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Archive for September, 2015


The summer issue of the Missouri Review features the work of three poets. Miriam Bird Greenberg’s first poem here,  “Would You Believe,” challenges us to believe the narrator saw a series of remarkable events. “We climbed from the mouth of a volcano / all year…” it begins, in discussing the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the hustlers who survived it. “Brother, // one told me he’d said, we can be afraid / of each other again tomorrow.” The volcano seems to be used metaphorically, the incidents seem narrative. “Sometimes / I’d lift my hand to the lip– // look out over the volcano’s rim and there, / in a crevice, a scrap of paper shining…” the result for me is an interesting mix of trust and suspicion in the story, and a continual wondering why each incident appears. The narrator is affected by the loss and confusion around her: “I’m afraid // one day I’ll find myself trash picking…” Her next poem, “Ophidia,” seems almost a continuation of the first, in a different place: “The days were already burning / when we crossed the river…” The same narrator lost among the hustlers and struggling people of our world. “Do you need / anything, I asked. Water, / a little money? …He was on his way to Houston / for a check…and his dead brother’s unclaimed disability pay…” The heart of this poem, maybe of them all, seems to me to be the line, “How can one lonesome ghost, / I wondered, spin his own rope // to rappel us in the end / into the underworld…?” Haunting poetry, this.

Jennifer Barber has a series, “Motion Harmony #1”, “…#2”, “…#4”: “The first / leaf-stripping rain / reaps a summer’s worth by evening.” Don’t blink, or these poems will be past you, they operate so fast. “The pears that dropped…are pale bronze…Already riddled with wasps.” Tight, efficient language here, almost Imagist. Poem #2: “By pear I mean pear, not a buzzing, riddled heart. / At least I think I do.” A sly humor that catches us unawares. And the ending of each poem gives us the emotional keys to what we’ve just read. Very nice.

The third poet is Doug Ramspeck. His “Black Flowers” is a prose poem. “The old men are dreaming of black flowers…The men have their memories as hymnals, but still the crows make blossoms of their wings, and oar out above the yard.” It’s that sort of metaphor that makes this poems worth reading, though I found it hard to follow any narrative arc. His second poem is more successful for me, “Snow Prayers,” about an incident that happens to his father, and the effect on the whole family. “The first time my mother pushed me / to my knees to pray…” What a great way to start a poem. “You come from God-loving / stock, she pointed out…as though all love / is infinite, as permanent as stone.” Lines like that really help us feel the boy’s ambivalence and unsureness. The ragged belief, the need for belief, the fear belief may fail us, it’s all here. Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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There are two poems in the Aug 24 issue of The New Yorker. Ellen Bass gives us “The Small Country,” which starts, “Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation / when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten.” It’s a poem about two people in love, and the difficulties in describing the relationship. “What words reach the way I touched you last night…” And ultimately, how we cannot know the same meanings. “Even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us…” An honorable theme for a poem, the two of us in our own world. Straightforward.

In contrast, Eileen Myles gives us nearly the opposite in “Dissolution.” She starts, “sometimes I forget what country I’m in…I got this bug bite / that could be anything.” It’s kind of a scribble drawing of a poem “scribbled version / of empty… A kid could draw this world” and “My coloring book / why not is so / like a movie.” Do commas belong around that ‘why not’ — which would imply a gamble, a dare? Or should ‘not’ be underlined, so we are talking of rejection and emptiness? What may be the key verse is jumbled in among the others: “You forgot / to call your family / & now you’re ready to write an / explicit / bible of love.” This is a poem one has to go back and reread to dig out meanings. It does seem to be about the damage to a relationship, metaphorically: “You left / it outside  now you want to save / it?” But that bug bite does not reduce simplistically, and there are other depths hinted at: “It’s still good / and that’s your secret.” Ultimately, a fun poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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