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Archive for January, 2014


The Feb 3 issue of The New Republic has only two poems this time. First, “Lay,” by Liam Hysjulien, a young poet that Henri Cole is championing for obvious reasons. “After your organs disintegrate, / your cells recite poems to one another.” A poem about the process of cellular death, intellectual at first, but then taking a turn to the intimate. “I’m the one holding your hand as your last cells unravel.” And with that, obliquely, grief slips in, and the inevitability of loss. We are gifted with a great ending as well. A touching poem.

The other poem is by Louise Gluck, who is appearing everywhere now, burning that candle as brightly as she can. Here, it’s “Theory of Memory,” a poem looking back to a moment of prescience. “…before I was a tormented artist…” (love the little joke pasted in there) “I was a glorious ruler…so I was told by the fortune / teller…Great things are ahead…or perhaps behind…” a poem of confusion, of the past sliding into the future, of a single moment in time being clear when all else was uncertainty. A very tricky poem, with much to reflect on.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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This season’s Plainsongs boasts poems by several seasoned poets. Let me start with Ruth Berman’s “Flawed X-Ray” — “The diamond ring is dark / Upon the bones…” a properly spooky start to this quick little poem, and the shiver continues throughout “…spread forever on the film…” to a powerful ending.

Just beneath this on the page is Lyn Lifshin’s “Emily Dickinson,” which does not pay direct homage through rhyme schemes and short little verses. Instead it portrays her almost in movie terms: “moves past the mirror / that’s mostly black… A dark splotch gulps even the / amber in her eyes…” Strong images that build to a satisfying conclusion.

Another strong poet in this magazine is Ed Galing, who gives us “First Born,” a touching description of the narrator at his son’s birth, fears and all: “i had the feeling that / it was all wrong / i wasn’t meant to be a father…” with the deft contrast to everyone else in the room being evidently thrilled “all smiling / shaking hands…oogling the little / brat” that last word like a slap. Then we go on to a second poem, “My Son At Sixty” for a second look at the relationship between these two people: “his hair is thinning / on the sides…I look at him / curiously / thinking…he /resembles my own / father…” Note the subtle use of enjambment, line after line ending at a precipice, we don’t know where the poet is going with his next word, the work winding down the page like the reflections of the poet himself. A great loss when this poet passed. We’ll miss him.

“Cocoa,” by Anne Knowles, is a very enjoyable poem, the nitty gritty of a dignified, working life. “the cocoa / yielding to his ministrations / as to a sermon.”

Finally, JW Major gives us “Jump,” which starts as a portrait of a fascinating man. “his comedy deadpan, bulgy-eyed…smiling / like a cheap-made devil.” My wife and I once bought a work of folk art in Santa Fe, a woman being whooshed off on the back of a bicycle, the devil at the wheel. This poem starts us off with that same slant humor, but then the poem goes deeper: “I turn sunshine gray, he said….Now he’s not here but is here more than before…” and slowly we realize the poem isn’t about him at all, but about her: “I’m on the condo pool deck, the widow, / character from a movie with the old lady hair-do” and the skilled turn makes this a tremendously powerful poem, with an ending that takes your breath away.”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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We get three poems in the New Yorker this week — extra fun! The first is “Bruise” by Michael Ondaatje. “In the medieval darkness of the Holland tunnel…” it begins, introducing the first thread. We’ve got a non-linear one here. This thread goes on to discuss drawing “on whitewashed walls,” morphs into maps, then into a diorama — all images to look at. Another thread kicks off with: “When last I held you in my arms…” and immediately gives the third thread: “the West African Black / Rhinoceros was still magnificent…” The threads join and twist: “But it is the black rhino whose loss they mourn, / not the person he held once…” The poem ends with general mournful discussions of endings and loss and an appropriately non-sequitur ending. So, the ending of love? Going into tunnels? The wild mythic animal, lost? All is complexity. Call it the New Symbolism, maybe: the rhino mourns because he’s lost his tunnel. ;->

Jennifer Grotz gives us “Apricots,” which almost all the way through the poem is indeed about apricots — beautiful images and details, too. “I’d been given the charge to determine / which are good or bad…the slightly overripe ones with bruises / had a bitter ferment that only brightened / the scent.” Great lines here: “elegant in the tree, tiny coquettes / blushing…” And growing in depth: “Each…tastes different, like a mind having / erratic thoughts.” And so we start to see the apricots as thoughts, fruit to be devoured, “Going into the trance…” Then she ends it with a misstatement and correction, a subtle line that throws the whole poem into relief, rewrites it from the beginning, gives us more than twice to think about. A very good poem, indeed.

The final poem is Rustin Larson’s “The Philosopher Savant Takes A Walk,” in the first person singular. “On my way to the post office this morning, I was feeling / pretty balanced…” Strange lines drift in: “I believed in my footsteps.” But it’s all very much kept firmly in the moment: “There were a few marigolds.” I think the key to the poem is the depth engendered by the line: “If I can be someone’s entertainment by being myself, / I have no regrets.” It makes the whole thing reflexive — the author talking about the author as entertainment, the poem somehow then BEING the author (have poets all felt that way about their work at one time or another? It certainly feels that way when rejections come back). So let’s consider this a metapoem and quite a clever one, besides being fun, which is always a huge plus.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The poems in some magazines seem to reward deep study more consistently than others. That’s sure true for the December 9 issue of The New Republic, starting with the poem James Longenbach gives us, where he discusses his first experience with a horse. The poem, appropriately, is called “Horse.” “Though I come from a long line of people intimate / With…horses, / Today, for the first time, I touched a horse.” He quickly goes deeper: “I’m speaking here of things that come to feel essential…You’ve never done it, then you’ve done it before…You can’t imagine your body without it.” He shifts to an experience with a drink, giving us a tiny rest from his main slant, then goes back to the horse. “the horse seemed all the while / Perfectly happy…” The last couple of lines deliver a summation/epiphany that powers the poem home, really a zen moment, letting us know this poem can be read as the larger self meeting the Other, the connection between people, oh, we can read things into this poem all night. Very satisfying.

C. Dale Young gives us “False Start” and tells us it’s “After Jasper Johns.” It starts “There is red, there is / red there is red and some / yellow.” The enjambment gives us the circularity of a Jasper Johns’ painting, the uncertainty, the surprise move in a new direction. He shifts from a simple discussion of paint and color to a metaphor of a relationship: “the brush…knows the canvas the way I have / learned to know your chest / among between” The narrator seemingly tries to control his lover, then still working within the metaphor of the colors, seems to admit rage, violence, and even cowardice. Beautifully handled.

In “Catwork,” Tim Nolan must come to grips with his cat being imperfect: “The old cat keep peeing / around the house…” It’s a sign the cat is growing old, his imperfections deepening: “…manages to place / himself always in my path…Right where my bare foot falls / on him — and he cries…” There’s a gentle sadness and pathos to this work, a turning of the idea that we are all improving through our lives on its head.

Finally, Henri Cole (the magazine’s editor) translates a poem by Claire Malroux from the French: “Not A Hair Of Your Head Shall Be Harmed.” This also starts as a meditation on getting older: “These hairs that the wind used to caress on my nape / fall from my brush now.” But the poem darts from metaphor to metaphor, discussing the travels of the hair, and makes reference to the Holocaust, even: “man himself / has fabricated lampshades and soap / out of his own body.” Which brings us to the depths of pain, in understanding that it was not out of his own body, but the bodies of his victims that such items were wrought. Then, more, that “man” encompasses both perpetrator and victim, revealing how we have both aspects in us. Then we’re given reassurance that such will never happen to us, reiterating the title. But we don’t believe the narrator, trust is lost. Finally, the poem’s ending backs away from this raw view to a delicate finish. All done in a few deft lines. Wow.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – July 31 17

The New Yorker – Aug 21 17

New Republic – Oct 2014

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