Posts Tagged ‘Plainsongs’

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.



Read Full Post »

I loved Gary Boelhower’s poem, “How The Light,” in the current issue. It’s a paean to his aging parent, set in a series of statements each beginning with, “How…” “How you didn’t want anyone…to see you in the hospital bed.” “How the light streamed in…onto your hunched shoulders.” Maybe it affects me so much since I just went through a similar experience with my own father. “How to say goodbye, how to touch the losses.” Such a delicate poem.

Right after that poem comes a sonnet by George Held, “How Might I Say.” Which again begins with “How,” and so dovetails nicely with the previous poem. “…with Shakespeare’s subtlety / That I have ‘gored’ another one or three.” This poem’s theme is infidelity, however, and the struggle to return to spirituality. “but peccadilloes / Now are in my past.” A skilled and amusing poem.

And the very next poem is “All I Do Is Get High on Melodrama,” by Kiara Letcher,” which begins, amusingly enough: “I am satisfied being a toothache.” The narrator fixated on a lover, evidently. “I thought being sugar / crystallizing / through your blood / would be enough.” A reference to crystal meth, sometimes referred to as sugar? The desperation increases, the images grow wilder, and she ends with a fun couplet. Well done.

I much enjoyed “The Dart,” by Elise Hempel. “Each time I mow I look for it..” Who among us does not have such rag-tag memories from long ago, irrationally tugging at our thoughts? “I know // some day in my back-and-forth I’ll find / it spearing a branch.” A sweet poem, finally, and masterfully rhymed.

Sometimes I just need a full-bodied poem, one not afraid to be poetic in the old sense. Such is “One Tempestuous Spring Day,” by Bonnie J. Manion. “west winds churn towering / glowering rain clouds in…” The language is throwback, the adjectives thick on the ground. But for all that, the poet gives us something richly satisfying: “a high-pitched / throbbing trill, and you notice / buds swelling.” There’s a sensuality here that matches the joy of spring, but it’s not overstated. And the ending seems to me just right.

Finally, I’ll mention one last sonnet, Thomas Zimmerman’s “Pioneer Woods Quartet.” Again the rhyme scheme is subtle, not calling attention to itself. “I’m walking in the woods, with smells of smoke / and sweet decay.” A great start to a poem about remembering parents, “they were sweet / sometimes…” while adding details of the landscape in with a sense of loss and mortality. “crows in the branches eye me, living meat…” There’s also a braid of musical images woven in. A most satisfying poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available widely.

Read Full Post »

Very much enjoyed “Hoop Duet,” by Dennis Trudell, in the Fall issue of Plainsongs. “Story about a young Indian / shooting baskets by himself…when a coyote…” The understated language adds to the power as a young man has a magical moment. We are not given any explanation, but I don’t know that any verbal one is needed. Kind of ironic in a poem. “The boy moved / there and howled.” It was a Plainsongs Award poem, and I can see why.

I enjoyed “cuckoo clock” by Henry Kruslewicz. “my Oma is echt Deutsch / just one look at her dumpling / legs…” The mix of English and German (I don’t read German) gives it such a mysterious flavor, and a depth that adds to the fun. And really, you don’t need to know the language to get much of what is being said: “A finger thick as wurst.” Satisfying.

I am enthralled with “Asymmetric,” by John Peetzke, a sort of chopped-up villanelle. “Such an intriguing feel. / The lake spawns perfect symmetry.” This poem plays with reality and illusion in a most clever way. “A reflection, it isn’t real.” A reflection off the lake? By the narrator? There’s the fun. Then at the end, he reverses, then reverses again, using the form masterfully.

“Wedding Reception,” by Dion Kempthorne, had such a sense of loss, of bad choices made resonating into the far future. “The gilt frame of the cake / photo of her and her ex…” The past and the present mix, and the narrator seems so sad. Powerful.

Linda Taylor’s “My Mother Steps Off the Train in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, 1942” is worth reading and re-reading. “Two steps, and she is down, in dirt / soft with chickweed.” Hopes, fears, the specter of poverty, of nameless fears, all are implied, but the poem itself is grounded powerfully in plain images. “floods of mayflies… with netted, burnished wings… Her shoes crunch on them.” Wow.

But finally, my fav poem (and my wife’s, for that matter) in the magazine is Anne Knowles’ “Ironing.” “Mother sprinkled clothes, dampness / and fold and roll…” Just a description of a common task, but the language brings it so alive. Listen to the sounds: “garments / snapped out…the iron / thump thump thumping…wire hanger hooks / clicking” The knowledge of the task revealed: “boldness and the delicacy / of necessary restraint.” Yes. The moment is real. Brava!

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My ebook of love poems, Against The Night, is available on Amazon, at
See what you think!

Read Full Post »

Lot of good poems in this issue. The first I’ll mention is “Adorn,” by Gabriella M. Belfiglio, a Plainsongs Award winner. “Daughter, / we bought you a dress…covered in little / violets.” A sweet, sad song, eulogy for a child who passed in childbirth. If you haven’t read Plainsongs it is notable for the commentary the editors make on their Plainsongs Award poems (one editor for each Award). Especially insightful on this one.

“Total Immersion,” by Mark Hiskes, itself immerses us into the scene, a boy who loves to read, his teacher awed by his intensity. “Brandon, too, walked the old tracks.” Such a resonant opening. (Paraphrased from Bradbury. Always riff off the masters!) He walks railroad tracks while reading. The hint of danger and foolishness in this act gives the poem an extra interest that carries us through to the delightful ending. To put such tension in a poem, and hold it unresolved throughout, is an advanced trick, stolen from storytelling I think, and makes any work better.

“Nadine” may be the most fun poem of the bunch (it’s by Mike Faran). “Nadine Funderhouse is our new Poet Laureate / up here in Ax, Alaska.” Kind of a shaggy dog poem, with such a powerful voice.  “Not too many know it but poetry is a / pretty big deal up here…” The line enjambments support the conversational tone, the comfort we feel in the hands of an expert. The interplay between Nadine and her woodsmen admirers forms the power of the poem, and the ending is extremely satisfying. Bravo!

“The Ghost of Tammy Thompson,” by Robert L. Penick gives a grim tale of aging. “…dragging / her pitted, bent aluminum walker.” Great images here. “With a reptile’s precision.” Never thought of how precise a reptile must be, but it’s one of those lines that always should have been, that Penick found and gave us as a gift.

I like “Packing,” by Lin Lifshin. She’s written a lot of good poems, and here’s another one. “tho my birthday is under / the sign of the crab, who / takes his whole house / with him when he goes…” So let’s review just this much (as Arlo Guthrie once said). She implies, humorously, in these few lines that she can be crabby when she has to move, and she is out of her element when moving, and she may be a bit of a packrat, making it worse. All that in the same few lines. Now that’s packing a lot into a very few words. ;-> And the very next words do it again: “…I swear…” Wherein we see her cussing as she works, and vowing to do better. Wow.

And while I am run out of time here, still I must mention Phillip Howerton’s “A Shelf Of Old Hammers,” which is one of those poems that after you’ve read it, you would swear has been around forever. It has that deja vu quality of a great poem. “They had their heads knocked / hard for too many years…now they have scarred, blunted faces.” Subtle use of rhyme, and a perfect ending.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »

Many American poetry magazines seem to me almost interchangeable in their tastes. Complex, ironic poems that never take anything too seriously, where clever lines matter more than the subject being tackled. Plainsongs is not one of these. Poems found here gamble with the truth, say what they have to say, sometimes in plainspoken ways, trusting us to notice the power in the understatement. I believe there is room in poetry for both these approaches.

The Fall issue opens with “Barn, Razing,” a fine work by John P. Kristofco. “With snap, smash, wood and glass collapsing…eighty years descends into an instant” lets us know right away we witness the moment of an ending. The next stanzas develop the context, giving us the labor and detail that went into creating the barn. “blueprint stretched across a table in the sun.” But the details never descend into the mundane. There are always surprises here, a different way of seeing. “…that very day, spiders started in…refuting the audacity.” And all ending with a satisfying conclusion.

I liked “Folk Art, Detail from #34” by Carol Hamilton. “How the egrets stand / in the chocolate water…all necks arched / in unison.” Just a very strong presentation of the feeling evoked by a work of art through selected details of the work: “the whole / world stuck, silent in a perfect moment…”

I have to mention “Where We Grew Up,” by Jennifer Lagier. “The walls had hooks, wire barbs / reaching from the stucco to rip a child’s skin.” Wow. Not a pleasant place, but so evocative. “I remember the hot breath / of an invisible presence / standing between my sister and me.” Then the poem moves to such a powerful, sad place. “…we could hear distant cries / of injured late shift cannery workers…pulling their crushed limbs / from relentless moving cogs.” That’s telling it like it was. And a haunting ending. Very moving.

Not every poem comes from such a hard place, however. “And Home Again,” by Mark B. Hamilton, brings comfort. “The wheat was golden past the divide, / seagulls bunched and swooping…” Ah yes, the great plains as I have seen them. “Her apartment offered a fish tank…we fixed her VW…the brewed morning coffee talks.” There comes a deep and instant familiarity with this world. We know this place. “…vases fill with wildflowers plucked / from tall grass.”

A most worthy issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »

The longer I go, the more plain my titles become. Utility over poetry. Why does that seem wrong? ;->

This issue starts off with the amusing “Gibby and Flo,” by Lynn P. Elwell. “They often dressed in matching costumes…” It’s a story poem about the dangers and chuckles to be had when drinking and boating mix. The earthy couple at the center of it all are fun and familiar. The poem won a Plainsongs Award, and I can see why.

I enjoyed R. Steve Benson’s “Monday Talking,” also a stroll on the humorous side. “Car won’t start? … Umbrella broken? … This is Monday / talking baby. / Forget about / lazy breakfasts … and crisp wings / of newspapers / flying you around / the planet.” There’s a very deft use of language, here. The poem builds, getting crazier as it goes, with a most satisfying ending.

My attention was caught by “Regarding The Fantastic,” by George Young, what I’ll call an interleafed poem. There’s probably a technical name for it. Two separate poems riffled together into one, trading lines. “On interstate seventy-six, at seventy-five, / You live with the expectation / heading west into Denver…” The challenge and intrigue of one of these poems is to see how the two poems interact, knock sparks off each other, raise a deeper meaning. I’d like to see more of these attempted, though I suspect they are a classroom exercise many places, and so maybe don’t get enough respect.

I really liked “The Seventh Year of Their Marriage,” by Lucy Adkins. “That bridge out / with no sign, // that dirty trick, / that detour…” The extended metaphor raises tension, has us feeling compassion for the players in this marriage, with their cost of living each day, and the shakiness even after success. Again, a Plainsongs Award winner here.

I love the contrast between the terrifying news received, and the do-something actions of the narrator in “She Tells Me Not To Worry,” by Mark Hiskes. “The day after the bone scan / I go down to the workroom, / grab two planks of cedar…” His actions tell us how much he cares, how hard the news is for him to face. A touching poem.

As always, there are many other good poems in this issue worth exploring as well.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »

James Longstaff gives us an interesting poem in the current issue of Plainsongs with “Single Link, 1951 Or 2.” It starts out “In Sunday’s solstice between the preacher’s / ‘May the Lord’…and my mother’s call, ‘Come! Eat!’…Uncle Jack pulls his new-used Nash…into our yard and pops the hood.” It’s a poem of plain life, men considering a car’s engine, then listening to the game. A sweet slice of life, with a satisfying ending.

It’s complemented nicely by “Our Dad,” by Barry Benson, with some fun shaggy dog moments. I like the humor in this poem.

This seems to be an issue of little moments rising to poetry. Ruth A. Smullin follows this approach with “Old Letters,” sort of a paean to the letters the narrator’s mother collected, and an elegy by the end. Worth the read. “A blizzard of words, lives in flux.”

“The New Owners,” by Cathy Porter also takes a small moment for relection on a loss. “When I drive by, I see things are about the same.” This resonates: my wife and I sometimes drive by the house we gave up years ago, just as happens in this poem, reviewing the changes the new owners have made. “One time I saw a young man working / the front yard in the same way you used to…” We are not surprised when this poem too becomes an elegy.

Lastly, I’ll mention “The Pile,” by Ivan Hobson. “It started with a 5% pay cut, the strike, / the clumsy scabs…” A work world that has almost vanished, looked back at by the offspring of those who lived it. “For over five years we played army…around that rust pile.” I love the way this poems ends, as well.

A solid issue.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »