Archive for September, 2011

Couple poems in the latest New Yorker — “Of An Age,” by Carol Moldaw, a stripped down examination of the benefits (and at least one drawback) to aging.  “Less sleep but fewer tears,” it starts out, and I’m willing to buy that, for some folks anyway.  “Chocolate-glazed // bacon,  the idea of it, too strange.”  (Never cared for the stuff, myself).  Each of the three stanzas tries out an unusual image: “The fleet beauty of words // no longer cased unsaid…” for instance.  She also has a conventional xAxa xBxB rhyme scheme, but with a pile of near rhymes slipped in the middle here and there, which gives the whole a melodious sense.  Don’t recall encountering her work before; it’ll be interesting to see what she does next.

And a longer, more complex poem, “Gender Bender,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht.  Doing a good-girl bad girl riff: “Good girls drink milk // and make milk and know they’ve missed out..”  “Bad ones write books and slash paint on canvas…”  The entertainment of a poem like this is the little shocks of recognition going through it — yes, I know that person.  Or, Gosh, who would want to be like that?  And so on.  Men don’t come across so well, I’ll warn you now.  With a powerful ending, and reasonably provocative arguments.

Peace in poetry,



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Fresh Rhinoceri

I have a theory.  Editors see SO many similar poems, over and over, that they get desperate, crazed, for something fresh and original.  This overwhelms them to the point that they don’t really even care if a poem is good, just so it’s something they’ve never seen before.  In fact, to have never seen it before means, ipso facto, it IS good.  This would explain much in current American poetry.  And I’m not sure it isn’t a good little yardstick after all. 

So how do poets keep it fresh?  Well, the best seem to do it again and again throughout a poem.

John Kinsella has a poem in the current New Yorker, “Durer’s Rhinoceros,” that stays fresh all the way through by taking phrases/ideas we would not normally associate with a rhino and showing how they apply:  “limbs of what _we_ imagine // as Sanskrit, resilient exotica, impenetrable with fear.”  And “its second // skin armor on armor, body sculpted, riveted // with bones and cartilage…”  Taking the metaphor of riveting armor, and then applying it surprisingly and aptly to the internal building blocks of the animal.  That impenetrable with fear seems less apt — implying maybe that the rhino is scared, not my instinctual perception of the beast.  But still, we didn’t expect it.  The whole poem is chock-a-block with such twists, tied together with the larger metaphor of the creature as engineering marvel.

Rae Armentrout , with “Arrivals,” creates her surprise largely by simply dispensing with sense.  This is not a poem that reads in a linear fashion.  “Sign in the airport: // It’s not how much // Cloud, // but what kind.”  Meaningless, but unexpected.  “We don’t play requests, // but we don’t play bagpipes, // either.”  I guess this is a poem about the random input we get out in public; a theme guaranteed to create surprise.  Not that delivering interesting random input is an easy task for the poet.  An approach that works for her.

Finally, Kay Ryan, on a streak through the top magazines of late, writing her thin, vertical powerhouses, delivers “Tree Heart/True Heart.”  Her surprises often take a common bit of knowledge and turn it inside-out.  “The hearts of trees…aren’t really // what we mean // by hearts…willing to thin and // stretch around some // upstart green.”

Taking the image of a heart and stretching it around some upstart green.  Wow.  What a way to look at what a tree does.  Then she turns it personal, of course, being a master at turning on a dime at the end of a poem to a sudden revelation.

Cool stuff to think about.

Peace and poetry,



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Dense With Spence

Spencer Reese starts out the new Poetry Magazine with a long poem, “The Road To Emmaus,” that I enjoyed very much.  It was clear and beautiful, though why he was unburdening himself to the nun, Sister Ann, never really came clear, and we never learn exactly how his friend/sponsor died.  But maybe that’s part of the point of the poem, these sorts of details don’t really matter.  Such a touching summing up of a life.  “All about us, a stillness began to displace the light // and Durell was there…”  It’s not a poem of flashy language, though the occasional image can be achingly right — “The Charles advanced, determined as a hearse…”  One of the relatively rare longer poems I think is worth the read.  And the re-read.

Kay Ryan has a couple of poems in here as well, Blast, which has some confusing moments but a great ending, and Pinhole, which is a golden beam of a poem: “we // can’t imagine // how bright // more of it // could be…”  One of the few poets out there stretching for wisdom, sometimes it seems (or maybe I should say one of the few seemingly in touch with some wisdom – many more may be streching for, and not finding, I grant you). 

D.A. Powell has a marvelous, sexy poem about a young love; great language.  “I who was banished to the barren // could come back into his fold…”

Bryan D. Dietrich gives us “Masks”: “Women wear them in order // to bare everything else.  Men wear them // in order to watch.”  I like poems with phrases in them that can have more than one meaning… 

And Melanie Braverman has a few prose-poems here, my favorite being “I came upon the gnawed torso of a seal.”  “‘It’s dead,’ I told their father as he ambled behind them…” but the others are definitely worth reading as well.

I won’t pick out one of these poems as best, so many are strong in different ways, but I will give a special shout-out to Spencer Reece for maintaining the quality through such a long work.  Not many do.

Peace in poetry,


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For $13

I bought me the current Harvard Review, since I hadn’t seen one before, and started digging through the poems, looking for material for this blog.  Whewie. So I’ve spent maybe the last two hours thinking what to say about this magazine.  It’s Complicated as a phrase is already taken, I guess.  How about I just list the poems I liked best.  First among those is Sean Bishop’s “Terms Of Service.”  Reminds me of W.H. Auden’s The Unknown Citizen, though it’s quite different, of course.  “The Signed agrees to breath…to drink.  To eat at predictable intervals.”  Its quite a fun little poem, honestly.  “The Signed shall keep his firearms in a discreet location.”  And “…should his service be tampered with or otherwise interrupted // by means including but not limited to ‘mugging…'”  Boy, humor is a great power in a poem.

And I like Sara Michas-Martin’s “Please Do Not Touch,” a thoughtful meditation on touching.  “the hands on the clock // fan out and briefly form an L // for license, for liaise, for lost // and ludicrous, for light passing through // the slats of the backyard fence…”

William Virgil Davis’ pantoum “An Old Story,” is clever — few pantoums I’ve ever read really work all the way through; this one does much better than most.

And Malachi Black turns in another more-than-solid performance with his “A Memo To The Self-Possessed.”  “Even heady Archimedes // was dissevered // by the seared blade of a siege…”  I love the way he works the language around the classical references, and makes it all chewy and tasty.

So, worth the candle, anyway.

Peas in poetry,



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Braiding Meaning

Translation is among the more thankless arts.   If the poem reads well, doubtless it’s the beauty of the original author.  If it reads poorly, it’s surely the thickheadedness of the translator.  Now that we agree on this, may I say that the poem “Shadows,” by Bohuslav Reynek in the current New Yorker is one of the more moving translations I’ve read recently.  Justin Quinn is the translator, and the parts that seem obviously his: “Darkness rich with gleam.”  “Darkness. A lamp in it,” have a sense and a sound that stirs deep.  And the original images, apprehensible like the shape of clouds seen faintly and high above a fog, amaze: “Cobwebs wound round the empty swallows’ nests.”  A delightful poem, and beautifully rhymed.

But I was going to talk about braiding multiple poems/themes/ideas into a single non-linear work.  Evidently, this is not an unusual academic exercise, and of course it parallels playing multiple keys at the same time in a song.  When it works, it can be clever indeed.  When it fails, listening to cats caterwauling would be  preferable.  Which brings us to Jorie Graham’s “Lull” in the same mag.  She begins with the image of a fox at the edge of a forest, who as we go along serves as a sort of Greek chorus, with many repetitions of “fox says.”  A bit later she braids in “My father is dying of age, good, that is usual.”  A pretty shocking line.  She does salt the poem with interesting images:  “Facts lick their tongue deep // into my ear.”  (The disagreement of single/plural is hers, not mine).  She braids in the notion of the narrator’s valley/the Garden of Eden, and yet another braid, “we are curled // on the hook we placed….” focused on a fishing metaphor.  Then she weaves away to the end.  An awful lot of work, with much potential for annoying the poor confused reader.  So, does she get away with it? 

I have a good friend who loves to say: “This is the kind of thing you’d really like if you like this kind of thing.”  My issues with the poem center around nigglies like the word ‘good’ in the quote above.  Your father dying is good?  Good because it’s usual?  Pretty hard-hearted.  Not going to make me like you as a person with such an attitude, and if I don’t like you, why would I want to read your work?  (while always remembering the narrator of the poem is not the author).  Also, there are words and phrases seemingly strewn randomly: “…milliseconds leaves the now inaudible // birds…” I fail to see what ‘milliseconds’ does for this poem.  There are any number of grammatical imperfections; which actually don’t bother me much, though again I don’t necessarily see the point.  But this is all nitpicking, when something deeper seems to be going on.

So let’s go back and see what the narrator is so frantically pointing away from.  What emerges is the braid where her father is dying.  Where “visiting hour is up.”  We can imagine she and her father sitting, looking over a small valley, when a fox appears.  The two discuss people they know, and she thinks about how dying is a form of “breaking into the Garden.” She thinks of practical issues in her life.  The hook — her grief, maybe, death drawing him away, maybe — takes on a poignancy.  The fox seems to mean nothing to her, no great heaven, no god, just this sad moment.

And now we’ve found the power of the poem.




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Lambs Enjambing

A more obscure (to me) and growing enjoyment with poems is to examine how poets handle enjambment.  Not so much for me in how they continue an idea from line to line, but in how a single line of a poem can isolate a part of an idea, make it almost into something else entirely that still references the major idea it is part of.  Sounds tricky, I know.  A good example is Kay Ryan’s poem, “Polish And Balm,” which starts:  “Dust develops // from inside // as well as // on top when //objects stop // being used.”  Reading just each line alone, we get the pause after dust develops to consider that in isolation.  Dust develops, well, that’s true.  In our world?  As a necessary part of life?  Then fold in the next line — “from inside” — and suddenly it’s a commentary on our souls, on our failures.  Way cool.  I leave it to you to keep reflecting on the added meanings as the lines pile on.  Then when you get to the end of the poem (go find it, it’s in her The Best Of It book), and see how she twists all those meanings around into an amazing braid, you think the woman deserves a Nobel.  If you’re me you do, anyway.

In the latest New Yorker, Linda Pastan has a poem “Edward Hopper, Untitled” which handles enjambment a bit differently.  It starts, “An empty theatre: seats // shrouded in white // like rows of headstones;”   In this, rather than the twists of meaning, the cutting off of the lines early seems to me to add to the emptiness, the bleakness of the Hopper painting expressed by the poem.  The lines are lonely, cut off from each other.   And she does have some powerful lines.  “…cliche of loneliness // transformed by brushstroke // into something part paint, // part desperation.”

Robert Pinsky, in “Sayings Of The Old,” on the other hand, has longer lines, in unrhymed tercets (three-line stanzas) that give more of a sense of patience, wisdom reflected on: “The Ibo say, An old man sitting down // can see more things than a young man standing up.”  He wants more of the thought contemplated at once, maybe.  Though I don’t want to be the object of his line a bit later(!):  “One hates the sanctimonious Buddha-goo”

Dennis O’Driscoll, in “The Sunday Game” kind of falls halfway in between these with his six-line stanzas, every other line indented: “How alive, how excitable // they were back then, // when they congregated // in the neighbor’s kitchen…”  Kind of like a typewriter from back in the day typing to here, then zooming back to keep typing there, then zooming back… it keeps the poem alive and dynamic, bouncing from place to place.  Which poem has a neat, understated ending as well, by the way, with a great deal of the punch coming exactly from the enjambed isolation of the last line.

Peace all of a piece to you.

Thank you on this Remembrance Day to the firefighters, police and soldiers throughout the world who sacrifice so much to take care of us all.


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Thruppence a Mag

One of the really cool things about getting a heavyweight magazine like The Threepenny Review in the mail, and seeing the names Dean Young and Kay Ryan in the Table of Contents, is reading the less familiar poets contained therein.  I can’t be the only one out here who has noticed that for a lesser luminary to crack a joint publishing David Wagoner and Anne Carson (see, it really is a heavyweight issue this time!) their poem mostly has to be spectacular.  To get noticed amongst all those Pulitzer stars shining in the in-box, you gotta supernova it. 

Which is not to say the big dogs didn’t bring it this time.  I loved “First Flight,” by David Wagoner.  “You raise the thin bones // of what seem to be wings” it starts out, and goes all incantatory on us, just a delightful, deep display of poetry.  “and you remember // where you were, where you were going to be…”

Anne Carson works some interesting ground with her “O Hap.”  “Used to be warfare, you’d win you’d //wholesale massacre everybody enslave the // women and children, you wanted plunder // you’d take it you’d leave.”  Isn’t that a great voice?  I like it, anyway. 

Speaking of voice, check out the humorous tone of Dean Young’s “Brutal Filament Inside Aglow.”  “He was sort of famous or at least // in a sort of famous band…” and “I’d…look down in my cart and there’s nothing // but some rundown kohlrabi. // Don’t say a thing, I’d say to the kohlrabi.”  All in a poem that actually has a very weighty center, which gives the whole work a nice tension.  A powerful voice can not only carry a poem, it can carry a career.

Still, Luke Johnson hangs right in there with his own offering, “Late Quartets.”  “At home, the deaf boy must spend his days // with a piano he does not play.”  A beautiful, slowly unfolding revelation of a poem.  And Brenna W. Lemieux delivers an engaging poem, “Two Purple Sponges.”  “In the grace-note // of their growth, he’s consumed, has no idea // when they’ll stop…”  She examines how the boy of the poem grows over time himself, keeping hold of a hope…

But the home run piece for me was Victoria Chang’s “The boss called me at home the boss could call me anytime the boss” which is a great title with its multiple readings in and of itself, of course, but then where the poem twists off to is heart-wrenching, and resonant, and all the things a poem should be.  Victoria’s had a lot of success so far in her career, and this poem gives witness to why.

So I’ve had a good night reading this mag so far, and I haven’t even gotten to all the articles Wendy Lesser’s drawn together with poetry subjects as well!

Check it out.

Peace in poetry,


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