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Archive for December, 2017


The first poet in this issue, Eleanor Swanson, starts us off with “Blue Bowl.” “What are the colors of the hours?” A straightforward question, a straightforward poem, as she expresses various hours of the day as color. “Summer at five AM is the blue hour.” The images of the poem are not explained, so we are open to our own reactions, emotional or otherwise. “a breeze sweeps / through the willow and the hour / is thoroughly green.” Almost a nod to Wallace Stevens and his nightgowns of many colors. There is a pleasantness to this poem, a satisfying relaxation. We don’t have to figure things out here, just let them wash over us.

Her most satisfying poem for me though is “Vestige.” It starts, “Each winter, the boy fell through ice.” Another kind of loopy poem, where things may not be as they seem, though she grounds it in specific images. “he’d walk home… in his armor of ice, thinking / of the whipping he was going to get.” The repeating theme makes you wonder how dumb the kid is, but then the deeper layers of the poem take over, and strangely, the need to suspend a little disbelief strengthens the spell of words by the finale — “the ice… broke through… and he dropped / to the bottom of the lake.” It is the vision he has there underwater, the inarticulate revelation, that makes this poem so satisfying.

Jeanne Lutz’ first poem here is “Letter to an English Teacher.” It starts: “because today the fields are too wet to work in…” The poem is grounded as well in a moment out in nature, when the narrator sees a heron “standing by a soggy log.” Love the dime rhyme there. And a great image I have to mention: “the heron is a faulkner-looking bird / untidy.” What a great way to indirectly conjure the English teacher. Anyway, seeing it, and feeling melancholy, she turns to contemplating a love affair that has ended. “I’m just another eve / who will never get it right.” The weaving of the love story, the memory of the teacher, and the heron is deft and moving. Oh, and with a great ending.

The final poet is Josh Myers, with “Oklahoma.” I think I like this poem as much as I do because it is imbued in a rural mindset that just doesn’t make it into poetry much, a lived-in experience of the common details of a blue-collar life. The poem is a declaration of independence from this world, but one very much rooted in place. “We found woodchips buried in the scattered bricks… once the big tornado died.” I like that tornado, not passing and going on, but dying after its task is done. “My family was fine by sheer luck.” A nicely ambiguous line: spared from the tornado? Or from other, more general disasters? “we opened envelopes addressed to three towns over.” But this is a big poem, with room to explore the conflicts and contradictions. “It’s an easy thing to love in Oklahoma: / click of the trigger swallowed by the bullet’s bark.” Again, notice the subtext. We see the love/hate relationship develop. For instance, the townsfolk tease the narrator’s mother in a rough way. There are walls here, and many ways not to fit in. “He filled a notebook with poems on / why he had to leave.” I like this poem each time I dip back into it.  But honestly, it makes me wonder what a follow-up poem about these same experiences would be like in, say, thirty years. A lot to think about here.

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:

The New Yorker – Nov 20, 17

The Cape Rock – 45.2

Missouri Review – Summer 2017

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“Repentance,” by Natasha Tretheway, is the first poem in this issue of The New Yorker. “To make it right Vermeer painted then painted over / this scene.” So, an ekphrastic poem (I know the word cuz of the contest over at Rattle Magazine, actually). The first third of the poem simply describes the painting, then the first turn comes with: “Perhaps to exchange loyalty for betrayal / Vermeer… made of the man / a mirror framed by the open door.” I’ve never thought of the artist consciously making such a change so the viewer can see it, and get some deeper meaning from the work. I’ve always thought those were just mistakes, or at least needed adjustments. So there’s an enlightenment for me. Such a change, the poem explains, is a “Pentimento,” which “means the same as remorse after sin.” I’m getting a lot out of this poem just from this, but of course, by referring to such things, we think about the narrator herself. Why this subject? Is she suffering remorse? The poem goes on to sketch out a lover’s argument. “the dog had crept from the room to hide.” So we are seeing the dog, the man, the mirror/glass (bottle) and the woman alone, both in the painting and in the poem. Then she makes the relationship explicit between life and painting. “In paint / a story can change mistakes be undone.” And the painting is on page one, the story of the narrator on page two, with the two pages fully mirroring each other. A wonderful, multi-layered poem, full of resonance and surprise. Very much worth hunting out.

The second poem is “Rail,” by Jorie Graham. “I set out over the / unknowable earth / once more.” The poem is shaped long and narrow, like a rail, though it seems too upbeat in tone to be the howling sort of railing. The poet traces an image seen on her walk through the process her body goes through apprehending it: “Things flinch / but it is my seeing / makes them / flinch…. they line my optic nerve… Brain / flinch husk / groove.” It’s an interesting idea, and tricky to bring out in a poem. But then she moves further, discussing the nature of reality. “How / will the real / let me drop…?” And then with the turn it becomes a discussion of mortality. “I / know I will / have to leave / the earth.” It doesn’t raise a shiver, there’s no surge of emotion for me reading this, it’s almost an intellectual exercise only; which gives it quite an intriguing aspect — the narrow rail becoming almost no more than a splinter, a narrow little life.

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:

The New Yorker – Oct 30, 17

The New Yorker – Aug 21 17

More New Yorker Poems

 

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