Archive for August, 2017

Katie Bickham leads off the poetry in this issue with her “Nice, France, 1890.” “In the night, Josephine dreamed of saints and monsters.” A poem about midwives at work, grounded in specific images, freighted with the import of their duties, in a time different from ours. “St. Gerard’s blessed handkerchief settled on a dying mother’s / belly… the baby came, the mother saved.” But this is not a carefree world, the girls are often in trouble. “She’d…thrown herself from a terrace to crush / the quickening life.”

This is the first of a series of poems here by Bickham about births over the last hundred years, in different cultures. In “Magdeburg, Germany, 1912,” she writes: “The American woman knew that bodies had withstood / the agony for ages…This was a new world for women: a blessing, too…not to be home howling by the hearth.” Now the doctor has ether, and puts her under. “like a child herself, led // into fitful slumber.” And then, “A child born…from the flame of her forgetting.” There is a poem set in Tehran in 1941, during the war, and one set in Los Alamos in 1945 focused on Elizabeth Graves, who is having a baby while working on “The bomb she built.”

The effect of having a series of poems about childbirth, for me, is to honor the act, this most holy moment, in the very earthy reality of it, among all the circumstances of life. They are very powerful poems, taken together, and the images, because they stay so close to the physical, “we cannot outrun our bodies,” give these works a gravitas not found in most poetry. They remind us what matters most, and what the costs are, far too often, of making life in defiance of this world of death.

Joyce Schmid gives us deceptively simple poems, staring with “Slow Motion.” “A breeze is blowing on…sun-flashed hills / splotched…with trees.” The metaphors are almost like sleight-of-hand. Look quick, or you’ll miss how slick they are, how apt. These are poems of transformation in a different way, transformation brought about in tiny increments. “A boy is standing at the water’s edge,” we learn, and he lives out the day, immersed in summer. At the end, “his mother thinks / he is the boy he was, but he is not the same.”

In “The Idle Ants,” too, the changes are subtle and you have to watch quick to see. “Not the ones who clean the colony, / not the ones who go outside… I mean the other ants, / the ones who only stand and sense // the universe.” The world is a large place around us, and through indirection, these poems reveal some of its power and purpose.

Rebecca Macijeski is the final poet here. She starts with “The Long Cold.” “The world remembers how to drink the sun, how to become earth…” Every one of these poets is deeply grounded in the sensual, making sense of the world through the world, not lost in abstractions: “a bear’s monolithic hand hungers through that sweetness.” Such an apt image, once again. But Macijeski does use more facile images, which work in her approach. In “Theories of Light,” she writes, “the light that moves like speech across street signs.” It takes a moment to understand yes, that is actually what we see in when looking at a stop sign. “the firm hum in a streetlight.” This is our world, these poems proclaim, this is what matters, though we may not see it in a casual glance. Pay attention, the poets seem to say, there is much of wonder here, but you have to be awake and aware to see it.

A wonderful magazine, all in all.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.


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It seems usual these days for The New Yorker to feature two poems, and so it is here. “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” by Terrance Hayes, certainly has an intriguing title. “The black poet would love to say his century began / With Hughes… but… It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers…winos falling from ship bows.” Okay, I don’t know where this poem is going — which is pretty much required in poems at this level. And then, “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Of course, the previous sentence can already be used as a guide for that. This is not a linear narrative. We skip from thought to thought, from Sylvia Plath to Orpheus. We do get a reference to Orpheus inventing writing, which then becomes a source of confusion between him and his girlfriend. There is no reliance on metaphor here, no epiphany.

So, not finding any easy way into this poem, I go to the Poetry Foundation website, where the poet is quoted as saying, “how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition… communicates meaning? … Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.” Hmm. Perhaps we do better to think of this as a sort of song, where the noises made by the words form a sort of melody. And surely the words are melodic, rhymes and near-rhymes abound. But the rhymes and assonance fades away by the end of the poem. Right around when the confusion between Orpheus and his beloved is laid out. That just somehow seems right. An interesting poem to chew on.

Then Vona Groarke gives us “This Poem,” a list poem, self-referential. “This is the poem that won’t open / no matter where you press.” An intriguing challenge, and a little intimidating. “This is the poem that cries on street corners…” Now, I’m a fan of poems that deliver emotions, so I go through to see how the emotion is developed. “…that plays itself out / in dives…” And the poem is starting to gain a persona, a list of fun attributes that weave a kind of goofy logic, right up to the end. “…with a teensy tattoo.”

I don’t give endings of poems here, I want you to hunt down the original work, but that said, the ending of this one is surprisingly satisfying. The repetition builds us up, then the poet resolves the images with a certain understatement that fits the rest of the stanzas. I love the fun in the poem, a sort of wary humor that just may turn dangerous, but never quite does.

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.

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I love the poem, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” by Natalie Shapiro, in this issue. “So sorry about the war,” it begins. What a hook. I’m into the work instantly, and swept along. “…wanted to learn how to swear / in another language…” the narrator explains. “the top method…open / fire and listen to what people yell.” What an original, horrifying statement. The next statement then goes in a completely different direction, bringing in a kind of cranky God. The combination of originality and sudden twists of tone and direction make this such a worthy poem. And funny. Not many poems successfully manage humor at this level, but Shapiro does it nicely. She has a third thematic braid as well, people in their homes. Finally, she circles the poem around to reference its beginning. All done in seven stanzas of one to three lines each. Efficient. Very much how one does it at the top level. Brava.

The other poem in the issue is “My Mother, Heidegger, And Derrida,” by John Skoyles. “Educated in a school in Queens…my mother knew little about art.” Then the narrator’s mother sees the painting, ‘The Potato Eaters,’ which reminds her of her own mother. “The shoes resembled my grandmother’s / high-topped boots.” From there the poem becomes sort of a meditation on the mother’s visceral, memory-driven reaction to the shoes in the painting, versus the high-toned, high-minded reactions of Heidegger: “the dark opening of the worn insides…” and Derrida: “what constitutes a pair of shoes.” The great thinkers come out somewhat as fools here, less wise and less well-seeing than a simple woman of the earth. The poem leaves us with a sense of satisfaction and a sense of the worth and wisdom of plain toilers, from generation to generation. Great poem.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.

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