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Archive for the ‘Mainstream Poetry’ Category


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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If you want to plumb the depths of American poetry, a great place to search is in the latest Rattle magazine. There’s so much good stuff in every issue.

Ariana Brown gives us “In Defense of Santana’s ‘Maria Maria’…” which starts, “when i heard the lyric, ‘growing up in spanish harlem,’ / i had no idea it was a real place.” An identity poem, the narrator working out her place in the world, finding the culture that speaks to her, the joy of discovering an artist to whom she matters. “the blackest track on supernatural.” I love poetry that exults, that celebrates, and there is such joy here. “whole islands and coasts of people with my hair & tongue.” and “this is as much about music as it is permission.” A moving poem.

Claudia Gary meditates on math, computers and love in her poem, “In Binary.” “001 / What brought them together were gifts without number, / but binary digits enticed them to stay.” You would think a binary poem might be set in iambic, but here it’s all anapests, a brilliant choice. It keeps the poem rollicking along, fun and sweet. “Of course people have only so many digits. / Removing their shoes would be gauche…”

Gotta love the poem by Richard Prins, “Bless Me Editor,” which starts, “For I have sinned. It has been six months since my last submission.” You can see where this is going, and Prins does not disappoint. Again, this is about fun. “Editor, I do not recall taking your name in vain…”

Natalie Solmer has a pantoum, always one of the trickiest forms. “What Did My Baby Daddy And I Do To Each Other In Past Lives?” begins, “a week after conception   I felt the sphere of cells / gnaw a notch   into the dead center of me.” A poem about being pregnant, awaiting a baby, with some interesting lines. “I could pretend   to condense him to a raindrop.”

Finally, let me talk about the Rattle Poetry Prize-winning poem, “Heard,” by Rayon Lennon. “I move out / Of my doc’s Cave-like office… I learned / I am dying.” He goes to share his news, share his life, with people in his life. “The sunny / Jamaican / Cashier who / Looks me /Dead in / The eye / And tells / Me love / Is not dead… I say / I learned / I am dying / And she laughs / And says good / One.” Such misunderstands and missed communications are at the heart of this poem. With his father, his stepbrother, even his mother. With his new perspective he sees how they, too, have gaps where they should have connections. An insightful, sad poem, very much worth the honor it has received.

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 – Summer 17

Hummingbird 27.2

Rattle Magazine – Fall 2017

 

 

 

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One of the joys of the Blue Collar Review is the straightforward, emotional nature of the poems. You know where you stand, no fadiddling, as my Dad would have said.

Michael Collonnese starts this issue out with a great poem, “In Concrete,” about an early job. “When the motor on the ancient cement truck quit turning its tub.” it begins. We’re given the problem, then the challenge. “Someone had to crawl inside…and scrape the sides… As I was the youngest…I was the least valuable.” There is something satisfying about poetry that confronts life like this, its conflicts and ironies, not often available in more academic tomes. But this poem is not simply a recitation of a situation, the poet turns this into a larger reflection of life, in a beautiful deepening at the end.

Fran Markover also reflects on work she had in “Jelly Doughnuts.” “I once was in charge of them, thick pillows…” Very apt. Never thought of doughnuts as pillows, but the metaphor feels perfect. We’re brought in the moment with marvelous details. “I’d carry the metal pastry syringe,” and “the cauldrons and spillage of Albert’s Bakery.” Then she compares that work to current work: “when patients reveal…psychic wounds… I wish I could offer / something more satisfying than nods.” A good way to reveal the practical worth of such work.

We also learn of work maybe we’d never thought much about, as in Winston Derden’s “Thieves.” “The light head, sense of spinning / come from heat and dehydration…” I like that, starting with the danger, pulling us into the poem. Only then do we begin to catch a sense of what the work is: “detached stingers add / their heart-rending toxins… robbing bees in July Texas / down a brown loam trail.” We feel ourselves there, we empathize. Then a cold-hearted moment at the end gives us a jolt of irony, a sense of injustice. Nicely done.

Al Markowitz has a tough little poem in here about the current scene, “Gigged.” “Have you been gigged? / You know, the post jobs / gig economy…” It’s tough out there, I know it, this poem says. Listen to us, hear the need for change. “no sick pay or holidays, no / x-mas bonus…” We’re left with sadness after the closing double-meaning line.

Finally, Mary Franke gives us “Can’t Work For Nothing, Can’t Live On It,” which uses humor to make her point. “I do it myself or don’t get it done / it kills cars and me?” Love the kind of painful amusement in that. The mechanic does not seem helpful here. “we don’t even touch / the dipstick we pass a / wand over your junker and it / twinkles if we want to sell / you a Twazzen…” Of course, how often won’t they want to sell you a Twazzen? But the poem reveals a relatively desperate situation, the humor only highlights the trouble. Well done.

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 27.2

The Missouri Review – Fall 2017

Blue Collar Review – Spring 17

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The poems in Hummingbird Magazine are often captured moments, sudden discoveries and delights. All are very short, no more than a dozen lines or so.

The first poem in the issue, “Fresh Snow,” by Ann Spiers, strikes me this way. “A rush of finches / beaking off cherry blossoms. We move / our picnic… north for this” The contrast of snow and a picnic keeps me coming back, like trying to solve a little puzzle.

Ellen Welcker presents a fine moment in “Leona Carrington’s Self Portrait.” “It’s rare that someone paints herself only to find / she has painted you.” She develops this idea amusingly at first, (“Terrible shirt underneath”) but ends with a surprising moment of strength and challenge.

Kristina Pfleegor starts us in one direction, “twenty years of sun / score her face…” but ends with almost a whipsaw twist, despite being contained in a 17 syllable/three line format.

Teresa Mei Chuc writes a macabre little fantasy about a hummingbird making itself too much at home. “Last night the legs of a hummingbird pushed through…”

Reviewing such an issue obviously has its own challenge, trying to give a taste of the flavor of the poems but not too much away. Let me only say that there are many more little gems here which I would heartily recommend as well, each a joy to dip into.

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 Missouri Review – Fall 2017

The New Yorker – Nov 20, 17

The Cape Rock – 45.2

 

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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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