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Archive for March, 2014


A few posts ago I noted a Szymborska poem in the New Yorker that catalogued various things in her life. Well, evidently Paul Muldoon is on a bit of a kick, because in the March 10th issue, Jane Hirshfield weighs in with a very similar poem, “My Life Was The Size Of My Life” (which doubles as the first line). “Its rooms were room sized, / its soul was the size of a soul.” Fortunately for our sanity she starts mixing it up: “It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.” All with a light-hearted tone: “I told my life I would like some time…to try seeing others.” Then it ends in a sexy way, keeping our interest right through. Reminds me of a Philip Glass song, subtle variations that bring you slowly along to somewhere else.

Gary J. Whitehead in the same issue gives us “Making Love In The Kitchen,” which compares love to cooking: “We do it with knives in hand…Hearts are made to be carved / out…” A solid effort.

Last week (Mar 17) we got “Manatee,” by John White. Don’t know his work, but I like this poem (my wife actually first called its subtlety to my attention). The narrator flies to Florida, evidently as a parent is passing away: “This is the way your life began to end…” “my memory / is not of you in a diaper gonged on morphine…but a manatee approaching the window…” It’s a powerful subsumation of that underwater feeling as a loved one passes, and our helplessness in the inevitability. “transfixed behind the cloudy glass”. A very powerful poem, and I admire all the resonance in that word gonged.

Then this week, John Ashbery gives us “East February” — “Out there the air is moist I /can tell…” — with his usual swoops and reversals: “Not expecting friends / that you don’t know yet are coming…” Going back over this one, I notice the shape of a sonnet hiding underneath it, and surely the last two lines are sonnet-esque — for those new to this blog, I try never to give away the ending, which is why I’m not quoting it here. I hope those interested will track the poem down, maybe even buy the mag. ;->

P.S. I worked my way through Paul Muldoon’s book, “The End Of The Poem.” As someone trying to crack The New Yorker, I think it’s an interesting book, and would recommend it to other folks in my position (okay, and to folks who just like linguistic detective stories). My takeaway is that Muldoon sees poets as being in an ongoing conversation with past poets. He discusses poems by various poets, discussing how they were, or may have been, in a dialectic with poems in THEIR past, and why he thinks so. It’s really not so much a historical treatise as a treasure hunt through the language. For instance, Yeats in using certain words in “All Soul’s Night” was responding to lines in “Ode To A Nightingale” by Keats.

Whether Muldoon is right or not in any given argument intrigues me less than the fact that he thinks this way. It’s like psyching out your teacher in college — if he thinks this way, then this is the sort of poem he might be interested in reading: a poem that derives atmosphere from a well-known poem, and uses words that riff off (though maybe don’t directly repeat from) that poem. Were I to try this (and I’m not saying I won’t) I would probably focus on poets he discusses in his book. Again, I won’t give you a list of names, because it seems fair to have you buy the book to give Mr. Muldoon the support. Anyway, the subtlety of how he thinks is beyond what I can convey here.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The March issue of Poetry Magazine starts with Sheila Black’s “Istanbul, 1983.” “In the frozen square, the student asks me if I will / sell him the books…he hides them / under his winter coat…” An intriguing work about the crash of two cultures: the careless attitude about books of one; the intensely serious attitude of the other, where books may be life-changing, or even fatal to own. “The prisoner / remembers only wanting to read…” But there is more than a simple interaction going on here: “To turn a self / to light proves painful…” The narrator is having an epiphany, maybe too big a one, about one’s place in the world. “while he picks mushrooms on / the edge of dread…” A thought-provoking work about limits and limited perception.

Yusef Komunyakaa gives us “The African Burial Ground” about an archeological sight in Manhattan, “They came as Congo, Guinea & Angola, / feet tuned to rhythms of a thumb piano…” and what happens to the graves, and the ghosts over the years. “footsteps of lower Manhattan / strutted overhead, back & forth / between old denials and new arrivals…” I like Komunyakaa’s poetry, and this is another moving poem, with a lot to think over. He delivers such a powerful sound here.

Eduardo C. Corral’s “To Juan Doe #234” is the reflection of the friend of an illegal immigrant who died during the crossing (at least that’s what I assume; it’s a bit elusive). A powerful, sad poem. “I only recognized your hair: short, / neatly combed…your body became a slaughter- / house where faith and want were stunned…” Wow, what a line. I’ve gone back to read this poem a few times. Very much worthwhile.

Gayle Danley has a sweet poem about the first discussion of the birds and bees with the narrator’s daughter: “She’ll ask me where babies come from and I will lie to her.” Plenty of little chuckles as we go along: “Babies come from…the Isley Brothers and 3 or 4 glasses of white zin…eyeliner and lips to match…Collision of longing…” We’ll all recognize something here.

Finally, I enjoyed Maria Melendez Kelson’s “Good Friday” — “Jesus, I want my sins back.” She goes through various of the 7 deadly sins, discussing: “Body by Envy. // Makeup and wardrobe provided by Avarice.” And I liked the ending. Again, a fun, sly poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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It seems to me the poetry in The Avocet is steadily improving. More and more the poets seem to be delivering a brawny language bereft of curlicues and purple passages. Certainly I enjoyed a goodly number of poems this issue, starting with Art Elser’s “Hope in early March.” I like the immediacy of the images here. “The road washboards to the horizon…the arid land…is pinned there / by barbed wire, dirty snow and tumbleweeds.” Then we turn from the land to life on it, and the precariousness comes through: “She’s just given birth, the blood-red placenta / still hanging. Nearby a teetering calf…falls, struggles back up…” a bracing work, the specificity of the images giving it power.

t. kilgore splake delivers a poem by stringing together the briefest descriptions: “season opener / veteran graybeard hunter / old heart wearing out…” Maybe I like this especially since I’m a bit of a graybeard hunter myself.

Joan Colby mixes Latinate words with an Anglo-Saxon landscape to interesting effect in “Winter Trees” — “essentials / Baring every angle, each fork / Of twisted logic. Abnegation / Of symmetry. Burls / like hideous tumors.” A cool way to look at trees.

“Early Morning Oklahoma Stroll” by Jim Spurr I found spare and strong, but short enough that I can’t riff from it without revealing too much (short is generally my favorite kind of poem — it often means the poet has cut all the pudge).

James Hudson’s “Early Ice” starts with such an evocative image, it makes me re-read the poem a few times: “Grandmother’s quilt / has lain on the land. / They came up from Atlanta, /Kansas City, New York / to see it.” and later: “dusk begins its march / at three in the afternoon.” A very clean poem, delivering the images with no confusion. And a strong ending.

Christine Swanberg’s “January Rain, 2002” is powerful on several levels. “No one, not even the cat / craning to see it, knows what / this renegade filigree can be.” I like “can be” there rather than the simple choice of “is.” And later: “Seeing his frown, his wife asks what’s wrong. / Global warming, he says. If you look deeply, / you can see Illinois turning into Mississippi.” I find it hard to tackle such large themes successfully, I think the poet does so successfully here, with deft language. Kudos.

Charlotte DiGregorio, whom I know more for her work with haiku, delivers a spare poem, “The Sun Over Lake Michigan,” that shows how a haiku sensibility can work in a longer piece: “a gull cries, tilting / at lake’s edge.” Just enough to give us the scene, and ’tilting’ resonates. But she’s bound for deeper water here: “I unspool my memories / of his breezy smile.”

Finally, let me mention “Spellbound,” by Mary Jo Balistreri. It starts with ponderous, powerful images: “the dark trunks of oaks / that pillar a cerulean dome, snow glazed like marble…” I like that last especially. It’s a supple evocation of winter, the heft of the words magnifying the silence she refers to in a lighter sentence at the end.

A worthy issue all around.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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