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Archive for October, 2014


James Longstaff gives us an interesting poem in the current issue of Plainsongs with “Single Link, 1951 Or 2.” It starts out “In Sunday’s solstice between the preacher’s / ‘May the Lord’…and my mother’s call, ‘Come! Eat!’…Uncle Jack pulls his new-used Nash…into our yard and pops the hood.” It’s a poem of plain life, men considering a car’s engine, then listening to the game. A sweet slice of life, with a satisfying ending.

It’s complemented nicely by “Our Dad,” by Barry Benson, with some fun shaggy dog moments. I like the humor in this poem.

This seems to be an issue of little moments rising to poetry. Ruth A. Smullin follows this approach with “Old Letters,” sort of a paean to the letters the narrator’s mother collected, and an elegy by the end. Worth the read. “A blizzard of words, lives in flux.”

“The New Owners,” by Cathy Porter also takes a small moment for relection on a loss. “When I drive by, I see things are about the same.” This resonates: my wife and I sometimes drive by the house we gave up years ago, just as happens in this poem, reviewing the changes the new owners have made. “One time I saw a young man working / the front yard in the same way you used to…” We are not surprised when this poem too becomes an elegy.

Lastly, I’ll mention “The Pile,” by Ivan Hobson. “It started with a 5% pay cut, the strike, / the clumsy scabs…” A work world that has almost vanished, looked back at by the offspring of those who lived it. “For over five years we played army…around that rust pile.” I love the way this poems ends, as well.

A solid issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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We are, in the modern world, of course forced by our calendar bravely to ignore superstitions and so the New Republic bravely published on the 13th. Fortunately not a Friday, right? But luck seems to be with them anyway. The poems are good. ;->

First comes “The Crazy Dog Lady Recognizes Spring and Is Momentarily Bouyed by a Joy She Had Wholly Forgotten,” by Renee Ashley. Now a title like that implies run-on sentences, but not so here, except that she does dispense with periods. “The dogwood bracts horizontal on their boughs The iris still in its / papers” I don’t get the purpose of losing the periods, and I don’t know how the poem is benefited by forming a square visually on the page, but neither really bothers me. The images are surely interesting: “the one eighteen-wheeler the color of night’s blue sky with its / cab the starry green of a sea beneath foam.” I’m failing to picture that green, though. The sea beneath a night sky is generally black, except maybe when lit from within in a painting. I’ll grant you phosphorescence, but I don’t get to green. Still, the poem has me thinking. Always good. There’s a nice balance of flowers and dogs early on, and then repeated at the end, with differences: e.g. we go from dogwood to woodchuck. There’s probably more in this poem that escapes me, but it entertained me, anyway.

“Gnawa Boy, Marrakesh, 1968” is by Charif Shanahan. “The maker has marked another boy to die…” it starts, and the poem is uncompromising. “black legs jutting out…the tips of his toenails translucent as an eye.” Our focus is kept firmly on the boy dying, through the first half of the poem. Then we turn to the moment of death. “he passes…into the blue / porcelain silence…no song of final parting, no wailing / ripped holy from their throats.” It is a somber elegy, and very moving.

Wendy Salinger gives us “January,” which contrasts the narrator’s daughter first encountering the world with her father at the end of his life. “she took my hand / to see the houses outlined / in their Christmas lights. // ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ she said.” Then, “He kneels before my mother / and he weeps.” A great image to end with, as well. An effective, affecting poem.

The last poem is “Tears,” by C.K. Williams. I have had my difficulties with some of his poems, and I am no fan in general of ghazals, but this is a good poem. (And Mr. Williams has certainly hit his share of home runs in the past). My wife especially liked this one. It follows the theme of young and old that Henri Cole seems to have quietly selected for this issue. “Baby next door crying, not angry crying… _hungry_ crying…sweet to think of her at filling station of bottle or breast.” Williams then considers the implications and resonances arising from the idea of “our” for narrator and child. He gets to believing: “Too late for that — too late even for _please_ — please stay…” And the last stanza is very delicate. He shows a great balance and breath control throughout this poem — not overstepping his images anywhere, not growing too heated. It’s a poem of that resonant sadness we feel when living too much in the world, the loss of things. Almost like a haiku that way.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The September 29th issue of the New Yorker has two poems, the first by Catherine Bowman, called “Makeshift.” And oh boy, is this what we read the New Yorker for. “From two pieces of string and oil-fattened feathers he made a father. / She made a mother from loss buttons and ocean debris…en masse assemble a makeshift holy city.” I take the poem to be about two people with a jumbled, patchwork past making their own world together. Maybe their folks haven’t been able to function as full parents, so they have to take on the task for themselves. Such beautiful images, line after line. Then in the middle of the poem, right at the “makeshift holy city” line, the poem reverses, and we see the same lines come out in reverse, with subtle shifts in meaning, creating tremendous power. For instance “Lacking a grave, they embottled themselves” becomes “Embottled in grave lack.” (Just to think of the word embottled is cool.) A moving, deep work of art.

The other poem is “Chives,” by Julie Sheehan. “You chop an onion, bone a breast, cradle / an artichoke’s…crown.” This poem shows a great precision in word choice. We start with such details, then move to the more general. “You agitate for justice.” An interesting mix of cooking and the larger world. She sustains the metaphor throughout: “craving the bitter,” using the tiny particulars to illuminate a life. Very well done.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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