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Archive for July, 2013


In the most recent New Yorker, Ellen Bass has a poem, “The Morning After,” about the morning after making love. “You stand at the counter, pouring boiling water / over the French Roast…” The poem sticks very carefully to concrete details when describing the current moment (sending kids off to school with their lunch) but waxes very poetic when describing the night before: “the little slice of heaven / we slipped into last night — a silk kimono / floating satin ponds…” The contrast of the two approaches gives a nice frisson. Then the narrator is so taken with the moment she can’t contain herself and bursts into a triple rhyme, three quarters of the way through the poem, which is another really nice little detail/trick. And it ends well. Good poem.

And last week, David Bottoms gave us a poem to take the breath away. “Spring, 2012.” Again with the little details to begin, and set the current moment, but then: “I can’t breath…my friend can’t breathe, either. / She’s lost her son to an IED.” And just after this: “tea waits on the table between us… / Impossible, of course, to talk about loneliness…” Note how when we go into the phrase, ‘Impossible of course,’ it seems to be about how after such a moment it’s impossible to drink tea, to live the normal details of life, but then the sentence going on turns us to our larger lives, to loneliness, to change. That dual use of the same phrase to illuminate the part before and the part after creates a sort of suspension, like the friend suspended in her grief, that makes the depths of the poem go on and on. A truly powerful poem. Oh, and a great ending, again seated in a very specific image.

Then, way back in the July 1 issue, Charles Simic gave us “The Dictionary,” about trying to find a specific word “to describe the world this morning…the way the early light / takes delight in chasing the darkness…” He makes this work work with the specificities as well, “wire-rimmed glasses / someone let drop…” and a fun ending. A cheerful little poem.

And Maxine Kumin has a meditation on the color yellow, “Xanthopsia.” Always fun to see how many ways we can approach an image, or an idea, in an original fashion: “the chrome coronas…tinge the towel…yolk-lick…it wasn’t sunstroke…” a Whitmanesque listing, though with a mildly gruesome twist that keeps this poem from being quite as chipper as Simic. I liked it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Image is of central importance in the poems in the Summer 2013 Avocet, and one of the poems that handles image best here is Peter C. Leverich’s “Egret” — “An exclamation of white / in the first light of day…” and “quiet in the water’s lap.” I enjoyed going through the poem as each image unfolded.

I don’t remember haibun appearing so often in previous issues, but they sure do here. I especially enjoyed the haiku that ended “Bones,” by Dennis E. Rhodes. “…fickle summer / should be ashamed of herself / for going so fast…” We’ve all felt that way!

I liked “Summer Reading,” by Gary Blankenburg: “…in the sheer nebulosity, / heat, and drowse / of a summer afternoon…”

And both my wife and I liked “Where da rabbit,” by Charles Portolano. “Our walks aren’t the same /ever since Coco…first sawe that rabbit…” We have a little Bichon, Bogart, and he was so proud of himself for chasing rabbits out of our garden (back when we had a garden). He knew it was his job, and he felt he was very good at it indeed. ;->

Finally, let me mention a poem printed here in full by Joan Colby, from a review in this magazine about her new book, “Dead Horses.” Which poem is “Ox Team At Garfield Farm,” a description of oxen yoked and working together. “By two months wearing the smallest yoke.” A meditation on life, on pairing up, on work. “The commands / Which nigh ox and off ox / Understand differently.” Very much worth reading.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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As per usual, my favorite poem in the July/August Poetry magazine was by Kay Ryan. If you don’t like spare poems, stripped down to the raw gears, you’re not going to like her, but there it is. “Salvations,” in fact, is one of her less immediately obvious poems. “Like hope / it springs eternal…” the poem begins, but it is not clear what ‘it’ refers to, the title being plural. She posits salvations as spherical (if salvations are indeed what we are talking about), then develops that theme into bubbles banging into each other, and beyond. Always another twist with her.

I also had fun with David Orr’s “The Big Bad,” which brings intimations of folks counter-attacking against the wolf, sending teams into the battle region, “And all of our instruments confirmed a hit.” Kind of a happily loopy poem, kind of satirizing the military approach.

Philip Schultz also relies on irony for his poem, “Age Appropriate.” He starts “…mystified by the behavior / of one of my sons, / my wife will point out…” and then goes into parts of his own behavior that maybe are a bit childish. Then he discusses Montaigne, and we are off to weird places, ending with the point, I believe, that we must live in the moment.

Miller Oberman translates the “Old English Rune Poem,” for us, which I enjoyed mostly for the connection between the names of the runes and the words underlying the names. ‘Wyn’ translating to ‘win’, for instance. It brings up a thought I’ll toss out — maybe you all have studied this more than I, but I notice the endings of the roots of many old English words suggest an older meaning, hidden in the word somewhere. Chunk, hunk, gunk, thunk and maybe bunk all relate to something solid, for instance. Mud, spud, crud are low-lying, or earth-related (flood? dud?). Plank, lank, tank, crank are elongated things, maybe (hank, shank). See if you can come up with other word-groups like this. Indo-European roots? There’s a word behind those words, I aver. Maybe not so old as that, because I don’t know how many of these correlate into other languages.

Anyway, the last poem I’ll mention is Sandra Beasley’s “Flour Is Firm.” It’s always good to get a little obscure information in one’s poem. There’s a satisfaction in learning: “Baking two parts flour to one part water / could stop a bullet. So good soldiers / carried their hardtack over their hearts.” And the extra meaning in the line adds a satisfying resonance. The poem then contemplates hardtack, source and result, and folds it all back together at the end. A well-crafted work.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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