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Archive for April, 2012


Sometimes, for me, it is less important that an overall poem be good than that there are simply cool lines in it.  I can’t necessarily wrap my head around the whole poem, but certain phrases in it leap out and grab me.  Such is the case with Alice Fulton’s poem, “Daynight, With Mountains Tied Inside,” in the current Poetry Magazine.  And there are so many lines worth repeating: “Only inanimate things can sparkle // without sweat.”  “I hear you best // when undistracted by your body.” (Who can argue with that? ;->)  “It is a ferocious thing // to have your body as your instrument.”  “You customize this solitude…”  See what I mean?

Adam Vines’ first poem ever in this magazine is “River Politics,” and I’ll remove any suspense by declaring it my favorite of the issue right here.  “I spit my smack, //Jim slugs his Jack, // Rob stews his lack…”  I like that earthy, fundamental poetry.  An antidote to so much in-the-head poetry.  And such a great ending!  Thank you, editors, for choosing this one. 

 Gonna mention Spencer Reese’ poem, “The Prodigal Son,” a more ambitious poem about Miami, among other things.  It really pulls out that sub-tropical feel — it’s been decades since I’ve been in the city, but it brings it back nicely, with flavors of the Caribbean all around.  “The clouds are white optimistic churches.”  What a great line.  “The sun shines on the people // and unites us in a delirium of light.”  Very much worth reading and re-reading (and I don’t say that about long poems often).

An interesting confessional poem by Franz Wright, “Postcard 2.”  “So I suppose I am the // reason he left, actually.”  Raw and powerful. 

Finally, let me say how much I enjoyed Judith Hall’s “Just Now Between Positions.”  A delightful rendering of a guy between jobs.  “Before all this, he // would have lit a pipe and // mused on the past // in aromatic mauve tobacco.” A great line.

Honestly, I don’t know that there’s a poem in the magazine this time that doesn’t have at least one intriguing line in it. 

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Couple of prose poems in the latest Sun Magazine.  First is “The Visit,” by Steve Kowit, a description of a man’s wife dreaming of a cat who died and came back in a dream.  My own wife in fact just had a similar dream yesterday, about her father coming back, so there was a special frisson for me.  “she…said, in a voice weighted with grief, that last night Ivan had come back…” I like that, ‘weighted with grief.’  It somehow gives depth to the poem.  “she drifted // uneasily into that world which is even stranger than this one…”  Kowit manages to capture that spooky, half-here half-there feeling we get around someone who has had an uncanny exprience, that we can’t share, but shakes our world nonetheless.  The Sun is ever one for plain language, nothing tricky or over-golden here.  A good poem.

The other poem is “My Totally Awesome World,” by Sese Geddes, wherein the narrator is feeling “guilty, ungrateful, un-Oprah-like…”  Oh boy, what a fun, exact way to describe that kind of cranky way we all get.  “My husband has just left…and I’m already knotted by the window, watching him like a dog…”  It is just this capturing of quintessential moments that Sun poems are so good at.  And also, the editor Sy Safransky has always shown a bent towards drugs and sex: Geddes writes, “I want it to be 1967.  All tiny blue tiles and LSD.”  and “wearing a sheer caftan over my naked body…” Geddes has studied her market carefully, I suspect, and realized this poem would work for this market.  An enjoyable poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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One thing I value about Plainsongs is that, to read it fully, you have to have some notion what a soffit is; that, you’re going to encounter spiderwort, columbine, bib overalls, a whole world parallel to most of the poetry universe.  A place I like (okay I happen to live there, or maybe only a couple of states over from there. ;->   )  The poem that has these references is “Spirit Level,” by Mark Hiskes, which is actually just about the last poem in the magazine.  Good language, plain spoken: “A hot noon looms.”  A poem about how an encounter with a carpenter at work brings the narrator to a spiritual place.  “floating // within the limits of what we each accept.”

I like how the editors have woven similar poems next to each other throughout the book.  A couple of Ireland-tinted poems, for instance.  “On St. Patrick’s Day // if you nurse your first Guinness, // and if you can recite poetry // like a bard in a mead hall, // you won’t have to pay…” states the poem, “Reciting Yeats’ Poetry in Bars,” a fun little jaunt by Robert Cooperman.  It’s cheek by jowl with “A Parade In Galway,” by Brady Rhoades.  “the pallor of a horseman’s face and in the // barmaid’s shoes a certain discontent…”  Kind of a strange place to break that line, but it’s sort of a strange line, I guess.  Certainly a surprise.

I want to mention “Alba,” by Vickie Cimprich.  “A pot of light // // is slow cooking on the sky.”  An extended metaphor of a poem, but quite original, lots of nice images.  These sorts of poems can be difficult to end with exactly the right tone, but I think she does so.

One of the Plainsongs Award poems is “The Dogs of Santiago,” by Daniel Daly.  “They can storm at each other, // outraged at a slight discourtesy…”  A poem sort of about dogs, and sort of not.  As it should be.  “They loll their sirloin tongues, //and considering, settle back to stare…”  Great line.

Another of the Award poems is a favorite as well, “A Big Beam of Rusting Steel,” by Andrew Kerr.  I like how the poem is opaque, as is the work of abstract art it is describing — there is no easy way in, but if you examine it from enough angles, you see some of the tricks come clear, and then later, the whole work starts to make a deeper sense:  “maybe the straight lines represent // going to work, coming home, dinner, bed, // the linear tracks of ordinary life.”

The third of the Awards poems you’ll just have to look up on your own, and is the reason I won’t be picking a favorite of the issue this time.  ;->

Highly good and excellent.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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New York Rain


Jennifer Chapis is the first of the two poets in The New Yorker this week, giving us “Rain at the Beach,” a non-linear set of non-rhyming couplets presenting various sentences related to the sea.  I don’t get it, but some parts work better than others for me.  I like the line, “Careful, the red jellyfish // washed up onshore // sting after they’re dead.”  Are the jellyfish careful?  Or is that an imperative aimed at the reader?  I like that sort of ambiguity.  It adds depth.  But I have more difficulty with some of the pronouncements: “Whoever said it’s difficult for artists // to be original // probably wasn’t an artist.”  Maybe she just caught me on a bad day, and if I worked at it harder I would get more out of these lines.  Let’s blame me on this one.

Stephen Burt is the other poet this week, giving us “Flooded Meadow.”  A water theme for the magazine, it would seem, but then upon actually reading the poem, there’s no other mention of water anywhere.  So this is kind of a loopy poem, comparing the above-mentioned meadow to a gritty city, and much fun is the result.  “Low dandelion leaves are zoned commercial…”  My favorite metaphor/image/line is probably: “Round oniongrass stalks are old monuments…  You could live up inside one and learn to like it.”  And of course a delightful ending.  Worth hunting down and reading.

Peace in the valley,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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Each of the poems in The New Yorker this week seems to me right down the heart of the plate of what poetry should be about.  First, Amit Majmudar contributes “T.S.A.,” a protest against the bias shown against dark-skinned travelers at airport security points around the country.  “what they really want // is to pick out the swarthiest, scruffiest of us // and pat us top to toe…”  A good poem in this vein for me is one that makes my blood pressure rise and the “ruckem-schmuckem schpiddly-uckems” start dripping from my lips.  This one surely does that.  I’m a sucker for protest poetry well done.

Douglas Goetsch gives us “Poem,” a poem about…well, being a poem.  “You’ve probably right away noticed // the title of this poem is ‘Poem…'”  It’s right away noticed, not noticed right away, and that folksy syntax is at the heart of what makes this poem so delightful.  He even comes close to a Minnesota-ism, with: “some middle // ground, tattooed chemo-nurse // or step-mom-at-a-rifle-range type // of deal.”  I didn’t know anyone else in the country even said “type-a-deal,” but Goetsch is a New Yorker, turns out, so I’ve had my mind expanded on top of all else.

The third poem is David Wagoner’s “On the Road to Damascus,” which describes a moment in the narrator’s life.  “I got out of the taxi and stood on it once.”  A much more controlled-seeming syntax than the other two poems offer, with more of what I like to call breath control — a fine sense of when to say what.  Obviously the other two poems are equally well-controlled behind the scenes, but this one draws you in by the sense that here is something important happening, here is a moment of fundamental change in life.  A quietness underneath.  Wagoner has always been good at that.  “He…exhausted half of his broken English // by saying, ‘No.'”  We get a deep sense of the interrelation between the two characters just in that little compressed moment.  Excellent.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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One key to salable poetry (an oxymoron?) must be to surprise the reader by going someplace unexpected every few lines.  Certainly F.J. Bergmann fulfills this requirement with the poem “Pavane” in this month’s Asimov’s Science Fiction.  “…they learned early // the hour and color of their deaths.”  Of course, just throwing out some non-sequitur will generally not satisfy the editor (nor the reader), there must be some coherence to render greater power and satisfaction.  This poem outlines in a few lines a dystopia where each person’s future demise is central to what they do in their lives, and rebels try to fashion surprise endings.  An intriguing idea.

W. Gregory Stewart contributes a recursive sort of puzzle poem, “(I am nothing, you say, to you, coming close to it)” which could be tricky, since such works often just end in a muddled confusion.  Not this time.  One of the saving graces of this poem is the beauty of the lines themselves.  “really // more the ultimate echo of nothing, than nothing itself…” for example, and “I want to become that trusted emptiness // into which softly you will whisper secrets…”  Kind of from the point of view of an aspiring god, almost.  The god nothing.  Current physics, as I understand it, says nothing is quite filled with something, a strange twist right there, and worthy of poetry. 

The biggest poem in the magazine, and absolutely my favorite, is “Objectifying Faerie,” an ambitious, seven-part poem by Jane Yolen that examines different objects presented by fairy tales — the apple, the spindle, the bridge: “I am the bridge, over the spume, over the river’s rush, over the womb…” in spare, resonant language.  “There is always a toll.”  Subtle rhymes add to the power, and each section has a powerful ending.  Very much worth seeking out.

Finally, let me mention Mary A. Turzillo’s “Care and Feeding,” a surprise (and a delight!) to me because it echoes the subject of a poem I wrote years ago, but never was able to publish.  “They may sulk, it said, when first let out of the cage.”  Her poem is more developed, and I think it brings out the surprise in the idea better, so it comes as no shock that Sheila liked it enough to publish.  In the haiku world, editors often talk about “deja-ku,” haiku that closely resemble (or exactly duplicate) others previously published.  With the spareness of haiku, their repeating motifs and images, and the thousands published each year, some overlap will appear, and in a broader sense the same must happen in genre poetry, and even mainstream.  Haiku, in fact, originated as a call-and-response form, folks referencing each other’s works in clever ways, inverting things, paying homage, one reason I like the genre so much.  In this case, my poem has been on the shelf for years, and there is no overlap in language, but it’s still rewarding to realize, yeah, that was a good idea, I was on the right track, even if my expression of it left too much to be desired — i.e., it’s good to see the idea done right!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The first poem in this week’s New Yorker is “To An Eastern Bluebird,” by Debora Greger.  “You beak-chattering blaze of blue, // patch of sky squatting on a power line…”  Those initial images in a poem can be so hard to get right — original, but not absurd sounding — and she does it very well.   This poem’s strength is its cascading images, powerful one after powerful one.  “…a night’s caterwaul of katydids…”  and “…does rustling to life.”  Isn’t that often just the most satisfying part of poetry, just the rump-kicking images, the ‘can-you-top-this’ cutting contest aspect of it?  Greger would have to be taken seriously in such a competition, with her strength in such showing so well here.

The other poem in the mag is Jeff Dolven’s “Rituals.”  I’m not as familiar with his work (though he has won a Pushcart), but on the strength of this piece, I’ll bet I get more familiar before long.  Kind of a presentation of an obsessive-compulsive moment, with a spiritual ending that just gives such depth and resonance.  “saying the sorts of things the god // least can understand…”  An amazing poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

 

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