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Archive for the ‘Mainstream Poetry’ Category


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

 

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I’m glad that a magazine like Blue Collar Review exists, that poetry with a caring point of view has not vanished, that not all attempts at poetry are simply academic, or intellectually driven.

There are some fine poems in this issue. I liked “So Far Away from the Nightingale,” by Fred Voss. “It is 6:05 am and still dark in the L.A. basin and one of the men / on the shop floor has… thrown open the big overhead tin / doors…” it begins. “we tap / with hammers turn screws lock cutters… and no one mentions the drought / or global warming…” A poem about hard work in the context of our larger world, of the larger troubles we all face. “we handle parts that will fit into spaceships.” The irony inherent in blue collar work geared at helping someone, someday, escape the mess our world is becoming. We need work like this.

Al Markowitz gives us a poem comparing a person’s life to a butterfly’s in “April Butterfly.” “Emerging / from the wintered-over chrysalis… to be born / under a bad sign… emerging flawed.” It’s a straightforward poem, which gives it a strength and even a touch of humor, and a smile of recognition for the reader.

“Windscreen Washer,” by Christopher Palmer, recognizes a moment many of us have experienced. “A footy shirt zigzags / among all the passers-by… working the corner of Northbourne and Hunt… this intersection; it’s his patch, his beat.” We feel the vulnerability of the fellow hustling for a few scattered dollars. “questioning with his eyebrows.” A fine understatement here.

Boy, I liked “Over Broken Bottles and Rivers,” by Millicent B. Accardi. Such a wonderful voice. “We sailed, unequaled amid / a stupid sea of hard knocks. / You were no sharp match / for me, a somber artifact…” This poem is an education in how to use adjectives as spice, to accent or invert meanings just enough to make the story interesting. Very nice.

Finally, Joan Colby’s “Blame,” has a real bite. “It was not secured therefore it toppled / When the child tried to climb.” An indictment of carelessness among manufacturers. “An innocent object, a dresser…” The actual moment of disaster is not pictured; instead, the author turns to a larger view of our lives. “Who can sleep through storms? / Who finds relief in changing passwords?” A reflection of the dangers of our modern world, of how little we can protect ourselves from, at last. Powerful.

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:

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019

The Missouri Review – Spring 2019

Rattle 64 – Summer 2019

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It generally takes me days to read the poetry in each Nimrod, a deep pleasure. This issue is like a waterfall of different points-of-view, different approaches. Mind-expanding. This issue opens with “Performance Day in the Vaulted Theater,” by Myronn Hardy. “Because this is an ending   they / stand in the stage’s center.” The subtitle explains this is “for my… Moroccan students.” The images bring forth the culture. “You’ve prepared the rice salad   that / signifier of ending   that tradition.” Ironically, the poem serves as an opening into a new world, a beginning in that way. “Farewell to locks,” it says. A worthy start to an issue dedicated to Middle East and North Africa voices.

Many poems bring the sense of an extra dimension, a sideways space. Nashwa Gowanlock exhibits this in “The Story of Ka.” “I was born when an African bracelet burst / and its stacked record beads scattered….” The notion of record beads makes me pause, wonder what is being saved, what transmitted. It adds to the impact of the poem. “I learned to watch war / with the volume down.” Which, excuse me, reminds me of a senryu I wrote some years ago: “the war / on the TV / in the background.” I feel the shock of solidarity, of fellow-feeling across years and space. We hear ourselves in other voices.

Aiya Sakr gives us “Broken Ghazal: Seven Hijabis.” “Fabric enfolds you hair to elbow, respects your mother’s modesty.” A meditation on modesty, among other things, with each stanza of the ghazal containing the word. And arresting language. “Your unloosed curls glow in the new sun, a twisted rope ladder to God.” And a little mystery, in that there are eight stanzas to describe the seven hijabis. A beautiful poem.

Often, the world depicted has hard edges, harsh rules. “Welcome the Night, in Which We Are Hidden,” by Sara Elkamel, touches on this. “You ask if the lingering… of the / (police) is the reason I let go of your hand.” But while the tension is clear, the answers are not always so. “(I want to ask) who was it that let go of whose hand, and… why.” The uncertainties of youth, of situation.

Poetry, when done well, unifies us, reminds us we face the same situations, maybe not every one, but so many, so many. Lori Levy brings this forth in her poem, “Nursing Home Lies.” “We begin to lie when we visit… just to cheer her, or ourselves. / You’ll walk again, we say. You’ll go home.” The naivete of youth, not understanding that their elders have seen much more, survived much more than they, thinking the old must be protected from how life truly is. From the truth of their own dying, which they feel in their bones. I have seen this play out, the concern and the cost, and the poet seems clear about it as well. We share a life, in these acts and feelings.

Lastly, let me mention “Spaciousness (al-Inshirah),” by Mohja Kahf, a tremendous sonnet in not-quite-sonnet form. “You would have liked a poem strict as you… exacting in its form… as you were precise.” It’s a kind and gentle poem: “A spaciousness, I wish for you, an ease… a move from fear to joy.” Each word fits perfectly, like a prayer. This poem alone is worth getting this issue for.

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 Missouri Review – Spring 2019

Rattle 64 – Summer 2019

The New Yorker – May 20 2019

 

 

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Hummingbird always has such a variety of short poems. Yes there are the occasional haiku and haiku-esque works, but there are also concrete poems, strange semi-opaque works, and just downright fun offerings.

Billie Swift starts the issue with “Crush.” “I’m splayed thumb-sized, a dark pink bud… Or // I’m the gray of loose gravel…” The images draw the mind to dream.

Sheryl Slocum writes in “The Wit,” “Her voice, a pair of pliers, / twists words sharp.” Short and pungent, a quick hit for the emotions.

Maybe my favorite offerings in the issue are Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poems in Italian. “Soldati,” translated (and printed upside down on the opposite page as the Italian work) as “Soldiers, and “Dormire,” translated as “Bedtime,” in a muddle so that one has to cross-map the poems to their translations. The translator of these poems is Robin Magowan. Wonderful, unexpected work.

Lenore McComas Coberly gives us a snapshot of a family member in “Midmorning.” “my mother would pour / a cup of left-over coffee, / add some soda crackers…” Just a nice meditative moment for the character and the reader both.

Finally, John Baalke gives us something approaching a tanka. “A lone swallowtail / flits above brown-tinged sedges,” it starts. Again, like indulging in a cup of high-quality tea, leaving all cares behind for a moment.

A marvelous issue.

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 Missouri Review – Spring 2019

Rattle 64 – Summer 2019

The New Yorker – May 20 2019

 

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Diane Seuss has an interesting series of prose poems in the Spring 2019 issue of The Missouri Review, starting with “My first crush was Wild Bill Hickok not the actual guy but the guy who portrayed him…” Seuss does a deft job of moving from thought to thought, keeping the poem fresh and interesting as we go. “I was wise enough at age three to know…” then it’s “My mother didn’t hover… Her best friend made a particle-board lid for the crib.” Each line follows closely enough upon the previous one so we feel comfortable following her lead. There’s an independent, amused tone here, rare in poetry and very enjoyable.

The next poem, “His body was barely cold when the suitors swooped in on the young widow, the ground” also maintains a focus on the narrator’s mother. There is again a sort of macabre humor, with the suitors acting in strange ways. “an oval-headed man from across the road with dirty phone calls the night / after the funeral…” and “while his wife was strapped down getting shock treatments…” One gets a sense of the mother as hero, battling to raise her children, to have a worthwhile life. Wonderful poetry.

The next poet is Vanessa Stauffer, who gives us “Queen Anne’s Lace.” “In the meadow across the road… the girl wades / hip-deep in weeds… each fiber makes / a wick or a stem.” Original language to set the scene. “Nights she is afraid of the sky / hollowed cobalt at its center.” It’s a pastoral scene, but not without its strangeness. “Her mother… poses her in the meadow with a flower… so she can take a photograph.” Afternoon turns to evening. “She thinks she sees Mars like a punched hole.” Understated, subtle, intriguing.

The final poet is Zachary Lunn, and the sensibility is wrenchingly different. “In the Lead Humvee on MSR Tampa” begins “There is nothing like / blazing / through sunburnt desert,…” I like the desert itself being sunburnt here. Red, in pain. “…scanning blistered earth for… the thing that will / peel the skin off your / bones.” The scene is real, it’s frightening, it puts us right there. Even the enjambments add to the jumpy feel, the discontinuity. Poetry that’s alive in a terrible way. “You can hear the bomb / whisper your name.” What a surprise that word ‘whisper’ is, and how apt. And the turn to another metaphor is terrifying. “It’s a little like your first love, // the way you know how / things will end…” Important work.

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:

Rattle 64 – Summer 2019

The New Yorker – May 20 2019

The Missouri Review – Winter 2018

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Sandy pointed out, after reading the Summer 2019 issue of Rattle Magazine, that many poems are basically little short stories. An interesting observation, I thought.

Certainly we can follow along to “How To Date A White Boy,” by Amy Alvarez. “Never be the first. You are no one’s enigma / or experiment.” I’m sensing a certain bite behind the words already. “If you meet his parents, prepare / for disappointment.” It’s not a narrative exactly, but more a commentary on a narrative subtext. A very understated, powerful, work, with a perfect ending.

Marvin Artis gives us a fun, sexy little metaphor poem, “Poetry.” “Right now we’re polyamorous… I have to find my own way with her.” So many dual-meaning statements, each one more amusing than the last. My favorite is probably: “I told her that most of the time… she’s confusing and all over the place. / She told me I was supposed to love her mystery.” Or maybe, “…tell me who you are, she said. But don’t preach to me…” Great fun.

I liked the linkages in Catherine Bresner’s “Canvasser.” “And in the middle of my grief / a puddle — / and in the middle of a puddle / a penny…” Sort of the structure of the Mockingbird song. She goes some very intriguing places, and the images strike up a great resonance.

Matt Farrell’s “Sky Blue” is another story poem. “That summer after high school we did nothing / of use to anyone.” Love where he placed that enjambment. “We skateboarded along the flat streets.” It’s a lazy poem of youth and lost moments, small triumphs and dares that fizzle away. And then a deep shock. Beautifully written.

Stephanie A. Hart gives us a poignant poem, “The Purse,” about a mother emptying out her purse and reflecting on what she finds. “The purple / matchbox car / hit the table / hardest… errant pencil tips / and battered / baby barrettes…” It becomes a search of the mother for herself, in that most intimate of places, her own purse. “Nothing was hers.” Even the discovery at the end fits the theme perfectly.

Finally, let me mention Morgan Kovacs’ “An Abecedarian For The Unmentionable.” “About the time I turned 20 / babies began looking cute… I imagine someday / cuddling my own baby to my chest.” I love how the first word of each line is especially resonant to the theme of the poem, yearning, hope, disappointment, loss. “…I felt comfort in my / period, and I / quit hating my body.” Such a powerful, sad poem. Very much worth reading.

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 – May 20 2019

Nimrod International Journal – Winter 2018

The Missouri Review – Winter 2018

 

 

 

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