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Archive for January, 2012


There are always so many items to review when a Poetry mag comes in, it’s hard to do justice to all the tidbits stuffed in there. 

A.E. Stallings is one of my favorite poets going .  She starts off the show with “Momentary,” a poem about what she almost sees on her front stoop: “I only ever see her tail // quicksilver into tall grasses.”  Such a master of delightful image: “zither of chromatic scales.”  Can’t say that I know exactly what it is she isn’t quite seeing on her stoop, disappearing every time she blunders along, but isn’t that kind of the point?  I’m thinking little lizards, though a small snake might work as well.  She leaves the “zero at the bone” out of it, as well, letting the readers supply their own emotions. 

I really like the longer poem Philip Levine pitches to us here, “How To Get There,” roughly about a homeless person begging coins near the Brooklyn Bridge, though more tangled and interesting than that.  “A little deal table holds a tiny American // flag — like the one that Foreman held…”  I like where he enjambs the line, so the little deal can hold a tiny American.  Such a gentle portrait of a sad life.

D. Nurske has a very short, very powerful poem, “Psalm to Be Read with Closed Eyes,” that I might consider the best of the issue, at first cut, though so often a longer contemplation changes the mind.  Raises chills up the back. 

The thing about the Robert Pinsky poem is how its clarity allows us to see how smoothly he makes his turns, in a poem, “Creole,”  honoring his ancestors.  He goes from discussing his father, “he got fired at thirty…his boss, // planning to run for mayor, // wanted to hire an Italian veteran…” to a discussion of war veterans in the days of Rome, “the intricate Imperial // Processes of enslaving and freeing…” and then with a last turn, ends with a few word definitions.  “Banker comes from an Italian word for a bench.”  Far-reaching, with unlooked-for twists; good fodder for study to push our own poetry up a notch.

While there are also poems worth review by lesser luminaries, and don’t forget that in this 100th year of the mag, they are bringing back oldies but goodies, the last poem I’ll mention in my little blog is Albert Goldbarth’s, “Keat’s Phrase,” which has Goldbarth’s usual density of phrase.  His father has “a quiet pride // in something I’ve done that isn’t even thistledown // or tiny shavings of balsa wood…” huh? you go, and go back to try to understand why that phrase, at that moment.  It’s all there, limpid enough if you study it, but so many syllables per word: “our own pedestrian version of early maritime cartography…”  It’s the inventiveness I like so much, I guess.  And the salt-of-the-earth characters who pop in to surprise.  Check it out.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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Imagine my delight when I opened the latest New Yorker to discover they’ve published a Leonard Cohen poem, “Going Home.”  I’ve always been amazed at his work, the trickiness and depth, and so tore into this one to see what might be.  My first impression is that it has the layout of a song lyric, rather than a poem.  So how does he do that?  Digging at it, I figure out the following. 

He gives three lines of a stanza at full length, then adds a little coda to the end of the fourth line:  “Even though it isn’t welcome // He will never have the freedom // To refuse.”  A trick that works especially well inside the framework of a measure.  Also, musicians for quite some time have been finding rhymes in words that would not seem to resonate at first glance: Leonard, shepherd and bastard here; though near rhymes are prevalent in current poetry, of course (and we’re all the children of Emily Dickinson in this).   And he uses a verse, chorus structure (and arguably a bridge), where the chorus repeats the exact words each time.  Wouldn’t have thought of doing any of these things myself, normally.

And yet it works fully as a poem for me.  Partly because of the resonances he manages: “A cry above the suffering  // A sacrifice recovering…”  And maybe partly because of the circular structure.  Good tricks to adopt, if needed.

Don Paterson turns in “Here,” a fourteen line poem of couplets.  Never know whether to consider that a sonnet or not.  In this case, I would say so: there is a turn in the middle, from his initial proposition: “I must quit sleeping in the afternoon” to a consideration of his mother, “Long years since I came round in her womb” which has interesting interpretations of getting with the program as well as a first appearance.  And a summation in the last couplet.

On one level the whole poem is a little “in-the-head” for me — a lot of chewing through phrases to figure them out — but I very much appreciate the returning motif of the heart, starting with a sort of debate with his heart in the early lines, then the wonderful image of his mother’s heart next to him when he was in the womb, which I will recommend you to track down and read, rather than givign it here.  So ultimately I like the poem, and think it worth a re-read and some mulling over.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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The more of these little critiques I write, the more delighted I am at the quality and depth of our current poetry scene.  I was more cynical and negative about the work I was reading before I started, but having to soberly and honestly assess what I think of each poem, rather than just deliver some off-the-cuff snark, has enlightened me.  I have written entire blogs, then deleted and redone them, thinking I was being unfair.  I’ve learned a great deal about how poems are constructed, and so feel my own work has grown better.  And while I am still content without a college degree in creative writing, I have a better feel for what I missed, back in the day.

In the current Missouri Review, Richie Hoffman presents a number of poems about the sea.  The first is my favorite, “Glassworks,” about an artisan’s shop at the edge of the ocean.  “You put your hand against one wall, // where they stored the raw things…” There are no wild flights of language, but each phrase  presents something fresh, so the overall effect becomes gloriously original and interesting.  Hoffman has structured the poem quite formally as well — beginning in the particulars of the location, bringing us in with the heat of the afternoon, sound, smells, then going for the larger frame: “Have you, too, desired to be unmade // in another’s hand?”  And an understated ending, not trying to go beyond that high moment, but supporting it, letting us come down into reflection. 

His “Jellyfish” is also a powerful poem.  “you felt like something human I touched.”  An interestingly ambiguous phrase.  The poem is very anchored in the specific, to good effect, and again, the ending leaves us with much to reflect on. 

Monica Ferrell gives us “Planet,” a reasonably good elision of travel to another planet and the human experience of aloneness.  “Still you’re searching for some key thing; // Minerals?  Fuel?”  I have a niggly, though, that damaged the poem for me —  as the narrator tries foods and water, to see if they are edible/potable: “Furtively, you try them, one night…sweetness of daffodils, water crisp as dimes.”  Problem is, daffodils are poisonous.  You can plant them to keep varmints from eating your other bulbs in spring (with middling results, though!).  And many varieties (most?) have very little scent.  Hyacinths are much stinkier.  Tulips much more edible, as I recall.  Neither work well as a replacement word, though, I grant Ferrell that.

I like her poem, “In the Fetus Museum,” much better.  “incorruptible, a slip of moon…”  Some wonderful lines here, including this: “A door through which // possibility never walked.”  That gave me shivers.  Best line of the mag, I think.  And her “Epithalimium” poem had a very fun ending, definitely worth a chuckle. 

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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One poem in the latest Plainsongs that sort of bounds out in exuberance at you is “Snowplows,” by Dwaine Spieker, a straightfoward riff on snowplows as whales.  “…since three a.m. // they’ve been leaping and crashing // in the new white waves // of our town.”  And it does always seem to be three AM when the plows start rattling around.  I like that sort of discovered resonance.  As in Nebraska, everywhere else!  Very much a joy to read.   

I like Michael Meinhoff’s “Winter Wonders,” a series of amusing couplet questions. “Who needs an umbrella more // than a muddy field?” is a good example, reminding me of seeing plowed under fields in the rain, corn stubble gold against the dark soil.  I’m not real happy with the “who told time to drag its feet,” since it cuts awfully close to cliche, though he saves it with the transformation of the next line, but overall the poem gave me a very happy feeling, which is let’s face it a rare thing and worth honoring.

Gotta give some props to Jacob Newberry, for trying a villanelle, “Ljubljana in March,” especially in a rhyme scheme with Adriatic and habit on the one hand, and firmament/monument on the other.  “The singers will ask me for new coins, make havoc // when I give them old ones.”  I enjoyed it, but it still seems a bit unpolished.  It’s a good poem, but I urge the author to push it even further, go for a more effortless feel before this goes into the future book.  I think it’s just around the corner.  But caveat emptor: this comes from someone who has failed on quite a few villanelles in my day.  They are not easy to do.

Both my wife and I enjoyed the Lin Lifshin poem, “Like A Dark Lantern,” with such original images: “the cat who is curled // in a chair half made // of her fur…”  The turn she makes to a banked fire that explodes is a bit sudden.  I wonder if it needed just one more word, describing what sound the night bird made, so I get more why that sound rouses the reaction it does.  I’m quibbling here, I know — it’s a very good poem.

I very much enjoyed the Plainsongs Award poem, “Rooster,” by Marty Walsh.  “In the hothouse // of barnyard politics // Rooster thrives — // blood on his spurs, // a hot red // glint in his eye.”  Boy, and that’s what a rooster is like.  Annoying little fellows, often enough!  I like the slant rhymes, too.

Others of note: “Not On A Full Stomach,” by Mark Hudson, an original look at eating a fast food sandwich while the news is on.  “American Embassy,” by Dustin Junkert, wry fun. “The Surgeon,” by Arthur Gottlieb.  This is becoming a check down, and there’s no way I can touch on all the fun I had with this mag, so I close by giving the nod to “Introducing Myself To My Mother,” by Boyd Baumann (so understated, such breath control displayed in this poem:  “Now who are you again? // she queries over the cusp // of the care home coffee cup…”) as best of the issue by just a hair over “Love At A Distance,” by JW Major, another Plainsongs Award poem.  “I’m a ponytail from the old school, // withered-up de-tox working in produce.”  Great opening line, and a series of excellent metaphors all through.

My apologies to the other authors with excellent poems in this issue, which I have no time to mention.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Sugar and Sows


John Kinsella, in “The Fable of The Great Sow,” in this week’s New Yorker, adopts the tactic (more prevalent these days?) of using story techniques to construct his poem.   So he starts with a grotesque and rather terrifying foe: “Great Sow, who squashed dead her litter // a year before, rubbed her thick sparsely haired // hide pinker than pink…” then the challenge: “To cut across her pen was an act of dexterity” then the hero, with an hint of the ominous: “I could have gone around.”  It’s his precise and emotive language that makes this little tale fun to read, and keeps us on tenterhooks: “Fed on meal and offal, she’d been penned // with boars merciless in their concupiscence.”  Great trick.  We have to stop at that last word, cuz it’s a four-dollar one — ‘Does it mean what I think it does?’ we ask.  Which just adds to the frisson.  You see why Kinsella has had such a great career.  After he gets to the confrontation between hero and primal force, he turns the poem to talk about a painting of a pig he saw once, then brings that moment back to this one, concluding the story.  Don’t know that I think the turn to the painting was as successful or as deft as it could have been, but I would agree that sheer technique carries the reader through, and the moment he describes is fraught enough, the character of the pig so powerful, that this is indeed a worthy poem.  Kinsella should be proud.

The other poem in the issue is by our old standby Richard Wilbur, who does “Sugar Maples, January,” which let’s admit would fit a little better if it wasn’t as warm as March out there these days!  ;->  Four straightforward couplets, with pure rhymes, and a plain topic.  “What years of weather did to branch and bough // No canopy of shadow covers now…” Just laying it out there for us, nowhere to hide, either he pulls it off or looks like a goldarn fool.  But you can picture that image he gives us, the twisted, beaten-on trunks and branches of the maple trees, dark grey against the lighter grey sky, lonesome and mighty.  So specific, and because the language is stripped down, it delivers extra layers of meaning and resonance that do not happen with more tangled poems.  Simplicity creates power.  Kind of like a golf swing.  I wish more poets would catch on to that.  (The power, not the swing!)

Anyway, I admire very much both poems.  So often the more renowned poets back in the day seemed to be allowed a pass, to get away with less than their best in the greater markets.  But Muldoon seems to catch them at their finest quite often, a neat trick (Alice Quinn did so as well in her day, as I recall). 

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Eye Lie


Three poems in the New Yorker this last week, starting with “My Lie,” by Jen McClanaghan.  The thing that strikes me first about this poem is that she withholds telling us what her lie is, until the middle of the poem.  Which I admire as a technical trick.  Until then, she keeps us interested with hints of nudity, of violence, sudden shifts.  “This morning, naked // except for a jaunty paper jacket, // I lied to the gynecologist.”  Then she explains the lie almost on the way to something else, and is off with another rather tangential line: “I study a picture of Bashir, // his closed lips, his cheek inclined // to receive a kiss…”  I gotta ask, who is Bashir and why do I care?  So I Google him, and get three reasonable answers, two violent guys and a Deep Space 9 character, none of whom seem to have the slightest thing to do with her lying.  But that seems the poem’s conceit, references to the larger world, contrasted with her little white lie: “I own up to my own crime…which isn’t my simple lie // but not letting the world in.”  She does a cool trick with language again right at the end, while going for the larger vision.  So all in all, I don’t know.  Truth is, I actually pretty much like this poem.  It seems way facile, very calculated, and I still like it.  I guess I’d conclude she pulled it off.

Paul Muldoon seems to have a thing for cute little poems that have a twist to keep them from being too saccharine, as with the little ditty “Thalictrum and Cimicifuga,” by Jonathan Galassi.  Only two short stanzas, with lines like, “Swaying there out in the wind, bowed by the nastiest weather…”  Kind of plain rhymes.   (these are types of upright ranunculas, which like shade and bloom in spring; Cimicifuga means bedbug repellant.  I’ve grown ranuncula myself, but not from either genus).  Kind of plain flowers, for that matter.  An amuse-bouche, I guess, to apprpriate a term from dining (amuse the mouth), a little pleasant moment of a poem to whet our appetite.

Then there’s “Glaucoma,” by Rosanna Warren, and this I like.  Wants more.  “Garnet flashes in the wild turkey’s wattle.” it begins.  In this poem, the narrator is losing her sight, and each stanza refers to vision.  “…a single heron stood, // a hieroglyph.  I don’t know what he spelled.”  Heiroglyph meaning, of course, secret (or sacred) word!  “Her eyes searched mine as if across a no man’s land…”  Just a powerful poem, and powerful because of the strength of the metaphors, especially the final one.  Wonderful work.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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Winter Words


Read the Winter ’12 issue of Avocet and found several poems worth mentioning.  I liked “Ice,” by Don Thompson, a reflection on the various aspects (avatars?) of ice.   “”All the comfort of this world // have come to nothing, // says the ice.”  Ice as a cranky guy stating a bad attitude.  Fun. 

“Skating,” by Dudley Laufman was an interesting view of an earlier time: “Dad and I skated // from Garvin Falls in Bow // all the way down…”  and “We could see a golden fish // beneath the ice…”  A slice of life that caught my eye.

“Telling Winter,” by Yvette Viets Flaten is a wonderful poem.  “Grandpa told winter by depth of ice…” and “My mother tells winter by the tonnage of coal…”   and “she recounts Europe’s bleakest Christmas…” A contrasting of the views of different people in the narrator’s life, ending with her father.  “He would stand at the window…balancing on the precipice of dawn…”  Such a delicate shading of their worlds, understated and effective.

“Bereft,” by M.J. Iuppa had me re-reading it with interest:  “During winter’s first thaw // the pond’s ice withers…”  and contains a very nice ending.

Sue Ellen Kuzma has maybe the best metaphor in the magazine with “On Track:”  “Brutal winter.  Storms have come // constant as junk mail.”  And boy, can it feel that way!

Robert Lipton turns in a very good performance with “Winter,” “…if you trust // the creaking, noisy ice.”  And delivers an excellent ending. 

Dennis Ross has “February Thaw:”  “crows…sway back and forth in the wind like licorice lollipops” Such an image!

Joanna Lilley’s poem “The Name Of Things” draws you in, has you contemplating its phrases and the information imparted, until you finish it before realizing what you’ve done, without weighing the parts as you go.  “prairie crocus, // pinker purple along July highways…”  It demands a re-read.  Very good.

Peter C. Leverich himself checks in with “O Currier, O Ives,” echoing “O tempora, O Mores” by Cicero, a gentle riff off the old Roman’s theme of how the young people of today have changed, though the poem discusses as well how much remains the same.  “My brothers and I played hockey here too…”   A bittersweet ode.

And Sarah B. Marsh-Rebelo has probably my favorite poem in the issue, “A Solemn Pact,” dealing with an immediate scene, the narrator with a pair of boys calling “a secret meeting.  // We open the gate to the chicken coop…” you can see how it grabs you and draws you in to its story.  “I place a stalk of hay between my teeth…” With a solid ending and a bit of mystery.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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