Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker’


It seems usual these days for The New Yorker to feature two poems, and so it is here. “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” by Terrance Hayes, certainly has an intriguing title. “The black poet would love to say his century began / With Hughes… but… It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers…winos falling from ship bows.” Okay, I don’t know where this poem is going — which is pretty much required in poems at this level. And then, “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues.” Of course, the previous sentence can already be used as a guide for that. This is not a linear narrative. We skip from thought to thought, from Sylvia Plath to Orpheus. We do get a reference to Orpheus inventing writing, which then becomes a source of confusion between him and his girlfriend. There is no reliance on metaphor here, no epiphany.

So, not finding any easy way into this poem, I go to the Poetry Foundation website, where the poet is quoted as saying, “how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition… communicates meaning? … Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.” Hmm. Perhaps we do better to think of this as a sort of song, where the noises made by the words form a sort of melody. And surely the words are melodic, rhymes and near-rhymes abound. But the rhymes and assonance fades away by the end of the poem. Right around when the confusion between Orpheus and his beloved is laid out. That just somehow seems right. An interesting poem to chew on.

Then Vona Groarke gives us “This Poem,” a list poem, self-referential. “This is the poem that won’t open / no matter where you press.” An intriguing challenge, and a little intimidating. “This is the poem that cries on street corners…” Now, I’m a fan of poems that deliver emotions, so I go through to see how the emotion is developed. “…that plays itself out / in dives…” And the poem is starting to gain a persona, a list of fun attributes that weave a kind of goofy logic, right up to the end. “…with a teensy tattoo.”

I don’t give endings of poems here, I want you to hunt down the original work, but that said, the ending of this one is surprisingly satisfying. The repetition builds us up, then the poet resolves the images with a certain understatement that fits the rest of the stanzas. I love the fun in the poem, a sort of wary humor that just may turn dangerous, but never quite does.

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.

Read Full Post »


I love the poem, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” by Natalie Shapiro, in this issue. “So sorry about the war,” it begins. What a hook. I’m into the work instantly, and swept along. “…wanted to learn how to swear / in another language…” the narrator explains. “the top method…open / fire and listen to what people yell.” What an original, horrifying statement. The next statement then goes in a completely different direction, bringing in a kind of cranky God. The combination of originality and sudden twists of tone and direction make this such a worthy poem. And funny. Not many poems successfully manage humor at this level, but Shapiro does it nicely. She has a third thematic braid as well, people in their homes. Finally, she circles the poem around to reference its beginning. All done in seven stanzas of one to three lines each. Efficient. Very much how one does it at the top level. Brava.

The other poem in the issue is “My Mother, Heidegger, And Derrida,” by John Skoyles. “Educated in a school in Queens…my mother knew little about art.” Then the narrator’s mother sees the painting, ‘The Potato Eaters,’ which reminds her of her own mother. “The shoes resembled my grandmother’s / high-topped boots.” From there the poem becomes sort of a meditation on the mother’s visceral, memory-driven reaction to the shoes in the painting, versus the high-toned, high-minded reactions of Heidegger: “the dark opening of the worn insides…” and Derrida: “what constitutes a pair of shoes.” The great thinkers come out somewhat as fools here, less wise and less well-seeing than a simple woman of the earth. The poem leaves us with a sense of satisfaction and a sense of the worth and wisdom of plain toilers, from generation to generation. Great poem.

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 »


Two poems in this issue, the first by Amit Majmudar. This guy is absolutely one of my favorite poets going. He varies between excellent and breathless. In “The Beard,” he begins, “What was I like, before this beard? … what was I not like.” The language is plain, the idea seemingly simple. He runs through the relationship between self-chosen image and identity, with a hint of the religious. “Among believers and atheist, / among atheists a skeptic… all emphatic on the apophatic.” I love words I never knew. Apophatic is the idea of describing God by what God is not. But that’s just a way-station in this poem, where the narrator next finds a man on the TV at his gym club accused of terrorism, who he thinks looks very much like him. “Judging from…glances of flat-footed accountants running / for their lives / to either side…I was not the only one who thought so.” I love that running for their lives aside, the resonance it brings. Because the narrator is running as well, one of them and yet suddenly separate. Now the beard puts him in danger, by its existence. And separates him, an American, from other Americans. Then he adds one more symbol, the shaver: to use it or not, what that means. A deep and thoughtful poem.

The other poem is by Chana Bloch, “Dying For Dummies.” “I used to study the bigger kids — / they’d show-and-tell me / how to wiggle my hips, / how to razz the boys.” So the poem begins with being young, and learning about life. But at the turn it becomes a poem about what old people are learning, including the narrator now. “…watching my cohort / master the skills… of incapacity.” And yet the narrator still is looking to those older than she, though she is old herself. The final line brings the whole theme home very nicely. A poem by turns wistful and disturbing.

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’m doing the poems backwards tonight. The second/last poem in the magazine, “The Soul’s Soundtrack,” by Yusef Komunyakaa, sings more than it speaks, for me. The first and overwhelming impression I get is that the narrator is a man with a soundtrack of old musicians permanently running in his head, and I admit a great part of my enjoyment of the poem was simply stopping at each name and letting the music enter my head. Son House, Joe Turner, and Big Momma Thornton are names to conjure with for me. If you don’t know them, download a song or two. Indeed. The poem starts, “When they call him Old School / he…looks straight into their lit eyes, saying, / ‘I was born by the damn river…'” The narrator remembers the days of these songsters (okay, maybe not Son House so much) and how the music wove in and out of his life, our life. I love this line: “He believes to harmonize is / to reach, to ascend…till there’s / only a quiver of blue feathers / at dawn…” Wow. Poem as witness, to “the Church of Coltrane,” and to “his life / a fist of coins…” I read it and re-read it.

Back to the first poem, “Time, In Whales,” by Emily Jungmin Yoon. The three braided threads of this poem, as I see them, are the love between a young couple, a theme of whales, and being of Korean heritage in America. It starts, “Our legs of yellow skin next to one another, / calves spread, I think of beached whales…clean and gleaming.” So she weaves the threads together deftly right from the start. “You study Korean, whispering, ‘Muroruda’…meaning…’Water rises’ but really meaning ‘to improve’ or ‘to rise in sap.'” I like the awkwardness displayed, people working cautiously through their heritage, feeling their way, an understanding that flips open, piece by piece: a sort of, ‘This is who we are.’ In doing so, the narrator talks of her ancestors, and of the ancestry of whales. Of using music, like whales do, to “detect where / one another comes from.” In the turn of the poem the narrator speaks to her man directly of his own history as a child. “Your foster mother ran after you…wailing your name.” And all is woven together at the end, still deft: “perhaps the world will end in / water, taking… all loving things.” A marvelous, complex poem.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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

 

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »