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Archive for August, 2016


The Spring/Summer issue of The Atlanta Review focuses its international section on Scotland. Of The Scotland poems, let me start with “Life’s Work,” by Angus-Peter Campbell (Anglicized spelling). “If I could bring my father / back to life / I’d ask him / to build me a house…” a beautiful, short lamentation of the cost of loss. “he was the finest joiner / in the whole world.” A comment of multiple resonances, for this joiner is forever gone, leaving the narrator with unanswerable questions, and only a daydream for comfort.

These poems seem more than usually tied to the soil. In “Ever decreasing circles,” by Christine De Luca, “The old dog knows the way: leads us / along narrow paths through forest, over / ice-scratched granite.” I felt the kick of that last image particularly. This is not a poem of alienation from the world, and I love it for that. “Everything about her breathes / what it means to belong.” Such power in such a simple line. Then near the end, a turn to the poet’s mother gives a satisfying depth to the work.

Poem after poem works its magic. In “Pathway,” by Carol Ann Duffy, “I saw my father walking in my garden / and where he walked, / the garden lengthened…” Again this poem approaches loss so delicately. “I heard the rosaries of birds. / The trees, huge doors, swung open and I knelt.” With such powerful imagery, I can relax, trusting the poet to bring me to a worthwhile place, and am not disappointed. “though my father wept, he could not leave…” Powerful work.

And personally, I love to linger over the poems written in dialect, savoring the sounds and working out the meanings. “Sang (After A Hungarian Folksong)” by W.N. Herbert allows this pleasure. “A totie wee birdie fae yestreen’s meh guest” Totie wee meaning especially small, we are told. My fav line in this poem might be, “Laive ma hert tae strachil in the middie mirk o nicht…” for which we are given hints: strachil means struggle, mirk o nicht is dark of night. Great stuff.

Of the non-Scots poems, I enjoyed several. “First & Best,” by Scott T. Hutchinson, is about a kid working hard in the field, who gets an unexpected gift from some guys in a pickup. “You’re thirteen, and you’re employed / cutting grass for the summer.” A story poem, and a fun one.

“The Lovely Miss McKendry, Librarian,” by William Jolliff, is another fun story poem (maybe I have a weakness for these?) “She had the look of cash about her, so / How she landed in our school is hard to say.” But the encounter does not go as the reader might expect. “Maybe it was the romance of the blacklist…” And it’s better for that.

The last poem I’ll mention is “Under Florida,” by Dorothy Howe Brooks. “A river like the Styx flows under Florida.” An unsettling thought, especially in this poet’s hands. “In 1999, Lake Jackson disappeared, / drained down a single hole // into that nether world…” The turn is to the narrator, as more and more things disappear into that subterranean place. The poem is disjointed, fragmentary, and ends in a most disconcerting manner. I liked it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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There are two poems in this issue of The New Yorker, first “Evening Poem,” by Alice Oswald. “Old scrap-iron foxgloves / rusty rods of the broken woods…” There is much to admire here. The metaphor of foxgloves, which are vertical flowers, as bits of scrap iron fallen from the sky to stick here and there at random works so well. Then the narrator brings in a Victorian sofa, a heap of shoes, items seemingly dropped at random into these woods. Of course a fox glove would be a kind of shoe, and I believe foxgloves were loved in Victorian gardens. These sort of subtle references deepen matters wonderfully. She moves to a view of the gods, “the hours on bird-thin legs…” and at the end, night. For such a random seeming poem, things wind up tightly, perfectly. Yum.

Yusef Komunyakaa gives us a somewhat longer poem, also set in the woods, “Slingshot.” I kept going back to re-read it. He is one of my favorite poems going these days. On the surface, a straightforward description of a boy putting a slingshot together. “A boy’s bicycle inner tube / red as inside the body…” A poem anyone can enter, and get some enjoyment out of. But of course other things are going on. “a girl he’s too shy to tell his name / stands in damp light…” love that word damp there. So a poem about young love, trying to impress, unable to speak easily, letting his deeds stand for him. “he whittles the true stock, / knowing wrong from right.” More than just a comment on a slingshot. Searching for wrong and right, doing something a bit dangerous, a bit disapproved of, maybe. “the boy…settling quietly into himself.” So much this poem is about what is unsaid to me, what should not be spoken, an essence of manhood in bloom. “& that is when the boy knows…” And it’s what the poet tells us the boy knows that makes us want to go back again and again, looking for God for truth, for love… Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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I really like the poem, “Full Belly Farm,” by Rage Hezekiah, in the Spring issue of Plainsongs. “Bouncing / over farm terrain towards the field, / all of us wield freshly sharpened knives.” A poem about a woman doing what she must to fit in with male coworkers, picking cabbages. It isn’t easy. “The men… hunch / behind each other, faking penetration…” There is suspense in this poem, and sadness, but ultimately triumph as well, the narrator proving herself in a tough world. It stirred my heart.

I also enjoyed William Jolliff’s “To Ask For Less.” “By grace in time we learn to ask for less.” There is a tremendous wisdom for me in just that first line. He goes on to list what might be asked for: “”A little ham, maybe, greasy and sweet.” It is a poem of humility, touching. And powerful when it turns more personal. “my son running his scales, / the repetition of arpeggios.” A poem of gratitude, finally.

“Joyriding To Nightfall,” by Joan Colby, is a subtle, complex poem. “A house on a hill awaits the faithful, / that’s us, redhanded and sorrowful…” The poem piles on a slew of images, on its way. “The storm skirting the horizon to sweep / the harvest into baskets of wind.” is my favorite, I think. It comes to no easy conclusion as it contemplates many images of faith, from many cultures. Worth reading.

“To the Horizon,” by Mark Christhilf, caught my attention. “When I get to where you are / I will have learned / to call myself from myself…” A poem that almost seems like a young idealist, sure of himself, and how he will grow in wisdom. And yet, and yet there is that faint hint that the author knows more than the narrator; there is a whiff of irony and sadness underneath. Beautifully done.

Finally, let me mention “Carried on the Wind,” by Leo Dangel. “In the time before the electric lines…a windmill with an electric propeller blade / stood close beside the house…” A poem of nostalgia, yes, but more of comparing the power of memory against the fainter truth of mere documentation. The narrator remembers hearing on the radio the boxing match “between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott.” It is the world surrounding the memory that gives it heft, the narrator’s church, his sister Rose, the way the announcer fades in and out, a heft beyond what the dry video on YouTube can deliver. A very good poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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