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Archive for January, 2017


The first poem in the New Yorker this week is “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” by Frank Bidart. It has an attention-grabbing first line: “We were born into an amazing experiment.” Then, as so many current poets will do, having made a bold statement, he immediately walks it back. “At least we thought we were.” Nothing is given easily to the reader. That line ends with a fun enjambment: “We knew there was no” and we must ask ‘no what?’ Peace? Honesty? Rum? Later, Bidart adds a second bold statement: “Every serious work of art about America has the same / theme” (Again the play with the enjambment). And so the poem proceeds, bold step forward, sly irony while backing off, all the while twining two themes, America and the family. “My mother’s disgust / as she told me this.” It’s a longer poem, needing the elbow room to develop. Its final synthesis can be seen as a proper summation of both braids: “To further the history of the spirit is our work.” But of course this final bold statement gets challenged, as the poem takes on a more contemporary political dimension. And even the last, beautiful, singing line one may expect in a grand contemporary poem is used as a counter to the previous statement, creating an ending dipped in irony. Very much a poem worth reading.

The other poem in the issue is “On Distance (Quondam/Quantum Overdue Notice).” A puzzle poem, at least for me: i.e. what is going on here, what is the poet trying to say. “There are clues.” is the first stanza. So it even starts as a puzzle poem. Then in stanza two a man refers to Julian of Norwich as a he, and the narrator says, “politely, ‘Isn’t it ‘she’?'” There are not close parallels between these two stanzas, so maybe this is a ghazal, I think. Certainly, things refer to each other in the most oblique fashion. Except the 3rd, 4th and 5th stanzas all reference the narrator doing work in a library. So, not a ghazal (ghazals are not to follow directly, stanza to stanza). However, the sixth stanza maybe gives us some orientation: “I go home with Kathryn Davis.” Well, she’s a novelist. So that’s a book she got out? Then, “I ask, as one does, when ravished: Where did you come from.” (By that line I’m guessing the narrator liked Davis’ novel!) And in the next stanza: “…here, again, is Julian of Norwich…in this book.” By Jove, the whole poem now comes together. And the summation is, in my view, this demonstrates that the narrator is not alone, that there are synchronicities and resonances in our world (that create meaning?). So even the title, with its reference to quantum theory, makes sense. And I’m happy, having solved the puzzle.

Peace in poetry,
P M F Johnson
P.S. My ebook of love poems, “Against the Night,” is available widely.

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