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Archive for October, 2013


The fall Plainsongs came in, part of the fall flood of magazines we get around here. The first poem was “Neighborhood Auction,” by Marilyn Dorf. Don’t remember reviewing one of her poems before. She won one of the Plainsongs Awards this issue for this poem though. It discusses a rural auction. “Here lies her life / across wooden tables / all over her lawn. / Treasures and mortifications / laid bare…” I love that treasures and mortifications. The kind of phrase you hop across the room repeating to yourself after you’ve come up with it, cuz it’s so good. “An auctioneer prattles on, / unintelligible as a bee…” Do you remember as a child trying to understand what the animals were saying as they went about their business? If there were words in there? A great poem, witt more lines like these.

There are a lot of good poems in this issue. “U Is For Unfold,” a poem by Margi Rogal meditating on napkins, how they link us to the civilities of our ancestors. Great thought. And I don’t see a lot of napkin poems out there, so the unusual theme’s a plus. “Jump-Rope,” by Janet McCann, about the game that seems to have faded from the scene. “Squeeze,” by Charles Pierre,” about a laconic father.

“Apology To My Vegan Brother…” by Katie Kalisz. Chuckle funny. “Your girlfriend’s face told me what I should have known / but still cannot translate fluently…” Haven’t we all felt that way about a relative, one moment too late?

I was quite affected by “Living A Nightmare In My Daughter’s Apartment,” by Marilynn Talal. “Are those my hands I’m washing?” A tale of bewilderment and loss.

Joan Colby has another one here, “Taking Our Time.” “Above…broad-winged hawks / Circle in parasols.” And “A pair of bald eagles…. Cherubim / Of the upper reaches.” Wow.

John L. Campbell contributes an almost-villanelle, “Outwitting Squirrels.” The frustrations of a bird-lover, and the excesses one might go to therefore. “a remedy / to bar the little beggars…” A clever poem.

There were a number of other poems in the mag I admired as well. A really good effort by the folks down in Hastings, NE this time.

Evidently I was just nominated for a Versatile Blogger Award, by Linda McDaniel Smith. I am surprised and honored.

Here’s her post, if you’re interested:
http://thevillagesmith.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/nominated-for-the-versatile-blogger-award-drum-roll-please/

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The Fall 2013 issue of The Avocet features Joanne Stokkink, who has appeared in these pages before. I enjoyed especially her first poem, “The Scarecrow — After Wallace Stevens” “You must have the mind of autumn / to see the bright pumpkins.” She’s discussing ‘you’ as a scarecrow: “Holding a black crow on your gloved left hand. / You’re no falconer.” Love the sense of humor here. And a top notch ending.

I like Peter C. Leverich’s “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and not just because my wife immediately began singing it to me when I started reading the poem to her. “Slo / mo / moon // barely / up to / speed…” fun variations on that.

Irene Fick had a thoughtful poem, “Signs.” “My dear friend believes her dead husband / came back to her as a blue-jay…” An interesting meditation on death and memory and signs.

And with Ann Floreen Niedringhaus’ “Autumn Garden,” you know a poem is going to be good when it starts: “Behold the sturdy brussel sprout.” And it is. ;-> Definitely worth reading.

Janet Riegle gives us a very good sonnet indeed, “Wrens on Fall Migration.” Only going back to it did I realized this was a sonnet, though it is purely rhymed and all, about wrens testing a nest in the fall. What a great theme, even.

I liked Charles Portolano’s “Autumn Love Affair / for Pat Bush.” We get to fill in some of the blanks, which is nice. “When she turned sixty she told me, / her favorite season had always been / the fall…” A beautiful portrait of a person.

Oh, and there are other good poems in this issue. “Texas, 1944” by Jim Spurr (now there’s a western name!). “Autumn Exchange,” by Joyce Holdread “”Where slender strippers / in a final fling / cast their garish garb / to the frenzied wind.” “Thin Paper Bags,” by James L. Freeman… a rich issue all around.

Peace in Poetry,
P M F Johnson

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In the current issue of The New Yorker, Lucie Brock-Broido presents us with a poem, “Heat”, which seems to be a threading together of two separate poems, one about Lee Harvey Oswald in Russie “In Belarus, the fourteen-year-olds one thin flight away / Heard Oswald singing in the shower.” And we get a sense of how creepy the man was. The other thread has the narrator listening to folks in Oklahoma talking about the Open Carry law (in a positive manner). An interesting juxtaposition, rendered more compelling, I think, by the lack of editorializing by the author. A good use of the technique.

Lemme take a minute and go back a week tho’, since I haven’t mentioned how much fun I thought Jane Shore’s “This One” was. “This One got to keep the Warhol. / That One got an S.T.D.” A rhyming little thing, with a few shocks and a satisfying ending.

Katie Ford, in the same issue, gave us “Still Life,” the picture of two worlds juxtaposed, though not in threads as in Brock-Boido’s poem above: “Down by the pond, addicts sleep…half in water, half out…” Which poem is raised by its excellent ending to a whole ‘nother level. Worth re-reading.

And I have been terribly remiss in not mentioning from two weeks ago, the poem “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” by A.E. Stallings, one of my absolute fav contemporary poets. Which poem is worth reading just for the line, “He cursed in the fricative.” I’m jealous of that line! ;-> A poem about the future not looking so bright anymore: “How she sharpened conditional futures / on strops of might-have-beens…” just great lines to taste in the mouth. And, as we would expect, a great ending. Do check this poem out, if you can still find it after my dilatory ways.

Finally, in this issue, a most satisfying translation of a piece of the Odyssey, “The Death of Argos,” Argos being Odysseus’ faithful dog who recognized him after 20 years. “Odysseus arrived along with the swineherd.” it starts, and the plain language and vivid renderings are so much easier on the soul than some of the turgid and hi-falutin’ renderings I’ve plowed through in the past. “He lay abandoned on one of the heaps of mule / and cattle dung that piled up outside…” A reminder, if we needed one, of why Homer is right there with the all-time greats. I hope Stephen Mitchell has the whole poem coming out. (And of course, an excellent pairing in the issue with Stallings, who has done such excellent Greek translation herself).

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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I’ve never played fantasy baseball, but wouldn’t it be a kick to join a Fantasy Poetry League? Competitors could draft a list of poets for a year, and then receive points based on appearances in each of a set series of magazines. A home run of 4 points might be, say, an appearance in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry Magazine and…part of the hot stove discussion would be which magazines deserved 4 bases (points). The New Republic, maybe, Paris Review? Not more than a short handful. Hudson Review, Threepenny Review and Iowa Review might be triples — see all the editors I’m incensing right now? Cold day in a hot place before I sell to them after this blog! ;-> Does Nimrod deserve to be a double? Does Atlanta Review count for a single or a double? What of the honorable magazines with small press runs like Plainsongs? Do we define a single to include them? Or does any mag deserve a single? I would probably have a bottom end limit, but I don’t know where. Speculative magazines and haiku magazines have very good press runs, but maybe shouldn’t count as highly as smaller-press-run-but-more-competitive joints. Or maybe they should (it ain’t so easy to crack Asimov’s either). ;->

Obviously, one could not draft oneself, nor would selections from one’s own magazine count. So Paul Muldoon is doubly at a disadvantage there.

Wendell Berry would surely be a reasonably high draft choice. In the Fall Threepenny Review he has a poem, “From Sabbaths, 2013” talking of himself, perhaps, in the third person: “This is a poet of the river lands…where gravity gathers / the waters, the poisons…” An effective, interesting start. Or heck, maybe it’s a reworking of Dante: “His grazing animals look up / to watch in silence as he departs…without even / a path or any guidance…” A plain, straightforward poem that I like for the underwriting it contains. “…by luck or grace he will be given / another day to try again…”

Gaetan Brulotte has written a poem, “Directions for Use,” about which I’m sure many of us will immediately feel: ‘wait, I wrote that myself. Or something very similar.’ When a poet taps a well that essential and deep, where the reader gets such an immediate frisson, it’s a good thing: “Human being. All-purpose. Keep in a cool, dry place. Do / not freeze.” Well done!

Philip Levine has been hitting lots of triples and home runs recently. Here he bangs “Urban Myths” off the wall: “Slow learner though I am, it took me one night / to discover rain in New York City / is just like rain in Detroit.” He develops that theme, a comparison between the feel of the two cities: “as for midnight walks in the rain, in Detroit / they’re regarded as urban myths like dance halls…” There’s a lot of humor here. I certainly chuckled at the last line.

And, of course, the poet I would draft first, Kay Ryan. She gives us “Erasure.” “We just don’t / know…much about / the deep nature / of erasure.” As always, a great poem, with a lot to think about, and a twisted word at the end for fun.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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