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Archive for July, 2015


Alexandra Teague is the first poet in the Spring Issue of the Missouri Review. In her poem, “Letters To Phryne, From the Sip ‘N Dip Mermaid Bar, Great Falls, Montana” she contemplates a courtesan in ancient Greece who sought pity from a judicial court by baring her breasts. “I’m trying to understand pity that might / just be lust… it must be nice to be a mermaid…Virtue: / sure, yet amphibious.” She brings the story forward. “We still fall in love with what hurts us.” A satisfying poem, better if you Google Phryne, though, to understand her allusions better. Teague addresses a woman’s place in the world in multiple poems here. In “From Mexico, New York” — “Before she went mad, they say she put an ad / in the paper: Seeking any man as beautiful / as myself.” Teague seems to favor long lines, with complex sentences. “Found…an aviator, who never fell from her sky.” But a woman’s role, Teague seems to argue, can erase her: “A model put out to pasture. / In her thirties. Of course fashion skinned her / and kept on unrolling.” I like that line a great deal. And in “From Carrera, Italy” — “I like the idea that the stone decides something: / Michelangelo’s last Pieta devouring // all bodies to air.” And another great line for me: “as if your nudity were more capable // of living outside itself than other people’s?” She tackles interesting themes.

Sally Wen Mao also tackles women’s effacement versus her public face. In “Anna May Wong fans her time machine” she starts, “I’ve tried to hard to erase myself. / That iconography — my face / in Technicolor, the manta ray // eyelashes…” And in “Anna May Wong blows out sixteen candles” “When I was sixteen, / I was an extra in A Tale of Two Worlds.” I am struck how the poems by both Teague and Mao seem to be variations on the same poem; or developments of a single idea, maybe I should say. But thematically very tight. I suspect this is what folks mean when they talk of poetry being written as projects. These will all fit very nicely together into a book, with ideas and themes so cohesive the book should be easy to sell. (The quality of the poems will help, of course!) Don’t know how I feel about this. These are good poems, but they almost feel like poems written for the purpose of selling a book. Yet the poets are exploring interesting ideas; their images are striking; their work very approachable. No hiding behind obscurity here. And there are many examples of great art being created within limited strictures, and an argument those very strictures bring forth the power of the art. I’m willing to follow along with these poets to see if that’s where they are headed.

The last poet here, Anders Carlson-Wee, writes an earthier brand of poetry. In “Butte,” he starts: “My brother bolt-cuts a hole through the mesh / over the Family Dollar dumpster…I lower myself through.” His characters are living low, hustling hard to make it. “I hand up the tub of yogurt…” A poem about dumpster diving, powerful through the immediacy of the images, the desperation we feel in these survivors. “After a while you can name what you feel.” In the poem “Moorcroft,” the narrator has been hitchhiking, and runs into a character on the road: “You gave me a ride when I was lost / in Wyoming.” Love that enjambment. And here the piling on of detail adds to the uneasiness of the character. “Showed me your gun collection…They were old and unloaded, / you told me…” again the use of the line ending to create a hesitation that affects the emotions of the poem. “I was careful not to flinch / as I watched the double-barrel / raise and train on my face…” What a terrifying moment. Great poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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My favorite recent poem in the New Yorker is “African Grey,” by Benjamin Landry in the June 15 issue. “Listening to the wind when you / have gone…an African Grey…who at night speaks…in your voice” It’s a poem about loss and the little reminders of those who are gone. “One picks up constantly after / the departed.” Such a spooky image, the voice of a loved one only heard now in the intonations of a bird, who may or may not have any scrap of the shared awareness we long for. And the changes that come upon us after such great change. “I try to move carefully, now…” A great poem.

In the same issue, “The Lordly Hudson,” by Adam Fitzgerald uses the repetition of the word ‘replacement’ for an incantatory effect. Paul Muldoon (the editor) seems to like repetition in poems. “After my family died there was a replacement family.” There are also enough strange little constructs in here to keep the odd among us happy. “the replacement version // doesn’t really do much for my replacement brain’s / chronic synaptic degradation.” I especially like those last three words. As a minimalist poet, this sort of work is not my strong suit, but I can appreciate those who do it well. The ending of this poem seems especially tangential, but I liked it.

In the June 22 issue, “Poem in the Manner of William Wordsworth,” by David Lehman, also uses repetition. “I ran with the wind like a boy…when joy surrounded me like an ocean…thus was born my theory of joy.” The references to Wordsworth are not elusive: “a hill of high altitude…” “lonelier than a cloudless sky.” And having read Muldoon’s book, The End Of The Poem, this poem seems very much filled with what he likes — references to a canonical poet as examined from a different angle.

Finally, extending our discussion of repetition, Cecily Parks gives us “Morning Instructions for the Doctor’s Wife,” which again brings in much repetition of phrase: “Accept the window / that gives you glass, the dawn / that gives you the maple branch…” The reader pictures someone sitting at the window, awake all night, as dawn slowly returns the sun. Parks creates theses and then develops them: “Only at certain times / can the body be sexual. The doe…in the meadow / isn’t sexual. When surgeons split / the coughing man’s chest…his body wasn’t sexual.” Another technique here is the use of words with similar sounds in close juxtaposition. Split and scalpel here, Curtains and certain. It’s not quite rhyming, but it brings a unity of sound. Interesting techniques. This is a poem to mull over for me, yielding more upon more thought.”

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 – Aug 21 17

The New Yorker – July 31 2017

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