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Posts Tagged ‘Missouri Review’


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.

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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

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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.

 

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Three poets grace the pages of the latest issue of the Missouri Review. Jenny Molberg starts out with “Fourth State of Matter.” “The day Big Tex burned, it began in the throat — / an utterance that caught fire.” Is Big Tex a relative, a friend of the narrator’s father? We know we are at the fair, but the poet does not hand us the full context, preferring to make us work it out with other clues: “whose 75-gallon hat // mooned over the crowd.” And bingo, if we are paying enough attention, we realize Big Tex must be a statue, or puppet, speaking to the crowd through a loudspeaker in the throat, which catches fire. Why is this a moment worthy of a poem? The narrator searches for her father: “scanned the dune of faces…”and reaches some sort of epiphany. “Later, I saw that my father’s life wasn’t whole // but scattered, and didn’t really belong to me.” So this is a moment when the isolation becomes real, when her father’s grief becomes real for her. She is growing up. Nicely done.

I also like her poem, “Storm Coming,” a short, understated work, again about the narrator and her father. “In his face, // I look for my own…” “The sky swells like an oath.” The approaching storm counterbalances the human interactions. “Dad, he’ll say, how about… we’ll go and get some of those peaches…?” “The storm is birth and death // in only minutes.” Over and over, this author breaks up ideas not just between lines, but between stanzas, emphasizing the gaps, the emptiness in her character’s lives, the distances they seem to feel between each other. A work to revisit, and to contemplate.

Noah Warren gives us the poem “Milkweed.” “The summer morning, / the exploding front,  the rain / a wall falling.” Wow, tricky to come up with an original image about the rain. “One stalk of milkweed…bitten, blind thing, on and on, / by the swarm of bullets.” It brings to mind, for me, the war that is nature, each living thing struggling to survive, eat, make its own way in a battle zone. An interesting metaphor, deftly handled. And I love the metaphor he uses to end this poem.

The final poet is Regina DiPerna. In “The Fortune Our Bodies told,” she starts, “First, pattern: one whisper-thin / hook of material threading to / the next.” And indeed, at times our bodies do seem thin and fragile. “the clockwork // of a heart…a fistful of red clay / contracting and expanding / around each damp, unsteady hour.” Boy, that’s cool writing. I like the conceit of the poem, a series of metaphors about each aspect of the body. “The blood, an army of ants…”

And I love her poem, “I’m Not,” a declaration, a manifesto of independence: “not hanging my head / in the doorway…like ivy growing quiet over your walls. I’m not a canvas for you…I’m not midnight and smashed dishes…” A passionate work, that touches us and makes us cheer for the narrator, and to hope for her.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

 

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The summer issue of the Missouri Review features the work of three poets. Miriam Bird Greenberg’s first poem here,  “Would You Believe,” challenges us to believe the narrator saw a series of remarkable events. “We climbed from the mouth of a volcano / all year…” it begins, in discussing the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the hustlers who survived it. “Brother, // one told me he’d said, we can be afraid / of each other again tomorrow.” The volcano seems to be used metaphorically, the incidents seem narrative. “Sometimes / I’d lift my hand to the lip– // look out over the volcano’s rim and there, / in a crevice, a scrap of paper shining…” the result for me is an interesting mix of trust and suspicion in the story, and a continual wondering why each incident appears. The narrator is affected by the loss and confusion around her: “I’m afraid // one day I’ll find myself trash picking…” Her next poem, “Ophidia,” seems almost a continuation of the first, in a different place: “The days were already burning / when we crossed the river…” The same narrator lost among the hustlers and struggling people of our world. “Do you need / anything, I asked. Water, / a little money? …He was on his way to Houston / for a check…and his dead brother’s unclaimed disability pay…” The heart of this poem, maybe of them all, seems to me to be the line, “How can one lonesome ghost, / I wondered, spin his own rope // to rappel us in the end / into the underworld…?” Haunting poetry, this.

Jennifer Barber has a series, “Motion Harmony #1”, “…#2”, “…#4”: “The first / leaf-stripping rain / reaps a summer’s worth by evening.” Don’t blink, or these poems will be past you, they operate so fast. “The pears that dropped…are pale bronze…Already riddled with wasps.” Tight, efficient language here, almost Imagist. Poem #2: “By pear I mean pear, not a buzzing, riddled heart. / At least I think I do.” A sly humor that catches us unawares. And the ending of each poem gives us the emotional keys to what we’ve just read. Very nice.

The third poet is Doug Ramspeck. His “Black Flowers” is a prose poem. “The old men are dreaming of black flowers…The men have their memories as hymnals, but still the crows make blossoms of their wings, and oar out above the yard.” It’s that sort of metaphor that makes this poems worth reading, though I found it hard to follow any narrative arc. His second poem is more successful for me, “Snow Prayers,” about an incident that happens to his father, and the effect on the whole family. “The first time my mother pushed me / to my knees to pray…” What a great way to start a poem. “You come from God-loving / stock, she pointed out…as though all love / is infinite, as permanent as stone.” Lines like that really help us feel the boy’s ambivalence and unsureness. The ragged belief, the need for belief, the fear belief may fail us, it’s all here. Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Alexandra Teague is the first poet in the Spring Issue of the Missouri Review. In her poem, “Letters To Phryne, From the Sip ‘N Dip Mermaid Bar, Great Falls, Montana” she contemplates a courtesan in ancient Greece who sought pity from a judicial court by baring her breasts. “I’m trying to understand pity that might / just be lust… it must be nice to be a mermaid…Virtue: / sure, yet amphibious.” She brings the story forward. “We still fall in love with what hurts us.” A satisfying poem, better if you Google Phryne, though, to understand her allusions better. Teague addresses a woman’s place in the world in multiple poems here. In “From Mexico, New York” — “Before she went mad, they say she put an ad / in the paper: Seeking any man as beautiful / as myself.” Teague seems to favor long lines, with complex sentences. “Found…an aviator, who never fell from her sky.” But a woman’s role, Teague seems to argue, can erase her: “A model put out to pasture. / In her thirties. Of course fashion skinned her / and kept on unrolling.” I like that line a great deal. And in “From Carrera, Italy” — “I like the idea that the stone decides something: / Michelangelo’s last Pieta devouring // all bodies to air.” And another great line for me: “as if your nudity were more capable // of living outside itself than other people’s?” She tackles interesting themes.

Sally Wen Mao also tackles women’s effacement versus her public face. In “Anna May Wong fans her time machine” she starts, “I’ve tried to hard to erase myself. / That iconography — my face / in Technicolor, the manta ray // eyelashes…” And in “Anna May Wong blows out sixteen candles” “When I was sixteen, / I was an extra in A Tale of Two Worlds.” I am struck how the poems by both Teague and Mao seem to be variations on the same poem; or developments of a single idea, maybe I should say. But thematically very tight. I suspect this is what folks mean when they talk of poetry being written as projects. These will all fit very nicely together into a book, with ideas and themes so cohesive the book should be easy to sell. (The quality of the poems will help, of course!) Don’t know how I feel about this. These are good poems, but they almost feel like poems written for the purpose of selling a book. Yet the poets are exploring interesting ideas; their images are striking; their work very approachable. No hiding behind obscurity here. And there are many examples of great art being created within limited strictures, and an argument those very strictures bring forth the power of the art. I’m willing to follow along with these poets to see if that’s where they are headed.

The last poet here, Anders Carlson-Wee, writes an earthier brand of poetry. In “Butte,” he starts: “My brother bolt-cuts a hole through the mesh / over the Family Dollar dumpster…I lower myself through.” His characters are living low, hustling hard to make it. “I hand up the tub of yogurt…” A poem about dumpster diving, powerful through the immediacy of the images, the desperation we feel in these survivors. “After a while you can name what you feel.” In the poem “Moorcroft,” the narrator has been hitchhiking, and runs into a character on the road: “You gave me a ride when I was lost / in Wyoming.” Love that enjambment. And here the piling on of detail adds to the uneasiness of the character. “Showed me your gun collection…They were old and unloaded, / you told me…” again the use of the line ending to create a hesitation that affects the emotions of the poem. “I was careful not to flinch / as I watched the double-barrel / raise and train on my face…” What a terrifying moment. Great poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The current issue of The Missouri Review features three poets. Rose McLarney begins with “How History Would Have It” describing the break-up of a relationship using the over-arching distance of a discussion of history: “So let us / describe this evening in a constructive style.” It’s an interesting attempt to create distance as though to alleviate the pain. “It was gray / outside, cold, and the friend went away.” With her next poem, “Redemption,” she examines the intersection of bear and human: “A skinned bear looks like a human.” “That skinned body, / limbs spread…can I say now it looks…ready for an angel’s flight?” More discursive than incantatory, the poems more shift their view of things as they go along, rather than building to some big conclusion. Interesting.

James Davis May also keeps his distance in his poems. In “A Lasting Sickness” the narrator addresses a child who is sick — we gain the impression the child was the narrator many years ago: “Five nights into fever, you lie in bed / as your parents, urgent, move about you…” Such distance at the end allows him to ask of the child who he is to be, after all these others have cared for him. His next poem is “Portrait Of the Self as Skunk Cabbage” which is pretty fun. “Maybe it’s like those hard red rubbery spathes / that…create their own heat / and halo themselves / with soil wet / from the snow they melt.” Now there’s an ambitious line. I like how we’re pointed at the skunk cabbage with the concreteness of the image, but we’re still also getting a soul “haloing” itself. And it’s not all skunk cabbage, the self pops in: “Dumb from winter’s boredom / my brother and I…” Note how boredom there becomes dumb through the resonant sound. Very nice. And both of these poems end very skillfully.

Lastly, Claudia Emerson gives us “Infusion Suite,” a series of linked poems (or one poem of multiple sections) exploring again the identity of the self, this time in a hospital context: “She asks / again for me to verify name, date of birth…” With a brief glimpse of something else: “The trees outside…still full with summer, crows’ flight — more / like drunken tumbling…” These themes tug at each other through the next section: “she says / to the screen of her computer that my blood / numbers are good…” “Hour after hour we watch birds circle…” and the hairs start rising on the back of my neck. Then as we proceed through the suite, the attention turns outward, to others in the cancer ward: “his specialty the under- / carriage of a car after a wreck…” Such a subtle metaphor. Then a revisitation of the trees, and the last section devoted to “The old woman next to me does not speak / all day, not even to the young girl…” Wow. What a powerful working of images in and out. Easy to see why she won the Pulitzer. Easy to see she deserved it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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