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Posts Tagged ‘W.S. Merwin’


Bruce Bond opens the fall issue of Atlanta Review with a poem, “Mistakes,” after W.S. Merwin. It does have Merwin’s sort of square look on the page, each line being of similar length: “They are out there somewhere the mistakes / that led me…in some room / where they grow a little old…” An interesting meditation on mistakes as a collection of items to be listened to, guides to more mindfulness (the poet’s idea not mine).

“Pride,” by Judson Mitcham, about “the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history” captured my attention: “Billboards along the road…called the Winecoff fireproof…” It becomes a personalized poem in an understated way, about grief and uncertainty.

“My Father Whistled” by Thomas Lux explores limitations: “only when he was nervous about fixing something…It was an aptitude he lacked.” Certainly I feel an uncertainty about fixing household objects, so this poem hits home.

Sidney Wade has fun with “Hot Flashes.” She starts the poem, “they come / at 4 am // hooligans / in wet suits…bomb the / monument // to Morpheus…” A well-crafted work. We get a shot of empathy.

Atlanta Review has always been a magazine dedicated to poems grounded in the real world, the shared experience. Probably one of the reasons I like the magazine so much. We get a sense of all the worlds around us about which we know little. “The Cabinet Maker’s Apprentice” by Arthur Smith is one such poem: “The smell from the ripped plywood / was vinegary in the rained-in garage…” Why yes, I think, I have smelled that smell. “It made all of learning bittersweet…” And we want to know why.

I very much liked “Hay Fever,” by Gary Mesick,” it has such a surprising/arresting beginning: “I’m drowning in sex…” You know right off this is a poem by a poet who attends to his audience, cares about their experience, wants them to leave the poem happy. “Strange, spoor-laden secretions / dam my lungs.” Great pun there. And the best line: “Cruel, craven stamens.” Anyone who has had hay fever will relate.

There are quite a few more poems of equal quality in the mag — this is a very solid issue, much to be enjoyed.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar Review – Fall 2017

The New Yorker – Jan 22 2018

Rattle 58 – Winter 2017

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Here we go, getting to Ellen Bass in the Feb 4th issue, her “What Did I Love” poem. Okay, it’s about killing chickens. Now I myself have known chickens. I have even killed a few in my day, back on the neighbor of a friend’s farm, and seen them run around after their heads were gone, and it’s a weird, unpleasant feeling, but let’s face it, the negative energy did not honestly derive from the joy of knowing chickens. So I am not so shocked by her beginning: “What did I love about killing the chickens?” It does thereby deliver the almost-standard-by-now shock/twist beginning, and then the really cool image right after: “as darkness / was sinking back into the earth.” And the feel of it all: “I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.” As for the question ‘do I think it’s like Kinnell,’ her poem seems more matter-of-fact than his general tone to some extent, or at least, less given to lyrical flight. It’s the grounded-in-the-specifics-like-concrete nature of this poem that drives its power, for me. Describing the physical, then her reaction to it: “When I tug the esophagus / down through the neck, I love the suck and release…” Boy, cleaning ducks, despite the gladness of having a duck to clean, is not so pleasurable as that. It’s almost as though she exaggerates, almost as though we don’t believe her, based on our own queasiness, and this disjunction between our visceral reaction and what she describes as hers is what gives the poem its juice. And the climax of the poem heightens this tension to its highest possible point: “I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing…” Is she telling the truth? Is there an ironic underbelly to this poem? Wow.

The other poem in the issue is “Medicinal,” by Gerald Stern, which invites us to put together from the clues he gives what happened to require a poem: “I gave thanks of a sort that there were waves…and I had time afterward / to put it together again…though I drove myself crazy / trying to figure out…if the flower I picked was medicinal…and could I have a life?” Obviously from all the elisions I am cutting bunches out to give a more straightforward sense of the poem, which probably isn’t fair to the poem. But even with the material added back in, and the second half of the poem, and ignoring (or not) the reasonably non-linear ending, I still didn’t pick up enough clues. Which left me ultimately frustrated and annoyed. Maybe that’s what editor and poet wanted. Well, nyah on them too.

I am much happier with the W.S. Merwin poem in the next issue of the New Yorker, Feb 11th & 18th combined, “To These Eyes.” He starts out “You only ones / I ever knew / you that have shown me…” and this seems to be a classic Merwin approach, making the reader stop and re-parse the beginning of the poem to try to determine a grammatical reading that will make sense. It being Merwin we know there will be one there. And if we take ‘only ones I never knew’ as an ablative absolute (to throw in a little analysis from my Latin days, sorry), that is, as a dependent clause modifying the first word ‘you’ (which still sounds so pedantic and technical, sorry again) we can come to an understanding of what the heck he’s trying to say here, and get that little satisfaction of solving a tiny puzzle, and off we go, now wary and ready to toss down a (virtual) comma wherever in the poem we think one might fit, and so gradually wrest a sense of this as a paean to his own eyes “that I have never seen / except nowhere in a mirror…” Why the word ‘nowhere’ there? Well, why not? We can mentally delete it if we have to, get a reasonable sense, and go on! Ending with a rise to the mystical at the very end of the poem, which would not be so affecting except for the work we’ve put in digging little truths out up to now. Yay.

That sense of mystery, of something deeper working behind the poem, of the poet reaching for a connection with something larger, seems to me more abbreviated in the Jane Hirshfield poem in the same issue, “I Wanted Only A Little.” This is another poem where we have to put together what she means, a bit, with the tricks of the modern American poet. We can’t have anything be too predictable in a top drawer poem, therefore we must be surprised by the twist in the phrase “The directions of silence: / north, west, south, past, future.” And the turn in the second half of the poem from a discussion of silence to the metaphor of a grazing horse does keep us reading. But does the center of the poem, “Grief shifts, / as a grazing horse does…” give us enough to go on? Is it satisfying? Again, maybe that very paucity is the point Hirshfield is trying to make. It seems a fiercely austere poem to me, at any rate.

The final poem in this week’s mag was a Philip Levine, “In Another Country.” “A man spreads out dried fruit / on an old blanket and lets the flies…” Another poem overwhelmingly anchored in the concrete. We’re getting more and more of a sense, putting these poems back to back, of what Muldoon likes as an editor. Concrete and surprise, austere, with jolting images. If there’s a spiritual sense, well, that’s okay, but it sure isn’t a requirement. If there’s no second, or deeper meaning readily available, well, that’s okay too. Maybe life has no deeper meaning. So render what you can, and we’ll take what we can get. Levine seems an ideal poet for his sensibilities. “There is no town, only / fields of long grass blowing in the wind…”

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar Review – Summer 17

Hummingbird 27.2

The Missouri Review – Fall, 2017

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An interesting triptych of poems in the New Yorker this week.  First, the second of the poetry twins, Michael Dickman, appears (the first brother, Matthew,  was in the mag a couple months ago) with his poem “My Honeybee.”  A very poetic poem, full of lots of white space and single words and swoops to something else.  “Crying in our arms // in the cosmos in our // arms // Missile static and afterburn in the petals”. Kind of reads like one of those exercises where you jumble two poems together to see what results.  Can’t really see what the line “Your white shoulders and white rump” are doing there, for instance, and some of it seems overcooked: “Sail on // Sail on”.  There are absolutely enough interesting lines and images to be worth a couple reads, though: “pinprick in the epileptic air”.  My guess is with a few more years, he’ll lose some of the cute stuff and focus more laserlike on the sense he’s aiming for.  Still, it’s not a bad thing for a young poet to coruscate a little, reaching for all the universe at once.  I see a lot of upside here.  Especially if he can keep doing such neat endings.

Then there’s one of my absolute favs, Charles Simic, with “One-Man Circus.”  A sort of Walter-Mitty poem, all these cool things going on in the narrator’s head, “Juggler of hats and live hand grenades.  Tumbler, contortionist…” while he’s walking down the street.  Dickman would do well to study this poem for its concentration, the lack of frivolous words and the power that arrives with that.   Makes the poem more readable for one, and gives depth to what remains.  Simic also does a great job of balancing the inner and outer worlds, and gives nothing away in his ending, either.

And the third poem (actually first in the mag) is W.S. Merwin, another fav of mine, with “The New Song,” sort of an extension of his recent concerns about getting older, and living in the moment.  “For some time I thought there was time // and that there would always be time”  Again, nothing cute, nothing tricky, just a straightforward, here it comes poem, the power in the ideas and in the way he grounds it, in the second (last) stanza, with immediate images: “the sound of rain at night // arriving unknown in the leaves…”  One trick he uses is to go from the general to the particular, the reverse of the old way of building a poem.  Again, as an older poet, he keeps it compact, like a pro boxer’s punch: short to the target.

Seems like many older poets get more dense as they go.  I don’t know if that differs from other arts.  I’ve read that the painter Titian worked in a looser and looser style as he got older, at last often working with his fingers.  Anyway, it’s very interesting to compare the younger with the older poets in this issue.  Give it a read.

Poetic peace,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The Missouri Review – Fall 2017

The New Yorker – Nov 20, 17

Hummingbird 27.2

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