Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2013


The first poem in the March 25th issue of The New Republic is “Appraisal Theory,” by Julie Sheehan. The first line starts: “My son’s in his Watch This years.” And this is the first of the two threads in the poem, the child wanting his mother to watch him at various antics. The second thread relates more closely to the title: “the house, bought just before the bubble burst, / loses value by the hour.” The poem ends by bringing the two strands together in a simple simile. Powerful and effective. Not the trickiest poem, but I always like poets who show courage in putting the innards right out there for anyone to analyze. In this case, we are rewarded by the resonance between small boys showing off and bankers who have damaged our economy, damaged real people in real houses, by their unrestrained childish behavior. One likes the small boy more. ;->

“White Ashes” by Liam Hysjulien takes a similar approach, opening with “My dentist tells me about his dying white ash trees…” The narrator then relates his own teeth to the trees. “The tooth, he says, has its own widening rings…” The dentist reminisces about the trees, the narrator feels apologetic. The closing line, as above, ties the two motifs together, though not in as simple a simile. This is more a feeling poem — that is, it brings up a sense of nostaglia and loss. An interesting compare and contrast moment between the two works.

The third poem in the magazine is Mary Jo Bang’s “Rude Mechanicals.” This poem sort of plays tag from image to image throughout, each image wandering off in its own direction. “Against a white wall / someone’s hair was a treetop.” From there, “It was a time / when everyone said, / behind every great veil is only a human…” Then the poem goes off to: “I don’t know how / the stage curtain caught fire…” …you get the idea. It’s maybe most profitable (fun?) to relate each image to the previous image it springboards off, without looking at the larger context of the poem. In fact, when I try to view the larger context, I run into difficulty. What is the larger whole here? We get only scattered clues — a machine sucking air in the early part of the poem could relate to the rude mechanicals mentioned at the end. We’re left with emotions of sorrow, and helplessness, in a rather unpleasant world. Honestly, the whole does cohere, for me, in a non-verbal way, and certainly gives the reader plenty to dip into. I suspect simply taking the poem as is, without trying to draw too many conclusions, is the least frustrating approach: it is what it is, don’t worry your pretty little head. It does seem typical of other poems of hers I have read recently — not easy to read literally, but swept by undercurrents and feelings that reach indirectly to something lacking in the narrator’s life. Worth a couple reads, anyway.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


Louise Gluck, for me, is one of our great poets who nevertheless can put out work that doesn’t move me at all, so when I saw she was in the Spring 2013 issue of The Threepenny Review, I had hopes but also suspicions. Well, having read the poem, I now think she blew the lid off. “Approach of the Horizon” is a poem about a narrator who suffers a physical incident, a stroke perhaps, late in life, and now teeters on the edge of death. The poem concerns what results from that — needing a secretary because she can no longer write, the failures of the body as death approaches, and so on. Yet she retains a sense of balance in her tone, a matter-of-factness that adds tremendous power: “There is a sense / of gaiety in the air, / as though birds were singing.” Even a sense of amusement: “My birthday…is fast approaching. / Perhaps the two great moments will collide / and I will see my selves meet, coming and going…” She takes a moment to tease the poor secretary: “He sits…with his head down, / possibly to avoid being described…” But does not seem to hold much hope for an afterlife: “The sky, alas, is still far away…” It is a tour-de-force, as though she has spent her whole career paring away all the unneeded, even the slightest excesses of personality, in order to create this one last, great poem: “I have no heirs / in the sense that I have nothing of substance / to leave behind. / Possibly time will revise this disappointment.” As per usual, I won’t give away the ending — but she revisits an image she weaves throughout the poem, with the very last word having two meanings that give a gut-kick of power. A poem beyond praise, really.

Kimberly Rasmussen is a poet I don’t recall encountering before — she seems to be relatively new voice. She gives us “Man Mopping,” a short free verse poem, which seems like a good bookend to the Gluck poem, above: “you are circling toward a memory / with your mop, your persistence.” And “…each squeeze from your bucket / is a brief rain.” I like what she did with this poem. There are currents in it not easy to define, that give it flavor.

And then Andrea Cohen, who I have encountered and liked before, has a quick little poem, “Explanation (Hiroshima)” in short non-rhyming couplets about telling children the meaning of what they are seeing in a museum “all that’s left / of a girl and boy” with a stunning ending (that does rhyme) that makes the whole poem worth it.

Good stuff this time.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »


So in the March 4 issue of the New Yorker, I have re-read “Owl” by Ellen Bryan Voigt a couple times, trying to get inside what it’s doing. “the sign for making the most of what you have / on the human hand is a thumb at full right angle to the palm…” the poem begins. Well, I’ve stuck my own thumb in a variety of directions without seeing the light on that one. Similarly, the poem claims owls are “legally blind.” See, here’s the thing — so many poets as far as I can tell are so ignorant of even basic knowledge about nature, I don’t know whether to trust the author is putting me on or not (owls? blind? Are ya kiddin’ me?) Certainly the author seems to have learned something about owls, at least there are accurate facts about owls in the poem, so let’s just let it go, I’m thinking: she is putting us on, take it as such and let that affect our reading of the rest of the poem. Certainly, there are other things going on here: “my father…unlocked the door to the…house he had grown up in…and said as he entered the empty room / hello Miss Sally as though his stepmother dead for weeks / were still in her…chair…” And again, this incident is no more given context than the owl. The ending to the poem is pretty cool, though, messing with the sense of time a little bit…and then we see that the second quote above references time as well, and a bit of resonance between the two observations appears, and backing up we can now see the worm-bitten apples we leave on the tree reference aging/death/time…and the whole poem kind of opens up for us, backwards. I believe her utter lack of punctuation plays into the effect, since it made me pay closer attention to the lines — where one sentence ended and another began. Again, maybe a reference to endings — to times mingling together? A skilled and tricky poem. But I still don’t get the legally blind bit.

The other poem in the issue, Frank Ormsby’s “Bog Cotton,” also has its basis in the natural world — bog cotton being a sort of sedge that grows in peat bogs. “They have the look of being born old” begins the first verse. And when I looked at a photo of the plant in Wikipedia, why, by Henry, yes, I could see how the sweep of the flower could remind one of an old man’s hair, and that maybe gives rise to the second (last) verse, beginning: “My father turns eighty…His hair…is white.” But it’s almost no more than an Imagist poem. We are given the image of the bog cotton in stanza one, the image of the father in stanza two, and that’s it. As with haiku, I guess we take the two separate images and feel the resonance between them. But that being the case, I think this poem WOULD have been better as a haiku — chopped down further to a very few words:

bog cotton
trembling amid the heather —
my father’s white hair

I’d argue you get all the essence of Ormsby’s original poem, and more resonance into the bargain, by cutting out all those excess words. I can’t help thinking if haiku were better known in the western tradition, Muldoon might have guided Ormsby to something similar to this. But remember, your correspondent IS a haiku poet almost first of all, and maybe just a bit…arrogant? to edit the poem of a fellow in the New Yorker! ;-> Anyway, I would be STUNNED if the above haiku, or anything like it, were accepted by the New Yorker, so Ormsby’s instincts are better than mine, objectively. Fun to think about, is all I’m saying.

In the March 11 issue, Matthew Dickman presents us with “Montpelier,” a poem about the place in Vermont. “I’m in the world again / without my mother or father…” which turns into an image of Russian dolls: “and finally / the family unassembled / as we were meant to be…” I like that line. Finally->family. Chewy. Then we get a bit of cosmic and geologic history condensed like the song that begins the Big Bang Theory TV show, and then it turns into a love poem, about a third of the way through. A lot to pack in there! “I’m thinking…about your voice, and how it’s exactly / the voice of everything warm.” What a sweet, understated way to put it. We get a bit of the narrator’s history, then more addressing the lover: “I know you know how it feels / to be a blister, all that blood / and tissue and poison…” Wow. Then we get the current location: “I’m in Montpelier, the great / high seat of Vermont…” and then an interesting image to close out the poem. Bill Truesdale, the marvelous editor of New Rivers Press before his passing, once told Sandy (my wife) and I that he thought the hardest thing for a poet to do these days was to come up with a really good love poem, that it was so hard to find something original to say. And those who don’t like love poems on principle may very well not like this one, but I’m personally schmaltzy enough to enjoy this one. ;->

Finally, Linda Pastan gives us “First Snow,” a rhyming little thing that begins “The clouds dissolve in snow — / a simple act of physics / or the urge to just let go?” Not a heavy, world-beating poem, but a nice and clever amuse-bouche I guess for the rest of the magazine. We need more of such in this ponderous and pedantic industry.

May I also take a minute to point out, that while there are many magazines, as I said in a previous post, that lean heavily toward male writers even in this day and age, Paul Muldoon seems to be making a conscious effort to include roughly equal numbers of male and female poets, and I deeply respect that and want to give him a huge shout out for the fact. May he be a beacon to the rest of us!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »


The first of three poets the current Missouri Review highlights is Peter Cooley, who has published 9 books of poetry in his day. He does seem to have a sense of humor about it all, perhaps a source of his poetical strength: “Tomorrow, once my favorite word, is here” is the beginning of his poem “Monuments,” and we are treated to the sly grin of the poet stuffing past, present, and future into one sentence. And he garners power from multiple meanings: “Morning, you rush, pale illumination…” for rushes of course were once dipped in oil and burned as a source of light, but mornings rush on us as well. Both meanings fit this poem well, which is about a book his father left him when he died. His humor carries on through his second poem, “Rembrandt, Landscape with Obelisk” — “Reader, invisible friend of the page, / I am counting on your not knowing this painting!” This gives the poems a friendliness and approachability not often seen in the dourly serious landscapes of current American poetry. You get the feeling you’d like the guy.

Poet the second is Justin Gardiner (BTW, I am not a fan of literary magazines heavily skewing their author pools towards men. For years I have believed the most sexist region of the American landscape is the magazine industry. Somehow being ‘artsy’ seems to mean editors can publish 5 men for every woman and still fiercely argue they are not sexist. This issue is a typical example. Don’t believe me? Go add up names from the title pages of a few magazines. It’s been going on for decades. Off my soapbox now). His first poem has a title so long that for the first time ever I won’t type the whole thing in here (35 words), just the beginning: “First Night South of the Antarctic Circle…” Despite the pendantic title, the poem has some good moments, actually. “Down here, the secret / of the sky is to illuminate only / what is out of reach.” Can’t say I care for the cliche near the end though. The poem I like best of his would be “Early Courtship Poem”: “The divorce rate among emperor penguins / sits somewhere around 85 percent…” Maybe it’s just that I like poems that don’t take themselves too seriously. But there are a number of tasty lines here — “whatever it’s called when a group of birds…lifts off together from a barn roof…tucked / always in what looks like bellows / or a heart, is the gesture I want / to share with you.” And “the simple arms-crossed motion of you / lifting off a tank top.” Boy, that line clears the air! A straightforward image to be proud of.

The last poet in the issue is R.T. Smith, the editor of Shenandoah, and author himself of a dozen collections of poems. Despite his being the most famousest of the poets here, I had much the hardest time with his poems. He presents us with three poems about Mary Todd Lincoln, “Mary Lincoln Triptych,” and they are all very long poems. Long, circling back on themselves, repeating the same ideas over and over. Some beautiful moments, as we would expect: “I cover my fingers with precious fabric — calf / leather or velvet…” and “I must uncocoon / “and hide the martyr’s face from my surviving boys.” But far too many cliches, and lumpy parts: ‘killing fields,’ ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ ‘spending sprees,’ and that’s only on page one. Maybe he’s lifting direct quotes from Lincoln’s letters, of course, and I’m being unfair. Still, it makes us ask, is it worth wading through such long poems for the gems? “…they but bystanders, jackals under their bonnet / brims, such halos of the ordinary I have to laugh.” I think many people would say yes. Smith does have an ear. But I wish he also had a more severe editor of his own.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »


I like the poem, “Unless,” by Mark Hiskes in the Winter Plainsongs issue. “The milking done, the corn field seeded by hand…” Maybe because it doesn’t strain to be more than it is, a description of a moment with a teacher. “he / takes a drop spindle in one hand and…carded wool in the other…” Not every poem has to change the world.

This magazine has a few poems like that, staying within themselves. Dan Sieg gives us “Lake St. Clair,” a description of a moment between a boy and his father. “We careened across thick ice, / other drivers seeking similar thrills.” and “Sounds of ice cracking under wheels…and my skating heart.” There are moments with original language like this throughout the magazine, but flair for the sake of flair is obviously not the point, for these editors.

Here is Joan Colby again, with “Aunt Agnes.” “Her leg black to the thigh.” A moment of loss, of wondering if alternate choices could have changed things: “The surgery is not a success.” The narrator remembers being a little girl trying to save a cat, once, and how that turned out, and compares that moment to this one; not giving us a clear and easy answer either way. An excellent poem.

C.W. Owens gives us “Thaw” — “we…woke up / coughing bumblebees” and Sean Lause contributes “My Magic Newlywed Neighbors” where “the husband exits in a rush, / one shoe half off, then returns, bags / overflowing with wine bottles and celery.” Such fun characterization gives strength to a poem, and is more rare than we might wish. And C.E. Greer has “My Brother’s Rabbits,” a touching work.

The last poem I will mention is by Kenneth DiMaggio, “In The Kitchen. (Corruption)” which is also a poem of characterization, giving us a series of family members with their stories and peculiar sorrows in a kind of singsong run-on: “What did card games have / to do with liquor” “and if your grandfather / shot a man in Sicily and his brother / did his jail time…” It kept me entertained.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »