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Archive for April, 2014


Thru an address mixup I wasn’t receiving my Main Street Rags, and just got Winter 2014. So here goes.

I like the poem “Elmhurst,” by Joan Colby, where the narrator goes back to the town of “your” childhood. “Let the unremembered be backwashed.” and “Go back: the little store with its glass case of candies.” Much remains, though there have been changes. “Erased by a park, a prairie path for joggers…” At a certain age, looking back seems to grow into a preoccupation. “At first I am befuddled, then see /it’s your childhood you’re giving me.” With a resonant ending that moves the poem to a larger context.

Steve Cushman is also looking back in “Grandfather.” “I visited him / at the trailer park he owned…” But there is a tougher edge to this poem. “he was slumped / over the steering wheel…before I touched him / I thought of the man he used to be…” and again, there is a depth to the ending, in this case however, pointing out a narrowed corner of the narrator’s heart, a risk for the poet that I very much appreciate. It’s easy to make ourselves look righteous and shiny in a poem, much scarier to show us real and muddled.

John Gosslee adds some short, blunt poems. In “How I Pursued Her,” for instance: “a badger / after its dinner // an accountant / logging money.” Ruefully fun stuff.

Finally, I very much enjoyed the poem, “High Heels,” by Anina Robb. “She wears them to keep her man / sane.” Great enjambment. “Every day of pain / there is less of that desire.” Such a true review of what cost heels exact: “Before bed, she slaps the cramps… Blisters puncture.” And a great ending. Maybe it’s because of the animus my wife has always had to these cruel instruments. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Back in the April 7th New Yorker, Charles Simic had a poem, “The One Who Disappeared.” Hard to know if it’s a murder mystery or a love poem, and that’s probably the point: “It had been more than thirty years / Since she went for a little walk…” Simic drops words here and there — “Now that it’s warm to sit on the porch at night / Someone happened” — just enough to keep the reader off balance. It’s really the ending that gives this whole poem its wallop. We’re a step away from knowing what’s going on, but we feel the poet is in the same boat as us. No one’s holding out, the world has its mysteries, and we’re subject to them. I’ve always liked Simic, maybe because of that humanity he shares with us, that sense of so little controlled, we’re just making it as best we can.

In the April 14th issue, Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Map” is translated as usual by Clare Cavanagh: “Flat as the table / it’s placed on.” Szymborska in my experience is very concrete, and that’s true here. “Its plains, valleys are always green… Everything here is small, near, accessible.” We are lulled into thinking this is the whole of the portrait, so when the climax comes, it shocks us: “I like maps, because they lie.” And everything we have just read is flipped upside down in that instant. All the concrete is of course abstract, this poem is a mapping of a map, as the map is of a place. And all that a map cannot chart is off the page, hinted at in the poem, a depth that tugs at our heart. Again, a poem of how little we control, how much we can only observe, helpless bystanders.

Both poems are excellent, for all of me.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The April Poetry magazine starts off w Sarah Lindsay’s “Rain Of Statues,” written from the point of view of soldiers in the Mithridatic Wars in the 1st century BC. So, some ambition here: “Our general was elsewhere, but we drowned.” Not the strongest vote of confidence in a leader I’ve ever read. The dead soldiers are shipped home, but a storm comes up… “and made us offerings to the sea floor — / a rain of statues, gold and men.” Now this is cool poetry. “we fell through streams of creatures / whose lives were their purpose.” Lindsay has a delicate sense of language, always surprising. “Little crabs attempt to don rings…” and a wonderfully understated ending. Probably worth buying the magazine for alone.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi presents a marvelous poem, “Captain Lovell,” with a sly sense of story: “”Dad calls her the Dowager but I call her Aunt G….She doesn’t like me very much. I know it.” Very few poets have the confidence to write such straightforward lines. Too bad, because it gives such a power to the poem, a tale about the narrator’s aunt trying to give her a gift she does not want. “when she placed the ring inside my hand / I just said, ‘No, thank you.'” I love the interplay between the two characters. I love what’s left out of the poem, giving it more power. I love the ending. Oh, but I’m warning you, Calvocoressi has three poems in this issue, ALL named “Captain Lovell,” (including the comma).

Dorothea Lasky has a thought-provoking poem, “Lilac Field.” Many of my readers will remember she was the respondant in an interview I culled from a few blogs back, who cracked open the secret evil underbelly of American poetry for us. ;-> Here she gives us a straight-no-chaser poem, with fun twists: “To perform death is something only humans would do / No animal would sit there / With a blank look…Just because the camera is there” Soon the narrator is becoming an animal in return: “were my wings iridescent” and the turn has the narrator enter into a one-sided dialogue: “I came back…to help you // And that I did” And we are left, finally, with a poem meditating on death, on the loss of a companion, on our own survival.

Various of the poems in the issue are just for fun. Echoing, maybe, the idea of April being the humorous issue from a few years ago. I like Matthew Sweeney’s “Gold.” “After the murder, I called a meeting to see if we were happy.” It goes on loopily from there.

And Charles Bernstein has an equally offbeat (okay, maybe a lot more offbeat) poem, “Me And My Pharaoh.” A lot of circular and spiral reasoning here: “Poetry has // no purpose // & // that is not // its // purpose…” That sort of thing. Fun, in a weird way, and much goofier on the page than I have represented.

The last poem I am going to mention is Karen An-Hwei Lee’s “On Heirophany.” Again, there is a lot of fun in the poem, a sort of thirteen ways of looking at the sacred: “an untidy / fleshliness of the ordinary.”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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