Archive for December, 2012

Issue 46.1 of The Laurel Review opens with Chad Parmenter’s “Edward Weston In Louisiana,” a poem evidently about (it’s the subtitle) the narrator “Taking Pictures for a 1941 Edition of Leaves Of Grass.”  Yes, well.  Despite the somewhat offputting title, it’s an interesting poem.  “This is someway // I have never travelled…over water so full of trees…”  opens it up, gives us setting, narrator, direction (yes, someway is one word).  But what works for me is the little lines: “the road pours us toward New Orleans…” which sounds like it should be a cliche, but I don’t ever remember hearing the phrase.  Those may be the most successful lines, ones that sound as if they should always have existed.  “The cypress leaves shiver apart, so the knees // they shade glow.”  I get a picture from that one.  But I see the heart of the poem as: “So why do I carry this feeling with me — // dark-filtered thrill framed by such a numb, sweetening…”  This is an accessible poem, with striking images, and I like to encourage that sort of thing ;->

Bruce Bond has a good poem as well, “Phantom Joy.”  “After the phantom pain fades out // into the common grave of air…”  A very resonant beginning to a resonant poem.  “you might discover // something older, some ghost core…”  The ending confuses me a little, doesn’t give me that surprise smack I love best, but that’s a quibble with a poem that gives us: “something of the child // you were skeletons your dreams…”  That might be my favorite line in the whole issue.

Hannah Gamble’s “It Was Alive, Though Differently,” is a sort of riddle poem, making the reader work to figure out what she means: “It had a poverty hand // and a riches hand.  They were // the same hand.”  Something to chew on.

Aby Kaupang & Matthew Cooperman, with their poem/something “from NOS” (A novel?  Essays?  Doesn’t matter) managed to get this cynical reader to follow all through their experimental style, and even approve of the vast use of empty space.  Mostly I see that as a waste of resources and my time — doesn’t affect me, seems pretentious and overused.  But here, in a work that struggles through drug addiction and relationships, they pull it off.   “we love drugs   we used to not love // drugs…”  There is a pang in this work: “the daughter doesn’t … eat doesn’t sleep doesn’t talk…”  It’s a poem about a world that rarely appears in our literary magazines, from the point of view of writers who have seen the suffering, understand the struggle to escape it, and have created a cry-from-the-heart, a work that matters. It makes almost all the other poems I read this week seem shallow, gabbling items of technical prowess, rather than attempts to communicate something useful.  I deeply believe that in order to have something useful to say, the author has to have advanced through pain, discovered some soul epiphany, and worked out a way to communicate that.  So many times we can fall into the idea that literary epiphanies are sufficient.  Lean on someone else’s revelations, appropriate them for our own.  Not the case here.  This poem is worth reading and re-reading.

And maybe that’s really my quarrel with so much language poetry, academic poetry, and so on —  it’s just such hollow, boring work, and while going through it, critiquing, or even simply taking it in, we forget…I forget… how powerful a poem can be.  How it can communicate the punch of life, how it can matter.  I suspect getting a language poem to matter is actually much more difficult than a linear poem — John Ashbery maybe does it, but very few others — and the best route to success in the non-linear is through laughter.  Not the only route, though, look at Dylan.

I’ve gone on too long, but let me quickly also mention Rosalynde Vas Dias’ “Model,” in this issue, a clever metaphor of a poem.  “You agree to sit for // the miniaturist…he shows you // yourself, very small.”  A little smile of a poem, and may she give us many more such.

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 – Oct 30, 17

The New Yorker – Aug 21 17

More New Yorker Poems


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I’ve been reading American Singers, by Whitney Balliett, on the ongoing theory that much can be learned about an art form by examining other art forms — a kind of synesthesia of confusing this for that.  Poems of course are written about this, I forget the name of the form; point being singers learn to subsume themselves to the song, let the song tell them how to sing.  In like manner, I am discovering poems have a natural rhythm.  I don’t mean just iambics and trochees.  A point made at the beginning of a poem must be allowed its natural time to settle in.  One can get to the end of the poem too quickly, in writing it, before the reader has a chance to absorb, react, resonate to what is being said.  And that damages the poem in a subtle way.  I haven’t mastered the balancing of it, but at least I am aware now, and beginning to try.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Kevin Young begins his poem, “Rapture,” with the line “I want to be awake / when the world ends.”  In order to give us time to absorb this, he immediately tap-dances sideways with the next line: “I want to be my friend / who rose to an empty / house… & thought it was the rapture…”  This second storyline explains, extends, gives another slant on, allows us time to absorb the punch of that first line.  Then at the end of spinning out the second thought, he refers back to the first: “After, / let what I’ve torn — the myself I mourn –”  And by using this device, or construct, when he takes the next natural step with the first thought, it can be the very end of the poem, which suddenly has the power of brevity, since his original thought only takes up about two very short stanzas, but yet has the depth that comes from two views on one idea.  So it’s punch…absorb the punch… punch.  Very effective.  At least for me.

Yehuda Amichai gives us the poem “Love And Memory” in this issue as well.  “How we made love in the memorial forest for the Shoah dead…” it starts, and the image that immediately comes to my mind is from the time we toured Israel, and our guide showed us a landscape about 80% sand and rocks, with a tree here and there, and explained that for Israel, this WAS a forest.  If you haven’t been to Israel, the area around Santa Fe is pretty similar.  If you haven’t been to Santa Fe, you got some travelling to do. ;->  “The forest did the remembering for us and gave us leave to love.”  Great poems seem to have summation lines like this, quintessential lines that give us perspective inside the poem, a way to orient ourselves.  Again, the last line of this poem is worth the whole price of admission, here.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The latest Threepenny Review starts out with a Philip Levine poem, “Albion.”  I actually like this poem.  “On narrow roads twisting // between the farms…”  Maybe because there was a certain amount of ghost story flavor: “I’d been told // that when the west wind raged // local spirits — all the ghosts // of the unmourned — gathered // on the hilltops…”  See, something like that is just gonna gather me right in.  Then he brings a girl to the hilltop.  “…perhaps it was the sky // that moved and everything // else stopped, like the two // of us, listening.”  A very satisfying poem, nothing beyond itself, no stretch to the ultimate mystic, only the spirituality of the moment.

Meena Alexander’s poem, “Migrant Memory,” inspired a poem in me, actually, when I read it.  The line: “Fear humps in me — a pregnancy.  Who will do embroidery on my little one’s skirt?”  So I tried a poem about a mother on her deathbed having to give the care of her little one into the hands of strangers.  Good idea, didn’t work for me.  So you can have the idea for free. ;-> It’s a good, complex poem, anyway, a reflection on her grandmother and India.  I liked this one better than the last poem I recall reading of hers.  Because it’s a little more approachable, probably.  I am interested in what she’ll come up with next.  That’s a good sign.

Seems like W.S. Di Piero gets a poem in about every other issue of 3Penny.  “The Smell of Spearmint.” About a son shaving his father.  “…he demanded to look clean and spare. // We die with habits of self-regard.”  A very sweet, poignant poem. The sort that gets deeper into you each time you read it.

Gotta love the Dean Young poem, “Unlikely Materials,” just for the line: “The peaches, first of the season, were tiny // and powerful as baby rattlesnakes.”  What a surprise to the system the simile is.  Where did it come from, why does it work as well as it does?  “I sat in the car // listening to the rain trying to find its melody.”  Listen, you come up with lines like that, people gonna line up to take your poems.  Uff-da.  I’m warning you, though, the ending is a bit downbeat (which come to think of it matches the beginning).

And the last poem I will mention is Kay Ryan’s “Bunched Cloth.”  I have more anticipation, more alarm and hope when seeing there is to be a Kay Ryan poem in a magazine than anyone else.  And this poem is a great example of why.  “Artists have //found them // endlessly beautiful — // the casually cast // or bunched cloths…”  Of course, her poems are so short you can’t explain why without giving pretty much the whole thing.  How artists find the beauty in cast away things, “the human // moment past.”  Then the twist right before the end, then the twist left at the end, double-punch to the heart.  Wow.  She da best.

I’m out of time, but honestly, I liked every poem in this issue, even the ones I haven’t mentioned.  Wendy Lesser finds quality, no doubt.  She has a gift.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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“It is not miraculous.  Only a handful of silica, fire, // and then the blower twirls another knob of gold.” So begins “Murano,” a poem by Paisley Rekdal in The New Republic magazine this week.  Interesting how beginning with a denial makes the material more intriguing.  If it’s not that, what is it, then, we wonder right away.  The poem describes the work of a glassblower, deliberately shunning any larger derivations, in an almost Imagist way sticking to the concrete.  Almost.  This makes the slightest commentary so much more powerful: “It must be dangerous, this // material, or why else would we watch.”  And because the fripperies are so stripped down, other meanings resonate out — what material might this be a symbol for, what else in life gives us this power of the specific wedded to the unseen?  “Only a spark of heat and then the inevitable // descending numbness.”  Such a choice of words for glassblowing.  So correct and yet surprising, adding shades of meaning.  And of course there’s lots more in this poem, including a splendid ending that turns the rest of the poem on its head.  Reminds me of a fine haiku, in the tying to the concrete, and the turn in the last line, and the stripped down nature leading to reverberations.  Hie thee to a bookstore and find this one!

And so, will the poem “Coupons,” also in this issue, by Jose Antonio Rodriguez hold up to the quality of the first poem?  Well, it’s very different, not a description of a single long process, but a meditation on a history.  “That was the year I wished // our sentences had no periods.”  See how the enjambment of that first line allows us to stop and take the first line on its own, and because we have done so, we can derive two ways to look at this sentence — as a whole, and where the second line somehow makes the first come true.  This is the year he wanted.  When the boundaries have been discarded.  The next line also twists because of the enjambment, maybe in a little crueller a fashion: “The year you said something meaningful // about a constellation.”  Really?  Only in one year of your relationship did your companion ever say anything meaningful?  Ooh, that’s cold.  ;->  But then, he pokes fun at himself the same way, a little later: “That was the year I thought //…”  So let’s forgive him.  And then the turn of the poem reveals the narrator and his companion were very young back then, and the various proclamations and insecurities suddenly make more sense, and as do the sadness and limitations wrought on them at the end of the poem.  A touching ending, after all that.

Peace and poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Styxian Stones

There are some amazing poems in issue 88 of River Styx, starting with the first of the issue, “If the World Ends,” by Bruce Bennett.  “One day it came into my head to say, // If the world ends, I want to be with you…” a simple emotion, and a clean, brief poem.  Beautifully rendered, with an exactly right ending.

Since the theme of the issue was the end of the world, many other poems followed up on this idea — from those with a high tone, like Juliana Gray’s translation from the epic of Gilgamesh, “The Story Of The Flood,” “why should I not be starved and burned, bereft // of clothing, my body wrapped in stinking skins?  My brother Enkidu, my friend has died.”  Such a powerful, straightforward expression of wrenching grief —

— to those with just a strange approach, like Albert Goldbarth’s “An Isosceles Triangle Was the Same On Earth Or Mars,” (I like it though) with its twist on alien archeologists wondering about the human eternal love triangle.  “Two of their skeletons // are buried // side by side…as if death were a form of elision…” great images.

My favorite poem of all the apocalyptic ones was Rachel Christilles’ fun poem, “Hormone Apocalypse,” about teenage girls in the mid-80’s forming the final disaster.  “Maybe it rains down as a pack of popular eighth grade girls from 1984…”

This issue also contained the winners and finalists for the River Styx Contest.  And A.E. Stallings chose very well, here.  I dug into several of these poems to see what they were doing to be interesting, and to catch the reader; each used a different combination of rhyme and metaphor, theme and irony, location, even mystery and delay (e.g. Brian Brodeur, in his excellent and sad poem “Cousins,” introducing a third character in the poem suddenly, me, you and now ?, but not telling the reader right away that the third character is the “you” character’s brother until the third stanza).  None of these poems used all these tools, but all use at least three, and in the top poems, each thread is developed — in one of them there were three themes/motifs, for instance.  And always the surprise, the metaphor I did not expect, the striking description.

The winning poem, “Minnows,” by Hailey Leithauser, used internal rhymes, and combined hi-falutin’ references to Homer and the Bible balanced with understatement: “I sing to your inch length” then “I name you nothing bright or numinous…” and did a great job of choosing the exact right word, and multiplying rhymes throughout the short poem.

“Ground Oregano,” by Debra Marquart, used a powerful attitude by the narrator to almost overwhelm the ostensible theme, cooking with oregano, in describing her relationship with an ex.  “he insisted he was allergic, although I’d used it in the the lasagna..he’d eaten with relish, without illness…”  To keep us hooked with amusement at the evisceration of the fellow.

All complex, interesting stuff.  A lot to learn from.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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