Archive for December, 2011


Then today we got in the New Yorker, and there was Philip Levine’s “Pennsylvania Pastoral.”   I’ve always seemed to like Levine more in the abstract than the particular.  Love his common-sensical approach, but never all fired up about any particular work.  Now that’s changing.  As I recall, the last work I reviewed of his really banged the gong for me.  This one feels a little more like a comfortable old shoe.  No flash — he eschews the stuff as trash (sorry) but a scene and a theme you don’t much find in any other top dog poet.  He’s someone, as they say, familiar with factory work.  Having done my ten-hour days on the line back in the day, that appeals.  In this, it’s a moment when their car breaks down.  A common occurence, and he celebrates it as such — the immediate mystery, “It simply stopped // because it had to…” and the diagnosis as salt-of-the-earth types will deliver it, “he pops // the hood they discover the fan // belt has vanished…”  How many poets out there are uncomfortable identifying a fan belt, much less a missing one?  Wave your hands.  I love that he makes his machine “whimsical.”  I love that he understates the ending.  Just a good little flash of America, of anywhere in the world, really, and our commonality.

Still, I’m going to give best poem of the issue to “Lot’s Wife,” by Gary J. Whitehead.  There’s just enough flash “after the last strings of smoke, hoisted by desert breezes, cleared the air” and insight — the tension between a girl who has become something extraordinary, and the common folk around her, who “with chisel and knife…chipped at her violently.”  I’ll be honest, I think it’s only that I aim for a certain amount of flash and insight in my own work that makes me prefer this poem, and that just by a hair — both works are powerful in understatement, both very much worth reading and savoring.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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The Threepenny Review came rolling home today, and I read the poems to my wife, for us to enjoy and see what we thought.  One that caught us up, wrinkled our brows, was “The Last Theorum,” by Georgia Tiffany.  I haven’t encountered her work before; this poem was interestingly complex, and I was especially glad to read a poem about mathematics that wasn’t a simpering thing, that took its theme seriously.  “My father being the one who chose // to slip out of the equation // one plus one equals three.”  There are various ways to take that line, each somewhat unsettling.  It’s a poem that deserves more than one quick read, so I intend to return to it. 

Andrea Cohen wrote “Hubcap,” a poem that quietly reveals sadness to its reader.  Kind of a movie poem, (actually a TV poem), with cuts and jumbles, but understated.  Beautiful.  “He didn’t even // own a car, his stunned son said…”  The line jolted me.

We both loved Leslie Elizabeth Adams’ “A Deconstruction: Instead, the Condemned House Becomes a Stand of Bur Oak.”  I know, I know, the title alone should condemn this to absurdity, but it actually works, in a freaky way.  There’s a note of hidden fun, maybe not so hidden, in this tale of a house becoming a forest again.  “Each day, the crack // of another blossom through spackle.”  And how about “tight pink commas of nascent mice” — boy, you can just see the little blind babies in their nest.  Great work.

Dean Y0ung delivers a brilliant poem, “Discharged Into Clouds,” the narrator having had (we assume) a heart transplant, now working his way back to health in the hospital: “never far // above the earthworms, never far // below the sky.”  I want to have written that line!  Makes the hair rise on my arms. 

Even so, Sandy and I still agree the best poem of the issue is “The Stairs,” by Michael Chitwood.  A woman, old now, navigating the stairs she has traveled since her children were very little.  “each step a rest, // each one a chance to catch her breath, // to steady and study ankle and wrist, // those necessary narrows…” An incantatory work, bringing forth the woman’s whole world to us, the struggle she has now.  Metaphors laid in carefully, carefully, flickers of illumination here and there.

See?  Poetry of weight and worthiness IS still being published in America, and The Threepenny is a big contributor to that.

Poetry Peace,

P M F Johnson


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Went through the latest Crazy Horse magazine, then reread the poems again today.  I had a hard time getting into the poems, honestly.  Most are pretty academic — which let’s define as puzzle poems, written so as to make it difficult to figure them out, to give the reader the joy of doing so.  A strategy that allows them to be published in heavy-weight journals, and taken seriously by academics, but which may explain why few people read this stuff.  With that warning, onward:

Renee Ashley wrote “She Thinks about the Shapes Things Take,” using all the modern tools of the trade, starting with an offbeat metaphor, “She is her own apple her own worm and wax”; discarding puncuation except capital letters (so you know how the sentences divide); putting the leap (a jump to a completely different idea) up front rather than near the end of the poem; inserting borderline nonsense  sentences: “The idea you see is a place the logic of what had to be done”; and using words to make you scramble to the dictionary: “Not aleatoric but divined” — at least we get a cool word out of the deal; with a general summary sentence at the end (which I thought was kind of frowned on anymore).  The poet has won a Pushcart, an NEA fellowship, and the Robert Winner Award, among many other honors.  Well, this poem does show a mastery of technique out the wazoo…

Molly Bashaw won the Lynda Hull Memorial Prize for “There Were No Mirrors in That Farmhouse,” which starts, “Peacocks screamed us into ourselves.”  I’m thinking the ‘us’ here means the various farmhouses narrating the poem (not explained, but the poem doesn’t make much sense to me if that’s not the conceit).  “When the wind rose at night we heard the barn swallows gather and land inside us.”  This poem I liked, actually.  Some interesting images.  “the hay bale // we threw down…seemed weightless and full of light.”   And a good ending line.

Deborah Bogen wrote “Barbed Wire”  which starts out as an extended metaphor about barbed wire, with some thought-provoking images: “when the sun sinks : I’m your tiara” but then seems to sort of lose focus.  (Note that the author has colons divide lines in the first two stanzes, then abandons them, which seems like a senseless decision to me).   The poem drifts off into some ideas that are tangential at best: “I’m the electric ohm lighting up your bridgey // neurons” and ends with what seems to me an irrelevant, non-rhyming couplet.  If anyone can explain the decisions in the latter stanzas, please do.  I do not claim to be an expert on the latest academic stylings, and lacking a more learned exegesis, I admit having difficulties with the second half of this poem.

Peter Cooley contributes “The Fist.”   “I found the sky within my opened hand.  // It really wasn’t what I had hoped for.”  See, it’s always a good sign when a poems starts with a humorous, or at least wry, tone — it implies the poet doesn’t take himself too seriously.  And while this poem is not comic, it is very worth reading:  “and pain, awakening, tells us where we are.”  With an excellent epiphany at the ending.  My vote for the best poem of the issue.

Another peace of poetry,

P M F Johnson


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New Poetry Mag in the mail today, always a joy.  I have to admit I went through all the commentary first, which I am often fas’kinated by — gets me leaping up and down sometimes, always satisfying.  This is the 100th year anniversary issue, evidently.  Been a while since Harriet Monroe started something down there in Chi town.  ;->

Stephen Dunn starts out the issue with “In Love, His Grammar Grew,” kind of a strange little ditty, a stirring of metapoem into a love poem, and reasonably funny, all things considered.  “His grammar grew // rich with intensifiers, and adverbs fell // madly from the sky like pheasants…”  Okay, amusing more than funny, but I liked it.  Though I’ve seen a lot more pheasants fly off into the sky than fall out of it, but then I never really was a good wing shot, humbling as that is to admit.  “Light a candle behind a sentence // named Sheila…” Which is a really cool little image, if you try to picture it, the glow appearing through the cut-out letters, or something.  It’s Sheila the love centers around, you see.  I like Dunn’s way of looking at things, honestly.

I enjoyed the Michelle Boisseau poems, “Among The Gorgons” and “Death Gets Into The Suburbs.”  The former talks about the relationship between the narrator and the sea.  “I loved it, // mostly,  the need, how I fed the frantic.  // I’d skipped into that sea.  Certainly not // a girl, but I could still turn a head…”  Then, “Hiss of a match // snuffed with spit.  The sea had trotted off. // I stood in the stink of flapping fish.”  There’s a sexy undertow to all this, which I am not conveying here, but adds some fun as well, and another layer is added when it is read as it were written by a gorgon.  The latter poem maybe I like most because of the title.  Kind of a “who by fire,” recitation of the ways you can buy it in the suburbs.  “It whirls in the egg whites…death by taxi, by blood clot…”

Michael Ryan has a poem worth reading, “Hard Times,” which centers around a poor kid eating tiny pigs-in-a-blanket and wanting to get away from his family.  “They’re doom and shame and dumb pig fate. // I tell my Mom I think they’re great.”  One strength of the poem is the dynamic between the young-boy tone and the formality structure of the rhyme, and the tug-of-war between a formal rhythm and a colloquial language.

And my fav of the A.E. Stallings poems here is “After a Greek Proverb,” a villanelle that sticks religiously to the formal structure and rhyme, and yet is rewarding to read as the repeated lines take on added resonances through the poem.  “Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.”  Very hard to do, having written my share of failed villanelles, let me tell you.


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:

The New Yorker – Aug 13, 18

The New Yorker – July 23, 18

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

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Read the poetry in the Feb ’12 version of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and found the three poems quiet different, but all worth reading.  Kendall Evans and David C. Kopaska-Merkel wrote the poem with a long, entertaining title: “SubMicro-Text Message 3V45129XZ: to My A.I. Valentine” which is sort of an uptight  narrator’s yearning for the burning.  Prufrock among the stars, if you will: “& yet I dream of you, drowsy afternoons, // Your only flesh composed of internet connections, // Or metal robots probing barren moons.”  Fun and a cast-a-wide-net use of the language.  And getting the character of the narrator into a poem is tricky and worth homage, in my view.

Joe Haldeman contributed a tercet, “future history” which I re-read a few times: “Never got to Mars.  Only left their names // there on the moon.”  Spooky, and sad.  Poetry that produces true emotion is rare and wondrous.  Bravo.

But my favorite poem of the issue, by a hair, was a sonnet by William John Watkins, “The Atom’s Lattice Could Such Beauty Yield.”  It just pulled me right in with the images, and the development: “inside the matrix stone some fire // raged out of sight and sent its telltale glow // up the clear prisms of the shafts.”  Wow.  What a bold image.  And the poem gets better from there, an elegaic use of the language right at the end.  Just a beautiful work.  Well worth reading this month, people mine.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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Double Mags

Kind of an interesting idea for a poem in this week’s New Yorker, “Horse Piano,” by Anna McDonald.  A gabby, what-if style, saying take three legs off a horse, weld them onto a piano, “and you hire a guy to play it on the hour, so that everybody // will know…”  What?  Well, read the poem, of course, but my takeaway is that McDonald tried to push her idea as far as she could, make every sentence interesting, surprising, with a summation that satisfies.  Did she do so?  She’s in the New Yorker, folks!  And her gabby style makes the poem comfy, not threatening, not a work to make me all distant, analytical and critical.  So kudos to McDonald for an interesting, even delightful poem.

Julia Mishkin has a poem, “Sir Isaac Newton On Ms and Alchemy,” which confuses the bejeebers out of me.  “the way departed souls // are beyond the world // redeeming light from inertia // digging and planting herbs //to turn the digestive track // luminous…”  I need my belly aglow?  I got phosphorescent microbes or something?  I don’t know Newton’s writings, honestly, so maybe something in there explains this.  Mishkin evidently tries to push poetry to include some of the scientific thinking that has gone on in this world, and I’m all for that.  And she definitely has an ear for a turn of phrase.  I very much like that ‘redeeming light from inertia.’  I think there has to be room in poetry for all sorts, and she is definitely stretching poetry off in her own direction, so more power to her.  She’s keeping it intriguing.

Sun Magazine also came across the transom this week, and Alison Luterman had a poem, “Rocking Chair,” that is much more grounded than the Mishkin poem.  A discussion of who her mother was.  “humming a thin, sweet thread of a song.”  Eassay-like, except for the last line, that someone once said Berryman defined as “the leap.”  So, after all these sentences describing her mother, the end is “sweetness and ruin, voice of thin // milk, voice of broken glass.  And the trees outside the windows, bare, black-twigged, // reaching.”  Kind of a standard trope now in poetry, to have a last image that has nothing to do with the rest of the poem.  Keeps it all from being boring, maybe?  I don’t know.  But in this case it sure put me into my head, the analytical poet/critic, rather than the reader in the moment.  Generally I like Luterman’s poetry; with this one, I think it’s going to be a case of whether the poem sticks in my head over time.  Sometimes that’s the only way I can tell how powerful a poem truly is.  Meanwhile, she seems to have a cool mother. ;->

Finally, with “Snowstorm,” byJohn Bargoswski, I have to say I don’t understand everything that happens in the poem, but I think it’s a poem about not always understanding what’s happening, and so it works on that double level.  On the surface, the poem is very clear by the way: “by noon // the clouds wrung dry, whipped away, // the sky so brilliant after the viewing // and graveside service for our youngest.”  Notice how ‘the viewing’ is dropped in there, and gets us ready for what is coming.  We understand the feeling in that moment, and so are more ready for the sadness of the next line.  Great foreshadowing.  I almost want to say it’s my favorite of the blog, but each poem this time has its strengths, and I guess I’m going to call it a four-way draw.


Pax in poetry,

P M F Johnson




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Styx Songs

Got River Styx 86 today, and found Amit Majmudar had three poems.  The one that leads off the magazine, “The Doll,” at first was hard to get into, but as I re-read it, the depths became apparent.  Hunting for internal rhymes brought me to the extra meanings — it’s about a boy making a doll.  For his mother, maybe?  For voodoo, maybe?  The uncertainty gives the power.  “Looks like my doll’s all tarted up.”  For a girlfriend who has cheated?  “She did like a poking. (All too well).” A lot to think on.  And I’m going to ruin the suspense and declare it my favorite poem of the issue.  But his second poem, “Water,” is also good; more Kay Ryan-esque than other work of his I have read.  “…this mysterious relaxation // of thinking that keeps // a body from sinking.”  Nice double-meaning there.

I really like George Bilgere’s poem about the difference between a first and second marriage:  “One Good Pork Chop.”   How much the narrator has learned.  It’s really more a little essay than a poem, but reads very smoothly — “One time we fought almost nonstop // for an entire week, beginning with a little dig…until we were drenched in metaphoric blood…” but has a great metaphor to end with, and wonderful pacing.  I would vote for the tiniest bit of pruning on his second one, though.  In “Eighty Yards,” he says “a couple of black kids are ambling down Lee Road.”  Again, it is essay-like, this time about how fast one of the two kids can run.  But for me, I could have lived without the adjective “black”, there.  What did it matter?  Of course, that may have been the whole post-ironic point of the poem, but if so, it was too subtle for me by half. 

Thre are a few life-sucks-and-he-was-a-jerk poems here, one of which seems to rise above the boring, “Petrified Fetus Found in Sixty-Year-Old Argentine Widow,” by Susan Elizabeth Howe, as it gives the sympathetic, slant point of view of the widow, considering her dead husband and child —  “This night he flares in dreams, // names me death cave, // charnel house.  Not so, // I am a shrine, a chapel // you will no longer enter // or defile…”  Amazing language.

Of the contest winners, I actually liked the third place poem best, “Octopus,” by Julie Hall.  Just a nice rhythm to the words.  “Maybe you are just too sad to love anyone here // in this fabricated universe..”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson



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