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Archive for the ‘Poetry Techniques’ Category


I always get a little glad feeling in my heart when I am reading a poem and realize it’s going to be fun. In the April 29th New Yorker, Lee Upton’s poem, “Privacy,” starts: “I like a private life… sometimes… so private if I say anything that’s even a little bit / arguably private / I feel disdain for myself.” As with many New Yorker poems, the moment such a thesis, or in this case tone, is presented, the author backtracks, goes another direction, keeps us guessing. “I remember how cruel people were to my mother…” This poem examines privacy in different aspects, from doctors keeping important news from their patients, to friends bragging on themselves, to how even this poem reflecting on privacy gives up a bit of privacy… and we’re back to the lighter tone. “Today I’m wearing a big CONFIDENTIAL / sign around my neck.” I like this mix of approaches, and the depth it creates.

The other poem in this issue, “April,” by Sandra Simonds, also has a light-hearted sensibility. “The red bird falls from the tree, lands on / its head, rolls / right back up.” We worry about the bird, but no, it’s fine, saying, “Hello, Spring. / Hello, sanity.” It’s good to have a little danger, a little worry, to hook the reader. A poem of joy, of embracing the unexpected, and going with the flow. We should all have such light-hearted moments, and spring is the best time to have them.

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:

Plainsongs – Winter 2019

The Missouri Review – Winter 2018

The New Yorker – Mar 25 & Apr 1, 19

 

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Dwight Marsh, one of the long-time editors of Plainsongs, is departing. In honor, the magazine published his poem, “You Can’t Just Look,” which tackles the theme of reading the slush pile to find good work. “you gotta read your way / through forests of pulp… that darken the sunlight.” It’s a loving view of his job, and gives worthy insight to those who do not know the point-of-view of an editor. Clear, concise, even fun: “an inner monkey swinging / from phrase to phrase.”

I was touched by the opening line of Beth Paulson’s “The Red Barn: Watercolor on Paper.” “The barn, before it fell to its knees, / stood tall and strong…” I have seen my share of decaying barns, and there is something magical and mournful about them. I could see how they would make great subjects for painting. “…it leaned, / one wall mostly gone, smelled of dust, rusted tools.” There is a continuity about a barn that lives in few other structures. Nicely captured here.

I loved Shuly Xochitl Cawood’s “If.” “If I were an avocado I could stop rot with the simple pit / of my heart.” It’s a deeply thought-through metaphor that unfolds through the poem, creating a resonance far beyond the words themselves. “I could rise from where my mother once took root.” Wow. “I would cost more / than you would want to pay.” The multiple meanings in each line are worth studying, worth savoring. A brilliant poem, actually.

Holly Day is always solid, and once more so here, with “Whispered To A Mason Jar.” “I’m in love with the little midges / that dance in the sunlight.” It is always a nice change of pace to read a poem not about suffering, death, loss (themes, let me hasten to admit, I delve into myself). This is a beautiful reflection on the world, with layers of meaning and joy. No wonder the editors chose it. “I want to become a creature like that / cavorting in sunbeams.” A wonderful poem.

Then again, Phillip Howerton’s “The Pasture Cemetery” is definitely about dead people, but he keeps us entertained with their attitude about the living, shall we say. “These dead chose their place of rest.” The dead in his poem display some attitude, though not to the extent of any zombies. “No great-grandfather rises from soil / with rotted overalls and collapsed face… perhaps these dead are practical folks.” But it is the last lines of the poem (though I try not to give away endings as a rule) that will raise the hair on the back of your head, even without the rattle of one chain.

And lastly, let me mention Joan Colby’s “Loner.” “I cantered down the bridle path / Along the lake shore.” Again, a poem about a moment, skillfully rendered. “The waves rollicking against the breakwater.” And an epiphany deepens the poem, makes it memorable. “I knew then that being alone did not mean loneliness.” Such strong 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:

Star*Line 42.1 – Winter 2019

The Missouri Review – Winter 2018

The New Yorker – Mar 25 & Apr 1, 19

 

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Star*Line is sort of a phantasmagoria of a magazine. So many poems are packed into this issue, of so many types, the reader is bound to find something to like.

We begin with Mary Soon Lee’s “New Year’s Resolutions.” “1. For novices // Huddle in the Antarctic Dark / with Emperor penguins / for sixty-four days.” A poem of crazy, fun ideas. “2. For journeymen… Circumnavigate the Moon by hot-air balloon.” It’s the little shocks of recognition for literary and cultural references that makes this truly work.

There are many haiku and haiku-style poems, tucked in here and there, several by Christina Sng. These generally rely on twists, or thought-puzzles. “pets / on the International Space Station…” starts one. The third line of the poem provides the ‘ah, of course,’ ending.

Any speculative market is going to rely heavily on making the reader think. “On a Dead Spaceship,” by Robin Helweg-Larsen certainly furthers this aim. “…drifting round a star / The trapped inhabitants are born and die.” An allegory of earth? That this is not clear makes the poem more interesting, and shines a deeper light on our own lives, aspirations, and boundaries, with references to artists, the rich, and plebs.

There are poems from the point-of-view of monsters, or their lovers. “Not Tonight,” is an amusing example by Kathleen A. Lawrence. “Oh, darling, you tease / in wispy tears of gauze.” Quick and delightful.

Finally, let me mention “Giants in the Earth,” an irreverent, earthy poem by Deborah L. Davitt. “Pish, there’ve always been giants around! / It’s just that we tune them out, / pretend that we can’t see them.” In the logic of this poem, there are good reasons we all pretend not to notice. Fun, and even a bit shocking.

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 – Winter 2018

The New Yorker – Mar 25 & Apr 1, 19

Rattle 63 – Spring 2019

 

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The first poem in this issue is by Catherine Pierce, a poet I was not familiar with. Her “The Horse Girls,” starts: “The horse girls were writing novels. / The horse girls were dreading flag football.” A poem about growing up, at that awkward age where boys are interesting but embarrassing. The author anthropomorphizes to make this point. “Their hair embarrassed. Their shirts ruffled / with anger.” Other girls are the beautiful ones, clique-insiders who canter around them. Reading this, I realized how often young adults growing up is a theme of poems in The Missouri Review. Enough to consider it part of their world view. Many of these poems are very slickly written, and Ms. Pierce certainly delivers as well. At the end of this particular poem, the girls become horses themselves, or at least yearn to win in life the way horses do. This sort of synthesizing of two realities is a very satisfying way to end a poem, making the two views one, if you will.

I’d also like to mention her poem “Vespers,” because of the powerful way she uses language here. “Mississippi at the end of March / is a chaos of wisteria.” (Okay, maybe part of why I wanted to talk about this is really my own yearning to see wisteria after a long winter. Well, there you go.) “birds / insistent and fierce. It’s easy / to forget we’re only pretending / their language into song.” I have to ask, Wait, don’t you mean pretending their song into… no… Oh, how I admire that line, how it makes us stop and think, twist and re-twist it into differently braided thoughts. Or, “generously dividing the lushness / into manageable segments.” What a fun poem.

Miho Nonaka gives us “Through the Willows,” which starts, “Bless the cherry that must still bloom in April / its trunk scarred with initials, hasty students’ hands.” How that ‘must still’ brings us up short, wondering why must it still bloom, then realizing after the second line that it blooms in spite of the damage humans have done to it, and with that we have the sorrow that our species can be so thoughtless, inconsiderate not only of other species, but even of other humans who might lose their own chance at beauty because of us. For we all have been careless in some way or another. Sorrow is endemic to life. And the mix in this poem of a touch of the ancient reverence expressed by attending the cherry blossom festival, alongside the modern notions of the young. “on our way home at dusk– / everyone’s secret stop the local 7-Eleven.” And even how that mundane irreverence actually forms part of the ritual, and we can dimly sense how in one way or another it always has. When a poem can bring all that up, it’s a home run for me.

Finally, Brian Swann, in “The Return of Coyote,” gives us his own take on irreverence and the wild: “Yeah, that’s me, spiky hair blowin’ in the wind, tight black / fishnet stockings…” From the point of view of Coyote, coming back to Central Park. And the reference to Bob Dylan’s song, written within a stone’s throw of the place, long ago. Then, further on, “a world made of installations like a hedge fund…” almost stream-of-consciousness, looping along crazily, dangerous language here. “until a cab flattens me, wipeout, / but I pop back up, a bit wobbly…” Mixing the news headlines of coyotes coming back into the city with Coyote of the roadrunner cartoons, and the Native trickster Coyote in a happy mash-up. Effective, fun, and worth re-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 – Mar 25 & Apr 1, 19

Rattle 63 – Spring 2019

Nimrod International Journal – Winter 2018

 

 

 

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“Ambition,” by Tess Gallagher in the Mar 25 issue of The New Yorker, is the best poem of hers I’ve read to date. “We had our heads down / baiting hooks — three wild salmon / already turned back…” A slick and subtle opening: Absolutely immediate, but from those first words we anticipate something about to happen. And boy, are we rewarded. “under our small boat the sea / gave a roll… lifting us so high I thought / an ocean liner…” A moment of confusion, perfectly described, then the rapture: “a pair of gray whales not two hundred / yards away.” The shift from this in-the-moment to the greater view gives us shivers. “It was all beauty and / mystery…” She displays great skill here in connecting that short moment to the profound, then just as quickly lets it pass, returning to the common world. That’s how epiphanies happen, how the sacred touches our world. A brilliant poem, to capture that truth.

The other poem here, “Pickpocket, Naples,” by Angela Leighton, slides rapidly through many more images to make her point. “Lost for a subject… among flaking billboards, unemptied bins, / pickings for a light touch… an angel’s wing flexed at my back.” We get a sense of how quickly such a moment goes by, a sense of the desperation of the world that might incite such a theft, as the poem’s form highlights its intent. What’s fun, though, is that in the next stanza she then goes right back and… well, not re-imagines the moment, but revisits it, or maybe has the moment repeat: “Or think another: I walk in a dream / past double-parked lots, boarded-up shops… chase the ghost of a child… and so miss the touch.” Just so we might ourselves repeatedly revisit such a moment in our memories, reviewing what happened from different angles, trying to understand what may be unknowable. Brava.

In the April 1 issue, Carol Muske-Dukes presents us with “Daphne, After.” “So Spring blossomed in spite of itself. / Uniform skirts up-rolled high by wild girls,” she starts. Note how the slight tilt of the language keeps us intrigued, the words come in a slightly different cadence than we are used to, emphasizing the wildness. But in fact, these are school girls, centered in their usual world. “two of us, heads // together, translating. Our selves as Stoic / teens.” We sense the yearning of these two to find adventure, to experience change, something important. And then, without warning: “He demanded her name first. Just / steps from the bus stop.” So the poet interleafs the current world with the classic myth. How beautifully it is done: “She told me only. The great wings of / aloneness closed in on us.” Wow. Boy, that’s why we read poetry, for moments like that.

Finally, Christian Wiman has “I Don’t Want To Be A Spice Store.” A much lighter, but no less notable work. “I don’t want to carry handcrafted Marseille soap, / or tsampa and yak butter.” The exotic nature of the goods giving us the sense of how the narrator rejects the exotic, the arch, for a more common usefulness: “I want to be the one store that’s open all night.” It’s a sweet way to characterize, and our imaginations flow right along with him. “I want to wait / brightly lit… for my father to find me open on Christmas morning in his last-ditch… drive for gifts.” And just like that, we have a greater depth, a poignancy, a loneliness. And the last line is especially brilliant (so go look up the poem and see what it is!)  A whole pile of great poems in these two issues.

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 – Feb 11 2019

Rattle 63 – Spring 2019

Nimrod International Journal – Winter 2018

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There are always so many tasty, resonant poems in Rattle Magazine. One poem I read over and over was C. Wade Bentley’s “Recalculating.” What a wonderful title, taking a word come into our consciousness these days and using it to explore larger ideas. “So Google Maps has me somewhere west of Evanston,” it starts. Quickly, it turns out, a journey to help his daughter, who is in some trouble. Not just with her car. “an excuse to get caught up / on her life and the status of her sobriety.” Easing into the big issues casually. The poem becomes a meditation on his relationship with his daughter overall, his status as father, as friend, letting go, not trying to interfere, all those parent things. I like that ‘get caught up,’ the use of colloquial language, the ear for how people actually speak. It is not quite stream of consciousness, but many ancillary images pour in the sides of the poem: “a brace / of pronghorns racing me along the fence line,” to remind us he is searching for his daughter in a real world, not just in thoughts and dreams. She needs his help. A stirring poem.

I like the working class flavor of Jesse Bertron’s “Arc,” also a poem about a father. “My dad worked the trades for fifteen years. / He learned… that nails measure in pennies by their length.” We get a great sense of who he was, and how the family interacted. “we all asked him to be better than he was. // It doesn’t work like that.” Such wisdom in a plain package. And a nice easing-out ending.

I haven’t often brought up my old habit of mentioning my favorite poem in an issue, but here it just might be “The Book of Fly,” by John Philip Johnson. “1:1 / Feeding on the living is good, / but feeding on the dead is better” Oh, we immediately get the gleeful sense, this poem is going to be fun in a evil way! And yes, yes it is. Each stanza is numbered in the above way, and the ending fits as perfectly as Barry Bonds’ batting glove.

Loved Linnea Nelson’s “Counting to Twelve at Willamette Park.” “first what i notice / is predictable / the water…” and we are at the park, looking around, listing what catches our eye, what matters. Oh, but as the list goes on we discover we are not at the park, we are actually meditating, and the park is only the image we (the narrator, that is) are centering on. “i am still / clueless about how / to meditate well.” The universal experience of meditating, I think. By the end, we may be back in the park, we certainly went unexpected places. A great poem-in-the-moment experience.

Okay wait, wait maybe Katherine Barrett Swett’s poem, “City of Refuge” should win the best poem of the issue argument (I am remembering why I don’t list that anymore). It’s a brilliant sonnet. “I dream we’re exiled to a distant land.” There is a reason by the end of this poem why being in a dream is a cushion, gives a certain distance, becomes essential. “for in the waking world we hesitate.” A touching poem.

Finally, Stephen Harvey also brings a sonnet, the amusing “Petrarch Looks for Laura at Holiday World.” “High noon and ninety-nine in Santa Claus / Indiana.” Well, there is a Santa Claus in Santa Claus, and the narrator has to tease him. “Ho-ho-ho-ly sh*t it’s hot!… he’s not / amused.”

Great 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:

Nimrod International Journal – Winter 2018

The New Yorker – Feb 11 2019

Convergence Online Journal – Winter 2018

 

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“My Father In English,” by Richard Blanco, is a beautiful homage to the narrator’s father, who came to the U.S. from Cuba. “First half of his life lived in Spanish: the long syntax / of montanas that lined his village…” What a wonderful idea, and Blanco works it splendidly. “the second half… in English — the vernacular of New York City sleet, neon, glass.” I love those nouns one two three, punch punch punch, presenting such a contrast to his Cuban life. The narrator then focuses on his father’s favorite English word, indeed, and what that word might have meant to him. “the man who died without true translation.” A sweet, powerful poem.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths has the other poetry slot in this mag, which she fills with “Heart Of Darkness.” “Years ago I went to Noho Star / with some poets & Cecil Taylor… Cecil died yesterday. I walked / to Union Square and watched black / men play chess.” I love the enjambment there. Black what? We have to wait that extra half moment to learn. Think of how the possibilities open up there, the challenge the poet accepts: ‘can you fill this beautifully?’ and then she surprises us as she does, doing something we all might do when mourning someone, walking, taking in the world. Very much a yes. “a face so musical / I could hear the notes blunting / & banging.” It is a precious thing to know someone who can encompass, become the apotheosis of an entire art form. There is so much beauty and loss in this poem. “I remembered / later when we stood on the sidewalk, / sugar & poetry.” He is sugar, she poetry? So many ways to read that line. A moving, important poem.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

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

Related blog posts:

Convergence Online Journal – Winter 2018

Missouri Review – Fall, 2018

The New Yorker – July 23, 18

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