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Archive for April, 2013


So the spring issue of The Avocet starts with three poems by ed galing, the most powerful of which for me is “voyage for two,” about a man and his wife going on a familiar journey through the woods each spring — to a cabin maybe? — “ducks were always in / no danger from us,” bringing us a beautiful scene. “sun shining on the / ripples making a sort of web…” But the web catches more than just water: “the doctor had already / told me that / memory loss is evident” and there is a beautiful twining of the natural and the personal from there to the end of the poem.

Peter C. Leverich, freed from his editing chores, gives us a poem about a heron on his pond: “he marks it with his air of hauteur…” giving the creature a real personality through the heightened tone, and making the poem fun: “he behaves like he’s the king of France!” The turn to the narrator’s voice leads us to a more philosophical end, very satisfying: “Yet I would be his alter Audubon, the illustrator of…”

Joan Colby gives us a poem, “Spring Green,” about yearning for spring — since we had snow here yesterday, particularly apt for me. ;-> “First grass / hormonal with a green intensity…” Great line. And then a paired poem, “Spring Snow,” which goes deeper into the soul, lending it power when contrasted with the previous poem. “The moon stalls…I toss in its headlight / unable to save myself…”

Charles Portolano gives us a portrait of “The American Avocet,” very appropriate indeed: “I watch unseen this / long-legged shorebird, with its pied plumage / and a dash of red around / its head and neck…”

I liked Andy Roberts’ poems, “Waiting” and “Bluebells in the Floodplain,” and the emotional renderings of M.J. Iuppa’s “Hemlock Lake.” “They are staring us down — standing guard over / 120 confined eggs.”

Finally, let me mention “Black Swallowtail,” by Charles H. Harper, having an interesting beginning: “I believe in the visible world / there is no creature softer…” which, put the way it is, gives us the first line to be read not only as a commentary on the butterfly itself, but also a declaration of the narrator’s whole approach to the world, a belief in the image, the concrete, that which is real. This sort of sly complexity recurs throughout the poem. Very nice.

Peace in the valley,

P M F Johnson

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There are a whole raft of magazines whose concerns are different from the academic, “highest literary quality” magazines that make up such a large presence in American poetry – thank goodness for the variety. I am thinking not only of such outfits as the haiku magazines, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Mayfly and so on, nor only of the genre magazines that publish speculative poetry, Asimov’s and Strange Horizons among them, but even straight-no-chaser mainstream poetry — such places as Blue Collar Review, Main Street Rag, Avocet, and this week’s mag, Iconoclast. These latter do not concern themselves nearly as much with the arch, original phrase, nor the breathtaking technique, but with the honesty of the observation, the truth of the language, the power of the emotion. It gives our poetry strength that such places exist. And so it is with the poems in the current issue.

The first poem I’ll discuss is “Save Me From The Self-Appointed Saints,” by Michael Ketchek. Maybe one important aspect of these sorts of poems, of this one in particular, is the self-recognition of the reader in the poem: “better the gentle sinner / than the righteous do-gooder…” this poem begins, and I’m like, right-on. I feel less alone in the universe because of poems like this. “let my path not intersect / with those who are sure / their bullets have rainbows…” How apropos after this last week’s events. How reassuring to know this urge for supporting each other, not dividing from each other, is out there and growing as well. Magazines like this give us such reassurance.

And then Beth Staas did a good job with her discussion of living with illegals, “Streets Paced With Gold.”

I liked “Toaster,” by David Martin Orloff. “Some days it was all we had to eat.” And the revelation that comes at the end. “much later…my sister / informed me…the toaster we had as a kid was nothing more than…” We need such plainspoken revelations of the world (I ain’t giving away what the toaster was, though, go buy the mag!) that the world we thought we knew as children can change, that surprises can happen years later and give us understanding of our family or the people around us that we never had before. Good poem.

I liked “A Trio,” by Toby Lurie. It was a bit experimental, and because of its structure delivered its message in a poignant way a more conventional stanza structure may have failed to succeed at. A poem about loneliness, the emptiness surrounding us, and how we can get beyond that.

There are too many poems in the magazine to mention them all, but I also want to call out a shout out for “Teenage Boy, Bad at Flowers,” by Bill Meissner (didn’t we all feel like this once upon a time) and “Corporate Casualties,” by Brady Rhoades “two hundred sick days / unused” — such a sense of betrayal, powerfully conveyed — and finally “Mandell,” by Brady Rhoades “When the time comes, I want to / disappear like the Cheshire Cat.”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Lot of worthwhile poems in the April Poetry Magazine this month. I was struck first by Adam Kirsch’s triptych, “Revolutionaries, 1929,” “The Butcher’s Apprentice, 1911-1914,” and “Professional Middle-class Couple, 1922,” each a rhyming poem reflecting on photos by August Sander. I actually read them backwards in the magazine, and liked the result — the poems consider how economic justice affected each of the subjects. “What justifies the inequality / That issues her a tastefully square-cut / Ruby…” begins one. The strongest of the three for me was “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” maybe because Kirsch explores the tension between how high-tone the apprentice looks in the photo, and the gore he normally would have been covered with: “The starched cuff and the brandished cigarette / Are what..we will see, / Though in the closet hangs an apron flecked / With bits of brain…” A good theme for exploring economic justice, as well. Straight-punching poetry.

Michael Robbins brings us a few humorous poems, playing with words in interesting ways. “Big Country” is the first one. “Fiddle no further, Fuhrer. Rome is built.” And “My stigmata bring out my eyes.” Oh, these are not politically correct poems. But how can you not like someone who subverts a board game? “Charles Simic, in the gloaming, with a roach…” That’s from “That’s Incredible.” Even his titles are refreshing.

Gwyneth Lewis also has fun with her poem (in past years, Poetry has featured humorous poems in the April issue — though it is undeclared, I’m thinking that’s what they are doing here as well) “Fooled Me for Years with the Wrong Pronouns.” “You made me cry in cruel stations, / so I missed many trains.” and “Have pity / Kill it.” Kind of a fierce little poem, underneath.

But I found nothing funny in J.T. Barbarese’s poem, “The Dead House.” “mid-corridor, / a rotting cat / furry and fey / in a nap / of gore / glued flat…” Powerful images, disturbing, about a place the narrator once loved someone, which has now gone to ruin. Gave me shivers.

Finally, I must mention Randall Mann’s “Order,” a poem where after each line scrolls out to the middle of the poem, the lines pop up again in reverse order back to the first line, with an interesting result. Christian Wiman has always liked trick poems, and I pretty much go along with him on that. This is a good example why. “Sorry to think / what thinking has done to landscape,” becomes by the second half of the poem, “he loved…what thinking has done to landscape.” Not all the lines work, which is a flaw for me, but enough do work to make it enjoyable for me. And aren’t challenges like this part of what poetry is all about, at its best?

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Back in the March 18 issue of the New Yorker, Gibbons Ruark presented us with a poem, “Lightness In Age,” that I am still trying to get my head around. “It means not having to muscle your bag / Onto the baggage rack…A girl your daughter’s age will do that for you.” A poem about the irony of getting old, then. The slight bitter flavor that comes, but the appreciation as well: “Those lightnesses are not to be taken lightly…” After the description of moments in the narrator’s life that define the narrator’s age, the poem turns to detailed images of birds — “the goldfinch feathering down at morning…” then ends with a consideration of the love the narrator has for his/her person. And it IS a poem of light touch, a love poem, nothin’ deep. Why did Muldoon choose this poem? It’s skilled, surely enough, and does a nice job of handling a moment hard to describe without getting klunky. Sometimes the editor just likes to include a simple, straightforward poem done very well, we’ve seen that before.

In the April 1 issue, Yusef Komunyakaa gives us “Night Gigging,” a poem about spearing frogs. “A silhouette lingers, cleaved from the kneeling man, / back to hunger & simple philosophy of the spheres…” Komunyakaa tends to go thoughtful about little moments like this, at least that’s my impression of his approach. It gives us something to chew over, to unwrap in the poem. “There’s a ghost poised between free will & the gig, / waiting for the song…” I like the images of this poem, and I like the ending. Can a sign of success in a poem be simply the willingness of the reader to linger on the language, after it’s done?

And the other poem in this issue is by Louise Gluck, “An Adventure,” almost a bookend poem with the one in The Threepenny Review I discussed a couple blogs ago. Like that one, this poem deals with end-of-life issues. “It came to me one night…that I had finished with those amorous adventures / to which I had long been a slave…” The second stanza develops this idea — “The next night brought the same thought, / this time concerning poetry…” The third stanza goes into the land of death and the dead. “Now I could hear them because my heart was still.” She rides into/through the land of death. “All around, the dead were cheering me on…As we had all been flesh together, // now we were mist.” Note the pun there. But it is all just a dream. She ends by waking from the vision, and in referring to a second person, the narrator’s love, we assume, wraps the poem up in a satisfying way. And the reader is left with…

Well, the direct confrontation with death gives the poem a weight and grandeur that’s rare these days. But the poem twists away from conclusion. From taking a stand. Are conclusions not to be a part of top-end American poetry anymore? Do editors feel they would be fools to buy such a work? Must today’s poems always wear their cloak of irony, be elusive, duck away from the ineffable? As though our whole culture still were terrified of meaning, of taking a stand? Of the grand failure?

For me, that unwillingness to go that last step, to lay out the fear that nothing is there on the other side of death, or the faith that something is…to grab for that melting sense of something more, a connection with us, with something, is a sad loss for poetry.

I want to shout out, what is poetry for, if not such moments? I want to argue, this unwillingness is a failure of courage.

Whether or no, Gluck refuses to go that last step in either of these poems, even at what seems the end of her life. Is that refusal one of the reasons she has done so well in today’s poetry environment, where more bold visionaries would be rejected? Is this unwillingness endemic to the many, many editors who do not seem to ever buy such work, from her or anyone else?

I do conclude this: unlike her other poem, this poem feels as though it had another step to take. In current American poetry, who may be willing to take it? No, let me say instead, who has the courage to publish a poem that did take it?

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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