Describing the state of the world when the I Ching was written, Z.L. Zhou writes of a time “so distant from ours that some of its aspects are approachable only through inexact science, science that verges on divination itself.” Hopefully, we can all be forgiven for noting the relevance of this formulation to our own mystifying times — with its “scrappy few / . . . scraped-up many;” its “imagined nation in ruination” (Kristen Hanlon, This Week Can Go To Hell) — so “difficult to see explain / impossible to nail down” (Benjamin Landry, It Walked Through the Clearing). Varied and diverse as the work in this issue may be, all of it “grapple[s] / toward / [a] present / understanding” of our world (Landry, Shaft of Light), and the past that brought us to this point, although “the boundary of / necessity is porous” (Heikki Huotari, The Feedback Loop).
We’re proud to include a potent selection of works strongly inflected by voice (see, e.g., Behm-Steinberg, Hanlon, Lawry, Seidenberg, and Wright) and undaunted by silence (Huotari, Landry, Zhou); laced with aphoristic gems and unforgettable lines (Behm-Steinberg, Hanlon, Huotari, Lawry, Lurssen, Price, Yakovlev, Wright). Here are dissimilar but equally accomplished takes on the sonnet (Lawry, Wright) as well as intriguing excerpts from book-length works (Behm-Steinberg, Seidenberg, Zhou, and Lurssen). These poems grapple with demons (Behm-Steinberg, Huotari, Yakovlev); the fate of our planet (Hanlon, Lawry); mortality (Landry, Wright); the past (Landry, Price, Zhou); and the present — not only its dark side, but “our rich, noble trying, our Now” (Adrian Lurssen, Alabama).
In short, here is nothing less than required reading, sweetened by copious amounts of wit, craft, humor, and beauty. Whether delivering good news or bad, these works will surely salve your spirits, as they have ours.
The incantatory ten-line sections excerpted here from Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s an end is the towards to whet our appetites, deliciously, for the rest of this longer work. Laced with allusions to popular culture and music, and song-like in their resonant repetitions, these verses, like the “next door devil” of which they sing, “put a spell on you, put a spell on you.” “Counting every never come again,” Behm-Steinberg turns phrases inside out and back again, interweaving mystery and colloquialism by way of a unique and persuasive alchemy which has “figured out // how to divide your life into little slots one bird long.”
Landing zinger after jaw-dropping zinger, Kristen Hanlon wows us with her linguistic agility and razor wit, even while compelling us to confront the gravest of questions: “What if the last chance to set things right / came and went without our noticing?” In this “backwater of nuts-and-dolts,” as she forces us to admit, our “heart’s a bag of frozen peas / closing in on irrelevance & irretrievability.” Hanlon’s vision of the status quo may not be encouraging, but it is persuasive: “If something’s gone rotten, cut it out.”
In Heikki Huotari’s small gems of meditation on the scientific and spiritual essence of nature, the deity is tweaked for indifference to the effects of its actions: Although “God stopped the lilies spinning with consideration, not pheromones,” that “consideration” included “thumbs on scales (that) precluded cataclysms and three other kinds of kindness.” “Bite me,” these poems say to the deity. “You might have spent the morning watching hummingbirds extracting nectar but you didn’t. In your stead, I did.” For Huotari, “the boundary of nature is porous.” “When in a sea of leaves and needles,” this poet “need only brandish an imagination.”
“Space it turns out is a brightness” in Benjamin Landry‘s poems, illuminating our experience of nature and contrasting it with our compulsion for measurement: “how to square a thing that cascades.” This urge, Landry shows us, may be “why we loved the topo maps/girded in concentrics /a ridge we know to its limit” — a limit that edges into the ineffable. We may think we believe that things we measure and make have to be “level true / and watertight,” but “a dowser / with a wishbone stick” (so unlike an engineer with her maps) can also find a source — while sometimes “winged things peer… down nervous and hungry.”
Mercedes Lawry’s sonnets are grim and gorgeous in equal parts, slaying us with the beauty of their music and the urgency of their alarm about the precarious fate of our planet. These are exemplary sonnets — contemplative, compressed, capped with stunning and stunningly prepared voltas. In language at once direct and artful, the imminence of winter becomes more broadly ominous, bringing with it: “the voice / of sabotage, the skin of denial . . . the mess of symmetry wriggling / in the gloved sky’s hiss.” By not privileging a human perspective, these poems bring home all the more viscerally “the ways the human / can evaporate.”
Adrian Lurssen’s Landscape No Longer In a Mother Tongue leads with an epigraph by Paul Celan, whose power and compression, intensity and transcendence resonate through the unique timbre of these finely crafted poems — along with the voice of the narrator’s mother, who “could will her // self into his dreams,” as well as that of his mother culture. These poems consider heritage as gift and shackle — or perhaps, as shackle and key to one’s escape, or at least appreciation: “Meaning formed // in the darker shades / of an uncovered continent.” That “there is no explaining / It is all part of the explanation” does not vitiate the hope saturating this poet’s vision of this “brief American moment, an attempt at affirmation . . . a flood of trying, a flight toward the innocent . . . a future engineered to be unerring.”
From the vantage point of a stark future/present, Bryan Price details how we will inscribe our species history on the Tree of Life: “Everything turned itself out broken: windows, curses, cures, cymbals, the edge of your cheekbone — a dumping ground for unspeakable horrors.” Caught in our present global catastrophes, “we can flee no further nor stay in this place ahold of the wolf this way.” However, in images that bring to mind a pre-Raphaelite painting of the mythic, we are granted a small but sparkling hope: “only ether remains as green as Night rising naked from Chaos.”
In this excerpt from Steven Seidenberg’s plain sight, the narrator’s wry humor and aphoristic morbidity are voiced in a direct address which could not be more indirect in terms of information divulged. Who is declaring that “A destiny destroyed is a destiny fulfilled?” Whose “mood clots quickly?” Who has “the patience to give voice to an illimitable silence?” Readers of Seidenberg’s book, Situ, might recognize the archaic diction and Beckettian stasis emitted by this persona, as well as the way these pieces bring us face to face with our own elemental quandary, the tension between the impulse to act and the reluctance to do so — between repulsion and attraction, the desire to know ‘what happens’ and the certainty that it will, as always, be ‘nothing’ — that we can’t read on, but we must read on.
The exuberant ease of Jeffrey Cyphers Wright’s playful, tragic sonnets belie their extraordinary craft and control. These meditation on our fate as the butt of “Laughing Matter’s” joke are no laughing matter. Wright’s virtuosic turns remind us that no matter how humorous the spectacle of our lives might be, “the gladiators are not all glad.” These missives from “the pang fortress” are sent by this profound trickster to demonstrate, if not explain, “how to draw a word out of a sword” and delight us with their inimitable display.
Anton Yakovlev’s confident voice and capacious imagination mine the fertile ground of reality’s bitter ironies to reveal ourselves to ourselves. The mirror held up to our gaze by these poems is not a flattering one, although for fleeting moments we might be forgiven for believing we have spied some bit that sparkles. In a world in which “contrails cross each other / like denial” and “thieves swarm every intersection,” we can only hope that “low-hanging fruit falls through [our] moon roof.” When this thoughtful and inventive poet considers “the architecture of love: steeples of inattention, pits of catharsis, coffins of hurry” a universal “fear touches [us] like a bouncing night.”
In Z.I. Zhou’s innovative and beautifully reinterpreted hexagrams, the ancient past is reanimated by the present, as lyrical prescriptions from the I Ching are conjoined with contemporary life and language, opening new vistas of insight and understanding. Images from “the ends of the world, the traditional fields, the\\pillars chaotic with birds. Here, mist; there, din, missed and\\empty” resound with and against the vividness of now, when “on yet another first date, when my foot brushes his, I am forced to wonder if I should withdraw the advantage.”
“Why not wear your rubber Donald Trump mask to a crowded theatre and flail your octopi limbs at the screen?” asks the narrator in one of Joanna Fuhrman’s new video poems. These sharp and funny pieces blend satire with fey lyricism, confronting the viewer with questions designed to bring home the urgency and absurdity of the current political climate and the existential crises of our age. “Did you mean to wake up with your nerves dangling like sneakers from suburban trees?” “Have you ever shaken hands with the bodhisattva of bitterness?” Fuhrman also captures the outsized influence of popular culture, where the reckless movie hero “is naked all the time” so that “even when he’s clothed, his dick swings unsheathed.” “The 21st century,” as Fuhrman captures it, with her light but devastating touch, “is riding a bloodshot Ferrari into the mouth of climate change, and it needs pure vodka to make it ok.”
Happy reading and viewing!
Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann
Jaynie Crimmins is a magician. Her work transforms the ordinary paper detritus from modern life — catalogues, glossy mailers, and paper – and repurposes them into gloriously beautiful art objects. On first glance, her pieces appear to be graceful organic forms, based on the patterning and structure of the natural world. Second glace reveals that these complex pieces comprise a paper trail of capitalism. One can sometimes make out the ad copy, but generally the words and images melt into pattern and color. They are both clever and smart. Her craftsmanship — tearing, rolling, folding and sewing paper into 3 dimensional objects — is superb.
Scott Kahn paints lush landscapes full of color and pattern that, to me, often hearken to the rich tradition of Indian miniatures. He documents his life and the places he’s been with a delicate touch and a deep and vibrant palette. There is a rigorous discipline to Kahn’s paintings. He works within a traditional flat structure sometimes associated with American folk art. His subjects, whether they are landscapes or portraits, are full frontal — often with a somewhat flattened perspective. Their rich surfaces convey a sense of calm introspection.
Alison Lowry processes not only a profound technical and visual talent, but also a fierce commitment to social justice. Her cast and fabricated glass pieces commemorate some of the terrible crimes committed against women and children by the Irish State and the Catholic Church. Even while we are wincing from the unblinking portrayal of betrayal and abuse, we can’t help bu marvel at the sparkling beauty of her work. Her use of humble domestic forms- an apron, a christening gown, scissors — underscores the banality of evil. Her glass pieces are often exhibited in tandem with audio and text interviews with survivors who continue to bear witness to the past. Her work is urgent, powerful and transcendent.
The fun and funny paintings of Fran Shalom are full of both a “pop” sensibility and a deep commitment to the portrayal of form and color. Her brilliantly hued paintings are fundamentally abstract, but often make sly reference to figurative form. Elegantly constructed and quite precise, they seem to marry a kind of mid-century modern aesthetic with a philosophical investigation into the lyrical relationship between figure and ground. Shapes are pared down to their essence, yet the work is never austere. The juxtaposition of bright color balanced by neutral tones keeps this work alive and lively.
The visual and performative message of W.A. Erhen Tool’s cup project is deeply moving. Tool, a veteran of Gulf War I, has taken the humble craft of cup making and elevated it to something extraordinary. Tool makes usable ceramic cups that commemorate veterans and the horror of war. Using ceramic decals of real photographs, military imagery, and the beauty of glaze, he has fabricated and given away over 21,000 cups to the public. The cups themselves convey a dry sense of dark humor and a razor sharp vision of the destruction of war. At the same time they are simply beautiful.