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Archive for November, 2013


Bruce Bond opens the fall issue of Atlanta Review with a poem, “Mistakes,” after W.S. Merwin. It does have Merwin’s sort of square look on the page, each line being of similar length: “They are out there somewhere the mistakes / that led me…in some room / where they grow a little old…” An interesting meditation on mistakes as a collection of items to be listened to, guides to more mindfulness (the poet’s idea not mine).

“Pride,” by Judson Mitcham, about “the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history” captured my attention: “Billboards along the road…called the Winecoff fireproof…” It becomes a personalized poem in an understated way, about grief and uncertainty.

“My Father Whistled” by Thomas Lux explores limitations: “only when he was nervous about fixing something…It was an aptitude he lacked.” Certainly I feel an uncertainty about fixing household objects, so this poem hits home.

Sidney Wade has fun with “Hot Flashes.” She starts the poem, “they come / at 4 am // hooligans / in wet suits…bomb the / monument // to Morpheus…” A well-crafted work. We get a shot of empathy.

Atlanta Review has always been a magazine dedicated to poems grounded in the real world, the shared experience. Probably one of the reasons I like the magazine so much. We get a sense of all the worlds around us about which we know little. “The Cabinet Maker’s Apprentice” by Arthur Smith is one such poem: “The smell from the ripped plywood / was vinegary in the rained-in garage…” Why yes, I think, I have smelled that smell. “It made all of learning bittersweet…” And we want to know why.

I very much liked “Hay Fever,” by Gary Mesick,” it has such a surprising/arresting beginning: “I’m drowning in sex…” You know right off this is a poem by a poet who attends to his audience, cares about their experience, wants them to leave the poem happy. “Strange, spoor-laden secretions / dam my lungs.” Great pun there. And the best line: “Cruel, craven stamens.” Anyone who has had hay fever will relate.

There are quite a few more poems of equal quality in the mag — this is a very solid issue, much to be enjoyed.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Jack O’Brien starts the festival of poetry in Asimov’s November issue with a rewrite of Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet: “Let me not to the making of new minds / admit impediment.” Frankenstein as a man of rhyme. Fun to compare old poem versus new, see where O’Brien cribbed rhymes and phrases and turned them to his own nefarious purposes. Might be a good exercise to have students do such rewriting, except they would surely turn subversive. ;->

Bryan D. Dietrich also has fun with monsters in his poem, “The Monster” — “Does he contradict himself? Very well, / then…” Here the monster is running a kind of Walt Whitman-esque list of himself: “What makes him — / crafted from everything other — want another / other…?” I have to admit, Whitman’s containing multitudes is a great place from which to start concocting a monster.

Lou Ella Hickman’s narrator in “Creature Comforts” loses a rapid battle with something like fishes’ ick: “it soon / became like a scale from monstrous fish / drink more water I thought…” Made me smile.

Dominica Phetteplace thought to create a monster from parts of long ago in her “Neanderthal Frankenstein” “to grow up to become the other…” And does a subtly effective job of moving (more or less) from slant rhymes to true.

And good ol’ Bruce Boston flips that thought on its head by giving us “Marie Antoinette, 2125,” too short to quote but with a sentiment that all us book lovers will surely appreciate.

Lot of fun in this issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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New Yorker Riffs


I’m going back a few weeks, because I’m puzzled as all get-out by a poem called “Kale,” by Jordan Davis, in the Oct 14 issue of The New Yorker. It plays for all the world like a short little slice of life about a couple people going to pick some kale. “We walk down the driveway / past the barn to the fenced-in / garden…” There’s a side reference to a mama cat with extra toes, there’s a quick bit about pruning a butterfly bush, then they get their kale and go home. Hope I didn’t ruin it for anyone by giving away the ending. ;-> But someone has to explain to me — why am I supposed to care? Point being, I’m missing the point. There’s something going on here, there has to be, that I don’t get. The poet submitted this to the New Yorker, we can assume with some hopes that it would get selected. Paul Muldoon bought it, we can assume after seeing something making it the “one of the best poems in the country this week.” (At least that he had access to.) Poet and editor are sharing some resonance I am utterly on the outside of. Cuz this puppy looks like a boring little vignette about something of utterly no interest even to the people living it. It’s like modern art, except there we can assume there’s some ironic posture, or some balancing of themes as in a Rubens, only using frying pans. Here, I’m missing the irony, even. I’m not saying this poet is bad, how would I know? This example is certainly no proof of skill one way or the other, for me. Except there it is in The New Yorker, ergo one of the top poems of the year. Does anyone else get it? Anyone?

Now if we bounce forward to this week, Peter Cooley has given us “Company Of The Motel Room,” and here we have a more obviously complex work. “Red shoe under the bed, black sock…” it begins, as though the company of the motel room were the items in it. But then the company shifts to internal reflections: “as my long marriage testifies by its repeated passages / of middling weather.” And “who stood where I stand / before or after love…” the non-specificity of the antecedent there lending frisson (is it the narrator who is before or after love, or the person before him?). We get an unflinchable blue spruce, which is really cool, and cigarette ashes driving folks to lives of rich desserts, if you unwind the sentence far enough, which is really fun and with a pun too. And an excellent ending. See, this is why I like The New Yorker after all. And it does expand my mind, all unwilling sometimes as that may be. ;->

Finally, Toi Derricotte gives us “Weekend Guests From Chicago, 1945.” We start out with a description of the guests: “Julia…in the clunky music of a pound of real gold charms.” Boy, I can hear that, can’t you? And Walter, in “shoes soft as old money.” Great old-fashioned metaphors and images. Richly satisfying. This poem, like the other two, is heavily weighted with specifics, and brings in the narrator: “Me, in a high chair, straining / for language…” A subtle enjambment there as well. We get a later experience of the narrator, then a last description of one of the guests, a sort of exclamation mark of am imperfection that ends it. And it just underlines what I said above — this poem is so skilled, as is the one just before it, that I have to assume the same of the first poem I discussed here, which disheartens me, honestly, in my inability to see the power of the first poem that is so obvious in these latter two works.

On the other hand, it does keep me on my toes, and a little humility is not a bad thing! Speaking of which, I just received the latest Atlanta Review with my poem, “Ensorcelled,” in it, a sort of full-tilt and breathless love poem — resulting in a bit of non-humble joy which I hope you will forgive me. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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