Archive for September, 2017

This magazine restores my faith in poetry (actually, several magazines do, but this one especially today). Here are powerful poems that do not intend to slip and dodge their own challenges like some aging boxer against younger competition. These are poems that say, ‘here I am, this is what I am doing,’ with nowhere to hide. And of course it helps that they are good!

The issue starts with Joseph A. Chelius poem, “Stockboy.” “sent like a shepherd / after a herd of carts…strayed / from the pasture of the parking lot.” Now I’ve been a stockboy, and corralling carts is exactly what that part of the job feels like. Unsung cowboy, and all that. But what I really like about this poem is its wry humor. “To have the honor of going out again in his zippered fleece…” I love humor in poetry, when well-done with a deeper meaning, beyond simple verse, and I want to cheer it on here. “…empty boxes of Contadina tomato paste…So lucky for him.” Fun, and a little bit wistful.

The delivery of emotion matters to these poets. Heather Finnegan gives us, “When I Run An Art Museum I  Will Feature / Every Artist I’ve Ever Slept With.” It’s bawdy, it’s funny, and there’s an underlying toughness, an underlying tear or two. “When I run an art museum, whoever calls me slut / will not be standing by the nightstand.” “I know the woman in the red / sweater will probably say, I just don’t understand…” Well, the enlightenment is a bit shocking and disconcerting, that’s for sure.

These are poems we can relate to, they speak to our shared experiences. In “Rambler,” Donna Hilbert meditates on a first car. “the color of dirt / and stick-shift to boot, / but cheap.” And a great tone. “‘It’s transportation,’ said / the husband.”

Michael Sears, on the other hand, gives us a very sad poem, “My Mother And I Beat A Dog.” “There was something my mother and I hated in that dog.” The power of this poem comes from its irony, juxtaposing comments like that with the story of the narrator’s babysitter, Maggie, who is murdered. A sort of we-are-our-own-enemy reflection. Something deeply disturbing hides here, a helplessness in the face of evil. The narrator’s family go to see Maggie’s family after the funeral. “Eventually, during one of those silences, Maggie’s father began to speak about her.” Grief flows through this poem, for the dog, for the girl, for us all, but it is partnered with fear.

There is a section of Rust Belt poets in this issue. I love the grittiness of the poems. They show a world where things matter. People are fighting to improve, though often it’s more of a rear-guard action.

In “This Should Be A Good Poem,” Steve Abbott’s narrator is a poet who never quite fits in. “I’d never heard of a fire tornado until a late summer newscast…My wife looked up. Said, ‘That would make a good poem.'” But it’s everyone around the narrator who lives on a different wavelength; over and over, they catch a bit of news and tell the narrator that would make a good poem. “Most…are normal people, largely immune to poetry / except as a courtesy to me.” Such a wonderful idea, deftly handled. In the poet not fitting in his world, somehow, it helps us fit better into ours.

Let me mention “New Fruit Humming,” by Cameron Barnett. This is a relationship poem, and again, the poet’s ear for subtleties is what makes it so good. “I’m here to say sorry. / Because you definitely said splotchy.” Now, is the narrator really thinking their partner said something else, and is saying this to make peace? Is this perhaps admitting wrongdoing, or is there a passive-aggressive element underneath? The ambiguity of tone whirls us along. “Because I was wrong to believe you were afraid / of anything.” Then in unwrapping that statement, the depth of the poem staggers us. They have broken up? Lies ruined their life? There is a final revelation, that opens up a world of grief.

I don’t have enough room to mention all the good poems. But George Bilgere gives us a wry “Pancake Dilemma,” Eric Chiles does a wonderful villanelle about registering for Medicare in “Medi-Maze,” Todd Davis nails the carelessness of teenagers in “Cracks,” (How many meanings can that title have?) and Kelsey Hagarman documents an awkward parental moment in “The Visit.” Every poem has an irony, or a sadness, or some other sharp point-of-view. There are no poems that confuse the heck out of us hoping we’ll be impressed by the muddle. I’m going to be glad to read more of this magazine.

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:

Blue Collar Review – Spring 17

The New Yorker – Aug 21 17

Sticking With Styx


Read Full Post »

The more I review poetry magazines, the more I can see editors lead with what they consider their best poem. Makes sense. In this issue, that’s “Working the Register at K-Mart” by Zara Raab. “She angles just so her forceps / in the black threads that tangle / around the action DVDs.” Blue Collar poems show people at work, probably more so than all the other magazines I read put together. I like how the word order highlights the meaning… the ‘just so’ in a spot not exactly unnatural, but considered. It’s an ode to a retail clerk, and its language is plainspoken. “coughing up the phlegm / of a last cigarette.” But it’s tender, too. “enclosed in what I might call love.” A wonderful, quiet poem.

Scott Blackwell gives us “Footnote,” continuing a theme of poems about the retail experience. “I run into this small grocery store… to make an excellent soul food feast tonight…rice, greens, yeah.” These poems bathe in the specific. “is it only / my own surly glum and boredom?” A nice play of words, as well. The focus of this poem is the resonance between today and previous times, though, as presented in an old photograph. “I walk past the large blow-up / of an old black and white photograph, circa 1930.” The narrator feels history alive today: “I feel somehow that we here… are already up there on that wall.” A nice elegy of days gone by, we might think, except the shared experience is more how difficult life was then, and still is. A grounded poem, and all the more powerful for that.

In “Hear the Wind Blow,” Krikor Der Hohannesian riffs on the ecological effects of the steel industry. “1953, westbound from Boston…we hadn’t yet reached Gary but / you could smell it for miles out…” I remember driving past Gary back in the day, with its hovering plumes of pink and green and brown smog. It was a ghastly stench. “the sickly sweet / of sulfur and God knows what else.” But the narrator gets closer to the action than I ever did. “the blast furnaces / aroar with white-hot heat…the Bessemer converters / ridding pig iron of impurities.” Such attention to detail gives the poem great effectiveness. The poem is dedicated to John Beecher, an activist poet who worked in the steel industry, and that plays in at the turn. “I think of Beecher, his poems…who knew good steel by the look of it.” And it concludes with a encapsulation of Beecher’s life, a shout-out to the struggle of labor against overlords.

Paired with that poem is the next, “Smelter Shelter,” by Neal Wilgus. “I was probably eight or nine / when I began to understand… the smoke was down / and we had to stay inside.” It is interesting to consider how often blue-collar labor and environmental degradation went hand-in-hand, and how the hardest costs were so often borne by the workers and their families. “the thick cloud / of sulfur dioxide…from the copper smelter.” A poem to make you think.

Gil Fagiani wrote “Don Antonio,” about how the travails of labor carry on from generation to generation. “Don Antonio sits on a bench…He talks about working in a fireworks factory.” It is rough work. “Sometimes the ball overheated / and Don Antonio… asked if it was OK / shut shut down the machine / to…cool off…the boss always shook his head no.” And the cost? “workers with their clothes on fire…their skin melted.” The heartbreaking part of this poem isn’t just the cost to him and his coworkers, but that his daughter has gone to work in the same factory, and faces the same unimproved dangers.

Finally, roibeard gives us “Sticks & Stones,” which is a mix of fun and grim. “Friday night, / a skeleton is arrested for quietly protesting.” Seems the skeleton has a social conscience, but knows his rights. “He’s…vigorously exercising his right to remain silent.” Not that it helps. “everyone can identify him.” Using humor to advance the cause is an old-time tactic, of course, but nevertheless doesn’t grow old.

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, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar New Holler

The Stars Our Destination

Blue Collar Winter 17




Read Full Post »

The first poem in the issue, “Privilege,” by Elly Bookman, seems to discuss white privilege, but indirectly. “Into this sky which has / more airplanes… (I) see half a dozen / small whitenesses passing / like tired stars.” Is the narrator a lifeguard? An observer? We have to hunt for clues. “I watch them instead of…the woman… in an oversized T-shirt that clings / to her body like slime…” There are a number of arresting images like that, giving the poem power. It’s hard not to read this as allegory, with white people being the tired stars, the introduced child with some protections and some distant dangers, and so on. But it is kind of fun to solve the poem as such a puzzle, and there is a depth that rewards close reading: “planes fly / low and heavy…practicing war.”

The other poem is by Bob Hicok, “Origin Story.” It starts, “Metal shavings on the bottom / of his wingtips, my father / would come home in the dark…” A poem about a boy admiring his father, missing his father, doing what he can to make his father’s life a little easier. His father works hard for the family, leaving in the dark in the morning, even. Then there’s a shock of a turn: “My father the vampire. / My father the bank.” Wow. Summing up the boy’s resentments and small selfishness as slick as that. His father evidently worked in the auto industry. The boy’s mixed feelings about that continue through the poem. “…which is how I got addicted to wind…became a bird… who rejected gravity, steel, middle management.” It’s the jostle of images placed one beside the other that create the power and depth of this poem, give us a poignant tweak, and a feeling of sadness mixed with hope for the narrator, by the end.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is a sweet, rueful look at a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, as well as with other fine e-retailers.

Related Blogs:

Best After The Best

Convergence Online – Fall 2017

The Apple Valley Review – Fall 2017

Read Full Post »