Posts Tagged ‘Katie Bickham’

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, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – July 31 2017

The Cape Rock – 45.2

The Apple Valley Review – Fall 2017


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The current Missouri Review has some fine poetry. They like to feature several poems from three poets, their format here. I am wary of the little bios, but they do give context to the Katie Bickham poems, winner of the Smith Editors’ Prize, a cycle of poems about rooms in a southern plantation house, and the history that maybe played out in each one. First, in “Dining Room, 1811”, Bickham tackles the slave history head on. A beautiful poem: “The gunpowder stench from the sleeves / of his fine militia jacket still hung heavily…” He is boasting of the runaways he has killed, while another slave is serving dinner, perhaps the mother of the men he killed: “Gem brought in dishes…careful / not to let her fingers touch the food.” A great ending to this poem, as well. I hope it gets a Pushcart, frankly.

We enjoy a string of strong poems from her, including “Front Porch, 1900”, and “Widow’s Walk, 1917” — “seven hundred thousand…at Verdun, / an earth-quaking number for those unacquainted / with the greedy appetites of death.” Note the plural on appetites there. It is those little details she gets so powerfully right. The images are used to power these poems, not as little fillips pasted on. Great job.

The second poet is Aaron Belz. “Charmed, For Frost,” reads nothing like Frost, but I liked it. “I hate gravity…not only falling / but having to lumber…” this is a light poem, but the joy is bubbly, and the language well-handled.

Our last poet is Darren Morris. He talks about fears in his bio, and brings that into his poems. “Fear of Justifications,” is a fantasy giving Cheney what-for: “The irony of heaven holds that Dick Cheney / will be waterboarded by angels…but angels know…torture ultimately…produces only what angels want to hear / and not confession at all.” Kind of an interesting flip of that whole time back in the day. His next poem, “The First Circle,” tackles the whole unborn babies don’t get into heaven thing in the Dante poem: “my unbaptized baby brother…another spark from God’s hammer / falls into darkness.” A great, great line. “My parents are not here to tend to him because they…begged forgiveness.” Powerful irony, showing the pain of mercy, the cruelty of dogma. Then his next poem gives us “Fear Of The Either/Or” in which the narrator and his wife go to celebrate the neighbor’s baby, when they want a baby of their own. “We’ve tried and failed for years.” A touching poem. “That it might fill / that dark seam in the sky that ripped opened.” I don’t know why ripped opened instead of ripped open, but the poem works for me, and has the best ending line of the magazine.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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