. But Macijeski does use more facile images, which work in her approach. In “Theories of Light,” she writes, “the light that moves like speech across street signs.” It takes a moment to understand yes, that is actually what we see in when looking at a stop sign. “the firm hum in a streetlight.” This is our world, these poems proclaim, this is what matters, though we may not see it in a casual glance. Pay attention, the poets seem to say, there is much of wonder here, but you have to be awake and aware to see it.

A wonderful magazine, all in all.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.

It seems usual these days for The New Yorker to feature two poems, and so it is here. “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” by Terrance Hayes, certainly has an intriguing title. “The black poet would love to say his century began / With Hughes… but… It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers…winos falling from ship bows.” Okay, I don’t know where this poem is going — which is pretty much required in poems at this level. And then, “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Of course, the previous sentence can already be used as a guide for that. This is not a linear narrative. We skip from thought to thought, from Sylvia Plath to Orpheus. We do get a reference to Orpheus inventing writing, which then becomes a source of confusion between him and his girlfriend. There is no reliance on metaphor here, no epiphany.

So, not finding any easy way into this poem, I go to the Poetry Foundation website, where the poet is quoted as saying, “how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition… communicates meaning? … Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.” Hmm. Perhaps we do better to think of this as a sort of song, where the noises made by the words form a sort of melody. And surely the words are melodic, rhymes and near-rhymes abound. But the rhymes and assonance fades away by the end of the poem. Right around when the confusion between Orpheus and his beloved is laid out. That just somehow seems right. An interesting poem to chew on.

Then Vona Groarke gives us “This Poem,” a list poem, self-referential. “This is the poem that won’t open / no matter where you press.” An intriguing challenge, and a little intimidating. “This is the poem that cries on street corners…” Now, I’m a fan of poems that deliver emotions, so I go through to see how the emotion is developed. “…that plays itself out / in dives…” And the poem is starting to gain a persona, a list of fun attributes that weave a kind of goofy logic, right up to the end. “…with a teensy tattoo.”

I don’t give endings of poems here, I want you to hunt down the original work, but that said, the ending of this one is surprisingly satisfying. The repetition builds us up, then the poet resolves the images with a certain understatement that fits the rest of the stanzas. I love the fun in the poem, a sort of wary humor that just may turn dangerous, but never quite does.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

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I love the poem, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” by Natalie Shapiro, in this issue. “So sorry about the war,” it begins. What a hook. I’m into the work instantly, and swept along. “…wanted to learn how to swear / in another language…” the narrator explains. “the top method…open / fire and listen to what people yell.” What an original, horrifying statement. The next statement then goes in a completely different direction, bringing in a kind of cranky God. The combination of originality and sudden twists of tone and direction make this such a worthy poem. And funny. Not many poems successfully manage humor at this level, but Shapiro does it nicely. She has a third thematic braid as well, people in their homes. Finally, she circles the poem around to reference its beginning. All done in seven stanzas of one to three lines each. Efficient. Very much how one does it at the top level. Brava.

The other poem in the issue is “My Mother, Heidegger, And Derrida,” by John Skoyles. “Educated in a school in Queens…my mother knew little about art.” Then the narrator’s mother sees the painting, ‘The Potato Eaters,’ which reminds her of her own mother. “The shoes resembled my grandmother’s / high-topped boots.” From there the poem becomes sort of a meditation on the mother’s visceral, memory-driven reaction to the shoes in the painting, versus the high-toned, high-minded reactions of Heidegger: “the dark opening of the worn insides…” and Derrida: “what constitutes a pair of shoes.” The great thinkers come out somewhat as fools here, less wise and less well-seeing than a simple woman of the earth. The poem leaves us with a sense of satisfaction and a sense of the worth and wisdom of plain toilers, from generation to generation. Great poem.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.

Michael Meinhoff has a powerful poem in this Plainsongs: “The Hardest Question.” End-of-Life issues for our parents have grown to be quite a rite-of-passage for many, and this poem is a small window into the pain. “The hardest question I ever had to answer,” the poem begins, and its issue is pretty straightforward. The poet delivers the question bluntly. “I couldn’t make out / what she had been asking me up until then… ‘Am I going to die?'” How does one face having to answer that question, when only one answer is true? It is a powerful subject, and the answer, and reaction to that answer, add to the gut-wrenching power of the poem.

“Three-Legged Dog,” by Bill Ayres is also a strong work. “If the first tools were weapons, / The first trade prostitution…The first dance was to mock the cripple.” Sometimes it’s the idea that carries the poem, and so it seems to me here: “When to be human meant to run, / the damaged man who made a cane / was something strange…”  The dog of the title is never referenced directly in the poem, which I also like — the indirection adds the power of understatement. And then, the ending comes sudden and so very sweet.

Candice M. Kelsey offers us “Slender and Starry Eyed,” about a photo of Piegan girls of the Northern Plains by Edward Curtis. “Time / captured you…you’ll / now never escape. But you’re accustomed to that…” The poem is grounded in strong images. “Goldenrod muted by this sepia taskmaster…” and “your braids / are like the pearled moonlight.” But there is a darker edge here: “Each scalp-stalk pretends / to hang perpendicular.” A subtle work.

I like the repetition-with-a-twist approach M. Scott Douglass brings to his poem, “Pacing Yourself.” “You’re doing seventy in a fifty-five / in heavy fog…in Tennessee,” is how the first stanza begins. By the third stanza that becomes, “”You’re doing seventy-five in a fifty-five,” then it climbs to eighty, giving a tension and a pace to the poem that becomes hard to resist. The images are at first in climbing a mountain in a rural region, the crush and tension from the other vehicles, the palpable fear. And when “a weigh station sucks the trucks aside…” the end of the poem comes quickly, in a tangle of images. Very effective.

Sharon E. Svendsen wrote “He Looked So Much Like My Dad,” which is a different response to a poetry reading than I recall ever having. “Tall, bald with a side fringe of hair. / His poem was about the Lord. / I wanted to smash and squeeze and mold his face into place.” The more the narrator works on the poet in her imagination, the more he becomes like her father, and the more she wants him to be her father, to “give him a Sunday crossword puzzle…” At last the poem confronts where her father truly is, an effective and powerful ending.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.