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Archive for June, 2012

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I think of Jane Hirschfield as writing complex poems that build to a powerful ending, the sort of poem with starfields and a person or two groping around in the emptiness.  Well, not in this week’s New Yorker.  Her “This Morning, I Wanted Four Legs,” is a pleasant throwaway of a poem, a fun little trot  — from the physics of anatomy “Nothing on two legs weighs much, // or can…” — to noting the drawbacks: “Two legs pitch you forward” — through solutions found: “They look for another two legs to be with…” and on to a little jump of an ending. Sometimes we need our poetry summery, and she delivers.

Jana Prikryl, on the other hand, has a much weightier and portentous title: “The Letters of George Kennan and John Likacs, Interspersed with Some of My Dreams” and even the visual effect of the poem on the page is daunting. 17 three line stanzas (with a couple too long that must be broken).  How can one even approach a poem like this without dread?  But in we go, and so it seems our worst fears are instantly realized: we suffer through losing the wife in the first stanza, depression in the second, a decent line in the third: “My words are carved on gravel stones” that nonetheless does have a bit of weight, and which anyway the author immediately credits to Donne, some Kierkegaard in stanza the 4th, God and the pursuit of truth in the 5th and a muzzle in the 6th that the narrator himself does not put on.  (Prikryl is a woman, but the poem seems to have a male voice) But wait, there’s hope, by the 8th stanza we get to the second wife, could this be a turn for the optimistic?  Well, no, we’re soon back to great calamities (are there any other kind?), internal infant demons, and despair.  And why?  The narrator is blaming him/herself for “my failure to bring about // a better understanding of nuclear weaponry and Soviet- // American relations.”  If you’re gonna go, you might as well go over the top.  ;-> Finally we get past world collapse, and of course things get better immediately: “Deer outside my window in Manhattan, // and woods, and a girl on a horse…” ending with a bit of a self-referential whirl, and there you go.  Quite a romp of a poem.  Takes trust that the reader won’t just pitch the mag across the room, that one will get the joke.  Muldoon seems to like this sort of deep humor, the intellectual straight line, if you will.  A poem to go back and re-read for more smiles.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Quite a few enjoyable poems in the latest River Styx, one of which is George Bilgere’s “Darkly Shifting Flux,” (despite the unfortunate, multiple meanings of the word flux) about teaching students Middle English poetry.  Pretty much a cheerful poem: “I swim about a half-a-mile // under a series of cloudy metaphors…” and “my wife, kneeling amid // her conflagration of perennials.”  Sounds like a nice garden.  the ending goes for the general, done well.

Chris Bullard does a great poem, “The Poltergeist,” which ought to get consideration for a Rhysling Award, in my opinion.  A sonnet: “The form you saw seemed only dust and air…a witch’s stare // that startled you…the place had former owners.  Had one died?  // No one knew her.  The block had gentrified.”  Great, easy rhyme, there. 

Jeanne Emmons has a great word game poem, “”Why the Child Does Not Want To Go To Kindergarten.”  “I’m scared, she says, of the silent E.”   Then the narrator gives a bunch of words changed by adding or subtracting an e, creating a lfie story on the way.  “A little sham will turn to shame.  // A mat becomes a lifelong mate…A bit becomes a bigger bite.”

Lauren Henley personifies “Revenge” to good result, Todd Davis reminisces about his father in “What I Told My Sons After My Father Died.”  “I don’t wish // to add to my sons’ sorrow.  If I could play three notes // upon the fiddle, I’d do that instead.” 

I was struck by Travis Mossotti’s going home poem, “Trends Motel, Ellisville, MO.”  Maybe because it has a whiff of condescension — not the perfect, bleached little poem here:  “I can remember // the discarded old men I worked // with each summer, consummate // lifelong losers all, who lived out // of station wagons and pick-ups // during the week…” as though the narrator can know their lives, or has the slightest idea how their lives might have gone before, or might turn out in the future.  But the narrator does comes to understand that, maybe, a little bit, by the end of the poem:  “Perhaps I could empathize a little // with what it means to live on // the wrong side of mercy, although // I doubt it…”  And a pretty good ending line as a capper.

But the best poem of the issue is Joshua Mehigan’s “At the Men’s Mission,” with the attitude and voice leaping off the page at you: “How many sons-of-bitches no one loves, with long coats on in June…” and boy you can see the scene instantly.  Just a punch of a poem, a voice, a point-of-view that leaves the rest of the poems looking washed-out and pale and too familiar.  “have had to sit there listening to some … // behind a plywood podium in the chapel… stock-still except his lips and Adam’s apple, // telling them…”  I always love finding poems like that.  Makes the hunt more exciting the next time.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

 

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The latest American Scholar, per usual practice, features one poet, Spencer Reece this month, and this time only one poem, “The Upper Room.”  This is made up for by the poem being several pages long.  I remember the poem he had in the New Yorker a few years ago, “The Clerk’s Tale,” an amazing poem for someone with no rep (at the time).  About being a clerk at the Mall of America, which subject should not have caught the attention as thoroughly as it did.  So we might be lulled into thinking of the subject of “The Upper Room,” time spent in the seminary, becoming a minister, as not very intriguing.  But he makes it so.  “it required crossing the threshold from the profane to the sacred.”  Reece, for me, holds my attention not so much with the flash of language, as with intriguing lines like that.  What is he going to do with that line — it calls out for going somewhere interesting.  Can he pull that off?  And he does, building one interesting line after another:  “a paradoxical proposition for most, including myself.”  I think a position of humility by the narrator of a poem, a sympathetic character, is overlooked as a powerful device.  To write humble poems, does one have to be a humble person?  “I went in search of the transcendant in those days.”  Somehow, the distancing effect of that last phrase, in those days, keeps this line from a swelled head.  “It is never easy to abandon one world for another.”  And of course, poetry that contains wisdom (like that last line) is most intriguing of all for me.  It’s honestly what I read poetry for, more than anything, and extremely rare.  I’m guessing there just aren’t many poets with easy access to the well of wisdom.  Kay Ryan has it.  A few others, once in a while.  Simic.  Merwin.  It makes slogging through a long poem worth it.  More poetry these days seems to be narrative — telling a story, as versus the lyrical poetry that has held sway, I would argue, for the last x many decades.  And Reece tells his story well.  “I needed a hiding place, // and that room compensated for such an enterprise.”  As you can see, he uses long lines, as befits a long narrative poem, with an easy sweep to them.  As the poem proceeds, details get packed closer and closer together.  “dollars, Euros, pounds…” and he sends out lyrical flights: “”the clock’s hands scissor through the day’s indigo shadows.”  Also, as the narrator works his way through the seminary, the poem becomes about his relatives, all he is leaving behind, and it picks up power.  “I awaited what I could not see.”  Then we pass the climax: “I crossed the threshold,” and reach the ending, which goes right to where it should, and satisfies grandly.  I’m glad I had a chance to read this poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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Atlantic Rhymes


The June issue of the Atlantic has a couple poems, both rhyming efforts, the first by X.J. Kennedy, called “Lonesome George” about a giant tortoise kept in captivity, the last of his species.  Kennedy flips some language around to keep the rhymes going here and there: “he solemnly persists // in turning into feces // eelgrass brown and dry…”  Now for me, that leaves a very unfortunate image of a brown, turtle-shaped log drying in the sun.  “Straining to gulp a fly, // he hastily retrieves// blunt head.”  Whose blunt head?  The fly’s?   We have to stop to think, not a good sign.  Don’t get me wrong, there are things to admire in this poem: “dead-ending male” is a great phrase, and “his tail // antennaing the air” is fun.  I like Kennedy’s work, by and large, but this one absolutely needed its very excellent ending for absolution, in my view.

“Aspen Song,” by Robert Morgan, is a poem about aspens in a highland setting: “The sound of water in the air…” which is, of course, the sound that aspen leaves make with any breeze, a wonderful sound.  “as though the upland pasture // remembers oceans at this height…”  Great images, which start me thinking and daydreaming a little.  How much of our joy in poetry is in the joy of daydreaming it brings us?  Anyway, this is a compact poem, with no excess slop — gets in, dazzles, gets out.  And a triplet rhyme to end it all (okay, near rhymes).  Just a top-notch effort.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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There’s so much to Nimrod, I hate to let it go with only mentioning so few of the poets contained therein.  So to continue with both the magazine, and the discussion of excellent endings, Julianna McCarthy gives us “In The Bedroom,” which starts: “May I wait in the tunnel of the moon’s // eclipse…”  A very cool line.  It seems, to discuss the endings of these poems, so often I need to reference the beginnings, and so it is here.  She delivers many images of the night, lost snails, wine smell, jumbled in a dreamlike way, songbirds, cats, all sorts of animals, which makes it quite fitting when she ends with: “I’ll rise, set hounds of dreams to track…and lay night’s small things at my feet.”  So another trick of endings can be fathomed — to let them arise out of a motif (animals here) but a motif now presented in a different way.  Which in this case is the sudden introduction of violence between animals, mortality.  The turn gives a shock, and a disturbance, and makes the whole poem more memorable.

So how do poets know when it’s time to stop?  Obviously, some don’t (we’ll name no names, but a whole school of them wrote in the 50’s!)  ;-> 

I think that is a huge difference between most poems in the top markets, and poems in markets arguably one step less competitive (able to accept more poems per issue).  New Yorker poems, New Republic poems, are honed down to the bone.  There are no excess words, no lessening of power with too wide a swing.  Over and over, the lines of a poem in a top market come straight at you, and more is left out than most poets would dare.  Grace Cavalieri in “Vanished Reflections” here has a line that might not have worked at a top market: “if I can find the problem to solve, the puzzle, the argument…”  Now she’s a top poet — so we know the choice to go around at the phrase three times is deliberate, gives us the impression of working something out as she goes.  But it’s just too darn many words for too little idea — at least, in this one tiny spot.  (She is discussing, perhaps, the dialogue between her inner girl, reaching for beauty, and her crafty self, knowing the techniques of writing, so there is a lot of give and take between the two poles/characters in the poem).  Since Nimrod takes a lot more poems, it can give her that room to breathe as a poet, but those top markets, two, three, five poems in a whole issue, not so much.  There every line, every phrase must surprise, must twist, must delight.  Here there is more room to mull.

Still, Nimrod is a very respectable market, and the ending must have power, or any poem’s chances of placing here are slim:  “If you believe in someone enough, // Time’s sweet crawl will bring her back.  // She comes only so she can leave.  // She comes for that.”  (I love that ‘Time’s sweet crawl’.  And such beautiful lines are scattered throughout the poem).  A summative ending rather than a turn to something new, a deepening of reflection through repetition. 

And may I say that we need magazines like Nimrod for just these sort of passionate poems — Cavalieri writes many poems honed for the top markets, but it’s good we also have a place to publish works like this, that need a bit more room to stretch out, to work around the idea — Titian at the end of his life started painting much looser works, working even with his fingers to get at the passion. What a loss not to have ever known what may come from a little more uncertainty, a little more gambling.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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I’ve been working my way through the latest Nimrod for a few days now.  It’s really too big for me to read all at a sitting.  That’s a good thing, btw!  It does make me consider what makes a good ending for a poem, though, when thinking about the differences between Nimrod and other magazines — what style they prefer.  So I am going to compromise my usual standard of not giving away the ending on a poem or two, for the purpose of the discussion.

Robin Chapman starts us out with “Hubble Maps Dark Matter.”  “Dark clumps that we can neither see nor hear…” a relatively straightforward poem, with some good lines in it: “build up // our world of sight from photon flight // and ricochet…”  But I would argue it sold in large part because of the frisson of her ending.  “there it hides, dark matter filigreeing //space…teaching us // how to see what we cannot see // by the way it warps and bends our lives.”  A step up to a large conclusion, which seems to fit such a large subject comfortably.

Eric Pankey works the same stepping-back riff in his “June Depression,” a sort of non-linear work:  “How rare happiness. A white fox born of a snowdrift.  // The past?  Back there at an impossible distance.”  Notice how the specificity of the image in the next to the last line gives him a little rhythm, or room, to make the more general observation in the last line.  Such a juxtaposition lends power when done right, I’d argue.

Eleanor Paynter has an ending much more of a piece with her work as a whole, in “Dismantling the Hive.”  The setup:  “It began with one bee // unrelenting above the sink…” so we get the realization bees are in the house, and something must be done, then the work to be rid of the hive, and finally the ending, given power by the sharp images, the final phrase so cold, and unrelenting:  “this coffin hive  a small empire // he passed down to her in viscid fistfuls, none of it spared.”  (Think how much less powerful that would be with the alternate phrase, viscous handfuls).

In each case here, the ending seems to crystallize the theme, to be the most intense moment, despite the different approaches.  All are deftly handled. 

There’s more to be said about this magazine, so I will continue later.  But obviously, there is a lot of worthy stuff for the reading there.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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