Benjamin Paloff

    A Trick of Certain Ambassadors

Symbiosis, my daughter explains: I charge the electric toothbrush, and the electric toothbrush keeps my mouth clean. Fuck it. My Talmudic approach to writing has made me afraid of writing, and while writing, too, I am afraid, as in the ritual that precedes a run or lift or sex, the artful lacing and unlacing and readjusting, the learned wariness of the gerundial, the participial, the abstract, of their frailty against more muscular expressions, though they are everywhere, and genuinely both human and nonhuman—afraid of falling somehow short, or of falling, like Holden Caulfield, into a void with every step, though it’s only ever the stepping I wish for. Too much, you say, a guy’s book. You prefer the other. And I’m hung up on the sound of approaching engines over the sea, nature’s sound machine. An airplane, but too slow to be an airplane, the kind of undertow that can pull you so far out and down and fast, if only in my fears, that I’d have to plan an entirely different way of life, while the actual day is petty annoyances, the music frustrated by you reading silently to yourself. The street light we know is broken by its remaining on in daylight. The bullfinches’ begging we take for song. Not everyone has to sing for his supper. But the bullfinches face each other on the landing, heads low, wings splayed, and approach, retreat, approach again before parting ways, seeing reason the way a horse, fresh from the farrier, sees wonders in the sparks rising from her feet. People like me, on the other hand, are always looking out for people looking out for an angle, or else taking things for what they are, which usually means someone getting hurt. It’s excruciatingly difficult not to be distrustful when people declare April the cruelest month, when what they really mean is that April is the cruelest month for them, and the starfish-shaped shimmers along the invisible edge could be anything. Ships. Or some animal’s idea of a miracle. Or some jokester’s idea of a joke.

What They Do to Cowards
Around Here

Urine is cleaner than saliva, my wife has been telling me for twenty-five years, apropos of no latest study, wilderness first aid, no kink or would-be kink, just trying something out, and I have no reason to contradict or doubt anything said by anyone who has taken care of me. Even the surly, handsome pigeon walking laps around the backyard seems to agree that the world is everything that is a stat, that a dream about the inner lives of bees can end with an actual bee stinging me on my actual mouth. Peeing on the wound is out of the question, so I wake up every morning afraid that my father is already dead and beyond the ease of his casual 1940s racism, his enviable void of introspection, his hazy friendship with Mudcat Grant. Blues singer, two-time All-Star, pitches Game 1 of the ‘65 World Series, Yom Kippur, Sandy Koufax refuses to pitch for the Dodgers, so Mudcat beats Don Drysdale, later a Hall-of-Famer. You can still be afraid of something that has already happened. The Twins lose the series in seven. My father laughed every time he mentioned that Mudcat had a brother named Swampfire, who also played pro ball, because he could never remember what he had or had not said. Had I seen, with today’s documentary precision, the bees flying in and out of a hole in the ground and wondered what it was like inside? Was Mudcat grinning down at me as I opened my eyes, awed by how the earth’s blackness is lined with workers working toward a common purpose? I had been holding an eye to the ground, innocent eclipse, and felt lightning only after pulling away. Somewhere, I am still in crisis. The bees are still in crisis. We are all still ringed by trees, though it is only the outermost ring of the tree that’s alive.

Twenty-Nine Sonnets

As we speak, most of the animals in Australia, which is no more an island than any other continent, are thinking of new ways to kill us. I am thinking about the garage’s postapocalyptic Zen, its diorama of a world where you just let things be. There are indeed other geographies. The planet where the wind moves so fast you wouldn’t call it “wind” if you were there—that’s also the planet where it rains hot glass. Where it rains diamonds, everyone is filthy rich, and dead. The planet that’s blue is not really blue. It’s a trick of the light, the atmosphere, the mood, an artist’s conception. The planet where people kill people for land, or for what’s beneath the land, is covered in lead and peace signs. People will do what the wind tells them, they’ll flee to where it flees. Australia, I liked my youth, the stupid clarity of my youth. We used to be primordial, too. The moon used to be closer. Pure sentiment, calling other planets’ moons moons. Dig deep enough, and you’ll hit roots that form stairs. Proximity matters, especially where winter is the price we pay for spring. As surely as there are loves that bring no joy, there’s no right way to be young. There being no Hebrew saints as such, I became possessive. I wanted to track down the guy who took it upon himself to decide what size fun is and not exactly kick the shit out of him, as if mentions belonged to me alone. I imagine plenty of others escape their pasts, you have to carry your trash with you till you find where to throw it away, but the Sargasso Sea is mine, so I have to ask what the point is of any sex or famine going on in my absence. I have to wonder about the invisible artist who keeps the plants alive on the landing, rearranges the dead butterflies daily, and comes and goes with the giddiness of gulls, loud and cruel. Silver dollars being worth more or less depending on the manner of death, I want a leisure-pages poolside funeral, cucumber coins on my eyes, on everyone’s eyes, for fun. We follow the devoted marketer; we’re dying to be revived. Yet I’d to innocence submit in truth, if doing so might give me back my youth. Which to our hope then gives the lie, that sleep’s a property of the eye. In the twenty-first century, slow seeing’s sorry art is excited by the ex-president’s paintings. They’re consistent with the technology of the time, yet patchwork, like Luke Skywalker’s mechanical hand or, really, anyone’s mechanical hand. The angels have faces quite unlike those in art books. The sirens are singing their baited hooks just to drown you on the sand. To see the forward-facing footprints of the backward-walking man.

Benjamin Paloff’s books include the poetry collections And His Orchestra (2015) and The Politics (2011), both from Carnegie Mellon, as well as a critical volume and many translations. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Conduit, New American Writing, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and others, and he was the guest editor of the Fall 2019 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review. Twice a fellow of the NEA, he lives in Michigan.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 24)

 

We’d like to welcome you to this very special 24th issue of Posit.

Although this is not the first time we have felt the need to temper our excitement to bring out a new issue with recognition of the troubles of our times, other recent troubles pale in comparison with the intensity of our current global crisis. It is difficult not to question the relevance of art during a pandemic which threatens our livelihoods, our lives, and the stability of our societies. However, curating the superlative work in this issue has reminded us of art’s capacity to transport us beyond our bodies and our trials — offering us the chance to look away, even while guiding us to look deeper.

And the work we have collected here could not be more resonant with these frightening times. For direct relevance, we are honored to present Laura Mullen’s penetrating and humane consideration of the pandemic itself. And we are proud to offer five master-crafted odes by D. A. Powell, as well as Lewis Warsh’s profound meditations on love, aging, and the brave if modest feat of perseverance. Many of the works collected here contemplate death, as well as the mysteries and perils of living, from the brilliant ruminations of Benjamin Paloff and Joel Chace, to the frank and forceful voices of Alexandra Egan and Shevaun Brannigan, to the analogical reasoning (by way of constellations on the one hand, and insects on the other) of Amy Strauss Friedman and Rich Ives, to the pared-down beauty of Laura Walker’s reimagined Psalms.

Like so many organizations in times of upheaval, Posit has undergone some restructuring. This issue is our first without the participation of Melissa Stern as Arts Editor. We could not be more grateful to Melissa for her magnificent and sustained contribution to this publication. Informed as it was by her taste, judgment, and knowledge of contemporary art, her curation greatly contributed to Posit’s eclectic aesthetic, enabling us to situate our poetry and prose in a more interdisciplinary, not to mention visually vivid, artistic context. In an era in which specialization too often devolves to Balkanization, the art Melissa gathered helped Posit chart another path.

Working on this issue, we have found solace and wisdom, release and renewal. We hope you will as well.

Susana Amundaraín’s renderings of place and light emit a quiet but intense energy. They are at once subdued and vibrant, somber and serene. Amundaraín’s paintings have an almost magnetic power: they beckon and pull, arousing in the viewer a desire to enter their layered and mysterious worlds. Interpretations of place rather than places, these abstract canvases are liminal, evoking windows, doorways, and crevices — pivot points where realities meet. Above all, they explore the seamless relation between light and shadow; layering subtle washes of rich blues, blacks, and umbers in a wide range of densities and textures, from the velvety to the translucent. Amundarain’s palette is at once earthy and ethereal: she works in soul tones. In these canvases, delicately layered sheets of color are dramatically punctuated — and brilliantly completed — by contrasting lines and dabs whose power and beauty recall Turner’s famous red buoy.

Shevaun Brannigan’s arresting imagery is as rich and resonant as it is surprising: “the road a run-over skunk’s tail,” the garbage truck with its “mouth . . . open, / a mattress stuck in its teeth,” the railroad crossing sign a raccoon mask, the sky a prom queen with its “taffeta layers, / that pink hue, a golden crown.” Many of these images wind through the course of Brannigan’s poems, accruing new implications even as they lead gracefully and organically to their successors. These powerful poems boldly confront the urge to escape the burden of trying to “be a good person” and push on past the narrator’s “frequent stops” and relish the “berries bursting in our mouths one note at a time” in “the den of our bed.”

As the title of his first poem tells us, Joel Chace’s verse is saccadic, exploring questions of aesthetics, philosophy, justice, and physics via nimble and erudite referential leaps, from Socrates to Zukovsky, from P.T. Barnum’s obscene exploitation of Joyce Heth to the torment inflicted on Io by Argos, from black hole cosmology to Charles Ives’ childhood. At choice moments the intellect informing these connections yields to lyrical beauty, leading the reader to pause “to / permit the golden dying of afternoon to relinquish / them.”

Alexandra Egan’s powerful and personal verse perfectly dissects the bitterness of death: not just the physical lack, but the emotional distancing: “I mourned each opulently . . . I cried and was ugly with it” but “each time I learned nothing, was selfish, maudlin.” In a definition of desolation, “the season stays cold as gangsters dirty rain tough as kindergarten.” And yet, we live in a paradox: “If I say I want to die / I only mean / like a matryoshka / each split doll / opens on another / shinier less useless/deathless.” Progress, in Egan’s view, is to “Know that you will die and marvel as you would at anything perfect and tiny you can crush with your hands.” But perhaps, “When you burn something the ash is soft like thank you.”

Amy Strauss Friedman’s brilliant constellation poems expand what the ancient Greek myths told in narrative form: human psychology. In rich and detailed language, the poems speak to us of our time, from the smallest connections of cells: “I diagnose you a cancer the scientific equivalent of pinned wrists in a burning barn,” to our terrestrial connections — “camouflaged in dermal scales,” pointing to the vastness of both our knowledge and our ignorance. As constellations of cells and vestiges of evolutionary change, our “fear of living small ablates us” as we look for “a fascicle of storms and thorns making the sky like nail holes in wood.”

In Karen Holman’s billowing universe, our understanding of creation, from “particle of conception in our extended family of Atom” through “each snip of code to the fluttering canopy of memory” with “everywhere women cooking, always cooking an alphabet soup” may be “proof of how lucky, unlucky we are” in “the documentary-romantic-dystopian-historical-musical tragicomedy. . . coming somewhere where someone is screaming fire in a theater near you.” Meanwhile, in the world of the minute, “a mining bee’s wings blows breath through his piccolo home, fish ascend to float through canopies of autumn” and we offer “bent knees . . . aquamarines brighter than oxygen.”

Rich Ives returns to Posit with two beautiful and mysterious prose pieces taking the perspective of particular insect species to contemplate the mysteries of identity, desire, destruction and remedy. The life cycle of Ives’ Black Swallowtail Butterfly, in which “inside was once outside and outside will soon be back inside before it’s released altogether” has wider resonance, as does the creature’s idea, which “walks on many legs to its own escape.” It is not only in that creature’s world that apologies are “voluptuous tired little savages” which “surround you with melody until you think you’re going to explode with such sacred knowing.” Like the human beings it observes, the Blister Beetle acknowledges: “I’ve been a parasite . . . but I’m growing,” observing boys who “liked to break things because [they] were broken.”

It’s an honor to include Laura Mullen’s masterful and moving response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 14 sections of Virus brilliantly unfold the contradictions, reversals and recursions of our confusion and fear, enacting our struggle to come to grips with what is killing us. Its litany of symptoms exposes the deeper implications of the crisis, both personal: “these are the symptoms dry cough fever / Empty shelves shortness of breath disbelief. . . Some of the symptoms / Include refunds and slight social adjustments / Toward mercy moving in the direction / Of justice” and political: “The symptoms include poor people / asking for debt relief and healthcare / And rich people congratulating them- / Selves on their “abundance of caution.” Amidst the fear and venality it probes, this beautiful and tragic poem wryly echoes Frank O’Hara’s invocation to Lana Turner (“oh S & P we love you get up”) while graciously including a “note to say thank you” and express “gratitude for each / Person who was careful.”

Benjamin Paloff’s poems etch a perceptive and tender philosophy of the contradictions of daily life: personal, physical, yet always intertwined with the underlying life of the mind. In this life, the narrative ‘I’ has “no reason to contradict or doubt anything said by anyone who has taken care of me” and “a dream about the inner lives of bees can end with an actual bee stinging me on my actual mouth.” In these poems, our hopes are shaped by our intellectual perceptions: “The angels have faces quite unlike those in art books. The sirens are singing with their baited hooks just to drown you on the sand. To see the forward-facing footprints of the backward-walking man.” Although it may be “excruciatingly difficult not to be distrustful when people declare April the cruelest month, when what they really mean is that April is the cruelest month for them,” these poems temper judgment with wonder: “the starfish-shaped shimmers along the invisible edge could be anything.”

In Rick Pieto’s striking Glitch poems, the intriguing palimpsest of interrupted and repeated visual symbols, color, and text suggests a possible new history, and future, for poetry — one stemming from visual as well as auditory or conceptual juxtapositions. Repurposing conventional poetic tropes while rethinking and resisting them in purely visual terms, Pieto’s visual poems invite us into a new poetic and visual multiverse where we might be able to imagine the possibility that “the field (itself) thinks.”

These five odes by D. A. Powell demonstrate the poet’s extraordinary stylistic and formal range, coupled with a master’s trust in the power of simplicity to plumb depth, and playfulness to attain gravitas. From a guilty-laughter-inducing tribute to a beef steer; to a relaxed but lilting homage to the Brazil’s ineffable magic (“bc though proper / yr improper / when you need to be”); to the near-vispo feat of First Strains, recombining only three letters to achieve not only its visual resemblance to musical notation but its aural kinship with an owl’s hoot; to the colloquial bravado of The Next Big One (“Take me up in your Rolls and // Rock me daddy”); to the haiku-like solemnity of the 17-syllable Valentine’s Day — these poems demonstrate Powell’s ease with his chosen medium, along with his empathy, attention, and sly wit.

The human figures and their oversized avian companion/protectors at the heart of Alex Stark’s canvases are frequently doubled, but sometimes halved: connected to one another, if at times divided from themselves. The visual and thematic implications of doubling saturate these emotionally charged tableaux. For instance, Stark’s upbeat, almost naïvely rosy color palette conveys a gentle optimism even while suggesting unprotected flesh. The ineffable yet subtly distorted grace of these men and birds conveys a sense of harmony and vulnerability. In their faces we see both pain and joy, fear and wonder. These gentle, giant birds offer the men shelter and solace, as do their Edenic surrounds. Stark uses colored pencil and acrylic to create a light network of shimmering lines and patches of color that breathe with life and feeling.

In Laura Walker’s poems, the lyrical cadence and lovely simplicity of the King James Book of Psalms re-emerge and resonate in a contemporary context. The speaker’s words, like the psalms, encompass self and other, but are grounded in contemporary life. “I see you there or think I do / perched on a fence with your pantsleg rolled up / eating a pear or an apple.” Although the poems are responses to individual psalms, they eschew the literal. Walker subtly and brilliantly reworks both context and language from the King James version, such as “heathen rage” and “vain thing,” which are converted in psalm 2 to “a veined thing / rage.” In other poems, the relationship of praise and love inherent in the idea of psalms remains, while the music reverberates: “your name is a plucked thing in my mouth.”

These brilliant new poems by Lewis Warsh are tributes to the limited rewards and unlimited effort of life’s one-way, one-chance path. As powerful as they are understated, they look truth in the eye, eschewing the temptation to “drop a tincture of snake oil on / the scar tissue.” Instead, they honor the perseverance it takes to continue “after so many years of fighting our / way out of a paper bag” “while all the buildings where we spent / the night crumble into dust.” Recalling Keat’s To Autumn, Johnson Road peers from the literal and metaphoric season, when “each hour a little more light vanishes” to what lies beyond, “lost in shadow.” In Warsh’s remarkable volta, the gaze shifts from the pastoral to the stark specter of final judgment, when “the prosecutor /will present inadmissible evidence / to the jury of one’s peers.” Like Second Chance, Night Sky notes the humble rewards of carrying on: “Tuesday Matinees / at the Triplex. The forklly understatift / operator’s wife at the end of the bar.” Surveying such moments from a swift sampling of lives and eras, the poem hauntingly sums up the coda waiting for us all: “Night-life in the baggage / claim area with no where / to go.”

And Frank Whipple’s collages deploy fragments of antique images and ephemera to depict a speculative and surrealistic reality populated by disturbing human/object chimeras. Many are domestic scenes featuring adults and children in genteel 19th Century attire with inanimate objects, or even abstractions, for heads. At times there is a sedate, almost becalmed nostalgia to these tableaux, invaded by vaguely frightening intrusions from a universe not subject to our physical laws. What we glimpse is at once stable and unnerving, unfamiliar and yet incomprehensibly recognizable. The dream-like resonance of these images, along with their eerie relevance, adds weight to their compositional balance and rich, subtle color palettes.

We hope you enjoy these, and that you and yours stay safe and well.

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann