Barbara Tomash

Five poems from Her Scant State

—an erasure of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady
 
 

a smile of welcome        a zone of fine June weather
a territorial fact        native land        a character
a queer country across the sea        the rosebud in a buttonhole
these words of not perfect        loose thinker
fell in love with novel’s fancy phrase        in a windless place
I offer myself to you        light turned into exhalation
caught in a vast cage

————————————————————————————————
Her ambiguities composed all of the same flower. Fertile. Flourished. A fault of her own. It might feed her. Like a small hand. A kind of coercive. Not neglect. A negative, imaginatively, already existing. Her eyes prettiest. The day that I speak of. The short grass. A shorter undulation. A handful put into water—an image. “To bring you to this house.” Isabel listened to this.

 
 
 
 
 

a need        to be easily renounced
hampered at every        neither father        nor mother
poor and of a serious        not pretty        hundreds of miles of
“I’ll go home”        the masses of furniture        hid her face
in her arms        like the payment for a stamped receipt
aspiring murmur        a threat refused        three times
conceals from you        America diverted by a novel

————————————————————————————————
“A marriage,” said Isabel, “is not at all large.” In her lucidity, no light to spare.

 
 
 
 
 

a witness        not struck with       smooth woman
the fluttered flapping quality        of the sadness now settling
empty; but        no one invited her       not the least little child

————————————————————————————————
Meager synthesis, impossible dinner. Inviting “them”—as something so literal, stupid. To be honest as most people, equally honest, flattering herself. Irresistible need living in the upper air, up a steep staircase perpendicular to husband. Wishes as good as straps and buckles. Devoted evening—“I’ve never given anyone else a mistake as perfect.”

 
 
 
 
 

drifting

take care        heart        take care

do you know where you are drifting?

————————————————————————————————
Under the influence of to marry, hands laid on. “Lay them on yourself.” A woman thinks she may doubt time. It came over her in uttering. A wounded face expresses nothing. The master; the mistress.

 
 
 
 
 

ah, don’t say that
fresh        cheerful
facetious
the most charming        young
only proves        she wants
she wants        proposition
obliterated

————————————————————————————————
Her dresses, her falsehoods. “What do you mean by ‘people’?” “Servants whom you pay?” “They’re human beings.” “Are there any women?” “You can buy me off.” “Take care of me.” “I submit.” And this was the only conversation, unpleasantly perverse, like the stricken deer.

 
 
 
 
 

Her Scant State is a book-length erasure of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Entering James’s text as source material, I have, of course, been grappling with America, my native place, as a landscape carved by floods of competing ideologies including that of a hopeful, aspiring, and often violent capitalism. My inquiry focuses on women, but my point of view must shift in this novelized America made of many erasures. Perhaps home can never be described if a personal and aesthetic dislocation is not risked. In terms of the form on the page, the first half of The Portrait of a Lady runs across the top of each page of Her Scant State and the second half of the novel runs across the bottom of each page, beneath the line.
Barbara Tomash is the author of four books of poetry, PRE- (Black Radish Books 2018), Arboreal (Apogee 2014), Flying in Water, which won the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award, and The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil 2009). An earlier version of PRE- was a finalist for the Colorado Prize and the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Web Conjunctions, New American Writing and numerous other journals.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 21)

 

Happy Spring, and welcome to Posit 21!

It is with equal parts pride and delight that we offer the freshness and breadth of poetry, prose, and visual art in this issue: its capacity to match aesthetic delight with insight, emotion, and critique. Book-ended by poignant treatments of mother and home by Emily Blair and Karolina Zapal, the writings featured here are distinguished either by the bold frankness of their voice, the restraint of their meditative lyricism, or the exuberance of their experimentation and play. And the visual art collected here has a comparable depth and breadth, from painting to assemblage, collage to textile.

All of this, of course, against the ever-more disconcerting backdrop of our real-world “collective failing, a planet / boiling” about which “how frighteningly / beautiful those words / about the slouching and /the beast, another matter / when it is at the door” (Gary Sokolow, The Darkness, The Knocking).

Yet even now, when what the narrator of Blair’s A Boy Named Rooster Tries to Kiss Me calls “the craziest thing she ever heard” makes more sense than what we’re asked to accept on a daily basis by the most powerful man in the world, these works remind us how “the moment / is still music” (Mark Truscott, Rain) and help us appreciate “windfall as artifact of storm.” (F. Daniel Rzicznek, from Leafmold).

Which is why you won’t want to miss these wise and beautiful windfalls of our stormy times.

Azadeh Ardalan’s painted-from-memory portraits utilize eye-poppingly vivid, non-naturalistic colors and broad, gestural, brushstrokes to peer beneath the surface of how we live now. The heightened colors and lush textures with which she depicts contemporary characters seated in simplified interiors is more than reminiscent of the Fauves (and especially Henri Matisse): it brings their revolutionary prioritization of form and color effortlessly forward into the 21st century. The velvety saturation of Ardalan’s palette infuses these paintings’ static compositions with an intense energy, so that their depiction of the isolation of contemporary life delights the eye, refreshing the viewer’s appreciation for the beauty of the everyday.

Emily Blair writes in a powerful voice rich with mastered emotion and an indelible connection to a home left as far behind as it is ever-present. These lyrical poems evoke a “back-home” to which, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, the narrator can never truly return: a back-home of laundromats and Ms. Pac-Man and eighteen-wheelers and a boy named Rooster “with a lip full of mint Skoal and his thumbs in his belt loops,” as well as seraphs that are “beasts of fire” and a “toothy” mother “everything about [whom] turns inside out, a body of prolapse, liters of bile, and blaming [her] for the trouble.”

In Thomas Cook’s prose poems we are treated to language at serious play, a gestural yet sly resort to the atomized energy and unpredictable harmony of words and phrases in a world where “origin stories are difficult,” the “best has less to do with extraction than survival, especially in the case of cortexes.” In the world of these poems, lying to yourself is a shortcut the poet must eschew, even if, or perhaps especially because, it would create “a poem for the millennium in which you were found.”

In Janis Butler Holm’s sound poems from Rabelaisian Play Station, we’re treated to another vision of language cavorting on the fertile ground “between sense and nonsense.” In keeping with their Dadaist heritage, these humorous mash-ups ring deliciously with the surprising sting of critique. Dripping with satire, and propelled by a driving trochaic beat, these collages focused on fabrication and falsification lampoon the absurdity of an all-too-recognizable political status quo, one in which “peevishly adulterated, crackerjacks rigidify,” “percolating anthrax hoaxes falsify their logic genes,” and “double-dealing slumber parties oxidize fake news.”

Susan Leary studies the emotional complications, more and less beautiful, in the unknowable spaces between body and soul, as well as bodies and souls; “the world consumed by the vast invisibility of its histories.” In the first poem, that “the babies have a designated space in the cemetery” underscores that “only death would disguise in such beautifully-cut grass a field of complex abductions.” In another, the narrator wonders “how a fish becomes a body, & through this how a body becomes a boy that survives. Knowing only to flail and calm.” Yet another poem asks, “if science is the body’s ability to know something the world cannot, what then of the world?” And, further: “how should it come to recognize itself if all but gloaming & accidental recklessness?”

Returning to Posit with more virtuosic thought experiments, Peter Leight offers a number of understated meditations which cast “the kind of sensitive light that only shines when there’s something to see” — even, or perhaps especially, when it is “the business of shadows.” This poet’s probing work has the courage to “see how far away you are / from what you’re close to,” and the wisdom to know that it “takes all our strength just to give in to the weakness.”

Fabricated out of numerous pieces of wood “puzzled” together into abstract and architectural forms, Helen O’Leary’s sculptures are miraculous in their meticulous fabrication and transcendental beauty. They travel simultaneously between the worlds of painting and sculpture. The surfaces move literally and figuratively, their unlikely undulations carrying the eye across their painted surfaces, around to their backs, through their openings and back. These visual journeys are a surprise and delight. O’Leary is a master of abstract narrative. Each of these constructions has a story to tell. They hint of history, memory and experience. O’Leary presents the clues so that we can finish each narrative in our personal way.

F. Daniel Rzicznek returns to Posit as well, with more lush and meditative prose pieces from Leafmold. In these poems, living in the wild reveals that when there is “trouble with the bugs, trouble with thirst, trouble with desire,” “gratitude must be endless if you want to survive.” In a vivid tableau of “two towels, rust-orange and aquamarine, flap[ping] on the clothesline” the narrator sees “capes worn by invisible spirits, maybe your guardians, your watchers.” Considering what he has “left . . . on the mainland,” he concludes it is “that certain noise,” the “noise of certainty.” In the wild, by contrast, “the season puts white on the pines but inside them: always green, always green.”

Gary Sokolow’s poems find solace in the memory of a time when “it was cheaper to be going nowhere” and “nothing mattered but to stand by the last great jukebox” even if “maybe I was simply crazy believing I was stopping time, nursing a beer.” Yet, despite the fact that life is “a bracelet tight around (our) ankles” and “the shadows stay like the outline of the names of the builders on the ovens of Auschwitz,” these poems manage to balance despair with hope: that “a want there is to make it kinder” despite “the thirteen billion light years that would take.”

In Eternal Relations, hiromi suzuki collages black and white images with words from a variety of languages to consider our “eternal relations” with nature, animals, and human society. Her use of the Japanese interpretation of Chinese kanji evokes the “eternal relation” of letters and visual images – the essence of the ideogram. In River and Forest, a parallel is drawn between the branching structures of tributaries and tree limbs, and the visual connotations of their kanji. Town, on the other hand, highlights the witty juxtaposition of its component characters, which translate, in English, as “orange chocolate almond.” Yet again, in Bird, the lack of easily discernable hints keeps us guessing – beyond the charming image of the kanji itself, perched like a bird on the back of a calf.

The astoundingly detailed collage work of Maritta Tapanainen delights and toys with the viewer. They are so precisely assembled that it is, at first glance, difficult to be sure if they are constructed rather than drawn. These transcendent collages are assembled out of hundreds of pieces of found paper. Working within the palate of black and white, she draws out scores of subtle and rich tones. The soft patina of vintage papers and multiple shades of black ink reveal the rich variety of colors that that we tend to think of as “monochromatic.” Her pieces draw from natural history, science and music, creating a world that is lyrical and lively. Her ability to weave together these disparate elements is no less than masterful.

In these lovely and profound poems, Adam Tedesco offers a persona who “stayed who I was as if I had an option” even with a “feeding tube filled with … dreams, sadness & Swiss omelets, this Rickroll of numb gums and dumb love.” These fine poems do not cease probing, even though “anything you try to understand owns you. The light you bend towards owns you. Your lover’s point of view owns you.” Even when “to weep is to ask what is in us,” this poet is not afraid to forge ahead until “cleared smoke & human patience reveal” poetry’s essence, the intersection of the mundane and the magical: “commonness, a plate & glass, the tablecloth pulled.”

With these poems from Her Scant State, Barbara Tomash returns to Posit with a sample of her own novel approach to erasure, constructing two-part poems extracted from the first and second halves of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. In the complexity of this conversion from novel to poetry and conversation between novelist and poet (as well as between the novel and itself), Tomash reweaves James’ inimitable and exquisite prose through the loom of her own prosody, giving rise to a lively juxtaposition of paired and pared-down questions and images. What Tomash questions here is no less than James’ imagination of feminity: that “queer country across the sea” which he recognized as “caught in a vast cage” – a vision lovingly reimagined by Tomash, “in her lucidity” via “ambiguities composed all of the same flower.”

The quiet gravitas of Mark Truscott’s conceptual meditations contemplate the materials of existence: the tension between seems and is, the transience of matter, light, water, and breath in their progress towards to drift and diffusion. These poems ask “what can it mean / that what is / has arisen already? / And then it will change.” Truscott manages this heavy lifting with a light and graceful touch, “placing / word after word / before coating their / succession in / colours of interior / sound.” The placid surface of his prosody is “like / a surface of water, / vulnerable to ripples, / real, now / momentarily /expressing its /potential for stillness” even as its “slow-beat ringing / continues,” with understated elegance, in the reader’s ear.

Altered States is an apt name for this body of work by Kit Warren. Painted in a variety of media, and made over a long period of time, they have an intoxicating quality. Warren uses a rich and elegant palette that draws us deeply into the work. Rhythmically moving across the page, her shimmering marks invite you into their world. They present a meditative, calm universe in which we can relax and enjoy the luxury of this work.

Marie Watt makes contemporary sculptures out of memory and tradition, tweaked with a distinctly contemporary sensibility. She often uses materials common to all of us, if full of potent meaning personal to the artist. Using many traditional fabrication techniques, she presents a fully developed body of artwork that is deeply moving. Fusing storytelling, politics, and a graceful aesthetic, she presents narratives that cross time and place to touch us all. Her desire to create community and engage with women “makers” adds unique social resonance and depth to her lovely work.

And, finally, in language as frank as it is vivid, in which “a gut feeling is just a gut job,” Karolina Zapal evokes a piercing yearning for mother and home inflected by “a sprig of jealousy a pinch of gratitude a handful of reserve.” The wisdom of this poet’s treatment of those emotional touchstones lies in her recognition of their limitations, that “what she has is not / enough and what she can have is no more.” With poignant lyricism we learn that “when Baby returns home home breaks / into a whisper” even while “a cheek of moonlight / on the road breaks off / in my eye.”

Thank you, as ever, for reading and viewing.

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, Bernd Sauermann, and Melissa Stern

Barbara Tomash

from PRE-

[trans-]

by nuclear bombardment to pass down to others
shorthand notes / their amplitude / but diffusing it as in hearing aids
as in very small radios / the supposed passing of the soul

operating outside of the self to make permeate / hence spiritual
intuition / as a kind of theodolite / an emigrant passing through the field
of a telescope or through a mouthpiece

to transmit by the characters of another alphabet or by automatic
relay / a passing modulation / originally a minute electronic device / a
temporary lodger / and by extension the soul

leaping from its horizontal transverse axis
into a remote key

[trans-]

originally without death / as to change from one bus, streetcar etc. to another
a startling change / distinguished from rotation / said of the soul across the disk
of the sun / said of currents on the other side of the sea / to pass into another body
from the engine to the wheels / trans, over, across + spirare, to breathe / flowing
across through a reproduction of / window glass / the pores of the skin /
the surface of leaves / so fine in texture

[trans-]

as a seedling
when light shines through it
the process of thought rather than the objects of sense experience
to pierce with something pointed
the accidents of bread and wine
repressed impulses
crossing from side to side
as a convict sentenced to transportation
the speed of sound in air

[ex-]

as well as : persons subjected to depriving : to utter sharply :
that is true : to wear off the skin : scathingly :

[syn-]

to begin (a tone) : having the same curvature in all directions : to shorten (a word) : to overlap the chamfered edges of a neighboring vibrating body : in pity or compassion : meaning each whorl of leaves : to receive together with large fragrant clusters : white, pink, red, purplish or bluish flowers : in this dictionary : a fold of stratified rock

The poems in PRE- spin out from dictionary definitions for words beginning with particular English prefixes. All the language is found — but fractured and juxtaposed with a free-hand, freewheeling approach. I am working instinctually and with a method that is perhaps more common in the visual arts. I lay out the materials I have gathered — in this case words and phrases from the dictionary — and examine them disassociated from their source — then, in a process of trial and error, I begin creating an assemblage out of them. The assemblage is the poem.
Barbara Tomash is the author of three books of poetry, Arboreal (Apogee 2014), Flying in Water, which won the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award, and The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil 2009). Her manuscript PRE- was a finalist for the 2016 Colorado Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Black Radish Press (2018). Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, New American Writing, VOLT, Bateau Press, Verse, Jacket, OmniVerse, ZYZZYVA, Third Coast, Witness and numerous other journals. She lives in Berkeley, California and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 16)

 

Greetings, and welcome to Posit 16! It has been four years since we came out with our first issue, and our new contributors’ page gets to the root of my gratitude — to the extraordinary writers and artists who have entrusted their work to this publication; to the wise and wonderful fellow editors I have the pleasure to work with; and especially to you, our readers. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to scroll through the list — and perhaps revisit some favorites, or check out something you previously missed.

But be sure to save time for the gorgeous work in this new issue, much of which has a certain coiled and quiet potency, enfolding us in its figurative and figured fabrics against the “pale glove / of winter” — “because a legacy of facts / Tramples the empty pages of an early white snow tonight / & because the sky is still falling like a stuntman” (Raymond Farr, “Realism is in Bloom!”). Here you will encounter a number of more or less direct engagements with our alarmingly falling sky, including Peter Leight’s topical (if not literal) “Wall,” and Barbara Henning’s dispatches from our news-menaced daily lives, evocatively dubbed Digigrams. Other works, like those by Charlie D’Eve, Grey Vild, and Alexa Doran, grapple with more personal if no less urgent intersections of justice and identity. Still other pieces apply a calm and sometimes light touch to the grave task of “shaking [their] tags to wake the jangling chorus in [our] wreck” (Jennifer Fossenbell, “Preface to Salivation”).

Herein:

Charlie D’Eve’s frank yet elliptical verses, juggling the harmonies and tensions of confidence and self-protection, advance and retreat, “the times when one part / wants thing / And the other part / wants Thing,” and “it’s all political all;”

the virtuosic profundity of Alexa Doran’s love-songs to the “half party, half sustained injury” that characterizes motherhood at its most passionate, which can be as transfixing and devastating as “a Buick at the back of my knees;”

Raymond Farr’s artfully relaxed couplets to the ordinary miracle of mortality, in which “life is big but not grandiose,” “History is a lot like life & the facts are a lot like / Our own lives in particular” and “death is a sink stacked high with dirty dishes / After we’ve eaten our fill of everything;”

Jennifer Fossenbell’s “Preface to the Obvious” which is anything but, popping with energy and weighted with foreboding, “sparked, in other words . . . Signified” by imaginative leaps and dazzling wordplay that entices us to “lean . . . in closer to hear what [she is] hymning about” and “call[ing] for a ritual, a cerebration!”

Jeff Hardin’s provocative interrogations of existence via query and negotiation with what “Stand[s] in a Center That Is Too Often Tuneless,” deploying his art to “usher us out of the staid and the worn;”

the staccato reportage of Barbara Henning’s Digigrams, a series of “ecliptic telegrams” delivering their condensed amalgam of happenings interior and exterior, optimistic and grim, inflected by the moral failings of our contemporary political moment, with its “truth and lies viral,” “2400 migrants rescued – four children dead;”

the vibrant tension barely contained by these excerpts from Caroline Knapp’s forthcoming chapbooks, The Hunters Enter the Wood and Tanzsprachen, mining the “ditch beside song where // quiet gathers” to reach “the invisible that / shows like stars” and “salvage . . . [from] silence . . . / a fixed and savage song;”

the sly and suggestive counterpoint of Peter Leight’s “Needlework” and “Wall,” their content embodied in their forms, the connective stitches of the first poem’s lineation juxtaposed tellingly with the second’s solid block of prose, reminding us to ask: “is this the only way? Will it always be like this? Or is this an episode that ends when everybody stops watching?”

these cryptic and provocative excerpts from Barbara Tomash’s forthcoming book, Pre–, mining the suggestive instability of “the process of thought rather than the objects of sense experience” via the “automatic relay” of the versatile and ubiquitous prefix, “a temporary modulation . . . // leaping from its horizontal transverse axis / into a remote key;”

the wry humor of J.T. Townley’s “Dead Cat Bounce,” a Q and A of contemporary reality in which “we’re all enmeshed in a web or wired. Also, wireless. It’s how we’re hard-wired” while “a bottoming process is being experienced” in which “switches might start flipping;”

the gorgeously screamed incantations of Grey Vild’s “carnal, carnival sun-drenched, scavenged throat of worship” of idols which “can only be flesh” yet “refuse to be flesh” like “chalk screeching down a bald board” or “a soundless thunder rumbling a dry sky;”

and the quiet lament of Nicolette Wong’s collaborations with photographer David Heg, the counterpoint of their words and images “reverberating through the blinds” with “the rhythm of rust” “in a room of dust singed by erasure.”

My thanks to them all, and to you who read this, for being here.

Susan Lewis

positInkSpash131210.small

Welcome to Posit 16’s visual art!

Lou Beach makes the most deliciously wicked and subversive collage pieces I’ve ever seen. His universe jumps into yours with the antics of the creatures, human and sub-, that he creates. Beach is a technical virtuoso. Laboriously constructed, these seamless collages appear effortless. His sly, cock-eyed yet clear-eyed view of the world is both personal and universal. He skewers politicians with fearless precision. Plus they are just so damn beautiful!

Karen Hampton is a visual storyteller. Her profoundly moving mixed-media pieces tell tales of hope and despair, slavery and freedom. Made from stitched fabric, these pieces harken back to the tradition of ‘women’s work,’ and Hampton plays with these resonances to tell stories of urgent immediacy. She utilizes digital printing and hand-sewing to literally and figuratively weave together narratives that are both contemporary and historical, reminding us that we are inextricably tied to our collective histories.

The work of Bryce Honeycutt is intensely tied to her relationship with the natural world. She takes her interactions with the land and delicately filters them into exquisite artifacts. Her marks, whether drawn or stitched, are like poetic maps of these experiences. Her fluent use of a wide range of materials imbues the work with a sense of life. Rather than looking fabricated, the work seems to have ‘grown’ into the forms it takes.

Sarah Stengle and Eva Mantell have collaborated on an intriguing project entitled “Pages from the Frozen Sea” (referring to a quote by Franz Kafka). The photographic project explores the endlessly fascinating, ever-changing nature of ice as a material both solid and ephemeral. Their photographs of embedded objects play with the ways light interacts with the ice and the objects inside it. It takes a minute to gain your footing with this mysterious work. Once you figure out the construct, you are left to wonder, with a measure of awe, at this work’s marriage of materials.

Viewing the sculptures and drawings of Millicent Young, I am drawn into a meditative state. I begin to think of the passing of time – how long must it have taken to tie those knots, or wait for so much ink to evaporate? Her work addresses time in a way that evokes the creation of the earth and the very slow movement of geology. These pieces asks us to consider the possibilities inherent in ‘patience.’ Young’s use of natural materials and a neutral palette speak to her gentle approach to our world and her acceptance of the transitory nature of life itself.

Enjoy!

Melissa Stern