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There are two poems in this issue, each with a similar tone for me, though they are quite different in approach. Both have a first sentence that presents a reality quickly contrasted by an alternate.

The first is by Charles Simic, one of my favorite poets, called “In Wonder.” “I cursed someone or something / Tossing and turning all night — / Or so I was told…” Was the narrator tossing and turning, was someone else doing so who annoys the narrator? We are given two choices right away. Uncertainty might be the theme. The poem presents a dream thesis, but then turns instantly to a concrete image with a simple simile. “The frost…lay pretty / Like tinsel.” This poem moves along quickly. We are given the next image “a limo black as a hearse” …again a simple image and simile, but this one plays out to the ending of the poem, an implication almost cinematic of dastardly villains, missing whatever they sought, speeding away… leaving behind a last, creepy simile. The movie-like drama brings back the sense of a dream, in a subtle way tying the whole poem together.

The other poem is by Carl Dennis, again one of our great poets. In “Two Lives,” he threads together a pair of story lines to powerful effect. We are warned in the very first phrase of the coming complexity of the poem. “In my other life, the B-17 my father is piloting / Is shot down over Normandy…” We switch between two versions of the narrator’s life, as resulting from different versions of his father’s life. One narrator is an intellectual, a professor perhaps, the other a working class guy as the result of his father’s death in that B-17. It sticks closely to detail, as the great poets do. “In a neighborhood that’s seen better days. / I play stickball after school…” A common life, not unusual in New Yorker poems. But the alternate lives intertwine, the working class self taking a job in the factory the other’s father owns. This play of dual lives for both father and son keeps the poem interesting. “In my other life, I have to leave high school / To bolster the family income…” The narrator reveals an inclination for reading fantasy stories, which puts a meta- moment on top of everything else, as of course alternate histories are a subset of fantasy and science fiction. And let’s just add another twist, that this is a story poem of a character who loves stories. That constant twisting to add loops and complexities creates a resonance and depth that impressed me very much. In the end, as we would expect, the author brings the two narrators together, weaving the story together into a satisfying conclusion.

One can learn a lot by studying either of these writers. Oh, and enjoy the ride along the way! ;->

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:

Missouri Review – Winter 2017

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

Rattle 58 – Winter 2017

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The September 29th issue of the New Yorker has two poems, the first by Catherine Bowman, called “Makeshift.” And oh boy, is this what we read the New Yorker for. “From two pieces of string and oil-fattened feathers he made a father. / She made a mother from loss buttons and ocean debris…en masse assemble a makeshift holy city.” I take the poem to be about two people with a jumbled, patchwork past making their own world together. Maybe their folks haven’t been able to function as full parents, so they have to take on the task for themselves. Such beautiful images, line after line. Then in the middle of the poem, right at the “makeshift holy city” line, the poem reverses, and we see the same lines come out in reverse, with subtle shifts in meaning, creating tremendous power. For instance “Lacking a grave, they embottled themselves” becomes “Embottled in grave lack.” (Just to think of the word embottled is cool.) A moving, deep work of art.

The other poem is “Chives,” by Julie Sheehan. “You chop an onion, bone a breast, cradle / an artichoke’s…crown.” This poem shows a great precision in word choice. We start with such details, then move to the more general. “You agitate for justice.” An interesting mix of cooking and the larger world. She sustains the metaphor throughout: “craving the bitter,” using the tiny particulars to illuminate a life. Very well done.

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 – March 19 2018

Rattle 59 – Spring 2018

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

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This issue starts with a few Ashbery poems, my fav of which is “Bunch Of Stuff.” As far as I can tell, Ashbery’s technique is to take a phrase and invert one or more words into some analogous word that casts light on the original. So this poem starts: “To all events I squirted you / knowing this not to be this came to pass.” Well the first phrase could be “At all events.” But being squirted to events makes a loopy sense. ‘Squirt’ gives this an irreverent feel, as we might feel going anyplace where someone would bring us “at all events”. Of course squirt could have been squired, but wasn’t, here. (And other readings come to mind). Deconstructing “this not be be this” might give us ‘not to be that…’ It’s an unexpected twist that keeps the poem fresh. A little later, “Why wouldn’t you want a fresh piece / of outlook to stand in down the years.” Well, people DO come to stand in an outlook. (Sometimes with their feet hardening in concrete.) ;-> An outlook that might flavor how they feel about going to the above event. And creating a resonance between a fresh piece of outlook and tail, say. Which gives another flash of irreverent amusement. And joining up with a new person generally does change our outlook, of course. He even tells us to “Poke fun at balm…” as he is doing it. A first-water poem, for me, with all those meanings crashing down one after the other.

Henri Cole’s poem, “Dandelions (II)” keeps bringing me back to reconsider it. “He drew / these dandelions…when the only // solace / was derived / from the labor / of getting / the…stems / and… seed heads / just right.” I don’t know who the artist might be, but I guess it doesn’t matter. “‘Nobody there,’ / the new disease / announced…” It’s a sad poem, sketching the death, evidently, of an artist, then turning to a surprising exterior image in the last stanza. As though the grief were too great to face directly, but must be angled toward, hinted at only. Very powerful.

D. Nurske has a fun, not particularly linear poem called “Venus.” Which is about the planet, at least at first: “Death is coming / and you must build a starship / to take you to Venus. // Make it from a catsup bottle…” It rattles on goofily like that for a stanza, then turns more serious, and in the last stanza again goes off on a complete tangent. I’m guessing Don Share likes that finishing technique, as generating something original, though I admit I’d like a final stanza resonating more with the rest of the poem. Maybe the moth image in the last stanza symbolizes the spirit, and so we (maybe) transcend after death. A bit oblique for me, but the editor obviously liked it.

Let me end with Kay Ryan’s “In Case Of Complete Reversal.” “Born into each seed / is a small anti-seed.” She always has such subversive ideas, and works them out in ways I rarely expect, with breathtaking language. “If we could crack the…shell / we’d see the / bundled minuses…” I cannot imagine anticipating that phrase, ‘bundled minuses,’ and yet it feels perfect to me. That’s harder than it seems, I have come to believe from years of trying to do it myself. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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I’ve always liked Les Murray’s poetry, and I like his poem, “Vertigo,” in the latest Poetry Magazine. Such a common-sense view of the world: “Last time I fell in a shower…the hotel longed to be rid of me….I tripped on a steel rim / and found my head in the wardrobe.” There’s that sly sense of humor underneath that makes him so worth reading. “When, anytime after sixty…you stumble / over two stairs…that’s the time to call the purveyor / of steel pipe and indoor railings…” There’s the quick bait-and-switch. Buy steel pipe, one thinks, for what violence and why? Then you realize he means for installing grab-bars. Gotta like the guy.

Dan Chelotti’s poem, “Compost,” is just the sort of nature poem I can dig into (sorry). “There is magic in decay.” A great start. And he presents a few nature images, then switches it up: “Just today / I was walking along the river / with my daughter in my backpack…” I like the surprise image that suddenly makes sense. “Selma started / Yelling Daddy, Daddy, snake!” Implying that Daddy is a snake, of course. But then we go to deeper images of decay. “the coroner / calling to ask what color / My father’s eyes were….Why can’t you just look? …Decay.” A beautiful poem, worth re-reading.

April Bernard does poems associated with (printed alongside) illustrations/ visual images. Can’t show you the images (buy the mag. ;-> ) but her poem “Anger” is worth reading, for the first grin at least: “I hoisted the shotgun…but did not fire it at the man / who had just taken my virginity like a snack, / with my collusion, but still –” There are other worthy lines (none so funny, but still enjoyable). “Decades go by / when all I can muster is absent-minded invective, / you know, directed at the news…” Well, that hits home. Her sense of timing makes this poem work. And a good ending.

Finally, Solmaz Sharif gives us “Vulnerability Study,” a short little poem of four non-rhyming couplets and a single line stanza. Each stanza lists a moment of vulnerability, from the local and intimate: “Your face turning from mine…” to the more external, “8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl,” then suddenly to images of people vulnerable in war: “baba holding his pants / up at the checkpoint.” With a great and haunting ending.

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 2, 2018

Hummingbird – 28.1

Rattle 60 – Summer 2018

 

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Thru an address mixup I wasn’t receiving my Main Street Rags, and just got Winter 2014. So here goes.

I like the poem “Elmhurst,” by Joan Colby, where the narrator goes back to the town of “your” childhood. “Let the unremembered be backwashed.” and “Go back: the little store with its glass case of candies.” Much remains, though there have been changes. “Erased by a park, a prairie path for joggers…” At a certain age, looking back seems to grow into a preoccupation. “At first I am befuddled, then see /it’s your childhood you’re giving me.” With a resonant ending that moves the poem to a larger context.

Steve Cushman is also looking back in “Grandfather.” “I visited him / at the trailer park he owned…” But there is a tougher edge to this poem. “he was slumped / over the steering wheel…before I touched him / I thought of the man he used to be…” and again, there is a depth to the ending, in this case however, pointing out a narrowed corner of the narrator’s heart, a risk for the poet that I very much appreciate. It’s easy to make ourselves look righteous and shiny in a poem, much scarier to show us real and muddled.

John Gosslee adds some short, blunt poems. In “How I Pursued Her,” for instance: “a badger / after its dinner // an accountant / logging money.” Ruefully fun stuff.

Finally, I very much enjoyed the poem, “High Heels,” by Anina Robb. “She wears them to keep her man / sane.” Great enjambment. “Every day of pain / there is less of that desire.” Such a true review of what cost heels exact: “Before bed, she slaps the cramps… Blisters puncture.” And a great ending. Maybe it’s because of the animus my wife has always had to these cruel instruments. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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So I’m reading the poems in the Missouri Review when I notice an interview with Dorothea Lasky. I say, hey, maybe she’ll say something interesting, and flip through it. And there it is. The secret to American poetry over the last thirty (or so) years. Oh, I suspected it…we all suspected it. It had to be, right? The poems we’ve been reading in The New Yorker and Poetry Magazine (among so many others) whose purpose (and success) are completely opaque to us. The stuff that seems almost simplistic jingos, published in some of the biggest mags in the land. And we’ve wondered, what IS it about this poetry that makes otherwise brilliant (seeming) editors buy it? When it seems like ragin’ crap? I say us because I have surely learned in the years of writing this blog I am not alone in this point of view. The ‘what-am-I-missing-here’ feeling of being on the outside of the inner sanctum.

Well folks, Dorothea explains it all to us:

Interviewer: “In ‘Poetry Is Not A Project’ you write…There’s a lot…to do…to make our world better for poets. Let’s start…by valuing poems over projects…How do you differentiate between a poem and a project?”

(And I’m like, what’s a project? What’s the academic “in” joke here?) Lasky answers:

“I saw the idea of a project as being something that shut out particular people who might not know that term, or…how…to construct their work in a particular form. Some people took this as an attack on conceptualism…”

(Are you with me on wondering what the heck conceptualism is? Cuz I never took an English degree, folks.)

“It was more about an elitist use of…’project’ when you can say, I’m writing a project about…jewels in the ocean or whatever…articulate it in such a way, it’s easier to get a grant or get a job…in contrast to somebody who is…authentically writing their poems.”

Interviewer: “Are too many people overly obsessed with ‘projects,’ and is that a negative aspect of academia, and all the pressure to get jobs and grants?”

Lasky: “This is a problem because it’s shutting out poets from the conversation who don’t…know how to articulate their ‘project.'”

Oh bless you, Dorothea Lasky. Bless you, Jason Koo (the interviewer). Here for the first time I, at least, learn of the evil secret underbelly of American poetry. That poets (many poets) now create projects. Centered on a theme. And this project is written up in a grant proposal. And this grant (when obtained) leads to validation for a poetry publisher (likely academic) taking on the book that results. So a pile of poems, let’s say fifty to eighty or so, are written around this theme. And we can assume these poems find favor in the journals after the poets mention their project in their cover letters, and all is glowing happiness on their part. And, excuse my cynicism, the quality of the resulting poetry ain’t the primary standard. What grant committee would have confidence in their ability to pick out good poems from bad? As versus properly politically correct poems, for instance?

Personally, I haven’t much of a chance in this game, because when I write poems to a conscious theme I write…lesser poems, shall we say. Crap, even. And I don’t want to write crap. So I write my poems my way, and (with luck and blessings from a higher power) publish them widely, but when it comes time to publish a book, gosh, I have fifty, seventy, a hundred published poems I string together, many published in respectable journals, but they don’t follow any neat little theme. There’s no ‘project.’ And so, no sale. Sound familiar to any of you all?

Wow.

Anyway, the interview also mentioned another new movement in poetry, “The New Sincerity,” which — since many of us write little poetry with the ironic twist so beloved by the old school — may actually give us all hope for the future world of poetry.

Or at least something to research a bit. Along with the other revelations above. Good luck to all of you struggling to break through, and may this help some in giving guidance.

Oh — and buy the mag for the interview, at least! ;->

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:

Rattle 62 – Winter 2018

Missouri Review – Fall, 2018

The New Yorker – Aug 13, 18

 

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Back in the March 18 issue of the New Yorker, Gibbons Ruark presented us with a poem, “Lightness In Age,” that I am still trying to get my head around. “It means not having to muscle your bag / Onto the baggage rack…A girl your daughter’s age will do that for you.” A poem about the irony of getting old, then. The slight bitter flavor that comes, but the appreciation as well: “Those lightnesses are not to be taken lightly…” After the description of moments in the narrator’s life that define the narrator’s age, the poem turns to detailed images of birds — “the goldfinch feathering down at morning…” then ends with a consideration of the love the narrator has for his/her person. And it IS a poem of light touch, a love poem, nothin’ deep. Why did Muldoon choose this poem? It’s skilled, surely enough, and does a nice job of handling a moment hard to describe without getting klunky. Sometimes the editor just likes to include a simple, straightforward poem done very well, we’ve seen that before.

In the April 1 issue, Yusef Komunyakaa gives us “Night Gigging,” a poem about spearing frogs. “A silhouette lingers, cleaved from the kneeling man, / back to hunger & simple philosophy of the spheres…” Komunyakaa tends to go thoughtful about little moments like this, at least that’s my impression of his approach. It gives us something to chew over, to unwrap in the poem. “There’s a ghost poised between free will & the gig, / waiting for the song…” I like the images of this poem, and I like the ending. Can a sign of success in a poem be simply the willingness of the reader to linger on the language, after it’s done?

And the other poem in this issue is by Louise Gluck, “An Adventure,” almost a bookend poem with the one in The Threepenny Review I discussed a couple blogs ago. Like that one, this poem deals with end-of-life issues. “It came to me one night…that I had finished with those amorous adventures / to which I had long been a slave…” The second stanza develops this idea — “The next night brought the same thought, / this time concerning poetry…” The third stanza goes into the land of death and the dead. “Now I could hear them because my heart was still.” She rides into/through the land of death. “All around, the dead were cheering me on…As we had all been flesh together, // now we were mist.” Note the pun there. But it is all just a dream. She ends by waking from the vision, and in referring to a second person, the narrator’s love, we assume, wraps the poem up in a satisfying way. And the reader is left with…

Well, the direct confrontation with death gives the poem a weight and grandeur that’s rare these days. But the poem twists away from conclusion. From taking a stand. Are conclusions not to be a part of top-end American poetry anymore? Do editors feel they would be fools to buy such a work? Must today’s poems always wear their cloak of irony, be elusive, duck away from the ineffable? As though our whole culture still were terrified of meaning, of taking a stand? Of the grand failure?

For me, that unwillingness to go that last step, to lay out the fear that nothing is there on the other side of death, or the faith that something is…to grab for that melting sense of something more, a connection with us, with something, is a sad loss for poetry.

I want to shout out, what is poetry for, if not such moments? I want to argue, this unwillingness is a failure of courage.

Whether or no, Gluck refuses to go that last step in either of these poems, even at what seems the end of her life. Is that refusal one of the reasons she has done so well in today’s poetry environment, where more bold visionaries would be rejected? Is this unwillingness endemic to the many, many editors who do not seem to ever buy such work, from her or anyone else?

I do conclude this: unlike her other poem, this poem feels as though it had another step to take. In current American poetry, who may be willing to take it? No, let me say instead, who has the courage to publish a poem that did take it?

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 – Apr 2 2018

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

The New Yorker – Nov 20, 17

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