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Archive for February, 2013


I am not an easy sell on a longer poem. Every page I have to flip while reading lowers my expectations, and I fear this has much to do with long experience. But it may be my own failing: I never have been able to get through “Idylls of the King,” for instance. ;-> So the fact that Joshua Mehigan in the February issue of Poetry Magazine not only got me to read his poem, “The Orange Bottle,” but then to re-read it to my wife, all the way through, with all those pages to flip, well, that’s going some. “The clear orange bottle was empty. / It had been empty a day…Maybe he’d changed. Or maybe the doctors had misunderstood.” A poem about the descent into madness and the slow trek back. The wisdom of experience shines through this poem, which starts me along the path of reading it, but more than anything, the humor draws me through. “Why should he go to his workplace? / Who was his supervisor? / He had a sickening feeling / that he was becoming wiser.” This shows the rhyme scheme as well, very difficult to pull off in such a long poem. And every sentence becomes shaded with meaning, with dread and danger, until disaster happens, and we begin the long slog back. It ends with a brilliant closing line. Another great Mehigan poem.

I like Sara Peters’ poem, “The Last Time I Slept In This Bed,” as well. “I was involved in the serious business / of ripping apart my own body.” It emerges in a series of unrhymed couplets, which seem the right form for this serious little poem. “I’d always tire, // and let night enter / like a silver needle…” A good image; this is a poem of spare images, which I also like. It doesn’t over-reach itself.

And finally I’ll mention (not a whole thundering herd of poems in this issue, honestly) Eliza Griswold’s “Sapphic Fragment,” about woman as predator, man as prey. An interesting twist on things. “the sweet, screwed-up boy…I tried to possess with the ruthlessness / I mistook for power.” Insightful, sad, with a wonderful metaphor of hawk controlled by the falconer.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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I haven’t investigated Main Street Rag before the current issue, so I was pleasantly surprised when I opened it up and discovered it has a sensibility very close to mine own. Focused on emotions, on human interactions, very grounded and linear, I’m just warning you. ;->

It begins with Colin D. Halloran, the winner of their most recent contest. I was very affected by his “Morning Commute.” “That’s the spot he ran to. / Where he came to say hello: a wave and a salute.” That salute is the warning that we are about to meet a twist: “I sped down this road, / escorting bodies back to the hospital.” A medic, perhaps, in a war zone, thinking of the soldiers who have suffered. “Arteries so cleanly cut / as shrapnel raced…” It is good to remember what is going on in our world, I think, good to honor our soldiers with poems. We forget that poetry can do this, raise us above ourselves, bring life into focus, reveal that which really matters. I choked up at his poems.

Ann Campanella, in “Herring Gull,” gives us a different sort of moment: “A lone gull lights beside me / on the sand.” We have a place, an action, an intriguing moment. “He …stands as if to guard me…” It’s a quick poem, giving us the moment, the poet’s reaction, and then getting out.

I’m a good bet to like a poem called “Liberal Troglodyte,” and of course I do like this one by Llyn Clague. “I live in a cave. / I have hair on the backs of my hands.” There are chuckles in the poem, though it ends on a more serious note.

One of the rarest skills in poetry, and one of the most powerful, is the ability to deliver a true voice. Joan Colby gives us one of these with “A Fella Maybe.” You can hear the accent, see the subject of the poem just in reading the words: “Ralph says, / ‘A fella could maybe take this hitch,’ his hand rubs the one on our old truck, ‘and move it / up a snitch, weld it back on.'” Boy, I get shivers listening to the voice, thinking of the straightforward, deep-running people I have known so connected to their world as this fellow seems to be.

Finally, let me mention a series of poems by Fred Rosenblum towards the end of the magazine, again war poems, again engulfing us in sadness. They have a weight beyond so much poetry published, and I am glad there is a place for poems like these to reach the light. Here’s from “War Names”: “at first / you’re cranked up… to roll around in the mud /and fire on the enemy / for america / but later / when you hit the shit / you learn who you really are”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Here we go, getting to Ellen Bass in the Feb 4th issue, her “What Did I Love” poem. Okay, it’s about killing chickens. Now I myself have known chickens. I have even killed a few in my day, back on the neighbor of a friend’s farm, and seen them run around after their heads were gone, and it’s a weird, unpleasant feeling, but let’s face it, the negative energy did not honestly derive from the joy of knowing chickens. So I am not so shocked by her beginning: “What did I love about killing the chickens?” It does thereby deliver the almost-standard-by-now shock/twist beginning, and then the really cool image right after: “as darkness / was sinking back into the earth.” And the feel of it all: “I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.” As for the question ‘do I think it’s like Kinnell,’ her poem seems more matter-of-fact than his general tone to some extent, or at least, less given to lyrical flight. It’s the grounded-in-the-specifics-like-concrete nature of this poem that drives its power, for me. Describing the physical, then her reaction to it: “When I tug the esophagus / down through the neck, I love the suck and release…” Boy, cleaning ducks, despite the gladness of having a duck to clean, is not so pleasurable as that. It’s almost as though she exaggerates, almost as though we don’t believe her, based on our own queasiness, and this disjunction between our visceral reaction and what she describes as hers is what gives the poem its juice. And the climax of the poem heightens this tension to its highest possible point: “I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing…” Is she telling the truth? Is there an ironic underbelly to this poem? Wow.

The other poem in the issue is “Medicinal,” by Gerald Stern, which invites us to put together from the clues he gives what happened to require a poem: “I gave thanks of a sort that there were waves…and I had time afterward / to put it together again…though I drove myself crazy / trying to figure out…if the flower I picked was medicinal…and could I have a life?” Obviously from all the elisions I am cutting bunches out to give a more straightforward sense of the poem, which probably isn’t fair to the poem. But even with the material added back in, and the second half of the poem, and ignoring (or not) the reasonably non-linear ending, I still didn’t pick up enough clues. Which left me ultimately frustrated and annoyed. Maybe that’s what editor and poet wanted. Well, nyah on them too.

I am much happier with the W.S. Merwin poem in the next issue of the New Yorker, Feb 11th & 18th combined, “To These Eyes.” He starts out “You only ones / I ever knew / you that have shown me…” and this seems to be a classic Merwin approach, making the reader stop and re-parse the beginning of the poem to try to determine a grammatical reading that will make sense. It being Merwin we know there will be one there. And if we take ‘only ones I never knew’ as an ablative absolute (to throw in a little analysis from my Latin days, sorry), that is, as a dependent clause modifying the first word ‘you’ (which still sounds so pedantic and technical, sorry again) we can come to an understanding of what the heck he’s trying to say here, and get that little satisfaction of solving a tiny puzzle, and off we go, now wary and ready to toss down a (virtual) comma wherever in the poem we think one might fit, and so gradually wrest a sense of this as a paean to his own eyes “that I have never seen / except nowhere in a mirror…” Why the word ‘nowhere’ there? Well, why not? We can mentally delete it if we have to, get a reasonable sense, and go on! Ending with a rise to the mystical at the very end of the poem, which would not be so affecting except for the work we’ve put in digging little truths out up to now. Yay.

That sense of mystery, of something deeper working behind the poem, of the poet reaching for a connection with something larger, seems to me more abbreviated in the Jane Hirshfield poem in the same issue, “I Wanted Only A Little.” This is another poem where we have to put together what she means, a bit, with the tricks of the modern American poet. We can’t have anything be too predictable in a top drawer poem, therefore we must be surprised by the twist in the phrase “The directions of silence: / north, west, south, past, future.” And the turn in the second half of the poem from a discussion of silence to the metaphor of a grazing horse does keep us reading. But does the center of the poem, “Grief shifts, / as a grazing horse does…” give us enough to go on? Is it satisfying? Again, maybe that very paucity is the point Hirshfield is trying to make. It seems a fiercely austere poem to me, at any rate.

The final poem in this week’s mag was a Philip Levine, “In Another Country.” “A man spreads out dried fruit / on an old blanket and lets the flies…” Another poem overwhelmingly anchored in the concrete. We’re getting more and more of a sense, putting these poems back to back, of what Muldoon likes as an editor. Concrete and surprise, austere, with jolting images. If there’s a spiritual sense, well, that’s okay, but it sure isn’t a requirement. If there’s no second, or deeper meaning readily available, well, that’s okay too. Maybe life has no deeper meaning. So render what you can, and we’ll take what we can get. Levine seems an ideal poet for his sensibilities. “There is no town, only / fields of long grass blowing in the wind…”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Paul Carroll delivers a very affecting and sad pantoum in the Winter 2013 edition of The Journal (Ohio State University), called “After Visiting The Holocaust Memorial Museum.”  It is amazing how powerfully the correct form can deliver the message — in this case, the repetitions of the lines (with slight variations) bring home the enormity of the tragedy: “a photograph of a girl in a winter coat…” how that girl comes back to us, in the same way the images of those times haunt us, the realization that this actually happened, that it could happen again, that genocide does keep recurring: “one photograph among the thousands…”  “Were it not for the star tied to her coat…” This poem alone is worth the price of admission of the magazine. 

There are also Bob Hicok poems, up to his usual high standards. I like the way “For you alone” begins: “One knows the world is falling / slightly faster than rising, / this is why one…tries to stretch the triple / into a love affair”  In fact, one reason to like him is the occasional smile — so much poetry is relentlessly downbeat, it’s nice when a little fun emerges: “One knows the sky is not actually / held up by this joy…”  His “Hope (testicular cancer)” is also a smile pasted over the pain: “A lover…counting your lonely ball / over and over in the seventeen languages she knows / to count to one in.”  Ya gotta like it.

And the last poem I will mention is the first, actually, in the magazine, Emilia Phillips’ “In vacuo, Universal Studios” discussing a visit to Universal Studios: “We begin in line. We end there.”  Also a poem with some chuckles in it.  People are getting absorbed into the numbness here: “In the gentle shuffle forward / of our incumbent spell.”  A different reality takes over: “Here, we measure time / in bodies.”  I won’t give away whether the narrator ever escapes.  It’s fun. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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