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Haven’t seen a newer issue, so there’s still time to blog this, right? ;->

I like the poem, “Not Impressed,” by Mike Faran, a poem that holds up the paraphernalia of success for a squint-eyed view. “I told my wife…they had given me my own office.” “She asked if I had my name on the door…I told her they couldn’t remember my name…” It’s dryly amusing, as the narrator and his wife go back and forth about how he’s doing in the work world.

Susan Yarborough gives us “Onion Rings,” a sweet poem about working a hamburger joint. “Behind the plate glass…The air is thick with the shout / Of orders and hot oil.” That nice turn of phrase puts us in the scene instantly. Then the central character is introduced: “she stands / Before the shiny metal table, / Long knife in hand…Sweat circles her armpits.” It’s a blunt, blue collar view indeed. Which gives it power. In the second stanza, she leaves her work. “the odors / Stalk her to the bus stop / Like a jealous lover.” Great phrase. So far this is a beautifully drawn rendition of her life. But it’s at the end of the poem, with the sudden expansion of her life, that we truly see the power of the poem, and how moving it is. Very nice.

Winston Derden has a poem that gives us two characters living together, in “Living Wage.” Part of the power of the poem arises because the relationship between the two is not clearly spelled out, so the import of the narrative becomes ambiguous. And the definition of character through understatement is very slick. “I was surprised to find Clyde / on the … couch in the middle of the afternoon….’Got fired again,’ he exhaled.” The explanation of why Clyde got fired seems to put the blame on Clyde’s cantankerousness. “I had to broach the question, / ‘Got a job lined up…?” Such a realistic scenario, delicately handled. Great poem.

It’s difficult, I think, to pull off a longer poem without getting gassy, but in “Lake County,” Joseph S. Pete takes a good shot at it. “Steelmaker for the world, / Or at least North America, / Forgotten appendage of Chicago…” And indeed, the poem reminds us of Sandburg’s “Chicago,” rolling out a similar list of attributes, but updated for a new century. “Flourescent-lit warehouse floors glisten.” It is a more tentative world now, and the poem reflects this, but still there is pride of place. “Lake County, / You built 20th century America…You boned the skeletons of skyscrapers.” And the defiance is still there. “Indiana wants no part of us…” And a most satisfactory ending.

Lastly, let me mention “The Tet Offensive,” by J.R. Connolly. “All that winter, snow owned the valley.” So the poem begins in a conversational, confident tone, a rural tale, leavened by irony and understatement. “We thought we were rich and the Walkers poor. / I worked our farm every day after school.” It shows what I like to call breath control, the ability of the poet to pace the poem beautifully, to a rising effect. And I love this: “My mother…prayed for the country. / She prayed for the ‘Papists and Jews.’…She tended her husband till the tumor took him.” We know this woman, we know these people. It is a sad poem, ultimately. “Donny came home in a flag and the salute of rifles…” So powerful. And the images deepen at the end, and the loss grows deeper. And the last line is heartbreaking. A poem very much worth reading.
Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available widely, including on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/AgainstTheNight


As is not unusual for The Missouri Review, there are three poets featured, each with multiple poems, and the series of poems each represent a theme or topic. The first poet, Bill Glose, explores military life. In “Theories of Flight and Forbearance,” he starts “In the rumbling gloom of a Starlifter’s belly, / they sit shoulder to shoulder…” The paratroopers here are compared to the hoplites at Thermopylae, and despite the modern situation, “wedged tight / as an M4s detent pin, bodies interlock…” we get a shared sense of history between the fighters of different eras. Waiting for battle, “they empty minds like a guru.” A powerful poem.

His second poem, “Among the Crenellations,” begins with the epigraph, “Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives,” quoting Moni Basu.  “Like wolves in packs of four and five, they lope…” gives us the image of soldiers on a training run. But this run ends in a different place than we expect. “They stretch beside the flush stone slabs of a pet cemetery.” This jolts to life a resonance between veterans and loyal dogs. The end of the poem refers back to that epigraph, and so we start reading the poem again. And again. Such blunt poems, taut with import.

Jessica Jacobs gives us the next set of poems, starting with “When Your Surgeon Brought Snapshots to the Waiting Room,” which seems to work hard to surprise us at each turn. “People say eyes are the windows…but…it’s actually a pithy incision / into the navel.” But these are not surprises for their own sake. The poems go someplace, using an extended metaphor. “This was not the garden / you’d abandoned in Kentucky…” There is a back-and-forth between the body as real thing, and an attempt to explain a confusing reality. “I wanted to report / that inside you I’d seen a vision…” The body as a holy place, then a shabby neighborhood. Her poems, as so often happens, are an attempt to describe the indescribable. Her poem, “In the Days between Detection and Diagnosis,” says, “it’s / easier to sketch the space around a tree / than the tree itself.” Again we have the body, again the hint of something terrible gone wrong. Poems very much worth sitting with, absorbing slowly.

The last poet, Morri Creech, gives us more austere poems that follow a tight pattern, thirteen-line poems of thirteen syllables, each on the subject of a still life painting. These are elegant and complex works, of heightened tone, and they come at their themes only slowly, indirectly. The title is repeated as the first line of each poem. So “The tragic undertones that mar our best achievements” gives us the theme of the first poem. “The footsteps of the past fade down the long hallway,” it says. Each poem has a turn, this one moving from the more general and conclusive in the first few lines, to the more specific in the middle. “The pears at rest in their dish…by the sugar bowl.” Then we draw back again, for perhaps a deeper understanding: “Time, in passing, has given / Them…timelessness.” A nice flavor, here. There is a tension between each still life, as described, and a hunger for movement. “When you think of the past, what comes to mind is the dead / Peacock you once saw hanging…” one poem begins. “You were the girl…who…thought…nothing has ever looked so still.” But there is movement that cannot be described by paint alone. “your father held the knife…whistling while the tendons snapped.” The poet works this tension between the frozen moment and the implied movement very well. And not always a physical movement, either: “you knew…you would keep this memory.” I like these poems, and more on each rereading.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available widely, including on Amazon at
http://tinyurl.com/AgainstTheNight

Jan 23 New Yorker


The first poem in the New Yorker this week is “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” by Frank Bidart. It has an attention-grabbing first line: “We were born into an amazing experiment.” Then, as so many current poets will do, having made a bold statement, he immediately walks it back. “At least we thought we were.” Nothing is given easily to the reader. That line ends with a fun enjambment: “We knew there was no” and we must ask ‘no what?’ Peace? Honesty? Rum? Later, Bidart adds a second bold statement: “Every serious work of art about America has the same / theme” (Again the play with the enjambment). And so the poem proceeds, bold step forward, sly irony while backing off, all the while twining two themes, America and the family. “My mother’s disgust / as she told me this.” It’s a longer poem, needing the elbow room to develop. Its final synthesis can be seen as a proper summation of both braids: “To further the history of the spirit is our work.” But of course this final bold statement gets challenged, as the poem takes on a more contemporary political dimension. And even the last, beautiful, singing line one may expect in a grand contemporary poem is used as a counter to the previous statement, creating an ending dipped in irony. Very much a poem worth reading.

The other poem in the issue is “On Distance (Quondam/Quantum Overdue Notice).” A puzzle poem, at least for me: i.e. what is going on here, what is the poet trying to say. “There are clues.” is the first stanza. So it even starts as a puzzle poem. Then in stanza two a man refers to Julian of Norwich as a he, and the narrator says, “politely, ‘Isn’t it ‘she’?'” There are not close parallels between these two stanzas, so maybe this is a ghazal, I think. Certainly, things refer to each other in the most oblique fashion. Except the 3rd, 4th and 5th stanzas all reference the narrator doing work in a library. So, not a ghazal (ghazals are not to follow directly, stanza to stanza). However, the sixth stanza maybe gives us some orientation: “I go home with Kathryn Davis.” Well, she’s a novelist. So that’s a book she got out? Then, “I ask, as one does, when ravished: Where did you come from.” (By that line I’m guessing the narrator liked Davis’ novel!) And in the next stanza: “…here, again, is Julian of Norwich…in this book.” By Jove, the whole poem now comes together. And the summation is, in my view, this demonstrates that the narrator is not alone, that there are synchronicities and resonances in our world (that create meaning?). So even the title, with its reference to quantum theory, makes sense. And I’m happy, having solved the puzzle.

Peace in poetry,
P M F Johnson
P.S. My ebook of love poems, “Against the Night,” is available widely.

Plainsongs Fall 2016


Very much enjoyed “Hoop Duet,” by Dennis Trudell, in the Fall issue of Plainsongs. “Story about a young Indian / shooting baskets by himself…when a coyote…” The understated language adds to the power as a young man has a magical moment. We are not given any explanation, but I don’t know that any verbal one is needed. Kind of ironic in a poem. “The boy moved / there and howled.” It was a Plainsongs Award poem, and I can see why.

I enjoyed “cuckoo clock” by Henry Kruslewicz. “my Oma is echt Deutsch / just one look at her dumpling / legs…” The mix of English and German (I don’t read German) gives it such a mysterious flavor, and a depth that adds to the fun. And really, you don’t need to know the language to get much of what is being said: “A finger thick as wurst.” Satisfying.

I am enthralled with “Asymmetric,” by John Peetzke, a sort of chopped-up villanelle. “Such an intriguing feel. / The lake spawns perfect symmetry.” This poem plays with reality and illusion in a most clever way. “A reflection, it isn’t real.” A reflection off the lake? By the narrator? There’s the fun. Then at the end, he reverses, then reverses again, using the form masterfully.

“Wedding Reception,” by Dion Kempthorne, had such a sense of loss, of bad choices made resonating into the far future. “The gilt frame of the cake / photo of her and her ex…” The past and the present mix, and the narrator seems so sad. Powerful.

Linda Taylor’s “My Mother Steps Off the Train in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, 1942” is worth reading and re-reading. “Two steps, and she is down, in dirt / soft with chickweed.” Hopes, fears, the specter of poverty, of nameless fears, all are implied, but the poem itself is grounded powerfully in plain images. “floods of mayflies… with netted, burnished wings… Her shoes crunch on them.” Wow.

But finally, my fav poem (and my wife’s, for that matter) in the magazine is Anne Knowles’ “Ironing.” “Mother sprinkled clothes, dampness / and fold and roll…” Just a description of a common task, but the language brings it so alive. Listen to the sounds: “garments / snapped out…the iron / thump thump thumping…wire hanger hooks / clicking” The knowledge of the task revealed: “boldness and the delicacy / of necessary restraint.” Yes. The moment is real. Brava!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My ebook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at
http://tinyurl.com/AgainstTheNight
See what you think!

Hummingbird 26.2


I haven’t blogged a Hummingbird Mag before, I don’t believe. The magazine publishes short poetry, much of it quite elegant. The first poem in the issue is “The Lion,” by Megan Snyder-Camp. On first glance, this looks like a fun little poem. But with more consideration, darkness moves beneath it. “Since kindergarten / my son’s class has practiced // for when a lion / enters the building.” Wow.

Ellen Welcker has a series of poems scattered through the magazine, all named “The Sheep.” “O euphemistic failure… a sphincter relaxing.” Each poem presents another piece of the whole. E.g. “A gaze may seek to rest…” and “All her layers of construction.” So the series keeps pulling the reader back in: Oh, there’s more here. Oh, there’s even more. How do these poems relate to each other? How is this sheep getting described, bit by bit? An interesting way of challenging us.

Furthermore, John Burgess does a similar thing, with each of his poems describing a guest bedroom he slept in. But he ups the ante by including drawings of each room he is describing. “Dead birch rotted,” is one image described. Then “It’s quiet (No one else / in the basement…” With that, we realize he’s giving impressions he’s had in each room. His varying experiences. So despite such similar constructions, we are left with very different takeaways from the efforts of the two poets.

I very much enjoyed Jeri McCormick’s untitled poem. “heading home from a winter visit in the mountains…” This poem contains maybe the most words of any in the magazine, though it is still short; a startling moment in life, maybe not life-changing, but maybe that’s the point, that life was not changed, and that can be a very good thing indeed.

I also liked Joanna White’s “She Paints,” entered sideways over two pages. Though not a particularly wide poem, nor particularly long, arranging it this way makes us think of the painter being described. “very nice, /     the grown ups say…” Subtlety in the understatement, here.

And while there are true haiku in this magazine, one poem that struck me with its pair of juxtaposed pure images was “Some Heat” by Joan Halpin. Probably the poem that most jumps off the page in the whole collection.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My new ebook of love poems, “Against The Night,” is up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere, if you like that sort of thing. ;->


The first poem in this issue of The New Yorker, “Esposito & Son,” by Anna Scotti, is a kind of an homage to a piece of furniture being hauled off. “When the men arrived…to haul the big table away, / I ran my hand down the battered length of it.” Each of the three stanzas is heavy with words, an almost pedestrian language. But the narrator is ambivalent about losing the piece: “a sudden rush of absurd remorse. I’d never loved it…” and deep within the stanzas hide a few, a very few internal rhymes, reflecting the almost lost grace of the table, or maybe the feeling she has towards something owned a long time. I love the line “the tabletop itself was…scarred: ruthless curator of memory.” She discusses the chairs that go with the piece, and only in the third stanza do we pull back to consider the men hauling it away — father and son, we are given to understand by the title, “eager to be done with it.” The rest of the world does not share our absurd hesitations, or romance about battered things best left behind. An elegant poem, finally.

“Old West Days,” by Brian Russell, weaves several motifs together in a non-linear way. “It was just after the war of course…” it begins. The Civil War, does he mean? But then he references buses, so we are left rootless, contemplating how many wars it could be talking about. Sad thought. A great deal of the strength of this poem has to do with lost little lines like that, creating a scattered landscape. The next thread comes in a one sentence third stanza: “…it was a great year to be a queen.” A series of rather absurdist comments are thrown in, e.g. “when they still made the sun out East,” until it becomes a pastiche of the present and the past, of History, of the narrator’s own family, and the contrasts along each of these threads. “as if seeing for the first time a photograph of your / grandmother / when she was your age.” I guess what I enjoyed most was the striking images, rendered in neat turns of phrase. “While the parade waded by…” An oddly satisfying poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My book of love poems, “Against The Night,” tells of loving a woman ensorcelled, fevered, her raiment camouflage, a woman marooned, scrawling for help with a sharpened spoon. A tale of two fireflies in flight through the urban overglow, who seek their patch of intimate night.

I think you’ll like it.

“Against The Night,” by P M F Johnson is available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers.

Missouri Review 39.2


Been a while since I’ve done a Missouri Review, so I’ll do the Summer 2016 issue. The first poem, by poet William Woolfitt, is “Field Holler.” “Because the field was galled, blotched with yellow hardpan…he had to fork and spread pond ooze.” Stanza one is a statement of facts about a farm hand singing as he works. Stanza two is about a woman singing as she weeds a garden. The poem ends when they hear each other. It’s the plain details of their lives that give resonance, the loblolly, frostweed, broomsedge. Only the very last word of the poem brings us to a sudden depth, a vision of their world beyond this plain place. Woolfitt’s other poems here mine the same vein, showing black workers and prisoners singing as they work, blues, spirituals, and hollers. These are poems not so much looking for an epiphany, as generating emotions out of the minutiae of grinding life. “He cradles and counts // bones and the splinters of bones.” Reminding us how tough life was, back in the day.

Corey Van Landingham gives us “Taking Down the Bridge,” which starts with an arresting image. “Treasure Island is on fire.” Okay, we want to know more. “Or so it seems, torches smoking / through the cantilever truss, / hiding even the men…” a series of provoking statements keeps us reading on. “the old bridge is cut in two… How quickly we abandon the past.” We get the sense of impermanence, of valuable things being lost. Then, “You told me / how you would bring old relics…an antique shoehorn…” and a sadness slowly grows. “…the earrings that will…be made from / the…picked-apart skeleton…will reflect / nothing…”

Finally, Peter Cooley gives us “Hunter’s Moon.” “He will not always be here in the fall.” It is a poem made out of denials, in a sense. “He’s not the world’s witness to this.” A lyric poem about a man trying to reassure himself he fits in, perhaps. But things are going on, things are changing, and much is uncertain. There is a certain absurdity running through Cooley’s world. In “Interpolations,” he references the mountains of New Orleans, and: “The countries beyond imaginations’ grasp.” It is an uneasy place, but one worth visiting, for the thought-provoking ideas, and the disturbing familiarity.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. Please consider buying my book of love poems, “Against The Night,” available now as an e-Book.