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Archive for January, 2016


Three poets grace the pages of the latest issue of the Missouri Review. Jenny Molberg starts out with “Fourth State of Matter.” “The day Big Tex burned, it began in the throat — / an utterance that caught fire.” Is Big Tex a relative, a friend of the narrator’s father? We know we are at the fair, but the poet does not hand us the full context, preferring to make us work it out with other clues: “whose 75-gallon hat // mooned over the crowd.” And bingo, if we are paying enough attention, we realize Big Tex must be a statue, or puppet, speaking to the crowd through a loudspeaker in the throat, which catches fire. Why is this a moment worthy of a poem? The narrator searches for her father: “scanned the dune of faces…”and reaches some sort of epiphany. “Later, I saw that my father’s life wasn’t whole // but scattered, and didn’t really belong to me.” So this is a moment when the isolation becomes real, when her father’s grief becomes real for her. She is growing up. Nicely done.

I also like her poem, “Storm Coming,” a short, understated work, again about the narrator and her father. “In his face, // I look for my own…” “The sky swells like an oath.” The approaching storm counterbalances the human interactions. “Dad, he’ll say, how about… we’ll go and get some of those peaches…?” “The storm is birth and death // in only minutes.” Over and over, this author breaks up ideas not just between lines, but between stanzas, emphasizing the gaps, the emptiness in her character’s lives, the distances they seem to feel between each other. A work to revisit, and to contemplate.

Noah Warren gives us the poem “Milkweed.” “The summer morning, / the exploding front,  the rain / a wall falling.” Wow, tricky to come up with an original image about the rain. “One stalk of milkweed…bitten, blind thing, on and on, / by the swarm of bullets.” It brings to mind, for me, the war that is nature, each living thing struggling to survive, eat, make its own way in a battle zone. An interesting metaphor, deftly handled. And I love the metaphor he uses to end this poem.

The final poet is Regina DiPerna. In “The Fortune Our Bodies told,” she starts, “First, pattern: one whisper-thin / hook of material threading to / the next.” And indeed, at times our bodies do seem thin and fragile. “the clockwork // of a heart…a fistful of red clay / contracting and expanding / around each damp, unsteady hour.” Boy, that’s cool writing. I like the conceit of the poem, a series of metaphors about each aspect of the body. “The blood, an army of ants…”

And I love her poem, “I’m Not,” a declaration, a manifesto of independence: “not hanging my head / in the doorway…like ivy growing quiet over your walls. I’m not a canvas for you…I’m not midnight and smashed dishes…” A passionate work, that touches us and makes us cheer for the narrator, and to hope for her.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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I think I’ll start reviewing the Winter 2015 Atlanta Review from back to front. No reason. The last poem in the mag is a sonnet, “Sunday Morning in His Workshop,” by Duane K. Caylor. “…a button-headed brace / rests on the bench awaiting… to spin once more. A poem about a workshop. Things of the hands. “augur bit in place, / it translates languages of mind and hand / into solid, runic poetry.” I am a big fan of poetry that arises out of the practical world, concerning items and tasks nothing dependent on classrooms, teaching, arcane academia. Maybe because I am so far from that world myself. So the power of this poem arises from the knowledge of someone’s workshop, the things he or she intends to build.

In the poem, “Profession of Flora,” Jane Varley reimagines the Nicene Creed in flowers. “We believe in flax, the pearlwort, and coneflower, / maker of heaven and earth.” It’s a one-off idea, and the fun comes in seeing how she rewords the ancient prayer to fit a floral language.  It is by turns, or by reflection, maybe I should say, amusing and mildly blasphemous: “eternally begotten of the fleabane…” It generates the shocks a good poem will, and I hardly think any deity should look askance at such a beautiful effort.

“Outsourcing My Grief,” by Peter Krass,” also has a spiritual bent: “the year after my father died /…I discovered a Chinese factory / where I could outsource my grief.” Again, the shock of the weird adds flavor to the poem. “Now, for just $39.99 a month, the workers mourn / on my behalf, performing graceful lotus kicks…” Of course such an idea must be developed and twisted, and Krass does so skillfully. “I’ve upgraded for an additional $19.99…” What a hopeful poem, kicking death in the eye as it were.

Mike Faran gives us an entirely different theme, in “Santa Monica Sunrise.” “I woke up — bolted up / in a panic / felt for my dog tags…little stamped poems read by / proud parents…” but the narrator is in an unreal place, and gradually realizes it. “I hadn’t worn them in twenty years…” there are beautiful lines in here that add to the disorientation of the PTSD. “The sun speared through / heartshaped curtains.” And there is a moving ending. The power arises so much from understatement, the immediacy of the description. Powerful and sorrowful.

Barbara Lydecker Crane does a great job with a triplet poem (tercet stanzas which all lines follow the same rhyme): “Kicking the Bucket List.” “…here’s a bucket list / (not complete, but it’s the gist) / of things I think are better missed.” You get the idea. Humor is hard to do well, and so much to be appreciated, I think anyway. And the ending plays on the triplet structure perfectly, with the narrator’s fear of disappearing. Brava!

“Barracuda,” by Ron De Maris is great and shivery: “Shadows edge forward in a slow languid mass like a / Cloud of logs…”

“Chestnut Mare,” by Dion O’Reilly, speaks beautifully of loss. “I have no reason to walk / to the pasture anymore…”

There are a few excellent horse poems in a row, actually. Barbara J. Mayer gives us “From the Horse’s Mouth,” St. Paul’s horse on the road to Damascus, specifically: “it’s always / the horse’s fault when his rider / hits the ground with such bone-cracking / force…”

Way too many great poems in this magazine to mention them all. That’s not unusual with the Atlanta Review, of course, but let me mention one last one, Tracy. K. Smith’s “Transit.” “Someone is waiting for us / Down through that grove of ferns,” a subtle and complex pantoum about death, about rebirth, about magic and a grove. “And the season shifts now slowly to the east / where whatever must begin beings.” Wow.

Get this mag as you can.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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