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Archive for September, 2019


The first poem that really struck me in this issue of Plainsongs was “Detox,” by Thomas DeFreitas. “A hurt woman of thirty, thirty-five… paces, hazy, puzzled to be alive.” It’s a sonnet, and a dandy one. The language is so simple, every day. Very hard to do in such a formal structure. And the narrator shows such compassion, and familiarity with the situation of people in detox. “She manages both defiance and defeat.” This is a Plainsongs Award winning poem, so the editor does some analysis of the poem, which I will not repeat here. Buy the issue, it’s good stuff. There are no soaring metaphors in this poem, no tricks of language. Just a caring portrait, the more powerful for its plain language.

I liked “Secondhand,” by Yvonne Zipter. “The Sixth on Lawrence Avenue offers / a cocktail infused with smoke…” One cool trick poets can use is to avoid exposition, to the point of leaving the readers with a puzzle. It takes a moment to figure out that the Sixth must be a bar of some sort. It’s like listening to a speaker muse on things we only catch a glimpse of. We have to understand things through their context, which somehow draws us in more, makes the place more real. Such intuitions are required throughout this poem. “But I prefer the old way: the honeyed voice / of Chet Baker… like the blue smoke…” Prefer what old way? To what? Again, we are coming in at the middle of something. And even Chet Baker we may only know through faint rumor. An old jazz singer? Blues? That the poet considers him worth mentioning makes him intriguing to the reader. And the vagueness adds depth to the background. A wonderful atmosphere poem.

“When She Told Me,” by Cecil Morris, uses metaphor to excellent effect. “The clunk after clunk of the knife brought down / through hard carrots…” Because the image is so specific, we can easily visualize a specific scene. “…through orange root to cutting board…” We are there. It creates an anticipation, a foreshadowing that is resolved halfway through the poem. “That’s how her words felt going in my ears.” And suddenly we are wrenched into a higher view of the moment, seeing the whole poem as metaphor, but also as an immediate image. A woman speaking as she works. Saying things hard to take in. “…and I could not speak… and she continued cutting.” Very nicely done.

“A Montana Message,” by Travis Truax, is almost a life-declaration. “Moving here, we pulled / the mountains around us, / close, kept the south / best we could.” The common diction puts us in a rural world, ranchers or farmers working for a living. The originality of that first metaphor draws us in, keeps us reading. The simplicity of the declaration renders what is being said important. “We kept what mattered.” A beautiful poem.

I also liked “And Yet,” by Richard Luftig. “Yesterday I saw two lone daffodils / out by the toolshed,  their heads / poking out… like newborn twins. This morning, I must report / they looked a little discouraged.” Humor always draws us in, and when rendered like this builds empathy. The joy of Plainsongs is its focus on what’s real to folks in the middle of the country. Common scenes, characters we have all met. A good counterpoint to so much currently being published. “…we must / make do in this only time, / this always place.”

“The Smoker,” by Elsa Bell, continues this approach. “Outside in the mist, wrapped in a long overcoat… the smoker / stands, gaunt as an ancient tree.” Maybe I like it so much because it is my world, one I am familiar with, these people striving to make something out of tatters and bits of a life. “Like birds, his delicate hands / flutter to shake the match flame out.” The poem says, this is important. This is our life. Pay attention, and honor it. What more are any of us bound to do?

Finally, let me mention “The Quarry,” by Phillip Howerton, who has built a career out of mining such themes. “The rolling hills and Brown Swiss / never made… the father rich, but the son / was determined to make the farm pay.” We see already a subtle commentary on different views of things. “He saw thin dirt / as an obstacle… and sold topsoil to blast limestone… made fools of the old folks / by turning rock into gold.” Wow. To show us how destructive such a forward-looking view of the world can be, to show us, through discussing nothing but the son’s success, all that is lost in such an approach to life. This poem can break your heart.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Aug 19, 19

Blue Collar Review – Spring 2019

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019

 

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Megan Fernandes in the August 19 issue of The New Yorker takes on the challenge of writing an original, interesting love poem, with “Scylla and Charybdis.” “I like when the choices are both ugly…” she starts. Notice how deftly she threads a few needles, how quickly. If she had said “both hard,” we would be instantly bored, as that follows naturally from the title. If she had started with “I hate when…” We would also expect that emotion from the title, (or at least not be surprised by it) and some interest would have been lost. My view is, that’s how carefully one must write to publish here. It’s why The New Yorker poems are consistently among the best. Nor is any of this how a conventional love poem would start. “Odysseus chose / Scylla and I, too, would have opted for / a terrestrial evil…” As the poem develops, it goes into details of the two lovers being separated, one on a water vacation, one at work in NYC. “Soon you and I will exist in different time zones… you swim in open Spanish waters… I spin in a street of yellow cars.” As with the best poems, the thesis is not pursued too long, new water is poured into the poem (as Henri Cole once said). “you face the queen medusas in the water… you are facing me. I am them in hundreds.” And the strange image, the twist keeps us interested, as the poet meditates on love, on separation, and on how fear for the beloved underlies any such time apart. A very skilled poem.

Ciaran Carson wrote “Claude Monet, ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil,’ 1880.” “Today I thought I’d just take a lie-down, and drift… yesterday, some vandal upended the terracotta pot of daffodils / In our little front garden.” When a poem tells a story, I’ve noticed, it often does so with many little digressions, diversions, meditations, and insights. So it is here, and they deepen and enrich what we are reading. “I thought of…Poussin… and his habit of bringing back bits of wood, stone, moss…” We may not know the references, or even the painting being referenced (Google it, it’s a famous work) but the plethora of images creates a feeling of richness, of importance, of welcome that draws us in. “Etymologies present themselves, like daffodil from asphodel.” Me, I love to meditate on how words have developed over the years, and I suppose a great many people who love poetry do so as well. This is a poem for the aesthete, perhaps. Those who take their pleasure in references echoing down the years. “Strange how a smear of color, like a perfume, resurrects the memory.” Exactly. And thank goodness that we can share such moments through poetry.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar Review – Spring 2019

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019

The Missouri Review – Spring 2019

 

Read Full Post »