Posts Tagged ‘Phillip Howerton The Quarry’

The first poem that really struck me in this issue of Plainsongs was “Detox,” by Thomas DeFreitas. “A hurt woman of thirty, thirty-five… paces, hazy, puzzled to be alive.” It’s a sonnet, and a dandy one. The language is so simple, every day. Very hard to do in such a formal structure. And the narrator shows such compassion, and familiarity with the situation of people in detox. “She manages both defiance and defeat.” This is a Plainsongs Award winning poem, so the editor does some analysis of the poem, which I will not repeat here. Buy the issue, it’s good stuff. There are no soaring metaphors in this poem, no tricks of language. Just a caring portrait, the more powerful for its plain language.

I liked “Secondhand,” by Yvonne Zipter. “The Sixth on Lawrence Avenue offers / a cocktail infused with smoke…” One cool trick poets can use is to avoid exposition, to the point of leaving the readers with a puzzle. It takes a moment to figure out that the Sixth must be a bar of some sort. It’s like listening to a speaker muse on things we only catch a glimpse of. We have to understand things through their context, which somehow draws us in more, makes the place more real. Such intuitions are required throughout this poem. “But I prefer the old way: the honeyed voice / of Chet Baker… like the blue smoke…” Prefer what old way? To what? Again, we are coming in at the middle of something. And even Chet Baker we may only know through faint rumor. An old jazz singer? Blues? That the poet considers him worth mentioning makes him intriguing to the reader. And the vagueness adds depth to the background. A wonderful atmosphere poem.

“When She Told Me,” by Cecil Morris, uses metaphor to excellent effect. “The clunk after clunk of the knife brought down / through hard carrots…” Because the image is so specific, we can easily visualize a specific scene. “…through orange root to cutting board…” We are there. It creates an anticipation, a foreshadowing that is resolved halfway through the poem. “That’s how her words felt going in my ears.” And suddenly we are wrenched into a higher view of the moment, seeing the whole poem as metaphor, but also as an immediate image. A woman speaking as she works. Saying things hard to take in. “…and I could not speak… and she continued cutting.” Very nicely done.

“A Montana Message,” by Travis Truax, is almost a life-declaration. “Moving here, we pulled / the mountains around us, / close, kept the south / best we could.” The common diction puts us in a rural world, ranchers or farmers working for a living. The originality of that first metaphor draws us in, keeps us reading. The simplicity of the declaration renders what is being said important. “We kept what mattered.” A beautiful poem.

I also liked “And Yet,” by Richard Luftig. “Yesterday I saw two lone daffodils / out by the toolshed,  their heads / poking out… like newborn twins. This morning, I must report / they looked a little discouraged.” Humor always draws us in, and when rendered like this builds empathy. The joy of Plainsongs is its focus on what’s real to folks in the middle of the country. Common scenes, characters we have all met. A good counterpoint to so much currently being published. “…we must / make do in this only time, / this always place.”

“The Smoker,” by Elsa Bell, continues this approach. “Outside in the mist, wrapped in a long overcoat… the smoker / stands, gaunt as an ancient tree.” Maybe I like it so much because it is my world, one I am familiar with, these people striving to make something out of tatters and bits of a life. “Like birds, his delicate hands / flutter to shake the match flame out.” The poem says, this is important. This is our life. Pay attention, and honor it. What more are any of us bound to do?

Finally, let me mention “The Quarry,” by Phillip Howerton, who has built a career out of mining such themes. “The rolling hills and Brown Swiss / never made… the father rich, but the son / was determined to make the farm pay.” We see already a subtle commentary on different views of things. “He saw thin dirt / as an obstacle… and sold topsoil to blast limestone… made fools of the old folks / by turning rock into gold.” Wow. To show us how destructive such a forward-looking view of the world can be, to show us, through discussing nothing but the son’s success, all that is lost in such an approach to life. This poem can break your heart.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – Aug 19, 19

Blue Collar Review – Spring 2019

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019


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