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Archive for the ‘Poetry Techniques’ Category


“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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This issue of Convergence, the final issue, sadly, opens with “Memory Wisp,” by Michaela Erwin. “The music box sat on / the window ledge in / Grandma’s room.” The poem draws a line from the music box, and the narrator’s love of it as a child, to her love of her grandmother. “I would hum / the melody for Grandma while / she stood tall and brunette / with wisps of gray.” With the turn, it’s decades later, the music box is covered in dust, and we sense the narrator herself feels as worn and creaky as that old toy. A nicely done poem.

“Patina,” by Roger G. Singer, has some splendid lines in it. “It was called, / ‘The Hotel’… The lobby exhibited signs of / artistic death.” We can immediately see that lobby, the worn furniture, the dusty drapes. “Strips of wallpaper peeling / Like a melting glacier.” A reminder of how incisive and insightful images can power a poem to grand heights.

Kara Synhorst has a trio of affecting poems about life in Colorado in 1921. “Arkansas To Colorado 1921” starts out: “The Kansas City Star ran the ad — / A farmer looking for a wife. / She wrote him two letters / Before she hopped on the train.” Plain-spoken poems detailing a simple life, catching our attention with sympathy for the trying circumstances, and how the characters soldiered on. I liked these poems, especially the sudden way they end, with last, small details that serve to sum up the entire experience.

“The Procession,” by Holly Day, is an amazing poem. “When we were little, my best friend and I used to hold funerals for roadkill.” They are children, with children’s somewhat callous view of the world. “really / we just thought it looked like fun.” But then the messy world intrudes. “Once, a raven we tossed into the hole / moved its beak and croaked at us, not yet dead.” The delicacy of the real concern this stirs, mixed up with the unconcern of children for a wild animal who they are supposed to be honoring, is delicious. The twist of what happens to the raven, and how the children react, raises this poem above the usual. And then a marvelous last stanza, with a great, spooky ending.

Finally, I enjoyed “A Hole In The Hum,” by Evan Myquest. “If there’s ever / Five minutes of silence / in the conversation / That’s me joining in.” As I have said, I love humor in a poem, the irreverent take on life. This meditation on silence is like that. “A vow of silence is / wasted if your sandaled footfalls / slap on the monastery floor.”

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

P M F Johnson’s 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:

Hummingbird 28.2

Missouri Review – Fall, 2018

Iconoclast – #117

 

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Mary Ellen Talley starts us out in this issue with two poems, “Red #1” and “Red #2”. They work together for me, each very short, but displaying the same structure and so creating resonance. The first opens with “The bruise at its beginning…” the next with “By now the core / of the apple…” Both beginnings contrast against the second parts of their poems, and since they come right after the other, the reader can go back and forth, taking them almost as one work, almost like a cross-stitch. It’s an interesting exercise to mush two separate poems together that way.

Benjamin L. Perez gives us a few “Fragments From / The Love Songs of Hades.” Again, these are in a series, and so bounce off each other. “Eos,” is the first fragment: “Play yourself, like a lyre.” The fragments use subtle rhymes. “Elegos” is two couplets, “Heavier poise, silent-echo; / Heavier peace, blinding shadow.” being the first one. With so few words, we can concentrate on the ones we have, meditate on them, roll them around on the tongue.

In fact, with many of these poems, what is left out is more than half the effect. That sure seems true with Beatrix Gates’ poem: “Dear Half, // I feel the unwound / cave heart / that does not speak.” What of the other half, we wonder. What might the cave say if it did speak?

But other poems, like Jane Stuart’s “Slippery leaf / caught in the corner..” are a complete meditation unto themselves; all is there for us. It is the silence after the poem that reveals the resonance.

Finally, one of my absolute favorites of this issue is Valorie Broadhurst Woerdehoff’s “my first visit / to father’s grave…” which has a semi-amusing, semi-shocking, and maybe even semi-poignant twist. Certainly there’s much to think about here, in this bite-sized little poem.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book 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:

Missouri Review – Fall, 2018

Iconoclast – #117

Rattle 62 – Winter 2018

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I think I am starting to figure out Rattle‘s approach. They like plainspoken poetry, easy to understand. They don’t buy things for the flashy language alone, generally each poem has to have a point, though fine language is key as well, of course. This approach makes for some very good poetry reading, of course.

The first poem, “Canis Interruptus,” is by Jose A. Alcantara. “We put him outside; / he claws the paint off the door.” A poem about trying to civilize a puppy. Easy to relate to, if one has ever had a young dog. It’s a fun poem: “he’s on the bed… shoving his nose / in the most noseworthy places.” A fine poem, indeed.

Denise Bell gives us a powerful poem, “I Am The Shit AKA Used To Be / A Bop.” “my man slow down / drinking fast gets you high.” A poem about a man who has lived life on his own terms. “i was never on my knees begging / counting chump change…” But there is a cost to the way he has lived, and the reader has to wonder if he is even aware. “my son is… ungrateful… he had the guts to tell me i was never around… i put him through college…” A magnificent rendering of character, by a proven master of language and observation.

David Berman gives us a slice of life with his poem, “The Cat’s Fancy.” “…he knows — the sink is where I rinse / off dishes… Yet I can’t convince / him… to take postprandial rests away from there.” Ah, life with a cat, who sees what one is doing and wants to redirect the energy. Often to the cat. More a sweet poem than a humorous one, with the cat giving its human insight into life.

Elizabeth J. Coleman turns an unpleasant encounter on its head, in “The Errand.” “…a guy in an old car turned left into / my path.” They exchange shouts, he calls her an epithet, then we get the reversal. “I was glad he spoke, found a way to say hello.” Irony? We are not sure. The narrator then discusses how her child is learning to communicate. A subtle put-down, but also a way to enlarge our thinking about such encounters. It gives the poem an unusual depth, and us a reason to reflect. And let me just mention in passing this is a good example of how putting a reversal in the storyline of a poem can make it more powerful. Fiction techniques can be helpful in poetry as well.

I’m going to mention Susan J. Erickson’s “Antique Road Show,” a longer poem discussing the narrator’s fascination with the TV show. “He hands the appraiser two vases, explains in a voice like chipped crockery that his wife bought (them).” Erickson does a wonderful job of letting the poem unfold at its own pace, bringing us into the stories the participants on the show tell of the pieces they have, the knowledge she has gained from watching (and thereby the love she has for it all). “By now I know someone / will show up with a stone sculpture purchased as a relic / from the Yucatan…” Once she has fully set the hook, she reels us in by turning the tale to her own self and the humble things she owns, that her father collected. And then gives us a sudden twist revelation, and ends the poem. Purely professional work, this poem, open and revealing, and tender and sorrowful. Delivering the emotion a fine work of art can deliver.

Deborah P. Kolodji, a wonderful haiku writer, gives us four haiku. “sandblasted / by your words…” one starts. Powerful images.

Finally, Charlotte Matthews gives us “Kmart’s Closing.” “and everything’s on sale. / Even the bathmats look beleaguered.” Wow. The power of the exact right phrase. Having just seen a Macy’s close in our neighborhood, that word beleaguered is perfect. It’s true, raises that lost emotion, and keeps us reading for more. The tone is exquisite here. “Me and the plum tree are done for.” Folksy, as a discussion of Kmart should be. And then with a beautiful turn at the end, and an expansion to a larger view. Worth the candle.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book 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:

Blue Collar Review – Summer 2018

Apple Valley Review – Fall 2018

Rattle 61 – Fall, 2018

 

 

 

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I like “The Cog in the Machine,” by Burt Raabe, the poem that opens this issue of The Blue Collar Review, among other reasons because it starts in such a blunt, unapologetic way. “I hardface worn Cogs. / It’s a living.” What does ‘hardface’ mean? It could almost be a science fiction poem, but there is no air of the exotic. “A forklift delivers them / in a tub…” We get no background; we are left with the raw facts, some of which we don’t understand, and a sense of the toughness of the life, by how much is left out. Nicely done.

Regina M. Elliott’s “Their Funeral Is Their Retirement Party,” starts with a rhyme scheme: “American workers’ refrain, / sinew and bone some days bound to pain…” But just as the workers in the poem are shown growing older, so that their physical aches start sooner in the day, “his hands and legs start to ache / in the mornings…” so the poem itself seems to get tired, and the rhyme becomes too much to sustain, changing to a near-rhyme in the second verse, then vanishing altogether by the third. A nice trick.

J.C. Alfier has a poem empowered by sound, “Mojave Music.” “…the Union Pacific hammers out of its railyard, / gaining speed toward Barstow.” We feel the heat the narrator endures. “I wake each hour to a sleepless / cadence.” There is a profound alienation here, the the narrator doesn’t know exactly why. “Haven’t picked up the wrong woman at a bar.” It’s very lyrical. “One a.m. / Sounds ripen.” I like that. An eerie poem.

Lanette Sweeney talks about the gulf between classes, in “Code Cracking.” “They’ve got all the / foreign names / you need to know — / artists, opera singers…” The narrator must learn the alien code of a different class: “names you must know / like passwords / to gain entry…” It’s a beautifully rendered description of the dilemma of those trying to rise up. “Like any ex-pat, you don’t fit / in either country…”

Finally, Andrena Zawinski confronts the gun violence in our country, with “Irregular Pulse Beat Sonnet.” “The relentless drone of the daily news, / sends the pulse racing…” It’s a hard-eyed view of our culture. “In days of the dead, the gunman cackled / loading, reloading, riveting bodies…” A powerful, sad indictment of our country’s choices.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book 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:

Apple Valley Review – Fall 2018

Convergence – Summer 2018

Blue Collar Review – Winter 2017-18

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