Archive for November, 2011

Whoa Back Blow Back

Another Sharon Olds New Yorker poem this week, “Still Falling For Her,” and for me by far and away her best poem I’ve ever read.  I’m pretty much stunned that the New Yorker accepted such a straight poem, a paean to the memory of the narrator’s mother, no irony, no arch language, no replacing this word with some random image to show off how impressive our vocab is, just a rockin’, straight, blow-you-out-the-water good poem.  She starts with a beautiful image “The phlox in the jar is softening,” guaranteed to draw in the reader, subtle, beautifully chosen, easy to imagine (and phlox have such a wonderful scent, btw).  “keeping its prettiness // in its old-fangled gentleness.”  And that line about the blossom, while referencing her mother, also could be about the poem itself, and surely it is — she has chosen just such an old-fangled style of poem to honor her mother, who comes through so clearly.  Such a detailing of character in a poem seems to me one of the most important tasks of poetry, and sorely neglected these days.  Several lines of the poem almost seem to reference the poet herself as much as her mother: “anything // she needed to do to get the music // to its hearers intact as itself…” And the poem talks of mother and daughter orbiting; so many depths to this poem, such a rare gift to see that happen ever anymore these days.  Go read it, people!

And after all that blathering, now I have to talk about poor Maureen N. McLane, who also had a poem in the mag this week, and I don’t want to undersell it.  Didn’t blow me away as much, but “Ice People, Sun People” also brought me back to re-read it a few times.   I like the subtle half rhymes, near rhymes, hidden rhymes in each stanza, and the rhyming couplet at the end.  Something like a squeezed sonnet, we could say.  “My shadowed shade // my intemperate glade my big fat thrum.”  Definitely a poem to read aloud.  The idea being our climate affects who we are as people.  (Could be a riff on my poem, “Eddas,”  about Northerners versus Southerners, published in Avocet last year… or not.   ;->  )   Anyway, I like the theme, you can imagine.  Brava to both poets!

A peace of poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The Fall, 2011 North American Review has some interesting poems, challenging us a bit.  I very much enjoyed Claudia Burbank’s “Island Of the Deaf,” with all its sound references: “to enter white immensity, to leave // all pen-scratch, floor-creak…”  This isn’t just a list of sounds the deaf forego, however, it folds its images over once more as it works through the poem: “the cows mouthing light…”  This sort of taking an image the extra step, out of an easy visual into a synesthesia is a hallmark of current poetry; can’t say that I am a master of doing it myself, but in poems like this wonderful things can happen, and do.

Stacia M. Fleegal, in “Karma,” also mixes metaphors a bit, with interesting results: “The flower store sells     reincarnations.”  And “Find the smell of yourself, he says. // Puzzled, I sidestep the baby’s breath…”  The poem ends with a sudden meta-fiction (metapoetry?) flip to a different perspective, most satisfying.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, in “Indigo,” has a great ending, and Brandon Krieg, in “Preserve,” has fun with the prints of an animal in snow: “cleft hoofprints, frail blue. // Deer or devil, this creature walks ungingerly…”  I also very much enjoyed David Wagoner’s “Going Onstage,” with its “having rehearsed your part and memorized the language the others will expect to hear.”  He plays with expectations versus realities in an intriguing way, within the frame of a stage play.

But my fav poem of the mag this time is Lilly Deng’s “Packing Grapefruit.”  Just such clean descriptions of a time the narrator spends with her father.  “I learned // tambourine by tapping my palms // against citric peels for a _thump._”  Not overloaded with metaphors, but not needing them.  A very touching poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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Recovering New York

The first poem in the New Yorker today was “Convalescing,” by Jack Gilbert.  A short, but complex little poem — “I spend the days deciding // on a commemorative poem. // Not, luckily, an epitaph.”  Luckily why, I wonder.  Meaning an epitaph for himself, so he’s lucky to be alive?  Or someone else in his life, who he feels is lucky in some way?  Kind of an interesting little question Gilbert raises.  And then he goes on intriguing us.  As above, when each sentence of the poem unwinds, it tangentially follows from the line before it, but unlike the work of many abstract poets of the day, each also follows the main idea, a riff on commemoration — so processions and  victories appear and are dealt with, and the narrator’s relationship to it all appears at the end, in summation.  I’m thinking I’ve liked Gilbert’s poetry in the past, and I like this one.  It’s challenging, but maybe described better as elusive than non-linear.  There’s resonance in there, and power.  Very satisfying.

One power that appears in his poem that I don’t feel was handled as well in the other poem in the issue, “Love Poem Like We Used To Write It,” by Patricia Lockwood,” is brevity.  She also has an elusive poem, and quite a fun one, but it goes on at some length.  It is a good poem, don’t get me wrong; I like it, and there’s a lot of the pleasure of surprise there.  “…and mouth full of invert // and cane and coarse sugar…” I think it’s fair to call it a metapoem about a love poem: “and here the love poem delights: the word ‘parrot’ will never be replaced…”  and it’s cool.  Still, once she’s delivered that premise, and gone through her basic themes, love poem and parrot and a girl, she chooses to revisit the ideas a few times, changing them around; but (maybe due to it being a metapoem?) I find no more revelation here, no more , dare I say it, reason to keep reading.  The developments really have no purpose for me beyond cuteness.  “her small brown paw is adorable, which is // to say brown as we used to use it” rolls over to “a human hand, and human as we used // to use it…” And I don’t really see the point after she’s developed the poem that way once or twice.  Yes, it’s a cool idea, yes, the poem is cool overall, and not that long, but I guess I’d like to have seen it tightened up in the middle a bit anyway.  Difference between a good poem and a great one, maybe. 

Or maybe that’s just because of my own experience in writing, where the more I knock out of the poem, the more powerful the work overall tends to become.  One of the running biases of a haiku poet, I guess.  Read the poem, and draw your own conclusions, I would say.

Peace in poetry,



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Sun One

Only one poem in The Sun this month, “Contemplation On Rain And Religion,” by Jeff Gundy.  Bit of humor there, which is not down the heart of the plate for The Sun.  I’d like to encourage them to do more, though, because they seem to have an ear for it — anyway, I liked this poem. 

“I always feel more religious in the sunshine, // especially if … the place is pretty // and most people can’t afford to get there.”  The loping colloquial language is a nice break from the often severe Sun style.  About a guy trying for a religious experience camping in the rain.  Which is one of the least religious things a person can do, and oh does Gundy seem to know that!  “the fact of fewer mosquitoes // than yesterday does not make my heart leap up.”

Not a real fan of the ending, I’d like to have seen him push harder for it, but overall, a person could spend a quite pleasant time with this poem, and walk away remembering it, which is more than I can say about most of the poetry out there.  Memorable poetry is hard to make; congrats to Jeff Gundy for pulling it off.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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The two poems in the Nov 14 11 New Yorker seem almost archetypal: Mark Svenvold’s “Ceiba Tree, Petac, Mexico,” is a cacophany of details: “Above and all around // the whistle and hoot, the high glissando, the bell and echo…” all the different things one hears in the jungle in the Yucatan.  Having spent some weeks deep in the jungle of the Yucatan way back in the day, I’d say he got it right, too.  The noises are overwhelming, especially at dawn: “the broad cloth // of a morning above us and in us…”  And all summed up, almost casually, almost offhand, with a great image to end the poem.  It reminds me so much of the recent W.S. Merwin poem in the same magazine – so many details, one almost thinks the poem isn’t going anywhere, but such INTERESTING details…and then suddenly the poem gets to where it was going all along, surprise.  That’s what I think of a New Yorker poem doing, I guess.

Jennifer Barber presents us with “In The Hebrew Primer,” a series of nouns in short verses: “Nouns like mountain and gate, //water and famine, /wind and wilderness…”  The most interesting line to me, the one that stirs some resonance and contemplation, is “The eye picks its way // through letters like // torches and doors, like scythes.”  An interesting enough line to sell a whole poem, I’d say, one I keep turning over to taste in another way.  The ending of this poem doesn’t engage me so much — I don’t know that I “get” it, but the rest of the poem is definitely an interesting journey.  Why archetypal?  I guess just the hooky (not hokey, now!) nature of the images, images mattering more than their summation, more than any overarching structure, that seems New Yorker to me.  No bland spots.

Peace, poetry and popsicles today.

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at the love that builds throughout a marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Aug 13, 18

Rattle 62 – Winter 2018

Missouri Review – Fall, 2018


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Quick Flights

Couple of short poems in the Jan 2012 Asimov’s.  First, Robert Frazier doing a quick riff on time, “Seeing Oneself.”  With some interesting lines: “Mirrors are no solution to this twist.” Kind of a fun little read. 

And Fiona Moore adding an apocalytic tradition on the trains breaking down  with “Train Delays On The South Central Line.”  “The antediluvian stillness broken only by the odd steamy hiss.”  Which right there is a lot of fun to say, actually. 

Over in the October 31 issue of Strange Horizons, Mari Rae Johnson joins in with “Reconciling Fundamental Forces And Matter”:

“Let me // tell you my theory of everything— //beer first, then physics. // One abstraction after another.  // Then your hand, my knee.”


And from Oct 10 in that mag, G.O. Clark has “American Poetry 101 Mashup,”

“When Emily’s // deathly fly calls to her in // a tiny, pleading voice— // when Robert’s // snowy woods glow with // an unearthly light—”


So a lot of fun in the speculative world these last few weeks.  Nothing earth- shattering, true, but not everything has to be, or we’d run screaming from the magazines, I suspect.

Peas in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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Took an extra day to think about the poems in the New Yorker this week (Nov 7 11).  I like them both, which I generally do with the New Yorker, and yet, and yet.  I wish sometimes the editors at these top mags would challenge their peeps a little more.  Julie Bruck wrote “A Marriage,” and yes, it has punch.  “Paint // like you’re blind, from memory and passion” But as seems to be essential in American poems these days, she immediately undercuts it “two words he didn’t especially care for.”  I’m kind of tired of that.  It’s getting played, as my East Coast friends used once to say.  And the ending, with its wry, sad twist, yes, it’s top notch, yes it’s at the professional end of things: “He would // never touch her the way she wanted, // though she kept asking him to, // like this, in front of everybody.”  But I kept looking at it and thinking, isn’t there more?  Couldn’t she have pushed further, gone for over-the-top?  Well, maybe not in this poem.  Maybe this poem is what it is.  It’s a great little poem.  And she’s a pro, got three books out, knows what she’s doing, and sticks to her knitting.  Nothing wrong with that.

So then maybe the issue is with what poems are being selected.  There’s some big stuff going on out there.  Devastatingly big changes in the world, in politics, in economics, in medicine, in physics, for goodness sake, are these ironic little poems with all the size sucked out of them really the best we can do, here?  Yes, it’s hard to write big poems, I’ve failed at it a lot myself.  But come on, is no one even trying out there?  This failure of vision, this hiding from the world, is epidemic in American poetry.  Maybe one in twenty poems I read tackles anything beyond someone’s death, or aging, or a love affair falling apart.  I want to cry, hey editors, people got jobs.  They fight in wars.  Do you really never see ANYTHING other than these same three themes?  But maybe they don’t.

Then almost as a shot back across my bow, there is “Tourism,” by Samuel Amadon. Rhymed couplets, not easy to handle with the danger of sing-song, but he does well with it.  Again, a well-respected poet about town with lots o’ chops.  And arguably he is taking on more in this — “I hear myself collecting what I’ve caught, // like  ‘ in the hospital and you’ve been shot.’ ”  Which is a great snippet of dialogue to catch.  And “police are humming parts of prime-time hooks…”  Maybe it’s not going for the unified theory of poetry, but it is fun, which should always get special dispensation. 

Again, though, I finish this poem and think, what an opportunity wasted.  And I can’t even say why.  Such great lines, a great ending, delightful rhymes and top-notch technique, but there’s something missing here, dammit.  That extra dare.  That over-the-top moment, where he goes for the deeper connection.  I don’t know.  Maybe the last line does that, but it’s so truncated, so abbreviated.  And I can’t help but think the problem is not with our poets — these two are brilliant — but with the editors, refusing the dare, demanding smallness, irony, the gradual shrinking of American poetry until it fits into an austere little box.

‘Course, that seems unlikely.  So maybe it’s just the doldrums of autumn.

Peace and poetry,

P M F Johnson


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