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Archive for May, 2012


So the New Yorker is doing a science fiction issue this week.  I’m glad to see they did actually turn to writers in the SF community for commentary, though they chose the old standbys that mainstream feels comfortable with:  — Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood.  Don’t know how China Mieville snuck in there!  But not the poets.  No sniff of Joe Haldeman, Bruce Boston, John Calvin Rezmerski, Ruth Berman, whomever we might consider the leading speculative poets.  On the plus side, they published poems by Kay Ryan (and let’s face it, she’s two thirds of the way to speculative anyway!)  and Charles Simic — and for me, brilliance always trumps orthodoxy in any universe. 

Anyway, Ryan’s “The Octopus” indeed would fit in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, any of that crew: “The octopus has // eight of something.  // If they’re legs then // all the arms are // missing.”  She has such fun turning observation on its head.  Then she adds the speculative twist: “some button in the // shop turned on or off.”  And hints at a movie monster future: “Sometimes a brain-feed // sticks until the brain…has // a hundred times the // strength it needs…”  Just a delightful poem, with a happily eerie ending.  I bet Paul Muldoon saved up this poem specially for this themed issue.

You can think that way about Simic’s “Driving Around” as well, I suppose.  “Our Main Street…looks like // an abandoned movie set // whose director…” and off the poem goes, its conceit sprung into play, a quick little dart of a thing.  Seems to me Simic often does the casual observation in passing, leaving the reader to mull what just happened, maybe getting at the chewy center, maybe not, but often resonating for a long time afterwards.  And like science fiction, leaving the reader with a bit of a Twilight Zone chill!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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Chicago Gold


Great issue from Poetry Mag this month.  Maybe the best in years.  Seems like every contributor hit their home run.  Starts with Stuart Dybek’s “Scythe,” a lyric little poem about somebody finding a scythe in an old barn.  “Daylight perforates the siding despite the battered armor of license plates.”  What a great line.  And a great visual, so easy to see, so easy to remember seeing its like.  I’m thinking Christian Ponder loves secret sonnets, and this is another one, with its gnomic rhymes: decay with history; soil, skull, then trail, all in a row.  Keeps it interesting.  And Dybek has a way with a line. Here’s from his third poem in the issue, “Their Story” — “turn up the blue dial // under the kettle until darkness boils //with fables” (another near-rhyme, see?) “and mirrors defrost to the quick”  I know a good line when I’m jealous of it, as I am of that last.

William Logan gives us “Christmas Trees,” a powerful, poignant poem of a time now long gone.  “How should I now recall // the icy lace of the pane…or the skies of alcohol // poured over the saltbox town?”  The subtle threat of that word, alcohol, only the most indirect hint of what’s happening in the boy’s life.  “searching for that tall…Scotch pine // from the hundreds laid in line // like the dead at Guadalcanal.”  Using the metaphor to give us the year, the situation, and then Logan delivers a gut blow of an ending, a poem the way poems are meant to be written.

Kim Addonizio usually serves up poems I like.  This time it’s “Heraclitean,” and a bit more of a challenge: “In goes the cafeteria worker in her hairnet.  // In goes the philosophy teacher…” Think how many less-honed poets would have started this poem off by unnecessarily setting the scene, something like: ‘I think of my school days….’  She is far more skillful.  Just those two lines, we know where we are, what is the starting subject.  “Everyone flopped into the creel // of the happy fisherman, everyone eaten.”  Such an amusingly cruel line.  “The heart softening faster than cereal // but then hardening  to a relic  // which turns into another line of depressed poetry…” hey what?  And just like that we’re at the heart of it, it’s a poem about poetry!  “…to recite to the next  eager trainee // anxious to be more than lint.”   Well, that hurts!  And the ending, an oblique reference to an earlier image in the poem.  Maybe not my favorite ending, but maybe I just haven’t sat with it enough, to really get the full understanding.  And go back and consider the attention to her world that comes out with the softening cereaal.  What a great metaphor to have found, que no?  Gotta say thank you for that one.

Dean Young gives us a great, funny poem, “Peach Farm,” — or maybe I should say a poem with funny lines.  “I’m thinking it’s time to go back // to the peach farm or rather, // the peach farm seems to be wanting me back…”  “Okay, full disclosure, I’ve never // been on a peach farm…”  There’s a delight when we know the poet is not portentously serious.  “I’d like to say the most important fruits are within but that’s the very sort of bulls**t // one goes to the peach farm to avoid…”  And an easy, welcoming, cynical sort of ending.  Disclosure of my own, though: I may love this poem in part because my wife and I once lived in Connecticut, and we’d go pick blueberries and peaches at Bishop’s Orchard, so I have been on a peach farm, and it’s one of the best little memories of our marriage, picking those Sweet Belle of Georgia peaches, white peaches, best we either of us ever ate, then getting some smooth cheese and bread and going home and just having a’ afternoon of it.  So Dean does have some living to go do yet!  Oh, yeah.

I’ve gone way over my limit and haven’t mentioned W.S. Di Piero, who won the Ruth Lilly Award and has a pile of poems in this issue, very much worth reading.  Claudia Emerson has some good work here.  her “Early Elegy: Headmistress” is great.  There are poems from the past for the 100 year anniversary… Ah, just go buy the issue!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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Complex New York


Rae Armentrout has another poem in the New Yorker this week, “Pitch,” and I must say I can see why.  For one thing, it makes sense, which is not always at the top of her to-do list with a poem.  “Beautiful, // the way the partita // progresses and retreats”  A partita being a set of musical variations, like a suite, my dictionary tells me.  One particular joy about poetry is that anyone can use any word in (or, I suppose, out of) the dictionary, reasonably confident that the audience, rather than huffing off in annoyance, will actually enjoy learning a new word.  I don’t think they always give you that luxury in fiction anymore.  But the poem has a pair of parts, mimicking its subject, which sections relate almost as indirectly as the two images in a good haiku.  The first section describes the movements in a partita, the second tells us (I think) that the partita was created by software: “Long Term Technologies // has made these.  The only ‘poesy’ language comes towards the end: “silver echoes — // ‘Silver Acres’–” which I guess is cool, but as does happen with her poems, I am left feeling I am missing something.  Not that I can’t understand the subject, but that there seems no epiphany, no emotional kick.  The tone is so flat.  Maybe that is what is supposed to amaze.  Like an abstract painting of disparate-sized red boxes on a canvas colored background.  But I do admire the craft, the way the form reflects the subject, and the illumination and wider view afforded by the turn in the second stanza.

In our own turn to the second part, there is one other poem in the magazine, “The Overhaul,” by Kathleen Jamie, and we are given no mystery what this poem is about.  She tells us in the first stanza, and the first line is especially entrancing:  “Look — it’s the Lively, // hauled out above the tide line // up on a trailer with two // flat tires.”  I can see it instantly, I have an emotional reaction, there’s a confidence in her voice that draws me in, and that first line…well, I don’t know that I can parse out why it strikes me as delightful.  But I think to myself, I’m gonna like this poem.  And yep, I do.  “chained by the stern // to a pile of granite blocks.”  It’s so prosaic, on one hand, and yet it gives such a vivid portrait in a few words.  This is a poor land, and an empty one: “the school bus calls // and once a week or so // the mobile library.”  Almost a different time and place, it’s so remote.  A play on the word spray caught me by surprise.  And a solid ending, leaving us with a sense of fullness and completion, as at the end of an excellent meal.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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“Shackleton’s Biscuit,” by T.R. Hummer in this week’s New Yorker, is a sort of accretive poem, a listing of things, interesting (as the author always must hope with these sort of things) in the unusual and suprising things cataloged: “Of ox and luncheon tongue, six hundred pounds…” so starts the poem, with a quaint tone of phrase to lure us further into the poem, quickly to meet “one biscuit, // this one of thousands…”  And then to describe the men and animals who died during its days of splendor: “the ponies, whose lives // flew through bullet holes easily over the frozen // Labyrinth…it remains perfectly nutritious.”  In the ending, a twist into the modern moment where the narrator encounters the totemic object, and we are struck by the elegaic alongside the prosaic.  I do appreciate this poem on an intellectual level, but list poems ain’t my thing (never read much Whitman with enthusiasm).  Still, as you can see above, there are arresting turns of phrase, and plenty of evidence why this poem was selected as worthy of entry into the canon of the magazine.  (Those who imagine cannons blasting confetti of ripped magazine pulp must be deplored, deplored I say!)  And honestly, I got a good rich sense of the flavor (sorry!) of the poem overall.  A cool thing for one to deliver.

Franz Wright has never been top of my heap, but I really enjoyed “Medicine Cabinet,” in the same magazine, so that may be changing.  I liked the humor best: “I was about a quarter to // dead.  That little twinge…?  Off the smiley/frowny // pain chart, children, my garden of scars.”  I admire the ambiguity of garden of scars there — referring to his hangover or his children?  As with other poems I’ve discussed recently, he throws in diversions and detours to keep the reader intrigued: “Were you aware, incidentally…” Which is maybe a key to keeping a prose poem interesting.  And the tone is good.  “One day I am going to start to cry and never stop // until I die.  So what.”  Great wryness, understatement, cynicism, whatever you call it.  The overall effect delivering a great expression of what a hangover is like.  Very enjoyable.

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 – Jan 22 2018

The New Yorker – Nov 20 2017

The New Yorker – Oct 30, 17

 

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Review Redo


I was very much impressed by Steve Gehrke’s “Visitation” poem in The Missouri Review, so I wanted to continue yesterday’s blog on the magazine.  It’s a long poem, maybe 100 lines, broken into two sections, and the first section is so strange and wonderful, I read it over and over.   “he came out of her looking like he’d been dipped in ash…so that finally the doctors carved the organs out of him…the electric, oracular brain…” but the whole effect is stranger than I can show with little review pieces of the poem.  “The flinthearted doctors threw // the empty skin into the trash, or so she claimed…”  So we’ve deconstructed the kid, but then he reverses: “the skin began to heal…to cry…arisen in her hands…” Just an amazing, fever dream of a poem, and section one ends so poignantly, with such a cut/turn, your breath is taken away.  So how can he then put a second section on the poem?  But he does.  Brings the matter into his own heart, into his own soul.  “my wife saw me pick up a phone // and start talking to a dial tone…”  Then he joins the two: “a piece of the imagination’s rubble…”  and ends it in a wrenching, perfect way.  A poem deserving of a Pushcart, for all of me.

Mark Wunderlich is the other poet in the issue, and I enjoyed his poem, “Stone Arabia.”  “The horses bisect the field // pull the cutting plow…” and each stanza laid out like a plow — I’m a sucker for a bit of concrete poetry — “Black cows punctuate // the green page of pasture…” so he’s mixing the images of pasture and writing, and in fact ends the poem with such a conflation, very nicely done.  His next poem, “A Servant’s Prayer,” is kind of a bitter little poem: “O Tenderhearted, O Kindhearted, // you who have spared us from eternal servitude, // by torturing and killing your only child…” Well, that’s a little offputting, but then we get to “I beg you, assuage my bitterness…” and now I’m feeling it alongside the poet, yes, I too have been meaner than I should, even today I have, so a prayer to get over such bitterness can be of use to me too.

There are other rich poems in this issue as well, but only so much time and energy to get them all in.  So…read the mag!  I very much recommend it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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It helps in poetry, as in so much in life, if one can add a bit of humor.  In this season’s Missouri Review, David Kirby proves onces again this is a strength.  His “Siberia,” a long and winding poem, starts out with a comic premise: “I’m not thinking of vodka, or the czar…but of orgies, of all things, // which I assume occur here // at the same rate at which orgies occur in other countries.”  Such a light, delicate tone, perfect for a chuckle.  He plays against a broad, lowest-common-denominator expectation: “they’re laughing and splashing each other, not starving…or pulling their teeth out with their own fingers…” He elevates the tone in discussin the Russian poet Shalamov, and comes to a reasonable conclusion.  “a poem must be like // an orgy — okay, you’re disappointed most // of the time, but you never know…”  Then chugs on for a couple more lines after that.  His “The Hate Poem” also works a humorous vein, though without so many chuckles.  “me, a likable rube who thinks // ‘dinner’ means two kinds of sugary cereal…”  The thing one can do with Kirby is stop and consider the choices of his language — why he sort of runs on here, how he presents an idea there, and admire the subtlety of what seems at first quite broad.  He gets at things sort of sideways, and with many false starts, but when he finally does, you realize that maybe there really was no better way to get there. 

More to say about the poets in this issue, but ran out of time to say it, so I’ll be back soon, as Christopher Robin once said… ttfn.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

 

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In the current Asimov’s Science Fiction, Gord Sellar gives us an interesting speculative poem, “Fix,” about someone working in a call center who remotely zaps unwanted memories.  A cool idea, well worked out, with some delightful lines.  “‘You there?’ she asks…tears like sequins sewn into her voice.”  “The device buzzes, loudly, then goes silent.  // The woman stops weeping, asks, ‘What was I saying?'”  The author gives us much to chew over, as good speculative poetry will:  “our sorrows, pains, trials all meaningless…pain to be erased, or not.”  And a highly excellent ending, which I would give much too much away about were I even to discuss it in general.

“Terraformations,” by Robert Frazier, is also of a scientific bent.  “If we are unfolded like schematics…if we abandon…the narrow bent…that this is our one and singular iteration…true human kind is no more fixed // than the soup of genetics inside a chrysalis…”  Well, then what, you might ask.  Ah, it’s fun to find out where he goes with this.  This poem translates less well into little snippets than some — the language is more sonorous and playful than I have revealed with my narrow cuts above, but it surely does leave you thinking.

It says much about mainstream poetry that so little of it deals with the scientific — such mind-blowing things are going on in computers, in genetics, in the study of the brain, everywhere really, but barely a whisper of that appears in the weightier journals of our day.  Honestly, I think it’s a harsh indictment of our system of academic magazines that so little is even contemplated about such massive, profound changes in our world.  How our lives are affected, our jobs, our daily living.

Thank goodness for the speculative realm, where folks think about such things, and react to them.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Reading this week’s New Yorker, I was struck by how original the openings of the poems were.  Bob Hicok begins with “Confessions Of A Nature Lover,” a comic look at love, which begins, “Back then I was going steady // with fog…”  I did not, and don’t think anyone saw that coming.  With fog?  What does that mean?  He follows his strange little conceit with “I threw her over // for a leaf…” and has some fun with it.  “…and a lot // of relatives, this leaf // and that leaf…”  He then goes oblique again, and comes up with a whole different structure to build his ending: “…we say of real estate, location, location, location, and of speech, locution, locution…” then spins up a romantic ending.  Okay.  That’s weird.  I read Hicok because he’s fun, though.  And he’s very good at this.  None of this strikes me as easy to do, keeping focused through all this.  He uses a shift, from the little loves with various parts of nature, into that structure of repetition to keep the craziness hanging together.  I think even a wild poem like this (especially?) needs some structure to keep the reader interested.  And humor goes a long ways, too.

Sean O’Brien has an equally outrageous opening line in “Audiology” — “I hear an elevator sweating in New Orleans…”  It just drives home that at the top of the market, originality pretty much trumps all.  And one outrageous line does not do the trick; they must come one after the other like waves.  So that even knowing the first line does not help the reader guess what the second will be: “Water folding black on black in tanks deep under Carthage…”  O’Brien also makes sure no idea here gets boring by lasting too long.  The narrator goes into a little paranthetical discussion of “you,” then just as quickly shifts away: “But this is not about you.”  The motif hanging everything together throughout is sound/hearing: “logorrhea // in the dreaded Quiet Coach”  Which brings up the point that the images strung together must be original as well: “The crackle of the dried-out stars.” 

Also, over and over, poems at this level end with something shocking, amazing, delightful.  As per usual, though, I’m not going to repeat either ending, since I’d rather readers sought out these poems on their own to find out what happens. ;->  Anyway, both these poems are very well done.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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So what makes a good turn in a poem?  Me, I like it powerful.  That shock of…’oh, they can’t say that, can they?’  I want an epiphany, something that changes my view of the world, or adds to my understanding.  I want it to step up and out of the current context, to an overview of the whole world.  (Drilling down to the tiniest particular can work, too).  Wasn’t it Godel’s Theorem that states no system can be completely explained within itself, that is, cannot be fully self-contained?  So we have to leap out of a poem to get a clear view of it, as well. 

In the current New Republic, Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ poem, “Mare Incognitum” has a great turn.  It starts by examining the fact that we actually can’t remember some of our most important moments: “That I can’t recall my first glimpse of my mother…how could // I?”  And there is your epiphany, though not as part of the turn.  He maintains a deprecating tone throughout, but rises out of it to deliver some amazing lines: “Are we here because the mere dust of stars // torched in the throat of an equation?”  Took me a couple double-takes to realize that verb is intransitive.  It’s all one argument throughout, though, until the final stanza, when he introduces the turn: “as the first idea flares and reverses // like the first new motion of that…majestic ocean…”  And there we find his turn is a move up and out to metaphor.  Bringing us back to the title, Mare Incognitum, ‘unknown sea’ in Latin, encompassing life, the unknowable interior of ourselves, the womb, jeez how do ya get all that in a tiny little poem?  But he did.  Bravo.

The other poem in the issue, by contrast, has no immediately discernable turn (discernable to me, that is — there are lots of subtler folks in the world!) , proving we don’t always need one — “Mirror,” by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.  How lucky we are to have such God-touched translators in our time, not to mention Szymborska herself.   This poem relies on original moments and constant surprises to make its case.  “…that wall // in our demolished town…jutted almost up to the fifth floor.  // A mirror hung on the fourth.”  So we see the mirror, first what it does not reflect, then the crazy things it does, hanging up there in the middle of nowhere, in the sky, but at the end, rather than a turn, the author simply sums the mirror up: “And like any well-made object, // it functioned flawlessly…” then goes on to one last quick reversal/surprise in the last line.  Using the language of the common objects of our life, contrasting the domestic with a disaster endured by the larger society.  Most satisfying.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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So if I’m so down on non-linear poetry, how come I like John Ashbery so much?  (A bit of a straw man here, I actually like quite a few non-linear poems, but there’s a wisp of truth in there…)  I think of him as the most polarizing, starkly anti-sensible poet we have.  But I enjoy the heck out of his poems.  Why?  Well, let’s go to the evidence, most recently his poem “Resisting Arrest,” in this week’s New Yorker.  Even the most curmudgeonly among us have to admit he knows how to start a poem, put an arresting (sorry!) line out there — “A year and a day later the wolf stopped // by as planned.”  Face it, you’re gonna read the second line.  Even knowing it won’t follow very directly from the first one.  “…you could tell // from the way he favored his gums…all was // not well.”  So we’ve drifted a bit from the direction the first line implied.  But we still have a “he,” so it’s still possible we’re gonna make sense of this one, finally.  Then a twist again, again slightly further off to somewhere else: “Later the driving pool shifted.”  So, he’s seductive.  And he puts punchy lines out there, over and over throughout the poem.  But honestly, it’s the absurd swoops from here to there that really send me.  A few lines later: “here again // he was unyielding, hoping to lure a big-name // retailer…”  Just the crazy joy of some wolf trotting in from the forest with determination and a retailing plan, makes me chuckle.  And more than that, some lines are just flat funny, taken in isolation: “Plethoras to be announced, etc.”  The tone makes it funny.  And maybe that’s the secret.  He has a tremendous ear for tone, for putting a flat comment next to another, those kind of phrases we all just kind of skip over, nodding our heads, until we back up and say wait a second!  I’m glad we’ve got him.

Well, I hear thunder, so I may have to cut this off a bit short, but a couple lines first about Virginia Konchan’s “Love Story,” in the same issue.  She too has a non-linear poem, she too has surprising lines: “My body… has been a bucket of asphalt // upside down in the puerile wind.”  Not funny, like Ashbery, but still interesting, stuff to think about. 

Peas in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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