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Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’


The April 17, 17 issue of The New Yorker includes “Waders,” a long, complex poem by (Sir) Andrew Motion. It’s laid out in ten sections of blank verse, one or two stanzas each. “After the accident, when summer brings / slow afternoons…I take what used to be your garden chair…” it starts. Each section loosely coalesces about an object, or a moment. The setting is generally the garden of the narrator’s family home. We might take the poem as an elegy to his parents, or as an attempt to understand them in context. He goes from item to item, as though searching: “the notebook I have found among your bedside things…Blank pages.” “my mother’s voice advising me / the mother bird herself will never mind…” “the stream has long since burst inside my head, / the bank collapsed.” Stanzas two, three and four put the narrator in the garden, walking the hedgerow, visiting the banks of the Blackwater. Then stanza five jump-shifts into shared history: “My father with no explanation stays / at home; my mother drives away.” A family separation? The young narrator does not understand. He goes with his mother, to a place that feels like exile. Then section six abruptly returns us, not to the garden, but to his boyhood room, where they stored apples. “I know…because the floorboards show / wherever they had missed one…left a round stain on the wood.” Is the narrator symbolically an apple gone bad? The poet does not dwell on this. In the next stanza he speaks of his brother slipping into “that lead tank, that…store of syrupy black water…” maybe to “make our father like him more…” So he is trying to make sense of his place in the family, of his childhood. By stanza eight he is getting closer: “The low-tent tunnel of the laurel walk….Here out of sight I meet myself / with no idea of what myself might be.” Now we are getting great line after great line. “I shake the sullen shadows from my head.” And in section nine he interacts with his father directly. After the accident, maybe? “I try my father’s waders on…with him encouraging.” Every section remains grounded in precise images, any symbolism is at most indirect, and no conclusions are rendered. But the final section does give us a sense of completeness, by returning to the present moment, when the garden is rank. “The ruined square…where once a summerhouse…” And, “I like walking with the ghosts…” The ending is great enough to support such a massive undertaking as this poem, the ties between each stanza subtle, but important. A tremendously satisfying poem.

In the same issue, Rebecca Morgan Frank gives us a much shorter poem, “At Sea.” “Every three seconds, to recall captivity, / the mind slipping in…’I cannot recall.'” The poet draws a connection between the mind and a sea creature: “wavering tentacles flexible / to new currents.” But the mind is growing less flexible, and the sea creature is captured, to confront “a nose / pressed up against the aquarium glass…” This poem is a beautiful rendering of someone captured by memory loss. The occasional detail may reappear, but no happy release is in sight. Great poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ and with other fine retailers.

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The first poem in the New Yorker this week is “Mourning What We Thought We Were,” by Frank Bidart. It has an attention-grabbing first line: “We were born into an amazing experiment.” Then, as so many current poets will do, having made a bold statement, he immediately walks it back. “At least we thought we were.” Nothing is given easily to the reader. That line ends with a fun enjambment: “We knew there was no” and we must ask ‘no what?’ Peace? Honesty? Rum? Later, Bidart adds a second bold statement: “Every serious work of art about America has the same / theme” (Again the play with the enjambment). And so the poem proceeds, bold step forward, sly irony while backing off, all the while twining two themes, America and the family. “My mother’s disgust / as she told me this.” It’s a longer poem, needing the elbow room to develop. Its final synthesis can be seen as a proper summation of both braids: “To further the history of the spirit is our work.” But of course this final bold statement gets challenged, as the poem takes on a more contemporary political dimension. And even the last, beautiful, singing line one may expect in a grand contemporary poem is used as a counter to the previous statement, creating an ending dipped in irony. Very much a poem worth reading.

The other poem in the issue is “On Distance (Quondam/Quantum Overdue Notice).” A puzzle poem, at least for me: i.e. what is going on here, what is the poet trying to say. “There are clues.” is the first stanza. So it even starts as a puzzle poem. Then in stanza two a man refers to Julian of Norwich as a he, and the narrator says, “politely, ‘Isn’t it ‘she’?'” There are not close parallels between these two stanzas, so maybe this is a ghazal, I think. Certainly, things refer to each other in the most oblique fashion. Except the 3rd, 4th and 5th stanzas all reference the narrator doing work in a library. So, not a ghazal (ghazals are not to follow directly, stanza to stanza). However, the sixth stanza maybe gives us some orientation: “I go home with Kathryn Davis.” Well, she’s a novelist. So that’s a book she got out? Then, “I ask, as one does, when ravished: Where did you come from.” (By that line I’m guessing the narrator liked Davis’ novel!) And in the next stanza: “…here, again, is Julian of Norwich…in this book.” By Jove, the whole poem now comes together. And the summation is, in my view, this demonstrates that the narrator is not alone, that there are synchronicities and resonances in our world (that create meaning?). So even the title, with its reference to quantum theory, makes sense. And I’m happy, having solved the puzzle.

Peace in poetry,
P M F Johnson
P.S. My ebook of love poems, “Against the Night,” is available widely.

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The first poem in this issue of The New Yorker, “Esposito & Son,” by Anna Scotti, is a kind of an homage to a piece of furniture being hauled off. “When the men arrived…to haul the big table away, / I ran my hand down the battered length of it.” Each of the three stanzas is heavy with words, an almost pedestrian language. But the narrator is ambivalent about losing the piece: “a sudden rush of absurd remorse. I’d never loved it…” and deep within the stanzas hide a few, a very few internal rhymes, reflecting the almost lost grace of the table, or maybe the feeling she has towards something owned a long time. I love the line “the tabletop itself was…scarred: ruthless curator of memory.” She discusses the chairs that go with the piece, and only in the third stanza do we pull back to consider the men hauling it away — father and son, we are given to understand by the title, “eager to be done with it.” The rest of the world does not share our absurd hesitations, or romance about battered things best left behind. An elegant poem, finally.

“Old West Days,” by Brian Russell, weaves several motifs together in a non-linear way. “It was just after the war of course…” it begins. The Civil War, does he mean? But then he references buses, so we are left rootless, contemplating how many wars it could be talking about. Sad thought. A great deal of the strength of this poem has to do with lost little lines like that, creating a scattered landscape. The next thread comes in a one sentence third stanza: “…it was a great year to be a queen.” A series of rather absurdist comments are thrown in, e.g. “when they still made the sun out East,” until it becomes a pastiche of the present and the past, of History, of the narrator’s own family, and the contrasts along each of these threads. “as if seeing for the first time a photograph of your / grandmother / when she was your age.” I guess what I enjoyed most was the striking images, rendered in neat turns of phrase. “While the parade waded by…” An oddly satisfying poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

P.S. My book of love poems, “Against The Night,” tells of loving a woman ensorcelled, fevered, her raiment camouflage, a woman marooned, scrawling for help with a sharpened spoon. A tale of two fireflies in flight through the urban overglow, who seek their patch of intimate night.

I think you’ll like it.

“Against The Night,” by P M F Johnson is available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine retailers.

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There are two poems in this issue, the first, by Annelyse Gelman, is “Conch.” This reads like a ghazal, but with one-line stanzas. “Sang into your mouth but there was no slug inside.” It starts out so, but the next line, as with any ghazal, goes in an entirely different direction. “The brain begins to feel claustrophobic, fossilized.” The themes in each stanza seem to relate to history, evolution, death. The items a person, or a species, retains: “vestigial traits, coccyx, wisdom tooth…” and the inevitable loss: “rot is the fruit of the fruit.” There is a sense of survival, however wounded the survivor.

The second poem is just downright fun, in an evil way. “Itch (The Flea’s Retort)” by Alan Jenkins, views a hotel stay by a pair of lovers from the point of view of the flea who feasts on them. “It must have been their first time — first shared bed.” The first stanza talks of their innocence, “They hid / Their guilty fears by doing what they did.” The next stanza discusses their discovery of the work of the flea, “Inflamed in parts / They’d barely known” And the last stanza moves from their reaction to a larger view of the battle between human and flea. A most masterful work, and oh, what a great rhyme scheme to each stanza: ABBACCCDDA, with a flip of the two last rhymes in the last stanza to indicate the conclusion. That sort of subtle surprise is very difficult to even conceive. When done, it gives a fillip of satisfaction. Yes, what a great ride.

I have just released my first book of poetry, “Against The Night.” These love poems tell the tale of a marriage built in parts like a bicycle, old-fashioned as fudge. It is available as an ebook from fine retailers everywhere. I hope you enjoy it.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The first of the two poems in the Aug 29 New Yorker is “Blue Heron, Walking,” by Julie Bruck. This poem follows the somewhat standard practice of taking a tiny aspect of some part of life and detailing it…I don’t want to say to death, so let’s say…thoroughly. In this case, it’s a ballet dancer’s feet. “Not one of Mr. Balanchine’s soloists had feet this articulate.” There are many Latinate words, “explicitly,” “retracted,” “secondary function,” giving the poem a sense of detail and complexity. Then it adds in images based on flying. “Leonardo’s plans for his flying machines” and “pterodactyl wings.” The metaphors get muddled until the feet themselves seem to be birds, “snatchers of mouse and vole.” Kind of going a bit too far for me, I admit, though the phrase is fun. ;-> The ending is a quote from Balanchine. It’s a short, but dense poem, the great success for me being the almost indirect metaphor of dancers as birds.

The second poem is “Scout,” by Bridget Sprouls. It starts, “His sentences all ended with the word Austin.” Boy, we get an instant sense of this guy’s character with the one sentence. “so I packed a duffelbag, / overwatered the garden, and set out on foot…” There is always a twist, or little surprise, in top drawer poems, I think. Look at what that word “overwater” does to our sense of the narrator. Two personality descriptions in such an economy of words. Sprouls also plays with a sense of mystery, or drama. “The flutter of engines enchanted me.” What are the implications of that, we wonder. Where is the narrator, that she is hearing fluttering engines? The poem grows less linear as it goes, deepening the mystery. “Thank you, bad-shot farmers, for all the pecans.” Kind of out of nowhere, though there must be pecan farmers near Austin, right? The sense of hearing is referenced in several later images. “Who better to memorize the acoustics of local venues…” for instance. And even the last line, with its reference to air conditioners, still seems to conjure the ghost of Austin. Ultimately, we are left with a sort of odyssey’s history with few details sketched in: “I tumbled after the weeds…” And little clues that the narrator may have lost her way. “So what if I drooled into rock receivers?” So let’s hit the buzzer to chance solving the puzzle: the narrator went to the South by Southwest concert in Austin, got messed up on weed, ate a few pecans and scouted out the bands playing there. You agree with my analysis? ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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There are two poems in this issue of The New Yorker, first “Evening Poem,” by Alice Oswald. “Old scrap-iron foxgloves / rusty rods of the broken woods…” There is much to admire here. The metaphor of foxgloves, which are vertical flowers, as bits of scrap iron fallen from the sky to stick here and there at random works so well. Then the narrator brings in a Victorian sofa, a heap of shoes, items seemingly dropped at random into these woods. Of course a fox glove would be a kind of shoe, and I believe foxgloves were loved in Victorian gardens. These sort of subtle references deepen matters wonderfully. She moves to a view of the gods, “the hours on bird-thin legs…” and at the end, night. For such a random seeming poem, things wind up tightly, perfectly. Yum.

Yusef Komunyakaa gives us a somewhat longer poem, also set in the woods, “Slingshot.” I kept going back to re-read it. He is one of my favorite poems going these days. On the surface, a straightforward description of a boy putting a slingshot together. “A boy’s bicycle inner tube / red as inside the body…” A poem anyone can enter, and get some enjoyment out of. But of course other things are going on. “a girl he’s too shy to tell his name / stands in damp light…” love that word damp there. So a poem about young love, trying to impress, unable to speak easily, letting his deeds stand for him. “he whittles the true stock, / knowing wrong from right.” More than just a comment on a slingshot. Searching for wrong and right, doing something a bit dangerous, a bit disapproved of, maybe. “the boy…settling quietly into himself.” So much this poem is about what is unsaid to me, what should not be spoken, an essence of manhood in bloom. “& that is when the boy knows…” And it’s what the poet tells us the boy knows that makes us want to go back again and again, looking for God for truth, for love… Beautiful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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The first of the two poems in this issue is “Society Of Fireflies,” by Maya Ribault. “…you came with your nighttime show, costing us / nothing.” The narrator reviews her life: “I do enough / careful work to satisfy my bosses. …immerse yourself in the exponential / power of dividends.” Only at the very end does she contrast this with the life of a firefly. “you rise up once more unsolicited from the fields…” Such a strange word there, unsolicited, to describe a firefly. Is it that to her, even a firefly has become a commodity? Is there a certain mournfulness, that so much is lost in computer screens? We know that in Japanese haiku, the firefly is a symbol of the momentary, that which cannot last. This certainly seems to apply here. The author avoids giving any summation, or conclusion. This in itself enhances the terrible sense of something missing.

In “Poem To My Litter,” Max Ritvo also reflects on the animal world, with equally disturbing, though funnier results. “My genes are in mice, and not in the banal way…” he starts. He sees himself as the leader of a litter of mice, who have received his genes in a scientific attempt to cure his cancer. Wow. What a great concept. I forget, sometimes, how powerful a good concept can be in a poem, how supportive of greatness. “My tumors are old, older than mice can be.” Ritvo goes through the difficulties of the science, the camaraderie that grows in the narrator’s mind with these mice, suffering the illness he suffers, even naming them each Max, after himself. “I hope, Maxes, some good in you is of me.” A poignant poem, finally, one working to transcend sadness. Very powerful.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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