Katie Bickham leads off the poetry in this issue with her “Nice, France, 1890.” “In the night, Josephine dreamed of saints and monsters.” A poem about midwives at work, grounded in specific images, freighted with the import of their duties, in a time different from ours. “St. Gerard’s blessed handkerchief settled on a dying mother’s / belly… the baby came, the mother saved.” But this is not a carefree world, the girls are often in trouble. “She’d…thrown herself from a terrace to crush / the quickening life.”

This is the first of a series of poems here by Bickham about births over the last hundred years, in different cultures. In “Magdeburg, Germany, 1912,” she writes: “The American woman knew that bodies had withstood / the agony for ages…This was a new world for women: a blessing, too…not to be home howling by the hearth.” Now the doctor has ether, and puts her under. “like a child herself, led // into fitful slumber.” And then, “A child born…from the flame of her forgetting.” There is a poem set in Tehran in 1941, during the war, and one set in Los Alamos in 1945 focused on Elizabeth Graves, who is having a baby while working on “The bomb she built.”

The effect of having a series of poems about childbirth, for me, is to honor the act, this most holy moment, in the very earthy reality of it, among all the circumstances of life. They are very powerful poems, taken together, and the images, because they stay so close to the physical, “we cannot outrun our bodies,” give these works a gravitas not found in most poetry. They remind us what matters most, and what the costs are, far too often, of making life in defiance of this world of death.

Joyce Schmid gives us deceptively simple poems, staring with “Slow Motion.” “A breeze is blowing on…sun-flashed hills / splotched…with trees.” The metaphors are almost like sleight-of-hand. Look quick, or you’ll miss how slick they are, how apt. These are poems of transformation in a different way, transformation brought about in tiny increments. “A boy is standing at the water’s edge,” we learn, and he lives out the day, immersed in summer. At the end, “his mother thinks / he is the boy he was, but he is not the same.”

In “The Idle Ants,” too, the changes are subtle and you have to watch quick to see. “Not the ones who clean the colony, / not the ones who go outside… I mean the other ants, / the ones who only stand and sense // the universe.” The world is a large place around us, and through indirection, these poems reveal some of its power and purpose.

Rebecca Macijeski is the final poet here. She starts with “The Long Cold.” “The world remembers how to drink the sun, how to become earth…” Every one of these poets is deeply grounded in the sensual, making sense of the world through the world, not lost in abstractions: “a bear’s monolithic hand hungers through that sweetness.” Such an apt image, once again. But Macijeski does use more facile images, which work in her approach. In “Theories of Light,” she writes, “the light that moves like speech across street signs.” It takes a moment to understand yes, that is actually what we see in when looking at a stop sign. “the firm hum in a streetlight.” This is our world, these poems proclaim, this is what matters, though we may not see it in a casual glance. Pay attention, the poets seem to say, there is much of wonder here, but you have to be awake and aware to see it.

A wonderful magazine, all in all.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.


It seems usual these days for The New Yorker to feature two poems, and so it is here. “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” by Terrance Hayes, certainly has an intriguing title. “The black poet would love to say his century began / With Hughes… but… It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers…winos falling from ship bows.” Okay, I don’t know where this poem is going — which is pretty much required in poems at this level. And then, “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Of course, the previous sentence can already be used as a guide for that. This is not a linear narrative. We skip from thought to thought, from Sylvia Plath to Orpheus. We do get a reference to Orpheus inventing writing, which then becomes a source of confusion between him and his girlfriend. There is no reliance on metaphor here, no epiphany.

So, not finding any easy way into this poem, I go to the Poetry Foundation website, where the poet is quoted as saying, “how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition… communicates meaning? … Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.” Hmm. Perhaps we do better to think of this as a sort of song, where the noises made by the words form a sort of melody. And surely the words are melodic, rhymes and near-rhymes abound. But the rhymes and assonance fades away by the end of the poem. Right around when the confusion between Orpheus and his beloved is laid out. That just somehow seems right. An interesting poem to chew on.

Then Vona Groarke gives us “This Poem,” a list poem, self-referential. “This is the poem that won’t open / no matter where you press.” An intriguing challenge, and a little intimidating. “This is the poem that cries on street corners…” Now, I’m a fan of poems that deliver emotions, so I go through to see how the emotion is developed. “…that plays itself out / in dives…” And the poem is starting to gain a persona, a list of fun attributes that weave a kind of goofy logic, right up to the end. “…with a teensy tattoo.”

I don’t give endings of poems here, I want you to hunt down the original work, but that said, the ending of this one is surprisingly satisfying. The repetition builds us up, then the poet resolves the images with a certain understatement that fits the rest of the stanzas. I love the fun in the poem, a sort of wary humor that just may turn dangerous, but never quite does.

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 Fall 17

Remote New York

Poetry’s Poetry




I love the poem, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” by Natalie Shapiro, in this issue. “So sorry about the war,” it begins. What a hook. I’m into the work instantly, and swept along. “…wanted to learn how to swear / in another language…” the narrator explains. “the top method…open / fire and listen to what people yell.” What an original, horrifying statement. The next statement then goes in a completely different direction, bringing in a kind of cranky God. The combination of originality and sudden twists of tone and direction make this such a worthy poem. And funny. Not many poems successfully manage humor at this level, but Shapiro does it nicely. She has a third thematic braid as well, people in their homes. Finally, she circles the poem around to reference its beginning. All done in seven stanzas of one to three lines each. Efficient. Very much how one does it at the top level. Brava.

The other poem in the issue is “My Mother, Heidegger, And Derrida,” by John Skoyles. “Educated in a school in Queens…my mother knew little about art.” Then the narrator’s mother sees the painting, ‘The Potato Eaters,’ which reminds her of her own mother. “The shoes resembled my grandmother’s / high-topped boots.” From there the poem becomes sort of a meditation on the mother’s visceral, memory-driven reaction to the shoes in the painting, versus the high-toned, high-minded reactions of Heidegger: “the dark opening of the worn insides…” and Derrida: “what constitutes a pair of shoes.” The great thinkers come out somewhat as fools here, less wise and less well-seeing than a simple woman of the earth. The poem leaves us with a sense of satisfaction and a sense of the worth and wisdom of plain toilers, from generation to generation. Great poem.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.

Michael Meinhoff has a powerful poem in this Plainsongs: “The Hardest Question.” End-of-Life issues for our parents have grown to be quite a rite-of-passage for many, and this poem is a small window into the pain. “The hardest question I ever had to answer,” the poem begins, and its issue is pretty straightforward. The poet delivers the question bluntly. “I couldn’t make out / what she had been asking me up until then… ‘Am I going to die?'” How does one face having to answer that question, when only one answer is true? It is a powerful subject, and the answer, and reaction to that answer, add to the gut-wrenching power of the poem.

“Three-Legged Dog,” by Bill Ayres is also a strong work. “If the first tools were weapons, / The first trade prostitution…The first dance was to mock the cripple.” Sometimes it’s the idea that carries the poem, and so it seems to me here: “When to be human meant to run, / the damaged man who made a cane / was something strange…”  The dog of the title is never referenced directly in the poem, which I also like — the indirection adds the power of understatement. And then, the ending comes sudden and so very sweet.

Candice M. Kelsey offers us “Slender and Starry Eyed,” about a photo of Piegan girls of the Northern Plains by Edward Curtis. “Time / captured you…you’ll / now never escape. But you’re accustomed to that…” The poem is grounded in strong images. “Goldenrod muted by this sepia taskmaster…” and “your braids / are like the pearled moonlight.” But there is a darker edge here: “Each scalp-stalk pretends / to hang perpendicular.” A subtle work.

I like the repetition-with-a-twist approach M. Scott Douglass brings to his poem, “Pacing Yourself.” “You’re doing seventy in a fifty-five / in heavy fog…in Tennessee,” is how the first stanza begins. By the third stanza that becomes, “”You’re doing seventy-five in a fifty-five,” then it climbs to eighty, giving a tension and a pace to the poem that becomes hard to resist. The images are at first in climbing a mountain in a rural region, the crush and tension from the other vehicles, the palpable fear. And when “a weigh station sucks the trucks aside…” the end of the poem comes quickly, in a tangle of images. Very effective.

Sharon E. Svendsen wrote “He Looked So Much Like My Dad,” which is a different response to a poetry reading than I recall ever having. “Tall, bald with a side fringe of hair. / His poem was about the Lord. / I wanted to smash and squeeze and mold his face into place.” The more the narrator works on the poet in her imagination, the more he becomes like her father, and the more she wants him to be her father, to “give him a Sunday crossword puzzle…” At last the poem confronts where her father truly is, an effective and powerful ending.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.


New Yorker Jul 3 17

Two poems in this issue, the first by Amit Majmudar. This guy is absolutely one of my favorite poets going. He varies between excellent and breathless. In “The Beard,” he begins, “What was I like, before this beard? … what was I not like.” The language is plain, the idea seemingly simple. He runs through the relationship between self-chosen image and identity, with a hint of the religious. “Among believers and atheist, / among atheists a skeptic… all emphatic on the apophatic.” I love words I never knew. Apophatic is the idea of describing God by what God is not. But that’s just a way-station in this poem, where the narrator next finds a man on the TV at his gym club accused of terrorism, who he thinks looks very much like him. “Judging from…glances of flat-footed accountants running / for their lives / to either side…I was not the only one who thought so.” I love that running for their lives aside, the resonance it brings. Because the narrator is running as well, one of them and yet suddenly separate. Now the beard puts him in danger, by its existence. And separates him, an American, from other Americans. Then he adds one more symbol, the shaver: to use it or not, what that means. A deep and thoughtful poem.

The other poem is by Chana Bloch, “Dying For Dummies.” “I used to study the bigger kids — / they’d show-and-tell me / how to wiggle my hips, / how to razz the boys.” So the poem begins with being young, and learning about life. But at the turn it becomes a poem about what old people are learning, including the narrator now. “…watching my cohort / master the skills… of incapacity.” And yet the narrator still is looking to those older than she, though she is old herself. The final line brings the whole theme home very nicely. A poem by turns wistful and disturbing.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, as well as at other fine e-retailers.

Related Blogs:

The New Yorker – Hollow Tin Jingles

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This is a double issue of Cape Rock, which means a lot of poetry indeed.  J.F. Connolly begins the issue with “Alzheimer’s,” a list poem of metaphors about the disease: “the bump in the night, / the false start of memory’s dream.” A moving, sad poem.

John Grey gives us “The Lone Shopper.” “It is a sure ploy / in separating a lonely man / out from the others.” The tone and swing of this poem are fun, and sting a little (because of the accuracy of observation?). “He bypasses the fresh meats / and vegetables, / for stuff in cans.” He compares the man against other shoppers, but admits, “I’m only clued in on the man…” As with many deeper poems, he turns the poem at the end… or seems to, then instantly turns it again, a clever device. Worth a smile.

Bruce McRae also gives us an upbeat poem, “Toying With A Dime,” with a catchy beginning. “I’m at the corners of Awe St. and Dread… sitting in a bar, counting God’s change.” Then come a series of original lines, flashing past the screen almost to fast to catch. “Space expands, like a mind… Time stutters and stalls.” And at the end, the narrator picks up the coin he’s been playing with and goes. A captivating poem.

I like Charlene Langfur’s “My Leaping Dog.” A narrative poem about the narrator walking her dog, a poem of connection. “This is how I feel about happiness…The incipience of morning,” it starts, and the dog is right there. “lower to the ground than I am…with the agility of a superhero.” A pleasing, deft tone, that leads to some surprising insights. “The surprise of how / we can be something else in the midst of who / we know we are.” That line bears meditating upon, for me. It’s nice to see such reflection in a poem, an aim of something higher than just clever language.

There are many good story poems in this issue, well worth discovering. But a lyrical poem I very much liked was by Kelli Simpson. “Dandelions.” “If the dandelions don’t lie, it’s going to be a dry summer.” Just the whole sense of a conversation with flowers makes me want to read on, and the poem proves worth the attention. “We all drink the red dirt…” A very nice poem.

Too many good poems to mention them all, but I liked “Winter Map,” by Madison Cyr, “Mirabella Pool,” by Rage Hezekiah, “Today I Decide Not To Read About The Vanishing Snow Leopards,” by Ron McFarland, “Sur La Plage,” a clever sonnet by Stephen Thomas Roberts, and “Torbat,” by Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad (“I dropped the h, / the long sigh in my first name”).

A couple of strong political poems show up, “A Dangerous Business,” by Pesach Rotem, concerning a poet in Saudi Arabia condemned to death for writing poetry: “remember that it’s your head he’s talking about / And that he means it literally.” And “He Plans His Funeral,” by Joan Colby. “The gang slogans that will be inscribed…the hand signals displayed…with an emotion that is partly / Theatrical.” Powerful.

The last poem I will mention is by David Brendan Hopes. “In The August Garden.” It starts, “You arise — you don’t know why — past midnight…the August garden…finalizes and takes stock.” I love the sentience of the garden in this poem, the partnership between garden and gardener. “I have put on white and violet / for the sake of love.” Then come references to the ancient troubadours, Villon and all, “confusing God with their lady loves in that charming way.” There’s just a lot going on in this poem, and very entertaining.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon,  as well as at other fine e-retailers.

Related Blogs:

The New Yorker – Oct 30, 17

The Apple Valley Review – Fall 2017

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Each time I read “Spring Cleaning,” by Hannah Marshall, in the current issue of Hummingbird, it gets a little deeper. Always a good quality in a poem. “Shaking winter / from rag rugs…I look up to see the day go fuzzy in gray rain.” It’s a poem of very specific images, and that grounding keeps the reader engaged. Cleaning the rug corresponds to rain cleaning the world. “Snow salt… wash(es) down the hill…to unearth bluebells.” Then the poet gives a sudden, strong twist at the end, with an image that gives explanation to why this is all important. Well done.

All the poems in this magazine are short, which tends to make them compact, precise, and often powerful. JoAnn Chang gives us an untitled poem, starting: “The trees outside the nursing home / are tied to metal stakes // for fear …” and what the fear is gives us a twist of whimsy, and a touch of the apocalypse both. Quite a trick in such a short and image-driven poem.

Lenore McComas Coberly gives us “Unreported,” a poem about maintaining perspective. “blooming marigolds…hunker down…while autumn hail…” Again here, in a quick little poem, it is the turn that gives this poem its understated power. The marigolds do not figure in the larger world, true, but the larger world does not figure for the marigolds either. A clever way to show that off.

There are a number of haiku in the magazine, mostly in the 5-7-5 syllable format, too short to comment on for the most part. But one I will mention is by Bill Pauly. “miles of cornfields — they’ve left one tree…” Just that image and a half spreads itself around in my imagination, setting the stage for the all-important last line that of course completes and makes the haiku work.

Karla Huston has a clear-eyed view of nature as we really experience it, in “Winter On Winnebago.” “Just when you think you’ll never be done with it, the ice pulls back…” But what the ice reveals is not necessarily what we expect. Surprise is important in any poem, to keep us engaged. And Huston uses a trick I believe Henri Cole once mentioned: to present a final image, and then not explain it. It works its power here.

Finally, Jeri McCormick’s three linked poems here give a child’s view of the world, and it is a place fraught with childhood troubles, under a pretty facade. “she knocks on our door…such a cute girl,knocks on our such a cute girl, Mother says to me…go play.” Sweet, but then, “we play dolls she slaps kicks throws them against the wall…” Wow. A tremendous tension fills these poems, handled masterfully.

A great issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as at other fine e-retailers.