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Archive for June, 2013


In the elongated New Yorker of June 10 & 17, we are presented with only two poems. Very sad.

First, Stanley Plumly’s poem “Brownfields,” a kind of listing in four parts — first, the narrator describes a field across the road. “…which, now the snow is gone, is under / the plow entirely. Renewal or revival, who can tell?” To my Midwestern ear, that line is missing the ‘that’, after the ‘now’. Makes it sound British, or turn of the 20th century American at least, which confuses, since the stanza is describing a spot in the Hamptons in the 1980’s. Maybe I am missing my geographic references, though. Some of the lines are interesting: “acres of scabby mud thawing…” but much of part one feels like an essay about finding 19th century Wedgwood pottery. In the midst of the sixth stanza, the poem mixes it up: “Years later, I am standing at the grave / of Keats, wondering what to steal…” and we are presented with the cemetery as field, also full of broken things. And that’s cool. There is a turn like a bridge: “In St. Matthew:27, the Sanhedrin seek…” which brings in the potter’s field concept, serving to tie the first two themes together. So al is fitting together nicely. Then we go on to the last theme: “When I was small, / closer to the ground, / I’d see things no one else could see…my father made me / follow him down foundry garden rows…” and we get the field as garden. Well constructed, and interesting enough, but I wasn’t much moved. On the other hand, I don’t know that moving readers was the poet’s goal, so maybe that’s all right. The poem strikes me more for its technical prowess than its power.

The other poem is by Erin Belieu, “Apres Moi,” and this is much more up my alley. It swings along, all fun and vengeful, a lover sticking it up the nose of her ex: “Apres Moi is pest, is plague, is / global atrophy.” See, I love that enjambment. I love the joke after joke, the sound of the words, “when the horsemen…ride jiggety-clop to your / empty door, / you / can explain…” I love the subtle rhymes that darn near make this an anti-sonnet. The hints, like the word ‘you’ all alone on its own line, of how the poem should be read, how it sounds when read aloud. Brava!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The current Missouri Review has some fine poetry. They like to feature several poems from three poets, their format here. I am wary of the little bios, but they do give context to the Katie Bickham poems, winner of the Smith Editors’ Prize, a cycle of poems about rooms in a southern plantation house, and the history that maybe played out in each one. First, in “Dining Room, 1811”, Bickham tackles the slave history head on. A beautiful poem: “The gunpowder stench from the sleeves / of his fine militia jacket still hung heavily…” He is boasting of the runaways he has killed, while another slave is serving dinner, perhaps the mother of the men he killed: “Gem brought in dishes…careful / not to let her fingers touch the food.” A great ending to this poem, as well. I hope it gets a Pushcart, frankly.

We enjoy a string of strong poems from her, including “Front Porch, 1900”, and “Widow’s Walk, 1917” — “seven hundred thousand…at Verdun, / an earth-quaking number for those unacquainted / with the greedy appetites of death.” Note the plural on appetites there. It is those little details she gets so powerfully right. The images are used to power these poems, not as little fillips pasted on. Great job.

The second poet is Aaron Belz. “Charmed, For Frost,” reads nothing like Frost, but I liked it. “I hate gravity…not only falling / but having to lumber…” this is a light poem, but the joy is bubbly, and the language well-handled.

Our last poet is Darren Morris. He talks about fears in his bio, and brings that into his poems. “Fear of Justifications,” is a fantasy giving Cheney what-for: “The irony of heaven holds that Dick Cheney / will be waterboarded by angels…but angels know…torture ultimately…produces only what angels want to hear / and not confession at all.” Kind of an interesting flip of that whole time back in the day. His next poem, “The First Circle,” tackles the whole unborn babies don’t get into heaven thing in the Dante poem: “my unbaptized baby brother…another spark from God’s hammer / falls into darkness.” A great, great line. “My parents are not here to tend to him because they…begged forgiveness.” Powerful irony, showing the pain of mercy, the cruelty of dogma. Then his next poem gives us “Fear Of The Either/Or” in which the narrator and his wife go to celebrate the neighbor’s baby, when they want a baby of their own. “We’ve tried and failed for years.” A touching poem. “That it might fill / that dark seam in the sky that ripped opened.” I don’t know why ripped opened instead of ripped open, but the poem works for me, and has the best ending line of the magazine.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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