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Archive for February, 2012

Speaking In Poetry


Translation Issue of Poetry Magazine this month, and some marvelous work.  It’s always the temptation of course, when a translation is beautiful to give all credit to the original poet, and when it is muddled to place all blame on the translator. 

Well, with Geoffrey Brock’s poem, “Alteration Finds,” we can discard that concern; he claims this poem of three parts is basically just inspired by the originals, rather than direct translations of them.  And I do admire the result.  “What I was wondering: why you yearned to evade // the real.”  From the first stanza, after Rimbaud.  “The head we cannot know, // nor its bright fruit, the eyes.”  What a great little metaphor in the second stanza, after Rilke.  And “We thirsted in the glare // but couldn’t drink the water.”  Which stanza (after Seferis) weaves it all together so well.

It’s not surprising to me that A.E. Stallings gets in here with a translation of an A.E. Housman poem (originally written in Latin).  She is arguably our greatest living translator, as I see it anyway.  Greek, Latin, old English, she seems to get it all.  “To My Comrade, Moses J. Jackson, Scoffer at this Scholarship.”  Just listen to the lines: “And planets too, that fret with light // The icy caverns of the night.”  “Mine not to exhort the gods // Or stars that vex our mortal odds.”    What an ear she has! 

Stephen Edgar gets a wild sway and richness out of Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Bound for Hell.”  “Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured, // is where we’re bound; we’ll drink the pitch of hell.”  Such fun:  “strike up the songs of paradise // Around the campfire of a robber’s lair.” 

And did I mention all the above three translations rhyme?  Uff-da.

Finally, let me mention “The Poor,” by Roberto Sosa, translated by Spencer Reese: “They // can steady the coffin of a constellation // on their shoulders.”  Wow, there’s an image to inspire a poet to stretch for that next phrase, I’ll tell ya!

These are not the only good (even great) translations in this magazine.  Way worth buying.  Jonathan Monroe Geltner translating Paul Claudel.  Tony Barnstone translating Borges.  And oh my gosh, a whole section of translations of Kabbalah.

Peace be upon you, indeed.

P M F Johnson

 

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Bright Shining As


In the March ’12 issue of The Sun, Alison Luterman hits us with a very sad poem, the struggles between mother and child, “White Lady Of Once A Week.”  This feels a lot more personal to me, gets me much more in the gut than most poems I read, a signal victory for Luterman in my book.  But oh, at what cost.  “The rain, she means.  // ‘The clouds are banging into each other,’ I tell her…Turns out to be wrong.  // Like almost everything.”  That simple phrase at the end comes back to haunt in the poem, as every mother seems haunted by her child at one time or another.  A son is a son until he takes a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life, my wife likes to quote, but daughters are so much more often a challenge, it seems.  And so it is here.  ” ‘I am ghetto,’ she says then…” and the narrator replies, “You’re not // just where you came from…” but the child is rebellious, of course.  Such simple, straight language, so much more relevant, immediate, and powerful a poem than almost anything else out there.  A poem that matters.  That gets at a truth I can hear. Wow.  She has published many good poems in this magazine over the years.  This may be her best.

The other poem in the issue is by Ralph Earle, “After the e-mail saying you forgave me,” which is basically after the title a straightforward image-driven poem, picturing a moment in nature.  And quite short.  “The cottonmouth, thick as a muscular arm, // slid into the water at my feet.”  Also a very enjoyable poem, and the juxtaposition of title and images, without narrative comment, and the subtle symbolism (see snake above) gives it power.  Well done.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Kind of a fun little number starts the poems in the latest Asimov’s, “Book Wyrm,” by Robert Borski.  “Blankly laired in a deracinated // forest of pulp…”  But read it quickly, it’s short! 

Then, a treat, the next of the Bruce Boston music poems, “The Music of Particle Physics.”  “When you listen more and more carefully…its convoluted waves..grow more particulate and fanciful.”  A thought experiment that will leave you turning uncertain possibilities over and over in your head. 

Geoffrey A. Landis checks in with “Tachyons,” immediately making them my favorite subatomic particle.  “Tachyons race // backwards and forwards in time — // maybe sideways…”  Such an excellent pairing with the Boston poem above.  We need more subatomic poetry, I’m thinking…and not thinking, as it were.

Megan Arkenberg ends it with “Apocalyptic Love Poem,” where the end of the world kind of interferes with the end of the love affair, with satisfying results (for the reader, anyway.  Maybe not so much for the narrator!  ;-> )  “I hoped it would not end like this…” Gotta love the dual meanings.  The over-the-top-ness works very nicely for the ending of a relationship; the whole world should be ending in such a situation, right?  Anyway, it made me smile.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Journaling Poetry


Got the latest issue of The Journal the other day, and worked my way through the poetry.  It seems like a market dedicated to poets sort of at journeyman status — learning their craft, spreading their wings a little beyond the classroom, sold to a couple top markets, have a chapbook or two out, maybe won a contest, but still very influenced by teachers and theories and the import of poetry as a declaration of rebellion.  Or something like that.  Since I have no experience of the poetry academy, it’s all pretty alien to me.  But I thought Keith Leonard’s “A Brief History of Silence” was worth reading.  “What more // could anyone want than to crease history // into a paper boat….”  I like that line.  That’s a good line.  There are good images in there, and a nice ending.  He seems like he’s well on his way.

I very much liked Sara Rutkowski’s “Notes On My Father.”  I give it the best of the mag award, in fact.  “In the mornings, he shaved ginseng root // into the cappucinos he placed next to our beds.”  That’s an opening line that’s going to draw me right in.  It’s a caring but clear-eyed look at a complex character in the narrator’s life, a tricky balancing act to pull off.  “On beaches, he looks peculiar, like a stand-in // for the real thing.”  Makes you think.

I also liked Angelo Nikolopoulos’ “My Desire Has Made Me Radiantly Unspecial–”  The humor comes out right in the title, and proceeds apace.  “I’m tired of being a ten-fingered thing, belligerent.”  Not a humorous poem, per se, but certainly one with a wry view:  “I become many-bellied and inarticulate…”  And a fair share of smiles for me.

Let me also mention Jane Otto’s “Biology 101,” a slice of life.  “The day I know I’m pregnant, we dissect fetal pigs.”  Absolutely a poetic moment, and a worthy poem arose from it.  Just an excellent ending, as well.  Glad I read it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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Iron In Winter


One of the trickier things in poetry is to convey the feeling of import in a moment where something occurs that others might not consider impressive.   In the latest issue of Iron Horse Literary Review, Brock Guthrie does that quite well with his poem, “Half Hour.”  “Snow falls…on the rows of stacked silver cans, and on the possum that tries to burrow into your uncovered trash can.”  It is a poem about the narrator’s encounter with a possum.  The sense of a good ol’ boy with a drunk on, but still affected, is beautifully understated.  A nice moment.  He also gives us a fine “Clever Fish,” about differing with his girlfriend in his enthusiasm for seafood.  “Oh, you’d eat // crab cakes (with cocktail wine and sauce)” which shows off his folksy delivery.  And an amusing little twist at the end of it.  Good, solid poetry.

Douglas Ray gives us the rather (but aptly) overtitled, “Taking the Wonder Out of Winter Wonderland: A Southern Snowscape” which is really a delightful little poem, about how winter is never more than just a wintry mix in Alabama.  “It’s the outlet // mall version of the designer New England stuff.”  Of course, being from a place that considers New England nearly the southland itself, their winters being, oh, just a bit milder than around here, I don’t know how well I can relate to that. ;->  I just like this poem, though, and its tough little ending.

And “Cedars,” by Benjamin Myers, is much worth reading.  “They are not native to this place, // but have rushed the grassy hill, // an infantry in spiky green.”  What a great image, and an excellent description of how cedars fill a landscape!

But the poem I kept going back to was “Later Songs,” by Doug Ramspeck, about his time in a meadow.  “The body wants to beat the drums of old snow.”  Not an easy poem to digest in a single gulp.  Some of the lines are quite tricky:  “this dark promise // we make breathless to our footsteps in the snow.”  But there is enough there, in hints and elusions, that made me want to pursue it, understand what he was saying.  Strong work.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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A trio of poems in the latest Asimov’s, always a good moment.  The first by G.O. Clark is “A Change In The Gravity,” which analyzes what might be the result if gravity were to lessen.  “cats will nimbly perform // incredible entrechats” and “tires won’t squeal as much // on hot summer nights”  Not that I ever recall seeing any cat doing even a simple entrechat. (On the internet, you can get a video explaining those cool words you should know, having worked at a ballet company for years, but really don’t cuz you were a money guy.  Embarrassed smile).

C. W. Johnson gives us “Discoveries in the Annals of Poetry,” which has interesting thoughts, but somehow a quiet, underlying sadness.  At least for me.  “In the margin // of Rilke he wrote an equation proving // all their arguments were about the dead // child…”  It has several provocative, almost impossible comments like that, leading to re-reading.

I want to give a special shout-out to A. Walker Scott’s Sonnet I, a traditional sonnet with dead-on rhymes and a smooth presentation, so hard to do in such a rigorous form.  “How cold is space, that dark and hollow night, // Which holds in velvet hand the jewels of God!”  Yeah.  The rest of the poem is equally adept.  Much worth reading.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Iron Songs


In a commentary about her poem “Late Autumn,” in the latest Iron Horse Literary Review, Tara Bray talks about being inspired by her attempts to explain death to her daughter.  Interestingly for me, the line I like best, “I wonder about those fists he lost to rage,” resonates with the line, “His hands were clenched in fists of rage,” in the song American Pie by Don McLean, which song is about the death of the singer Buddy Holly.  I don’t know if the reference is intentional — I suppose it doesn’t really matter — either way, it gives a depth to the poem, extra ripples, if you will.  I like the way she hedges her bets in this poem, makes no hard declarations, tiptoes her way through the mystery, if you will.  “Mystery is where I’m drawn, // but it’s no reflection of these simple hands.”  With a professional-level finale, having a great specificity.

I also like “Camera Obscura,” by Heather Price, which is a bit of a trick, since it’s a ghazal, and I am not an easy sell on such.  But it’s a fun love poem, and a bit sexy, judiciously so.  “Your fangs came out.  My halo dropped to the floor.”  Also, she gives me a chance to dig back to my six years of Latin in school, very satisfying.  “Et nos non inventimus ita.” 

I read Melissa Cundieff-Pexa’s “Prelude for Wren,” to my wife, and we were happy with quite a few of the phrases, especially the opening.  “Imagine you were once nothing // yet never an afterthought.”  It’s a poem to the author’s daughter, who we are told in her notes, is now four years old.  “eyes // and body patient as a root.”  I found some of the later phrases a bit confusing, though I really liked the ending.

The last poem I’ll mention is by Robby Nadler, “The Proposal,” that just has a sort of irreverence, or contentiousness, that I very much enjoyed.  “someone points out // i’ve never been to nebraska…i reply // there are other places in the world // with names of u.s. cities…”  though it seems to be a poem in memory of someone:  “and you then slip away…to now the back gallows // of a just-dusted memory hall…” which line makes me go over it, re-experiencing, mulling the sadness.  So the sorrow and the irreverence play off each other to powerful effect.  A strong poem, with a kicker of an ending.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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