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Archive for December, 2014


Well, it’s still technically December, so I’m comfortable blogging this issue, right? Anyway, a poet whose work I did not know, Tom Clark, has a couple of poems here, starting with “Then And Now.” This is a play-with-language poem, a kind the mag runs occasionally. “Then it was always / for now, later / for later…years of now / passed, and it grew later.” The turn later gives us a confused sardine with an attitude, then an experiment at which it seems to take umbrage. A reasonably weird little poem. His second poem is a quick-hitting little rhyming number, “Blown Away,” which starts “ephemeral as tinkerbell, / unmoored yet not unmoved…” I like that. These are fun works, nothing too deep. It’s good to make room for work like this.

Robyn Schiff has a poem, “Dyed Carnations.” “There’s blue and then there’s blue. / A number, not a hue…” This is an exploration of falsity, underneath its merry tone, and it grows dark down there. “I held the bouquet / in shock and cut the stems at a deadly angle.” “The white flowers…have a fake laugh / that catches like a match.” A strong ending as well, to a strong poem.

Melissa Broder has three sexy, rebellious poems. First is “Salt.” “How can you go swimming in another human being?” “The forests of disappearing moans / which were rich in in sap but lacked dissolve.” I like ‘dissolve’ replacing ‘resolve’. “Like A Real Flame” seems to follow right along, like another section more than a separate poem. “I want the hole in my ear to be quiet….or I will go to my lover’s mouth / and say oh, my quiet.” Broder does not seem to live in a serene universe. It is instructive to review her opening sentences, and see how creative and original they are. Here is the opening to “Lunar Shatters” — “I came into the world a young man / Then I broke me off.” The point more than anything seems to be to say something that no one could expect. This last poem is more incantatory. “And how I begged him turn me Pegasus colors / And please to put a sunset there… / And me I had to de-banshee / And me I dressed myself…” It has a real ring to it, an attention to the sound of the language that I enjoy very much.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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It is not all that unusual for me to prefer some of the non-winners to the winners when contest results are posted. I think that’s honestly part of the process, doesn’t mean I’m more right, or that anyone else is. It’s just what resonates for whom and why. One of the poems in the current issue of Nimrod I liked very much was “A Request For Color And Spice #3” by Simon Peter Eggertsen. “When I die, God, let me live on in color and spice.” There are just such lively lines in this poem, things that make me stop and go back. “Drag a star through my body, God, sober me up / with fire…” Lines like that deserve an audience.

Alison Luterman, who has written many fine poems, here gives us, “She for whom I am named” which starts “left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed….Hello, crowded, terrifying boat.” The story of her grandmother, the story of so many American immigrants. “And later in life, after HE died, / kept her pockets full of candy for the children.” It is the ending line that makes this such a powerful poem though, saying so much about how little any of us leaves behind to be remembered.

I enjoyed Arne Weingart’s “World Without Signs.” “The arrows are the first to go / detaching themselves from their places.” It’s a fun poem, as the aforesaid signs gradually deconstruct themselves. “and heading off straight whichever way / they were pointing…the names of places are next…” The ending of such a progression of a poem matters very much, of course, and this one ends well, though I like the lines a few stanzas before the end best: “it is impossible // to give or receive directions / you simply have to know where it is…”

He also gives us a powerful little poem, “Recapturing My Stutter,” which starts: “Ferocious little animal, / I let you out of your box…” which gives us an empathetic view into the difficulties of having a stutter. “you who / had given me so many vicious / bites” And some complicated truths here. “I let everyone lie about you // and pretend you didn’t exist.”

And lastly let me mention “What Words For God” by Kate Kingston. “Here are the day words / — shovel, hoe, melon, orange, mint…” God asks me, / What are the words here? I reply in Spanish: / zebra, leon, gorila, mono, jirafa.” The night words: “gunaa, mujer, woman.” (The first of those three might be Nahuatl). It’s a complicated poem, and worth savoring, letting the parts of it resonate and bounce off each other, in the various languages referenced.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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While I am convinced profundity in poetry can be obtained, or at least improved, mechanically, depth for depth’s sake seems of little interest to the powers-that-be who edit our flagship journals. For any office processing hundreds of thousands of poems a year, as the New Yorker must, a surprising and arresting beginning is easier to spot, while profundity takes mulling. Best to filter out first based on a level of surprise, then take profundity into account later, perhaps.

Take Terese Svoboda’s “Contrail” in the current issue. When a poet muses on contrails, what is the first image that comes to your mind? For that matter, what’s the first word? I’d guess Svoboda threw those initial images out, when they occurred to her, looking for something more shocking, original, intriguing. So she starts her poem, “Whereof fluff rushes,…” Now, I didn’t see that phrase coming, and doubtless neither did Paul Muldoon, the magazine’s editor. We can imagine his interest: okay, where’s she going with this? Here it is: “…muscles through, / pre-pendulous…” I especially love that pre-pendulous. It gets us thinking of movement, of development. We have all seen contrails slowly become pendulous in the sky, and we wonder how she is going to use that shared experience. She gives us: “about to come apart…like // stitching you soak in the rain.” Again, she is not developing the poem in any linear fashion we can expect, and yet she is making sense in hindsight. We have seen contrails come apart as well. Now, I argue that profundity comes from words and phrases that have multiple interpretations. Puns, to be blunt. And in a reference that comes late in this short poem, Svoboda brings in the Bible, directing us to back up and look for those places of multiple meaning in this work, for an extra metaphorical sense to clouds, for instance. The depth comes later, in other words. Then in the last line, she brings us up short one last time, with another phrase that revisits meanings. It’s a slick, professional-level poem that could serve as an example of what it takes to crack the top markets in American poetry these days.

Robert Pinsky, the poetry editor at Slate, is the recipient of many thousands of poems a year himself, and such an experience is going to inform his poetry as well. But his poem “Genesis According to George Segal” starts out less elliptically: “The Spirit brooded on the water…” A straightforward reference to the beginning of the Bible. In fact, his entire first stanza plays it straight. But fear not, in the middle of stanza two we veer off: “What was the Spirit waiting for? /An image of Its nature, a looking glass?” Quickly, Pinksy gets into the nitty-gritty of glass composition, and a series of elliptical references: “a tangle of bodies / made out of plaster, which plasterers call mud.” See the twist: had Pinsky just said ‘bodies made out of mud,’ we would lose interest, learning nothing new in a tired biblical reference. There’s no intrigue. The poem, for me, has a very delicate sense of balance, when to move the argument along, when to surprise with another factoid. The images generally (but not always) take a a biblical tack: “Men in a bread line…waiting / at the apportioning-place of daily bread.” This serves to tie the poem together, as do multiple references to particles, early and late, as does starting with water and dust and then referencing mud, returning to ‘clouds of dust,’ then ending, or nearly so, with a reference to “moist with life.” One could consider this poem a development of images in parallel, rather than a progression of logical argument. Again, I believe many such poems are finding homes in the top markets, simply because they are more interesting to editors who have seen so many poems that are nothing more than an extended metaphor, or a captured, lyrical moment. Honestly, I myself find it very tricky to write interesting poems with such requirements/structures. But it’s sure fun to try. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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