Archive for April, 2017

The April 17, 17 issue of The New Yorker includes “Waders,” a long, complex poem by (Sir) Andrew Motion. It’s laid out in ten sections of blank verse, one or two stanzas each. “After the accident, when summer brings / slow afternoons…I take what used to be your garden chair…” it starts. Each section loosely coalesces about an object, or a moment. The setting is generally the garden of the narrator’s family home. We might take the poem as an elegy to his parents, or as an attempt to understand them in context. He goes from item to item, as though searching: “the notebook I have found among your bedside things…Blank pages.” “my mother’s voice advising me / the mother bird herself will never mind…” “the stream has long since burst inside my head, / the bank collapsed.” Stanzas two, three and four put the narrator in the garden, walking the hedgerow, visiting the banks of the Blackwater. Then stanza five jump-shifts into shared history: “My father with no explanation stays / at home; my mother drives away.” A family separation? The young narrator does not understand. He goes with his mother, to a place that feels like exile. Then section six abruptly returns us, not to the garden, but to his boyhood room, where they stored apples. “I know…because the floorboards show / wherever they had missed one…left a round stain on the wood.” Is the narrator symbolically an apple gone bad? The poet does not dwell on this. In the next stanza he speaks of his brother slipping into “that lead tank, that…store of syrupy black water…” maybe to “make our father like him more…” So he is trying to make sense of his place in the family, of his childhood. By stanza eight he is getting closer: “The low-tent tunnel of the laurel walk….Here out of sight I meet myself / with no idea of what myself might be.” Now we are getting great line after great line. “I shake the sullen shadows from my head.” And in section nine he interacts with his father directly. After the accident, maybe? “I try my father’s waders on…with him encouraging.” Every section remains grounded in precise images, any symbolism is at most indirect, and no conclusions are rendered. But the final section does give us a sense of completeness, by returning to the present moment, when the garden is rank. “The ruined square…where once a summerhouse…” And, “I like walking with the ghosts…” The ending is great enough to support such a massive undertaking as this poem, the ties between each stanza subtle, but important. A tremendously satisfying poem.

In the same issue, Rebecca Morgan Frank gives us a much shorter poem, “At Sea.” “Every three seconds, to recall captivity, / the mind slipping in…’I cannot recall.'” The poet draws a connection between the mind and a sea creature: “wavering tentacles flexible / to new currents.” But the mind is growing less flexible, and the sea creature is captured, to confront “a nose / pressed up against the aquarium glass…” This poem is a beautiful rendering of someone captured by memory loss. The occasional detail may reappear, but no happy release is in sight. Great poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ and with other fine retailers.


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I enjoyed the “shock of discovery” aspect to Gail Eisenhart’s poem, “Flapper,” in the Main St. Rag. “She said… ‘Sit down, I’ll tell you a story. / After the First World War claimed too many / …young men.'” It’s a girl listening to her grandmother describing her youth. “I flaunted / my rolled rayon stockings…exposing my knees — accidentally.” Quite a fun poem, with an arch, amusing ending.

Bill Glose gives us another of his powerful war poems, “War Trophies.” “…we sought war trophies amid the wreckage / of another country….feelings clenched in fists.” I love that description. “Nothing new, // this desire to appropriate images / of our intended demise.”
Glose compares the trophies of earlier wars with his own, but interestingly, he ends up with more mundane treasure. “familiar logos // of Coke and Pepsi transformed / by Arabic lettering.” I love his irony, showing how the world has shrunk since those days, how those who buy our products nevertheless become our adversaries. It is a strange world indeed.

I love Joan Wiese Johannes’ “Lullabye,” a form where each line in the first stanza is repeated in reverse in the second (forgive me forgetting the name of this form). A delicate poem, and subtle. “Aunt Ruby sings her witching song, / enfolds us in a purple light…my infant sister sleeps.” I love going back over the same lines, which are slightly strange in appearing from another direction, with a sense of deeper meanings.

Peter Grandbois gives us “All We Remember Is Wind,” about how we are trapped in our lives. “There’s no clean getaway,   no Icarus, / feathers in a frenzy, making it…” There are beautiful images in this poem. “As if we could keep / despair nested   in the branches…” and “we flock back / to the broken.” And a tremendous ending to this one. A very satisfying poem.

Finally, let me mention “Ford Pinto,” by Bern Mulvey. I like how The Main St. Rag chooses some poems based on their presentation of interesting characters. This is a good example. “Six months I’d saved up, fry master, / McDonald’s cap…stomach / noisy rumbles…” There’s generally nothing tricky about such a poem, the enjoyment comes from the quirks of character presented, in this case a young kid trying to buy a car to impress girls and generate a little independence. “…off to the car lot, / though no one would help me, seventeen, acned, / knees knobby.” We ache over his vulnerabilities, and how the world treats him coldly. And the narrator recognizes this, so the poem ends as a nostalgic look back. I like that kind of a poem, more than the sophisticated, ironic stuff that doesn’t dare to show any flaws.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/


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In the current issue of Poetry Magazine, Swanie Morris meditates on “Clothespins on the Line.” They “look like birds…Some look west… Stiff in the cold & / remote. They haven’t been loved.” So, a fun poem. But I do believe what editors at the top magazines yearn for most is something new and unusual, and this poem does not disappoint. Soon we are off on a meditation on birds. “Each day / your thumbs grow paler, nails coarser, evolving / toward the ptero- / dactyl.” Ptero being derived from the Greek word for wing/feather, dactyl from the word for finger. (And of course it is a measure of poetic meter.) So the playfulness goes on. The poem grows goofier and goofier, rambling through dreams, therapists and Druids before ending with a sudden, delightful conclusion. Long, but satisfying.

S.J. Fowler also gives us a poem quite unlike the usual work, in “Violence on the Internet.” It’s drier than most poems, or maybe I should say technical. “A circle. / What was needed was a circuit, / and a good operating system.” And then a sentence that brought me up, made me go back and study its meaning: “What’s within is without being seen / to be so.” Huh. It does apply to the Internet of course, as does the next line: “Optical anomaly as unexceptional.” It’s intriguing to apply each line back to the title, seeing how each applies. “Similarity wars upon their lines, / planes…” comes further along, maybe nudging us towards the violence. I don’t know that there is a lot of linear logic overall, but the poem certainly does get one to fiddling with the ideas behind the phrases.

George Bowering’s poem, “Taking Off from an Old WCW Poem,” is very much shorter than the previous poems, but powerfully gripping for all that. I love the beginning. “Imagine that — my last words / might have been spoken to the dog.” It’s the sort of beginning that will get you to read the whole poem. And this one does not disappoint. The narrator considers what that last phrase might have been. Implying, thereby, he does not remember. Then there is an ambulance, and a doubling of images in a skilled and effective way. I really admire this work.

Finally, Maria Hummel gives us an amazing poem, “Recess,” describing the life of a lone child. “This is the sound of the bell,” it begins, a deceptively simple beginning. And in the same way, the first stanza follows a straightforward AABBA form. But the second stanza subverts that, like a jazz master playing against the melody, then the final stanza riffs even further on the form before bringing us abruptly back to the start. But I have little power in such a limited space to describe the amazing places we visit in between. “Time should hold no meaning / for him yet. You don’t learn / how to play; you forget.” The pain of childhood is all implied here, and it’s the more powerful for the indirection. There are so many lines to cherish, to sit with and be amazed. Gosh, I like this poem!

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:

Rattle 58 – Winter 2017

The New Yorker – Nov 20 2017

The New Yorker – Oct 30 2017


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