Archive for August, 2011

The Broom Room

Latest Asimov’s came in, and sure enough, Bruce Boston did a third in his cycle of music poems, this one being “The Music of Werewolves,” a poem “rich in claw and fang and drool…”  Good, fun lines in there.  “as each incarnation transpires.”   He seems to have a good little riff going.  I probably like his “Extended Family,” even a bit better.  It’s a review of where the various family members have got themselves off to:  “Your daughter joins // a gravfree artist colony…”  I admire the old-shoe comfortableness of that made up word, gravfree. 

Ruth Berman has a couple poems as well, and as always, puts her slant, amuzing view of the universe on display.  “Being One With Your Broom,” posits the different approaches one may take in riding — “if your broom // is sprouting into animal sense // and needs its twigs // facelike // forward…” a very difficult concept to get across, if you think about it, but handled with ease.  And her “Vampire Politics,” goes all the way to satire, and gets my vote as the best poem of the issue.  “And are accordingly opposed // To increases on the income tax”

But I don’t want to slight poor Geoffrey A. Landis, nor his poem, “Galileo’s Ink Spots Fade Into Twilight.”  “Monks and madmen announce the day is near…” a regular sonnet.  Don’t know if I’m the only one out here who likes to take a rhyming poem and go back over the rhymes, see how they fit, see how the poet might have been thinking about the words, constructing the phrases sort of backwards if you will, or which might have been the spur that got the whole thing going, the ones that came in the middle of the night and the rest of the poem just has to be recarved to make those phrases fit.  So I ask you, of which type would be his phrase, “Pressure oscillations in the core” ?

Just a thought for the night.





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In came the new Poetry Magazine today, and I grabbed it with glee.  Oh joy, oh plethora, too much for one evening, but I found a few poems already worth noting.  Peter Gizzi’s “Apocrypha,” first out of the chute: it swoops, it dives, it pulls up short on the line of a sudden.  Written as a list, or a Last Will and Testament, in piling images.  The first item is instructive: “1.  To poetry, I leave my senses, my deregulation, custodial duties, // and to be a janitor is a great consolation.”  An ear for the surprising sound, a feel for the step down.  It has some interesting resonances with Matthew Dickman’s “Getting it Right,” (in this week’s New Yorker; reviewed here yesterday).  Both poems surprise you with where the line ends up; both have a flair for words; both make you want to read the poem again.

Then, let me mention Dan Howell’s “Piano.”  A tightly constructed gem of a poem, haiku-like in simplicity and depth.  “Her wattled fingers can’t // stroke the keys with much // grace or assurance anymore…”  A throwback to days when a poem had to have multiple meanings and leave you with the hair stirring on the back of your neck, to be considered great. 

And the third poem I’ll mention is the one I interrupted Sandy from watching her show to hear, and a long one, so I was gonna owe big if the poem didn’t deliver like I thought (it did): “Anatomy Of Melancholy,” by Robert Wrigley.  Pedants might polemicize this is more essay than poem; I’d utterly disagree, just on the power of the language.  One would look in vain here for the twisty metaphors and high-falutin’ sugar of the show-off poets.  But oh my oh me, if you’re going to be selected poem of the month despite the great contenders in this issue, you’re gonna have to go some, and Wrigley surely does.  “…would remind him of that same most hated father // and plunge him therefore into a mood // he could not promise he would, he said, ‘behave //appropriately within.’ ”  Long, winding sentences that could not be a nickel shorter, that bring out the characters in a breathtaking way, that give you that world.  Notice the ‘he said’ right in the middle there, how it delays and prepares us for the cool twisty phrase immediately after that brings out the difficulties the character has in his life, the defense he builds up by using language, the violence coiled inside.  We know this man, and though we might never want to be around him, he has a dignity, he is a man reaching for some greater self, some worth, in language if nowhere else.  Not many poets get a character like that to emerge from their work.  Let us be thankful when they do.

Peace in poetry,



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In celebration of Philip Levine’s election as Poet Laureate, no doubt, The New Yorker this week has his poem, “Black Wine.”  Makes you wonder if they stockpile all the greats and near-greats and gonna-be-greats to pull out at moments like this.  “Levine, you say?  Why, yes, yes, we just happen to have here…” 

It’s good to be king.  ;->

Anyway, it is a poem worthy of The New Yorker, all hail and bow.  “An Andalusian with a voice of stone raked over corrugated tin.”  Think of it.  You or I might say ‘he had a voice like stone’ and leave it at that.  But Mr. Levine adds that fillip at the end, and suddenly we can HEAR the voice, the gravel, the toughness.  Now that’s writing.  Then, later.  “…my utterances drab, my lies // formulary and unimaginative.”  Hm.  Why not formulaic?  So it’s off to the dictionary, and formulaic is the adjectival of formula, yes, but formulary is a statement expressed in formulas.  A collection of formulas.  A listing of pharmaceutical substances and uses.  Well, I’ll be.  I can see the seductiveness of such a word, almost but not quite the word we all know, with its own little scents and intents… yet in the poem, he has just sworn off all that pharmaceutical stuff.  Or near enough.  So I don’t know that it says exactly what…  Eh.  I’m picking.  Guess I’ll just be glad I got a new word out of it, and declare I enjoyed the stuffing out of the poem.

But the New Yorker does not mean just one poem, it means at least two (just two this time, alas) by the top boppers in the poetry scene.  And the poem twain would be “Getting It Right,” by Matthew Dickman.  A long love poem, building image on image as we go up the body, ending with a decidedly mundane twist, though more satisfying than that sounds.  Bill Truesdale, the editor at New Rivers Press for many years, once told my wife Sandy and I over lunch that the hardest task for any poet was to write a good love poem.  So many have been written over the centuries that finding original images, an original way of approaching the theme, is almost impossible.  Well, maybe.  In this poem, some images are a bit of a stretch, for me: “pulled down again like someone being pulled into a van.  // Your thighs are two boats burned out // of redwood trees.”  And some work pretty well.  “Your ass is a string quartet.”  But overall, parts might be somewhat underworked:  “Your back is the back of a river full of fish.”  I’d like to see that first back removed.  “Yours is the back…” maybe?  I don’t know, I’m not the guy in the magazine.  Anyway, I like the poem best when it’s almost from the point of view of a puppy “sexier than a saucer with warm milk…”  And I like its irreverent attitude.  A fun poem, and a pleasure to read.

Peace in poetry,



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Quick notes about a poem in the latest Ploughshares, Fortune telling, by Jane Shore.  A pleasant poem, with enough humor to keep me reading.  “A famous writer once showed me the fortune in his wallet— // You must curb your lust for revenge— // slapped over his dead mother’s face…”  Almost more a meditation than a poem.  Don’t know that I really care about the distinction — that’s for bar arguments after way too many beers.  And I don’t drink so much anymore.  Maybe I never did! 

Gail Mazur also has a poem in this issue, “Late Summer.”  Sort of a piling-on-of-images poem, with a conclusion at the end.  “Wild mint at our door, honeysuckle, // fragrant August wind shifting, // dying — nectar, salt, all one breath.”   I like the images. 

But while I grant you both these poems have a nice summation at the end, and both show cleanness in their writing, I am left a little empty by both.  Why did you write this, I want to ask the authors.  What moved you?  It doesn’t really come clear in the poems, for me.  Good work, yes, but something one of the best magazines in the country should be featuring? 

Again, I am missing the power, and have this suckling suspicion the problem is with me.  Not the last time that’ll happen, I’m betting.

Progress through poetry to new paradigms!  Or something like that.




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As a reward to myself for placing a poem with the North American Review today, I picked up the special Fiction 2011 issue of the Atlantic, as it had poems as well as fiction, and I must say I feel like I hit a sweet spot.  Every poem in the magazine was good.  How often does that happen?  First, Peter Swanson’s Twin Bill on Hitchcock movies, “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “The Birds,” are both very readable.  “My mind should feel too full, a sticky nest // of spiderlings all struggling to live.”  Boy, have I felt that way.  Both are also worth reading for their endings, excellent summations, neither of which I’ll give away here. 

Maxine Kumin’s tercet-raddled “Elegy Beginning With Half A Line From Ben Johnson,” is also consumately excellent.  “…my old college roommate dead of cancer // keeps walking into my midnights…”  A sad, beautiful poem, with a heroic last couplet that absolutely makes it worth kicking out the 7 bucks to buy the mag.  Brava!

Ted Genoways’ “Paper Wasps” invokes exactly the same feeling I had a couple weeks ago when wasps decided to build a nest outside our front door.  (I may have been quicker to grab the Raid than he — still guilty for laying out the poison rather than just hitting the nest with a stick at midnight, which I have successfully done in the past.  It’s a willies thing; one doesn’t act perfectly when nervous, I guess).  Nice use of subtle internal and external (?) rhymes, too.

Then on one page we get 3 New England poets, all solid.  Sydney Lea’s “Peaceable Kingdom” has a great ending, Donald Hall is solid as always with “Blue Snow” “…And keep the handy knotholes through //Which swallows flew.”  But the one which struck me the most poignant of the three, the most moving, was Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Hog-Nosed Skunk.”  A description of same, very sweet but not saccharine.  See?  Just a wealth of poems this time. 

I won’t give a favorite of the issue, because of the depth of quality, but the poem I reread the most was “Immortal,” by Henri Cole.  “With the press of a button, // she appears out // of darkness…” which starts with a relatively prosaic description that gives a solid base, then moves to the larger context smoothly, with a strong-punch summary finish that, like a good painting directing the eye,  immediately has me go back and start the re-reading process again.

Definitely a magazine worth checking out.

Peace in poetry,


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Rooty Toot Tin House

Maybe the most interesting thing about the latest Tin House for me was the conjunction of Ben Okri’s interview and poetry.   Talking about being homeless in London, then reading his poem “Migrations.” “such pain // that pushes us from the warren // of cruel histories…”  I like that line.  Then his next poem, “More Fishes than Stars,” as maybe an example of his meditating on form.  “I’m simple as a melody in C.”  Again, I appreciate the little hint of knowledge under that, C being the most straightfoward of musical keys (bland, even?), without the moving flairs of G or the tasty twists of E flat.  It’s always interesting to see how interview relates to result.

Billy Collins does another little metapoem here, “A Word About Transitions.”  I just think so much of his poetry is downright fun.  He’s a man who tells slant.  I’m about half-convinced he wrote the whole thing to get the word “Aforementioned” into a poem.  We all have our little successes in life.

Finally, I think the best-poem-of-the-issue award is a split this time between Matthew Zapruder’s “Poem For Wine,” “though I love that not // feeling feeling” (notice what happens if you drop the enjambment and meditate on the line as itself…) and Joseph Millar’s “Shirt.”  “The shirt hung on a shovel near Big Sur // smelling of almonds and sulfur // where I sat on the grass reading …” which just has a lot of nice feel to it.  And he has the phrase, “the last day of ’08.”  I hope he’ll read it as “aught eight.”  Consider, we are the first generation in quite a while that’s going to be able to use the phrase “way back in aught eight,” with that old-fart quaver in our voice, and be serious about it.  Something in common with the grandfolks.  Dig it.

A life is good, people, that has poetry in it.

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.

Related blog posts:

Rattle Magazine – Fall 17

Blue Collar Review – Spring 17

The New Yorker – Aug 21 17


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Gog and Agog

Gonna back up a couple weeks here, and talk about a New Yorker I missed until now, which contained two intriguing poems.  First Kay Ryan’s, “On the Nature Of Understanding,” ranks right up there with her best for me.  She has created what I think of as a new form of poetry, analogous to the sonnet.  Short lines, and near-rhymes that interleaf, and often (mostly) do not correspond to line endings, with few lines overall.  Not as many rules as a sonnet, not as easy to define, but actually a form easy to adapt to one’s own nefarious purposes.  I have written several poems in this style, as has Todd Boss (caveat: who did not claim her as an influence years ago when I spoke with him) and “others” (can’t recall them to mind at the moment.  You know who you are).  For Kay, these poems have a simple lexicon, short punchy sentences, and usually a twist at the end (see her “Dogleg”).  As with the best haiku, this very abbreviation creates the power and depth.  This current poem could be about politicos not fathoming each other, a romance, or taming a beast — the surface meaning — “Say you hoped to // tame something // wild…”  My wife understood it immediately to concern old age, which fits with the lines, “sensing changes // in your hair and // nails…”  Kay’s enjambments are cool, too, giving us a different way of looking at phrases we might ignore in longer lines.  Just an excellent poem, more evidence she may be our best poet at the moment.

Haven’t really dug on Daljit Nagra’s work before “A Black History Of The English-Speaking Peoples,” but I very much like this, as a puzzle to deconstruct.  It’s a linear poem, sort of, meaning we know what’s going on, but many phrases have obscure contexts, at least for me — mysteries begging to be solved.  The narrator attends a play at the Globe Theater.  So, does the line “this king at the Globe…whose suffering ends him agog at the stars.” refer to Richard II?  Richard III?  Henry V?  It’s off to Google to see if that phrase relates to any of Shakespeare’s dialogue — nothing comes up immediately.  I’m holding out for Richard II, as fitting the theme of this poem the best.  Anyway, it has all these fun historical references to ponder.  The poem is in five sections, as in the five acts of a Shakespearean play.  But the juice of the poem comes for me, from its considering the black perspective.  Yes, he is British, so this is HIS tradition.  Yes, there is a history of difficulties between black and white, with results/consequences visible today: “the upbeat lovers who gaze //…at multinationals lying along the sanitized Thames.”  Such a wonderful line, evoking corporations, the homeless, the many flavors of humanity all intermingled and swirled together, and just so, these struggles, triumphs and failures reflect all of us now (Kipling reference impolitically intended ;->).  An important poem, and one with delightfully savory language as well.

Peace in poetry,


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