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Archive for the ‘Mainstream Poetry’ Category


The first poem in the April 2 New Yorker is “How Forever Works,” a short poem by C.L. O’Dell. “The soft tick of snow / landing in its own body…” A very original way to look at snowfall. Looking out my window at the moment, seeing the (seemingly) endless snow, I appreciate the metaphor of snow as forever. It creates silence, it adds endlessly to itself, as the poem says, and it easily takes on form as a body. And that word tick references a clock, time passing. The poem takes different points of view, even inside its short self, a tricky ambition: “the world / remembered us…quietly.”
Then the final line takes even a different line, so creating a poem that requires much contemplation, and review, to enjoy to the fullest. We are left almost to think of ourselves as a dying memory, underground already perhaps, and a silent snow above. Erasing?

The other poem is “Who Knows One,” by Jane Shore, one of the most ambitious poems of recent years. “Who knows One. I know One. / One is God for God is One” it begins, and from this base she constructs the rest of the poem. It takes the form of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” each stanza starting with a consideration of the next larger number and then numerically decreasing, line by line, to the “One is God…” line. So we have, “Five is the five in ‘Slaughter-House Five.’ / Four is Egypt’s plague of flies” and so on. Many of the references are topical, or otherwise easily recognizable, some are common phrases. “Two can play that game.” This gives the reader reference points, so it isn’t all a tedious slog, and gives the poem a speedy pace that keeps us reading for the next reference, the next ‘aha’ moment. Only in the last stanza does the underlying subject of the poem reveal itself; when suddenly all those earlier references have a deeper meaning. So after the big reveal we want to reread the whole poem, seeing deeper meanings where we had seen commonplace phrases. That’s a great technique, very difficult to pull off, and one which rewards the reader deeply. I recommend you look this poem up as you can.

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 – March 19 2018

Rattle 59 – Spring 2018

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

 

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The first poem in this issue of  Convergence, Viola Weinberg’s poem, “Yes, This Day,” is a fresh and honest look at the difficulty of moving around after some health issues. “Once was, you walked across / Countries, down steep steps // In secret cities…” Maybe it’s the vistas presented by this opening, or maybe it’s due to a time when I had such limitations myself, but I really identified with and enjoyed this poem. Or maybe it’s just that there are many delightful lines: ” let your rods and screws / Ring like bells and bang like hammers / On fragile jigging skeletons…”

Holly Day gives us a post-apocalyptic poem, “In Patience.” “the birds circle the tallest skyscrapers as if knowing / each tiny room is filled with dying or dead meat.” Very creepy. The images are satisfyingly disturbing. “wild dogs and feral cats / pace… back and forth / as if they think the electric sensors will…
give in, let them in… one final flicker of electricity… to open the doors.” Don’t know that I like considering myself as just part of a potential meat market. Great fun.

A.J. Huffman considers confetti in “Confetti Palace.” “Seven billion pieces of folded foil fall inside /
walls made of glass.” A meditation on how confetti enhances a celebration. And how quickly both celebration and confetti go. Quick but good.

I also liked “Why We Gave Our Tree A Name,” by Michael Brownstein, the story of the slow death of a beloved tree. “We knew the old black walnut was ready to walk away from its earth.” Trees can often take years to die, and the author notes that here. But the end, after a weakening, can still happen via outside agency: “Then: a sharp slap to the air, the ground vibrated, and we watched it lift itself up, /
Throw dirt and roots to the side of our hill, hollow out a cave of bark and wood” Beautiful language.

Finally, let me mention “Fog Trunks,” by Diane Webster, just because it’s fun. “In the fog / tree trunks pretend / they’re elephant legs…” a short poem, a quick conceit. It raised a smile for me.

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 – March 19 2018

Rattle 59 – Spring 2018

Blue Collar Review – Fall 2017

 

 

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The first poem in this issue is “Essay On ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,'” by Catherine Barnett. “John Locke says children don’t understand lapsed time, / and when I was a girl it was true.” Is it just me, or does that start out kind of dry and serious? But we are promised amusement by that title, an essay on an essay, and soon enough, Barnett delivers: “It’s been three hundred years and still my feelings for Locke / must pass unrequited.” Our narrator goes on to try impressing her friends with bad French, and ends meditating on a view of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris, and on human history. The focus on Locke keeps the poem hanging together, and thinking about the human condition is the organizing theme. A light-hearted poem, with a marvelous ending, that I enjoyed re-reading.

The other poem is “Fidelio,” by Geoffrey G. O’Brien. “It’s so narrow here. And kind of falsely / Shining with the return of spring.” Google is often helpful with such erudite poetry, and sure enough, Fidelio turns out to be Beethoven’s only opera. Knowledge of the story helps us understand the poem. The opera is set in a prison, and involves a man falsely imprisoned, with his wife trying to save him from unjust execution. “There are prisons both sides of the walls.” and, “No one can sing that music but all / involve themselves…” I really don’t follow the logic of the poem, but it keeps pulling me back in anyway. Just the chewiness of the lines, I guess. “…a garden, it’s wet petals still / Clustered shy of being individual.”

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 59 – Spring 2018

Blue Collar Review – Fall 2017

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

 

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A fun poem by Scott Beal opens this issue of Rattle, “Ambiguous Antecedents.” “When the kid tells you their new pronoun of choice / is it… you try to see / the kid as the kid sees itself.” I love the tongue-in-cheekiness. Beal goes over how the language is changing. “Partner seems like such an unloaded word… that should make / a harmless click when triggered.” Seems like it’s more rare to see a poet playing with the language recently. But isn’t that what poets are supposed to do? And I relish the joy of the irreverence: “Nick becomes quadratic.”

The next poem also relies on fun, George Bilgere’s “Big Thing,” which starts: “Did you hear about Gary? His new book is supposed to be big. / People are… talking Badger Prize. / Maybe even the Bexley.” It’s a poem about jealousy, and the competitive world of poetry, and how we don’t really know each other well. “And now we have this sense of… being bit players in the Larger Drama of Gary.” Very enjoyable.

Transcending the commonplace might be the theme of “Miraculous Stardust,” by Bonnie Buhrow. “The girl couldn’t speak English… couldn’t whistle or hum, let alone sing… no one paid attention to her at the factory.” The girl remains separate from those around her, everyday workers at everyday jobs. But at noon, “the girl stole outside…where / she practiced levitating… until she reached / a flawless buoyancy.” And the language grows more buoyant along with her. “She was like a flake of cork, a molted feather.” An inspiring, uplifting poem, with an ending that grounds it nicely.

Megan Falley starts “Ode to Red Lipstick,” with: “Cleopatra crushed beetles / to make red lipstick / because… even in 30 BC… speaking 12 languages / would be… more impressive / when the words jumped / through a ring of fire.” This is a poem that grabs your lapel and says, listen to me, here’s some great language, even contemplating a commonplace item. But of course, lipstick, being so intimate, so close, in some places and times has taken on a weight and profundity beyond what we might expect. A poem to make us think.

This issue has a section on immigrant poets, which I enjoyed very much. Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach presents us with “In Praise of Forgetting.” “Forget to turn off the lights and wash the dishes and empty the tub. // Forget the standing water and let it bring ghosts into the home.” Already we know something is going on underneath this list of things to forget — consequences in a life, perhaps, or those who are now gone. “Forget the names you gave them once. How they were taken away.” A melancholy poem, made more powerful by its indirect approach.

Finally, Alejandro Escude writes in “The First Time I Took My Gun To The Range,” “I looked at the gun and it fired… the bullet went… high / so that it left a poof-dust on the ceiling.” The incident spurs the narrator to contemplate the danger a weapon has, the ease with which one can make a mistake. “I thought, what if the gun / had been aiming at me?” But the poem’s conclusion may surprise you.

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 – Fall 2017

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

Rattle 58 – Winter 2017

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So much reportage these days focuses on the high tech and financial worlds, it’s nice to have the Blue Collar Review to put us back in touch with the hard workers who built it all, those with integrity making their way in a hostile world.

“Then there was my Dad,” Robert Cooperman writes in “The Men in Our Apartment House,” “a blocker in the millenary (sic.) trade, / his hands… and arms / a drunken spider’s web / of scars and burns.” So much of life is tougher than our myths admit. We all hope to actualize ourselves, to find meaningful work. But there’s a reason they pay us, and there are hard realities out there, and these poems reflect that, honoring, as Cooperman does, those who went before.

Steve Hartman understands this well. “Junior Management Trainee starts, “Where are all the glamorous groovy jobs / you see in sitcoms that require no experience…?” This is a wry and amusing view of truth versus image. “I’m tired of working with idiotic sidekicks…”, but “the Personnel Director…wants to know…what makes me more qualified / than the two thousand other applicants…” Humor arises from truth, right? So it would seem here.

These poems can be downright harsh, as they challenge us. Sarah M. Lewis starts out her poem, “Owned,” with: “Bosses want you / to understand they own you… not just the time you’re paid for… weekends, holidays, after work hours.” This poem cries out for justice, with a sense that the worker must battle for dignity and right.

Yet there is beauty as well. In Olivia Inwood’s “Artist,” we have: “Trains curling around the rocks / and broken masterpieces / blown up by a cannon.” Many different occupations join in the struggle. “art for the working class / art in and of this land”

And also, Jeffrey Alfier’s “The Back Porch at Carter’s Brewery in Billings.” “I hear an empty / beer can rattle over the rails, / blown along by a southerly wind.” A lonesome sound, maybe the essence of these poems right there.

Finally, at the core of it all, we see the relationships between people. In Holly Day’s “The Last Day:” “I watch my son packing his bags and I have to leave… no, I can’t help him because… I can only think of how to fold him / back into the infant he once was.” An archetypal moment for so many of us: “I want / to find some way to do all this over…” Sweet and sad. (Oh, and notice the pun on her own last name).

Very much an issue worth perusing.

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:

Missouri Review – Winter 2017

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

Rattle 58 – Winter 2017

 

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Nicholas Friedman, the first poet in this issue of The Missouri Review, starts us off with “The Portrait Artist.” “They show up smelling like their Food Court lunch…’It’s for a Christmas card,’ Mom says.” This is a fun little romp through the difficulties of getting children to sit still for the camera. “…the diapered one, face pinched, needing a change.” It’s a poem that recognizes the familiar, our mundane efforts to get along, and the humor of such situations. It ends cleverly, as well. A worthy effort.

The mundane world is a vein he mines again in “The Nature of Advice,” “It’s rare in that the giving is simple. / With age, one’s store of it / only grows larger.” We smile in shared recognition. We all love giving advice, and can ruefully admit, it generally does little good. This poem centers around a father trying to help his son get, if not a base hit in his Little League game, at least an honorable foul ball before he strikes out. Such modest goals we often have, the poem points out, and that helps bind us together.

Daniel Anderson also mines a familiar trope in his poem, “Big Lie. Little Lie.” “All summer long, /outside Duke’s Pony Keg…I listened, half in envy… I heard about farm girls and college girls.” A young man-boy, hearing the lies his friends tell about their sexual experiences, tells one of his own and is accepted. And maybe at that point realizes the others are lying as well. The poem goes on to tell us about the narrator’s actual first experience, many years later, and how mundane and almost disappointing it was. Near the end, the turn of the poem comes when he contemplates the girl, and what might be happening for her on her side of the encounter. This turn gives the poem depth, and gives us reason to go back and reread it, seeing more each time.

The poems of Danielle DeTiberus are rooted in the area around Charleston, South Carolina, and take a broad scope. In “Relic,” she starts, “Charleston’s a charnel for all / the binyas and comyas.” Binya and comya, I assume are Gullah words for people who have been here, and people who have come here. The poem tackles the racial divide. “The way a bone will bleach / when stripped of enough flesh. / This is a land harbored by the idea // of whiteness.” The poet wants to do something about it. “I long to be a bivalve: / a filter for what poisons this place.” There are many beautiful lines that give the poem power. “My eyes… a hundred blue / mirrors designed to catch everything.” There is a sense of great sadness here, and frustration, with just a bit of hope.

The poem “Hush Harbor” starts: “Lowcountry estuaries once rich / in Carolina Gold, indigo and // cotton harbor traces of the Atlantic / salt that covered this land.” The poem reflects on these beautiful lowlands that have risen over eons out of the sea, rich and fertile. Again, the original lines lure us in: “glaciers rose above the water’s lip / like some teething monster — the world / swallowing itself in one slow gulp.” I stopped and savored, and pictured and wondered at that thought. Echoes of the snake wrapped around Midgard, an expanding vision… always a good reaction to a line of poetry. Then in the ending, she goes back to the small the particular, the holy. A marvelous way to bring it home.

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 – Jan 22 2018

Rattle 58 – Winter 2017

The New Yorker – Nov 20 2017

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I think we can call J.D. McClatchy a wily old veteran at this point, and he certainly shows it with the opening to his poem, “My Plot,” in this issue of The New Yorker. “It seemed as good a time as any to buy / a cemetery plot.” Yep. You’re going to read on after that opening, a jar, a fascinating and maybe terrifying subject, a fine use of enjambment between those first two lines. And the humorous tone is set somehow by the mundane phrases chosen: “The price is bound / To spike.” The poem contemplates his chosen resting place, then the narrator learns who is to be planted next to him: “a woman I’ve known, / Good God, for decades…by chance assigned… second harp at the stand right next / To mine.”

One should always look for value-added with the grand master poets, and sure enough, McClatchy delivers, by writing the 16-stanza poem in a complex rhyme scheme, ABCxCBA, mostly perfect rhymes, a challenge to maintain as interesting and focused. Of course he sprinkles in plenty of excellent lines, and aren’t those what we really read poetry for? “it was life itself — fizzy and full / Of contrivances to keep itself afloat.” And, “I watch us wamble down Water Street between / The moment and the mortuary.” No, I didn’t know the word wamble, yes it is perfect once I look it up, and different in meaning than what I thought.

The other poem in the issue is “Medium,” by Jennifer Grotz. “In the nineteenth century, / I’d have found a medium… a crystal ball, // but to conjure him in 2016 / I go online and Google.” This sounds pleasant and amusing, oh the differences and all that, but another key component of most top-notch poetry is the skill with which the writer twists and jars the reader. By the third stanza we begin to understand there’s something wrong. Someone important is missing in the narrator’s life. “but still there’s his handle on Skype…” and for all our technological savvy, we still have no better answer now for when someone is gone, only the question, why? And the remorse, reliving little moments where we didn’t know. “…that e-mail… at 3 AM… words of such / love… out of the blue / that I… didn’t query.” Then the twists and the plunge to the very last word of the poem, ironic, powerful, and ineffably sad. A powerful work.

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 58 – Winter 2017

The New Yorker – Nov 20 2017

The New Yorker – Oct 30 2017

 

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