Archive for February, 2014

A double issue of the New Yorker gives us, first, “Invocation” by Amit Majmudar, who has built a powerful reputation brick by brick over the last few years. This is one of his more powerful. “Sing the arms of kids, / the ones with pustules all along their veins…” The rhymes are in couplets, but the stanzas are in triplets, and this mismatch, things not fitting, is a theme of the poem, a peroration of the many victims one sees in emergency rooms. “The arms imprinted…as if the dad who grabbed…had dipped // his hand in black paint first.” A sobering work.

“Diminution” by Charles Rafferty discusses just that: Socrates taught Plato and…Aristotle taught Alexander the Great who founded a city…until it was burned.” This raffish collapse winds through the short poem, a sort of ‘I told you so…’ in a hundred words. Fun, in an evil way.

“Fast” by Jorie Graham requires time to work through. The language may be quick, but the reader must backtrack, pause, absorb at a snail’s pace to see what is going on. “Too much. Or not enough. Or. Nothing else? / Nothing else.” There’s a recurrent reference to a bot. “To download bot be / swift…to load greatly enlarge / the cycle of labor — to load abhor labor…” There are many verbal tricks, and many internal rhymes luring the incautious reader on, but then once again the reader must backtrack, to see how the words jigsaw together. Intriguing.

Now I’m gonna twist it up a bit and review a book that just came out from Main St. Rag. Don’t know the poet, but I reviewed a few of his poems a while back. The book is called Hollow Tin Jingles, the poet is Fred Rosenblum, and the poems center around the narrator’s experiences in Vietnam. The opening poem, “the final episode of leave it to beaver” lays out the situation: “two months prior to my enlistment in the Marines / my brother Wally and me / dropped two hits of Owsley White Lightening / in a run-down Victorian two-story…I was fresh out of high school / and confused with the script / of a satirical deity / who would manipulate his characters / from The Summer of Love / to The Eve of Destruction.” Cultural touchstones are woven throughout the poems, serving as comment on the narrator’s situation, often in ironic tones. This technique creates an atmosphere of sadness, and the sense of someone caught up in something far larger than himself. These references reveal how we don’t always understand our own culture, why some things are considered important. There are many beautiful lines here: “we were just the carvings of youth…” from “drunk and inoculated at kadena,” and “the gunner was a madman…he muscled-off a line of lead / asserted himself upon us / with very scary acne / and a feverish enthusiasm” from “cherries.”

But overall, this is very much a book of characters. “an obese porcine caricature / shaven head and handlebars // bouncing at the breech of a fifty caliber / he was careless with the lives of men / yet careful in his efforts to gain official notice // I remember him / firing into the shops / by the side of the road…” We know this man. He horrifies us, terrifies us, makes us afraid we could be him if we grow careless.

As much as anything else, it is a book about a place and time that we think we know, that will always be unknowable. “daylight / the five hundred pound / bomb-cratered…rainwater rice terrace — / flooded epitome / of wartime Indo-China…homestead of dung beetle / & royal blue / water buffaloes / immersed to their bellies…”

This is a moving portrait of a young man in a searing time, who comes back changed in ways that send shivers down your spine, that make you feel proud, and sad. A book of understanding and wisdom won in a very tough place. I highly recommend this book, Hollow Tin Jingles.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, as well as at other fine e-retailers.

Related Blogs:

The New Yorker – Aug 21 2017

The New Yorker – July 31 2017


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In the current New Yorker, Anne Carson gives us “Pronoun Envy,” a mash-up of a poem, including threads about the female students of Harvard Divinity School, circa 1971, protesting the use of masculine pronouns to refer to God and mankind; the archaeopteryx… “One night / the archaeopteryx / exapted its feathers — as wings — and / over // the yards of Harvard / rose divinity students / in violent flight…” base 2 mathematics; and a hockey game. Oh, there are other things thrown in there as well, but that’s a start. The science about feathered dinosaurs is in flux at the moment, but Carson’s take is from roughly 1971 as well, and that seems fine, given the premises of the poem. Because the poem bounces around so much, and is free verse, there isn’t much structure to support the ending, so she gives us a turn near the end to help guide us: “And to this day…you may see a slight residue of / those nights. / Here’s / what to look for: / a pony…” She uses her pony to work out the last few stanzas. A pony is, of course, what we are supposed to look for in a room full of manure, right? So she’s making fun of her own poem. Those kind of little jokes hide throughout, which makes it fun to read. All in all, one of her more successful poems, for me.

Wislawa Szymborska has a poem in the previous week’s New Yorker, translated by Clare Cavanagh, called “Reciprocity.” “There are catalogues of catalogues.” So it starts, and the poem is a sort of catalogue indeed, running through poems about poems, “plays about actors played by actors…” and then shifting slightly off course: “griefs as infectious as laughter….Seen glances.” It’s an intriguing poem for me, reviewing the 21 pairs listed, seeing how she deepens the meaning with well-chosen images, and ending with a note of sadness. A strong poem.

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 – March 19 2018

Rattle 59 – Spring 2018

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

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I just read A.E. Stalling’s “Whethering” (in the Feb 14 Poetry Mag) to my wife. It brought her to tears. As I read the poem, she could hear her mother calling to her, over and over again. Her mother’s been gone for many years now, so it was precious for my wife to hear her voice again. A beautiful, beautiful poem. Stallings is as good a poet as we have, in my view. It starts “The rain is haunted” and weaves through subtle rhymes to “Something formless that fidgets / beyond the window’s benighted mirror.” So many great lines like that, far too many to include here. It is a haunted poem, a poem of memory, of connection between generations, some present, some a memory. And some sly fun as well: “White noise // Precipitates.” Even the title is fun, for that matter. Go search it out.

I don’t think I’ve ever discussed how editors choose poems to follow one on another. After a second (excellent) Stallings poem “The Companions Of Odysseus In Hades” (which you can find on Twitter, I believe) we get a Franz Wright poem, “Boardinghouse of No Visible Address,” which is certainly redolent of the poem above: “I got to examine the room / unobserved….sheets / the color of old aspirin.” What an excellent line, but rather than a home full of children, and a haunting line of ancestors, this poem has the narrator alone in the empty room, “familiar but not / yet remembered” (got to point out the enjambment there, giving us the standalone line familiar but not for an echo of a different meaning buried in here). “Ma, / a voice spoke from the darkness” and we can see how the two poems are setting off resonances between them, giving us a deeper connection to meanings not easy to explicate. With this poem, there is a yearning for the beyond, but a sense of nothing out there, nothing that can be reached at any rate. Both poems are standalone and complete when considered in isolation, of course, but gain through the context of the other poem nearby. A very happy arrangement by the editor. There are other such connections/ relationships visible between poems in this issue, if one looks for them. A fruitful little treasure hunt.

Gotta mention “The Archeologists” by Julia Shipley, which starts: “found pins / by the millions / while…stripping a portion / of Manhattan…” a poem about harlots who did homey things in between their appointments, a sense of women lost in time, lost to us, maybe trying hard not to be lost to themselves, to be grounded in a hard world. A very touching poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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