Archive for October, 2011

In the Oct 31 New Yorker, both Brenda Hillman and D. Nurkse have poems that I had to read a few times to get a good handle on.  I only do that if something about the poem interests  me.  Hillman’s poem, “Till It Finishes What It Does,” has just enough intriguing little details, and phrases that don’t at first reading make sense, to make me go back.  “The night nurse had put on // his little frowning socks…” The narrator’s father is in the hospital after an operation, we gather.  But why frowning socks?  What an adjective to put in there.  Maybe she really saw such socks, I don’t know, but it’s not a word I’d ever have conjured for that  situation, and yet it’s perfect.  “When all the visitors // had left the room, // the tiny valve of the pig beat // inside our father’s heart…” Again, an original detail.  But then  she goes a-twisting: “like the spokes of the sun disk, in a hieroglyph…”  and the phrase means nothing to me.  Whatever she’s aiming for, it’s over me.  But then, “above the squiggly river symbol,” well, that’s the machine keeping track of the heartbeat, right?  So now I’m thinking there is sense behind these symbols somewhere, and I’m back exploring. 

Seems like a cheap trick many/most of our current editors are buying (and so our current poets are turning) is to throw meaningless, or at least highly tangential, images into an otherwise staid poem to generate interest, buzz, whatever.  So when I see these real stretches for a metaphor by an author, I get wary.  But I like this poem, and it didn’t fall into that trap.

 A poet I’ve liked since I first read him, D. Nurkse, has a poem here as well: “The Bars.”  About, well, bars.  And beers.  Starts out: “After work I would go to the little bars //along the bright-green river.”  He doesn’t go very long before throwing out a surprise adjective, you’ll notice.  Then, “The Schlitz globe revolved so slowly, // disclosing Africa, Asia, Antarctica,” and we see the guy getting stoned, watching the world twirl by, getting younger drink by drink: “until I was a child, they would not serve me, // they handed me a red hissing balloon…” I did not see that one coming.  “but for spite I let it go…” and we have a beautiful rendering of character here, and surprise images, and a scene we all can relate to, but looked at from a different angle, then a  powerful ending.  Excellent work.  And not a weird, extraneous image in the place.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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The Pre-Hunt

There’s a fading tradition in the Northland here of duck hunting, handed down from the elders on their farms.  Well, the elders don’t own farms anymore, so the kids can’t troop out there to hunt, so now there’s a duck-hunter-vanishing crisis.  State government solution: set up a pre-hunt for kids only, so they can have the experience of hunting without the bother of competing with the elders for ducks.  Kind of thins out the supply of ducks for the rest of the population, though — not, you understand, that the kids harvest them all, but their indiscriminate banging away a week before the regular season opens chases the ducks right out of town, all the way to Iowa, or Arkansas, or wherever ducks go to hide.

Poetry Magazine is doing something similar, with their Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellows, granting fellowships to baby poets, in hopes they will grow up to be major hunter poets, bagging Pulitzers and Nobels by the barrelful.  It remains to be seen whether it only serves to chase all the awards up to Canada.

T. Zachary Cotler is one of these fellows, and his poem, “West Of Silicon Valley,” is a reasonably slick offering.  “And maybe in // the southeast wind, // in broadcast waveform data therein, // microsystem stocks…will // float up until // red numbers cross the black horizon…”  There’s fun in this poem, which beats most poetry right there hands down.  A good enough start — he’ll likely want to work on punching up his endings, however.

Allison Seay is also coming along nicely, I would say.  In her “Town Of Unspeakable Things,” (not, fortunately, another poem about surviving childhood) she’s working on her breath control, on what to leave in and leave  out.  “I used to think to be not alone meant // never having to walk through the high wheat // or struggle in the water.”  She’s coming dangerously close to having her poem be about nothing at all — which might make her more publishable to some, but would be a lot less interesting to me.  But the poem IS about something, about a relationship growing and struggling.  And she is very definitely doing well in learning the power ending. 

There are a couple other poems in the magazine worth mentioning — Todd Boss has a good one, “The World Is In Pencil,”  an amusing musing, as he often does:  “I’ll bet it felt good // in the hand — the o // of the ocean…”  And it’s cool that the o has a couple meanings there.  Multiple meanings are what I read poetry for.  With also a great ending.

And my fav of the issue, Marianne Boruch, “Little Wife,” about seeing an art exhibit in Chicago.  “They redid King Tut splendid,”  and the narrator’s sympathy more for Tut’s wife:  “A few toes, some of the rest, // a bit of ankle, that’s it…”  And such an excellent tone the poet brings forth just at the ending.  Yep.  Definitely worth the read.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson



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Son And Shadow

Great poem in the November Sun – “Last Night I Drove My Son Home,” by Jim Daniels.  As usual with the Sun, it’s a straighforward, clear poem about a relationship, in this case between a father and his fifteen-year-old son.  “He stopped talking two years ago — // to me, I mean.”  A lot of sweet images, a bit of a chuckle here and there.  “My son, the star // of a movie I’ll never see.  I just get // these coming attractions.”  And one of the best double layer endings I’ve read in a while, with just a top-notch understanding of the relationship between fathers and sons.

The other poem in the magazine, “Loving A Woman,” by Ellen Bass, has a great opening.  “I was nineteen and on LSD // the only time God talked to me.”  Lost loves, broken relationships, the testing of drugs, these are meat and potatoes to this magazine, and this poem has it all, with an understated metaphor here and there: “the trees’ green breath // spill into my lungs.”  I like the poem, especially its marvelous, understated ending, which leaves us with so many possibilities to contemplate. 

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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One thing I like very much about the magazine Plainsongs is that the editors each choose one poem to consider their Award poem, and then describe why they selected that poem.  It’s rewarding to learn their thinking in this fashion.

The fall issue (volume XXXII) has some thought-provoking work.  I like especially the poem “Liability” by George Held, an extended metaphor.  “Giving a writing workshop // is like owning a store…”  Kind of an amused tone to the whole thing, very enjoyable. 

“Feeding The Monster,” by Fredrick Zydeck describes the narrator’s rages being a monster that appears in various social situations we all recognize.  “scientific confirmation that //we carry the reptilian state with us always.”  The ending definitely makes this poem worthwhile. 

Lyn Lifshin is here with “The Photographs, The Filmy White Gauzy Curtains,” a description of a kind of low-life love affair the narrator can barely remember now.  “I had no idea // where to keep him and met him // at a motel up the street…”  Again, she turns in a nice upping-the-ante ending that makes the poem worthwhile.

I like “Juggernaut,” by John Cantey Knight, which was also one of the award poems.  I agree with the editor Dwight Marsh that this is a good political poem.  “The November criminals woke from their sleep…”   But I was confused by the line “Say, maybe in 1945, World War I will end again…” since that was actually when World War II ended — didn’t know if that was a mistake, a mis-type or intentional and cryptic, and the confusion kept me from choosing this poem as my fav.

So the poem I will choose as my favorite of the issue is “Bellevue,” by Beth Paulson, a nostalgic look at a home now gone, “broken sidewalks, untended roses, // weedy hills in some backyards….”  Just because it is so easy to see the scene, and the emotion comes strongly through.  And of course, it has an excellent ending.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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One joy in American poetry at the moment is the variety of outlets — Poetry Market claimed 1,800 markets, a year or so ago; that’s a lot of poems with homes.  There’s a sense of maybe a spot for everyone.  Cowboy poems, spoken word, high lit, plainspoken, you can find stuff in pretty much any direction.  I got a rejection from a tony mag today, asking for more dynamic language and surprising imagery.  A reasonable request for a certain style of magazine to make — they are aiming for the twist, the utter surprise, the rapturously new.  (I haven’t reviewed my poems yet to hunt the source of their concern).  But magazines that emphasize the new so heavily often underemphasize the emotive aspect; the deep resonances; cuz archetypes are not, by their nature, new.  Which isn’t to say they can’t be turned on their heads!  So it’s nice there’s a variedad.

Some very good poems found homes in the current Avocet, which is more on the plain language, emotive end of the scale, I would say.  “Earthen Hands,” by Steve Ausherman has some startling language.  “The morning…feels barefoot and sun burnt…It is a place to cut off your hair with a rusting knife // And start all over again.”  With that powerful ending we love to see.

“Econ Epiphany,” by Jerome L. McElroy is enjoyabubble – “I pry my way inside her eyes // and trace her halting footprints.”

“Flea On A Towel,” by Lenny Emmanuel has a fun slant view of life as a flea.  “No doubt he would welcome // another flea, even for a moment // to communicate his predicament, // privately, a sort of flea to flea.”  Love those internal rhymes.  And this poem keeps getting deeper and throwing off extra meanings, until it ends as quite a powerful poem indeed.

But I think I will rank it as a tie for my favorite of the issue, with “The Nurse,” by Bill Freedman.  “the sky is jittery with swabs of cotton…the kind field medics use // to soak up blood.” Which poem has such a unique narrative voice and point of view (kind of a crabby one) that draws me in to the poem, then quietly releases me at the end.

Such a joy is 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:

The New Yorker – July 23, 18

The New Yorker – July 2, 2018

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018


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Noble Nobel

The Tomas Transtromer poem in the latest New Yorker, “The House Of Headache,” is my favorite of the poems of his that I’ve read.  Not that I’ve been exhaustive about it.  Don’t know if that reaction is the halo effect, because he just won the Nobel, or because I’m reading more closely for the blog, or because I’m more simpatico with this translator.  At any rate, I found this poem fun.  “I woke up inside the headache.  The headache is a room where I have to stay // as I cannot afford to pay rent anywhere else.”  Sort of a loopy metaphor of headache as home.  Very appropriate, somehow.  We do live in our headaches.  And he happily keeps growing the image.  Then a last pop  sideways, which ending still resonates with the metaphor. 

I bow in honor of translators; such a difficult task, and so rarely noted.  This one was done by John Matthias and Lars-Hakan Svensson.  I wonder if any of these guys are from the ancestral home — 4th cousins, or whatever.  Our family is from a suburb of Stockholm, I think I heard once, but I forget the town’s name.  Best city name in the world is Uppsala, let’s face it, but I’m pretty sure we’re not from there.  Not directly, at any rate.

Anyway, there’s a second poem in the issue, “Burrowing Owl,” by Sidney Wade.  Here the description of the actions of the bird are understated, and very interesting.  “…then, owl-wise, decides // to clean house.  // He dives down //and soon //great clouds // of smudge come // flying out.”

Just great word selection.  Note the brilliancy of that ‘smudge.’  Not dust, or dirt, but something which intensifies the picture in our head.  The poet has several of these sparkling moments in the poem.  An excellent effort, all around.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson




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Haiku Beauty

I was thinking on how a few different styles of haiku show up in the big magazines over and over.  One typical riff is just a simple image of a natural scene, but rendered in a surprising, original way; calling our attention to something small we might not have paid attention to, giving it a greater weight.  Kind of a ‘huh’ moment.  The specific language often plays a strong part in selling such a haiku.  For instance, in the autumn 2011 Modern Haiku, Ann Schwader has such a work: “a flicker’s opinion fills the air.”  the word opinion, assigned to a bird, gives this haiku interest.  Often, the second, apposite image in such a poem is a simple background image, very often using some of the standard phrases that have batted around haiku for hundreds of years.  Autumn wind is a biggie (not the one she uses in this case, however.  Look it up yourself!) but there are hundreds of such scene-setting  phrases.

One can be surprised, however, thinking a haiku to be straightforward in this manner, only to get a subtle twist, a second phrase that, while it seems stock, goes the extra mile.  Adelaide Shaw starts the issue off with this sort of twist haiku, starting with the phrase:  “black Angus // milling around in their pen…”  An image we’ve seen countless times, outside the city.  But then with the second image, in her case, a subtle threat emerges; a danger related to cattle that adds an uncertainty, a complexity, a bit of troublesome fun.  No, I’m not giving you the line, that would be to give the whole haiku , and I would prefer you look it up in the magazine yourself.

Anthropomorphizing animals is a regular trick; usually with senryu.  Barry George has a good one here: “the cat takes it under advisement.”  Being of course exactly how cats treat so many of our exhortations and pleadings.

Phrases with multiple meanings — puns — lend quite a bit of zazz: “the old queen // still playing it straight” in a poem by Audrey Olberg.  Lots of pleasure to be found in such work. 

But when multiple meanings move off in multiple directions, we may experience the true power of a great haiku, as in Clare McCotter’s:  “a face // I thought // was hers” where the two images can add a profundity, add harmonics to each other, give us that shiver which makes reading haiku worth all the effort.

Peace in poetry,


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