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Archive for the ‘Mainstream Poetry’ Category


Poems in The Sun tend to be straightforward, easily understood, with a bite to them. Such is the poem “Jewish Enough,” by Emily Sernaker. “The morning after my fourth-grade teacher / taught my class about the Holocaust… I approached my father.” The thesis is stated right up front, the power of the poem taken from our identifying with a young girl discovering some of the horror of the world, and how powerless each of us is before larger forces. Not a metaphor in sight, no sparkle to the language, just the pile-driving truth. Thank God there is still room for such poetry in our world; a reminder of what we can strive for when we communicate… to change the world, just a little bit, to open a touch of understanding. Not that all poetry should be like this, but some of it always should be. A good poem.

The other poem in the issue is much lighter in spirit, delivering a sweet moment in time. “That Summer Abroad” is by Margaret Hasse. It starts, “Joanne, have we ever been so free as then? / We’d change destinations / on a whim.” A portrait of two young adults, free as they never would be again, discovering. And later, the narrator wishing to go back. “I want to call you up right now, / buy a one-way ticket to Athens…” Again a simple poem, though this one ends with a beautiful image that gives a glimpse into the yearning the narrator feels, the sense of standing apart, being part of a little eternity. It reminds me of journeys I’ve enjoyed, and of why they were so precious.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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

Related blog posts:

Rattle 61 – Fall, 2018

Iconoclast – #116

The New Yorker – Aug 13, 18

 

 

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I just love this magazine. There are semi-goofy story-poems, like Travis Burke’s “Uncle Ivan and the Last Dog Race,” which starts, “‘Well hell.’ / Uncle Ivan always said that after a loss… never hit me like I’d seen some other men there.” Uncle Ivan sounds like a character indeed. “Sometimes we’d go out for a beer… when I was older and Uncle Ivan was dying / one of those long old man deaths.” Wow. Here is a poem that exemplifies why tone matters so much.

And there are poems of indirect emotion, powerfully felt, like Barbara Campbell’s “Tangles.” “…I came home / to find my husband waiting… for his ride an hour / and a half early / and on the wrong day.” The emotion powered by the sudden turn. “Here’s what I love / about ivy. / It’s relentless…” There is a rushing forward feel to this poem, life changing, our being not ready, living in the moment because what else can we do? It is a powerful, touching poem.

Gotta like Kevin Clark’s “Elegy.” “I’ll never forget that punk Cagney jabbing words / like shivs as if he knew everything.” Face it: cool phrases matter in poetry, maybe more than anything else. Made me smile.

There are slice of life poems, like Jackleen Holton’s “Jesus Is My Flu Shot.” “I tried it once, the being saved, /my devout older cousin standing / before me…” The moment when a growing girl gets an insight into the world, the ways of those who claim to be devout.

I’m deeply a fan of Judy Kronenfeld’s “Letter to the Ministry of Loneliness.” “I take round trips on the Tube… I stand up, / for maximum contact… and inhale the steam of coffee and cigarette breaths.” Again the perfect little phrase, yielding insight, emotion, a catch of the breath. It’s a quiet poem, but no less effective for that.

I guess I like these poems so much because they are human poems. They don’t rely on abstractions, or leaps away from whatever engages the writer, they plow forward, exploring the moment, the heart of whatever is happening.

We are carried along as the writers interact with, and come to understand, those in their lives, as Kathryn Petruccelli’s narrator does in her poem, “Lamps.” “My mother used to tell me / there was a time / she kept a closet full of lamps / so whenever one of her kids / broke one…” They are poems about the things that matter. Memories of our family, experiences with them, coming to grips with loss, with the zany humor of life.

One last poem I’ll mention, “Meditation On A Dining Room Table,” by Marvin Artis. “She wanted warm wood. He wanted the sleek and gleam / of glass and steel. They compromised…” The table becomes a way to understand the relationship between this couple, maybe why they break up, maybe how they are still connected in a sort of reflected manner, all these years later.

The latter poem is the first of a section in the magazine dedicated to poets who have never had a poem published before. The way I see it, that takes a certain amount of courage on the part of the editor, hoping the audience will go along with such a concept, to see what appears. I love a magazine that takes such risks.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a hopeful-but-wry look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Iconoclast – #116

The New Yorker – Aug 13, 18

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

 

 

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The two poems that begin this issue have gotten into my head and resonated. Always good. “An Architect’s Life,” by Harry Compton, begins “Life itself is / a continuous remodeling job… trying to keep options open / in case we discover a structural surprise.” Very apt, to my way of thinking, as the surprises contractors discover when they tear out the old walls or pull out the old concrete can be suddenly, horrendously expensive, and “the only certainty seems to be our / inexhaustible personal ignorance.” An enjoyable poem, with a wry, pointed ending.

The next poem is “Coney Island,” by Eugene Carrington. “The mind drifts to Coney Island / the scent of ocean waters / the joyful shrieks… the high-pitched squeals…” A poem of deep place, bringing in the sights and sounds, the people, the temporary nature of it all. A poem to make us turn back to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind,” with its similar sense of loss, time passing…

I like the dialectical nature of “Headlines From The Times,” by E.P. Fisher. “He said: lay-off, pay-off, one-way ticket… / She said: beauty, color, innocence…” A poem chock-full of images, and thoughts to bring you up short. “But after Pentagon budget loopholes for top-secret holocausts…” There’s a lot going on here that’s worth the price of entry.

Matthew J. Spireng presents us with “Black Vultures, New Paltz.” “The view at breakfast / on the second floor / of the Bakery is… roofs where black vultures / perch on each chimney.” What a great image. I can see those heavy, clumsy, patient beasts, waiting like death for the next mistake. And Spireng has a strong image to finish.

“Brother William’s War” is a poignant offering from Amy Sparks. “My brother William / Lives in my garage… His wife kicked him out / After he threw a bowl of potato salad.” A delicate, indirect look at the cost of war on a personal, practical level. “We talked and fished / Before purple scalloped clouds / From the west / Filtered in.” I love that image. A great poem.

Finally, let me mention Rhoda Staley’s “Upon Seeing a Ripe Fig.” “I doubt the apple. // Passionless / a woman can caress / the puritanically austere.” What a great beginning. It shocks you into paying attention. Staley has a deft mastery of the powerful punch, and though the poem is short, it fully satisfies.

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 – Aug 13, 18

The New Yorker – July 23, 18

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

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In his poem, “Bottle Of Wine,” Carl Dennis cannily uses emotion to draw us through the work. “I like to park a few blocks from the house… and walk… the tree-lined streets,” he begins. We understand right away this will be a jaunty, happy little poem, no terrible angst and world-changing despair. And working the emotions is central to the work: “A bottle of wine showing… that I’m grateful / to be included… eager to do my part.” A narrator living within himself. “I’ve set aside the need for transcendence.” The immediate, the quiet, pleasant emotions matter in this poem, and how we each fit within our world. “traditions once honored / are… adhered to… with patience, with pride.” A master work in how to structure a poem on an emotional arc, ending, of course, with hope.

A.E. Stallings uses a difference approach, drawing us in to her “Swallows,” with details of the natural world, viewed with a tone of amused sympathy.  “Each year the swallows… put their homestead in repair… A handsome pair.” The steadily surprising choice of words is one technique that keeps us intrigued: “the two conspire // To murder half the insect race…” And Stallings raises similarities between the swallows and ourselves. “They seem to us so coupled, married, / So flustered with their needful young… harried.” And again, the use of emotion to connect with the reader. But she is going somewhere more archetypal. “Ovid swapped them in the tale… the sister who was forced / Becomes instead the nightingale.” And now we’re in the midst of the seemingly unending battle of women against cruel realities. But Stallings is deft enough not to linger there, and her emotions keep us connected. “These swallows… don’t have the knack / For sorrow… spend no time mourning.” Business, industry, duty even, underpin her subjects, and continuity is the final blessing. Marvelous poem, with an effortless rhythm and rhyme scheme.

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 – July 23, 18

The New Yorker – July 2, 2018

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

 

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Gabrielle Calvocoressi has a real challenger in this issue. “Mayflower Cistern I Feel My Pilgrim Worry” starts out: “All day long I feel my pilgrim / worry. Crude and unforgiving / as the buckle on my boots.” Certainly a opening to get your attention. Her pilgrim does not seem to be a particularly nice, nor lovable person, I must say, starting out his/her town by building a fence, a pillory and a scaffold. There are strange lines in here to keep us guessing: “I hurl / my brittle body at the pines.” Not an image I can quite picture, though. Lot of undirected rage. “…my heart. Which I hate / for its hopeful sounding.” Calvocoressi definitely could hear the voice of her narrator here, clearly and powerfully. But at the end, ya feel like telling the guy, ‘Hey, lighten up. In a couple hundred years around here, it’ll be a lot better.’ A poem I went back to a few times, to chew over the ideas.

The other poem is by Robert Pinsky, “Repetition.” “Writer, blighter fighter — what do you want? / I want to repeat myself.” This is not quite a villanelle, as we revisit thoughts, lines, and sounds (as above). But often, what we revisit has already changed. The Chorus of the Many becomes The Chorus of the Money (I love that). The mixed chorus on every page becomes the mixed chorus on the cover and every page. And the meaning/purpose of all this? The poem does turn off from a list of repetitive desires with this line: “The prophecy says you turn your back on the ocean…” From there, hauling your oar inland to where folks have never seen an oar before. Does this mean the narrator wants only something new? Some peace? It’s a poem that leaves the reader with various such questions.

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 – July 2, 2018

Hummingbird – 28.1

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

 

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The two poems in this issue of The New Yorker couldn’t be more different. First is Safiya Sinclair’s “Gospel of the Misunderstood,” a breathless fever-dream of a poem. “I want to be the blade striking / knotted brown, to kiss the nape of any hunger…” Words twist under our eyes, morph into something else. Meaning detaches and reattaches in strange ways. There is huge desire underneath the words: “warm branch / of man pinning me here…” and, “Nameless, I haunt for god and love / in extinct places.” One must keep going back to the words, revisiting lines, to keep from vanishing into the poem. Desire mingles with religious fervor, and in the latter half of the poem the narrator’s brother and father appear, seemingly unable to fathom her. And in the end, a frustrating angel appears. Very worth reading.

The second poem is by Barry Gifford, a far more grounded offering called “American Pastime.” “When I was a little kid… Jimmy Yancey, the great blues… piano player, / worked as a groundskeeper / at Comiskey Park.” The poem states the irony of such a talent in such a mundane job, and doubles it in declaring that even the narrator, who honors Yancey by trying to learn his piano style, does not know Yancey’s parallel history and greatness as a ballplayer in the Negro Leagues. “…throwing down / his best curves… on both / the black and white keys.” That sentence becomes a keystone of the whole poem, resonating between the worlds he occupied, black and white, sport and music, showing how they integrate each into the other, forming a whole man comfortable in many worlds. (Love that ‘throwing down,’ btw). A declaration of the power of the human spirit. And a poem that we can hope gets more people to search out his music.

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:

Hummingbird – 28.1

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

The New Yorker – Apr 30 18

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There are so many good poems in this issue. The “Anxiety Monster” series of poems by Emilie Lindemann made me think. In “Anxiety Monster 8,” we get “there is nothing but body. / seaweed-sponge surface / the kicky legs.” Many images that make you stop and think. Why does this make the narrator anxious? Just watching her children swim, maybe? Or, in 12, “But even wheelbarrows of thistles / can’t cover her up (not for keeps…)” So engaging. In 14: “…you trail a kick-line of women…” I very much enjoyed revisiting these little poems.

The danger of reviewing such short poems (Hummingbird is “The Magazine of the Short Poem,” after all) is that many wonderful poems cannot be quoted to show their beauty, as that would pretty much reveal the whole work. But let me mention “Circle Ceremony at the Highground,” by Jane-Marie Bahr. It shows us an awkward moment, a touching act of kindness and respect despite a tongue-tied instant. All in 5 lines.

Jane Vincent Taylor’s “The Woman Who Makes More of Everything.” “I say I’m tired of this shade of red. / She says that color used to sing / at night.” This poem reveals a beautiful, touching moment. Spare and elegant.

Chet Corey gives us “Field Note,” an observation about birds any one of us could have made, but he is the one who did. And we can only say ‘yes, that’s true, you are right. Thank you for pointing that out.’ How fun.

Hummingbird wants to challenge and stretch the form of poetry, and the poem of Kim Kayne Shaver, “Thirty Minute Backyard Rensaku” does so as presented. Rensaku are a series of haiku that contemplate a single subject from different angles. The fun thing about these three haiku is they may be four haiku instead. The middle poem is divided down the middle by the page break; so the reader does not know whether to read the words as two haiku, one on the left page and one on the right, or as one haiku stretching across the pages. Joining two spaces. I choose to believe it must be read both ways at once, a Shrodinger’s cat of a haiku. One is left not knowing if the poet intended this, the editor intended this, or they collaborated. One is left with a happy uncertainty, and a sense of incompleteness, that fits with the aesthetic of haiku nicely.

The juxtaposition of Frederick Wilbur’s “Autumn Leaf,” and Joan Halpin’s “First Week of Spring,” seems so exact and correct. From his “At the verge of the darkened forest,” to her “beneath the heavy sky / I teeter around pools of / slush.” Just wonderful to read them one after the other, back and forth.

And there are many other good poems (Bruce Ross’ two haiku) in here. Definitely worth picking up and enjoying.

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 60 – Summer 2018

Blue Collar Review – Winter 2017-18

The Nation – Apr 9 2018

 

 

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