David Mills

Talking to the Bones
(spirit of enslaved New York City Chimney Sweep
Apprentice: 18th century)

What of only chimneys and flues?
This: the one moment master permitted
me to be above him

How so?
Only in filth could I gain favor

Did you ever dream?
Things like thoughts weighed
too heavy on my head

How should you be remembered?
The neck a storm; the head a cloud
unsettled by its own weather

Talking to The Bones
(spirit of Joseph Castins, only enslaved New Yorker
whose full name is known and who is buried
in New York’s slave cemetery)

Had you made Joshua Delaplaine’s acquaintance, Mr. Castins?
Death: a sad cabinet is it not?

Joseph, when did Delaplaine put you in his account book?
My account: with G-d

How did you die with a given and surname?
The first shall have a last and the last shall have a first

David Mills holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College. He’s published three collections, The Dream Detective, The Sudden Country and After Mistic. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Brooklyn Rail, Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Jubilat,and Callaloo . He has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Breadloaf, The American Antiquarian Society, and the Lannan Foundation. He lived in Langston Hughes’ landmark Harlem home.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 26)

 

Happy new year, and hopefully, new era! And welcome to Posit 26. Although the human race is still locked in struggle with the virus ravaging the globe, and dark forces led by our former president did their best to derail American democracy, we bring you this powerful new issue in a spirit of hope — even celebration. Not only did the US manage, albeit by the skin of our teeth, to achieve a desperately essential change of regime, but a substantial majority of its citizens exercised their real if fragile democratic prerogative to put an end to the Trump administration’s criminal indifference to justice, decency, and truth. Through it all, science, along with the hazardous labors of untold numbers of essential workers, have struggled to save us from ourselves, and might just manage to succeed. While art, and artists, persevere, nourishing our similarly essential need for insight, beauty, and meaning.

The remarkable work in this issue offers all of those qualities, and more. New poetry by Chuck Wachtel, Charles Borkhuis, and Joe Elliot directly addresses the current crises, alongside poetry and prose by Peter Grandbois, Lisa Lewis, Tom Fink, and Hannah Corrie that resonates with the pandemic in deep and prescient ways. Most if not all of these works grapple with mortality, identity, or both, at a time when the former is so terrifyingly foregrounded, and the latter eroded by isolation and the social-fabric-fraying hazards of human contact. And at this important historical moment, when activism has once more managed to bring the mandate for racial justice to the forefront of our societal agenda, we offer powerful poetry and visual art by David Mills and Donté K. Hayes that speak to lives and identities once stolen by slavery and still brutally undermined by racism.

With profound sorrow, we dedicate this issue to one of our most honored contributors, Lewis Warsh (November 9, 1944 – November 15, 2020). Lewis’s greatness encompassed not only his prodigious and extraordinary literary output, but his outsized generosity as an editor, publisher, mentor, and friend. For a taste of his wisdom, humanity, and wit, don’t miss his contributions to Posit, including some of the last poetry published in his lifetime: Lewis Warsh (Posit 24); Lewis Warsh (Posit 4).

And now, a bit about the work in this issue.

Charles Borkhuis returns to Posit with a looping and leaping elegy to the absurd and tragic disconnect at the heart of existence. In the circling and cycling dance of these tragicomic verses, “if someone knocks / no one is home” although “if no one knocks / someone is home.” Like the paradoxical worm “eating at the heart” of the bewildered self, these agile verses probe the enigma at the heart of consciousness. In this dazzling poem, “the constant flow of words /from nowhere to somewhere // keeps someone watching / for tomorrow’s nameless someday” only to reveal that “the worm dining / on the human heart // dreams” – like those upon whom it dines? – “of one day awakening / as a butterfly.”

Hannah Corrie‘s restrained but powerful poems reveal the stark gulf between the “poetic justice” of narrative and the random loss of a reality populated by “so many small things clamoring to survive.” In the world of these finely crafted verses, we may be “killing ourselves // with our living” but “there is no meaning in irony.” A finely calibrated tenderness balances the uncompromising depth of this poet’s gaze, cast here on young children reluctant to end the school year, an aged man unwilling to surrender to his own decline, and a narrator’s determination to find meaning in coincidence. Like Galileo experimenting with gravity in his blindness, these poems bring out “the song of the soft plummet” which “tethers us to this Earth / after all.”

By inviting the viewer to participate in deciphering their complex etiology, Mary DiDoardo’s paintings depict as well as and enact relation. These paintings reveal, as if in media res, a dynamic and ongoing interaction between line and ground, exposing the scars and failed stages interaction entails. DiDoardo’s line seems at times to loop through three-dimensional space, suggesting the traces of movement itself, like wakes or vapor trails recording the trajectories of bodies in motion. Her ground, at times pristine and untouched, at others, deeply distressed, reveals the traces and scars left by those trajectories. These paintings are alive with arcs and angles which might be fluid and graceful or broken and fragmented, advancing in fits and starts, reversals and stalls. DiDoardo’s surprising juxtapositions of intense color enhance the kinetic energy of these lively compositions.

Merridawn Duckler’s pointed and poignant studies of how the created worlds of reading and art bind us to past and present begin with the wickedly witty history of a young woman’s life as seen through an “agony” column of the past, complete with questions such as “Should I be prehensile by now” as well as slyly familiar musical pleas like “Help me, Irma. Get him out of my house.” Another poem, narrated from a doctor’s waiting room, considers a travel magazine, where our lives are vicariously lived. Its “pages and pages of turnstiles and castles” lead to a memory: “Silver Falls, where I once stood under the roar and understood this land was lodged in me like a bullet.” In the ekphrastic Five Grey Mirrors, the quiet and clear observation of Gerhardt Richter’s painting leads to an overwhelming and dire feeling of imprisonment: “The gas is so undetectable, / as we sit in the designated chairs// still, they will not allow us / to return home.”

In Joe Elliot’s profound probe into the brevity and meaning of our lives, the author reminds a dying patient: “We are all dying. You are just doing / the hospital part of it,” noting that sometimes “time seems to expand, / giving your life a malleable dimension / and shape, as if it could go on forever.” Nonetheless, there is true consolation in the dailiness: “the falling in love part of it, the running around / with the kids part of it, the carrying laundry / up the stairs and binding tomatoes and hopping on / your bike and riding to work part of it.” And in a truly apt poem for this moment in US history, Elliot exposes the limits of our understanding and commitment to other humans stemming from the “arrested development” of those who “think other people are the problem” in a society in which “Growth Eternal is the staple / of this state religion that eats. Eating / by indirection each other is its sport. Its sporty / Galilean runs for office. Its office is to grind / and mash a bratwurst of they. They are unnamed, / although all around you.”

With a nimble mix of wordplay, prosodic flourish, and social critique, Thomas Fink’s Dusk Bowl Intimacies consider the “rust- / plated American tenets” of capitalism in decline via a unique poetic form, reminiscent of Haibun. These densely-packed prose blocs concluded by brief, Haiku-like tercets entice us to “gawk at how bumbling ‘sapiens’ sap sincerest intentions” even as they compel us to face what we may not want to admit, preferring to “snak[e] [our] way out of the cloud sum of blaring indulgences” in the fading “dusk bowl” of contemporary capitalism.

Peter Grandbois Hole explores the conundrum of the dreamer and the dreamed, and our compulsion to make things right, to make them fit our understanding and expectations. This compelling and disturbing story creates the accepted certainty of the dreamworld. Its meticulous logic builds and leads us forward through its unnamed protagonist’s perfectly understandable and yet ever stranger choices, all of which seem to follow inevitably from the moment he suddenly notices a hole in the wall he is painting, and the enigma it reveals. Like him, we question, and then accept, each metamorphosis from the expected to the actual. And like him we are carried by the elusive, ecstatic detail of the moment to moment, like “breaths that made you feel as if you could float away on them. Breaths that could carry you to the cusp of clarity.” As the painter tries in vain to force the enigma back inside its hole, we are forced, with him, to face that our resources, like his, are “Not enough. Still, he applied it religiously, hoping somehow it would do the job.”

The ceramic sculptures of Donté K. Hayes resonate with the echoes of millennia of human artifacts. These remarkable creations honor the cultural and physical experience of the Black Diaspora, even as they grapple with the historical centrality of slavery at the core of racism today. Although these curvaceous, muscular, biomorphic forms concern themselves especially with the iconography of pineapples, whose signification of hospitality is directly connected to slavery in the Americas, they are also suggestive of serving vessels, head ornaments, ritual figures, and the (Black) body itself. With lush and intricate surface textures suggestive of both fur and bristles, these works have a sensual complexity that is both gentle and strong, welcoming and steadfast, nurturing and resolute. As balanced as they are sturdy, Hayes’ creations radiate a warm and inviting power.

Genevieve Kaplan’s remarkable poems marry the concrete with the abstract to yield a rich and unique mix of recognition and surprise. With equal parts precision and inspiration, these “delightful, pulled out, loosely / skeined” poems parse plain language and ordinary experience until what they offer is anything but plain or ordinary, “read[ing] / the situation with such careful / attentiveness,” “ask[ing] each word” and “hon[ing] in on their availability” to plumb fresh and unexpected depths of wonder and wisdom – until “one detail actually manages to encompass the entirety of the other” and each poem becomes “a way to begin.”

Kristin LaFollette’s striking collages combine the energy and spontaneity of abstract expressionism with a surrealist sensibility. Organic elements contrast with inorganic via intensely colored painterly brushstrokes and drips juxtaposed with magazine cut-outs of text and images. In ‘The Accident,’ black paint has been scribbled over a washed blue background layered over the repeated phrase “I’m sorry.” The focus of the collage is a photo of a model deer cut up and reassembled with a pipe and a skateboard. Sandpaper and marble appear along with cutouts of technical drawings of cells. The free placement of the text and visual elements suggest emotion, if not agitation, while the skateboard contributes an element of humor. What exactly, is this “accident,” and why are we “sorry?” The combination of bold visuals with suggestive, enigmatic text invites us to make our own connections. In ‘like a cell of your skin’ a fire hydrant appears in front of a snowy neighborhood alongside medical drawings of a dissected heart; the bloody red swathes underscore the parallel between the pump of the hydrant and the pump of the heart. And in ‘Old Bones,’ the opposition/attraction of dry and wet suggests more than just a change in weather.

Lisa Lewis poems unite form and content, masterfully enacting the structured, multi-layered grasping at meaning they describe: “the gear and the grind” of clockworks, the architectural designs “chasing space” for the love of “beauty and the mystery of beauty,” the still life “primarily concerned / with religion and allegory,” the highway scaling “a precipice of light / flinching at the raised hand of gleam.” These poems capture the heartbreak of what we have made of the land, interrogating the city/country dichotomy and how it affects our souls. They evoke the long spaces of the Midwest, the sun on them, the buildings that shouldn’t have been built on the prairie, the skyscrapers “wrong for this landscape but proud in horizon light” erected by “donors who admire the endeavors of the business college and take as their doctrine its longing to rise above the prairie and the ghosts as if also wingéd and holy” – unlike the “impure and lustful” partridges, sage-grouse, and wild turkeys who “barge right into town . . . pacing fledged measurements” of their dwindling habitat. With exquisite craftsmanship, Lewis evokes the humble tragedy of ordinary life: the “shadows / we hardly get the chance to know before /someone rises from the gray with a blade.”

David Mills exquisite, devastating series, Talking to the Bones, gives voice to the spirits of enslaved 18th Century New Yorkers. In these tragic and profoundly moving dialogues, Mills offers a glimpse of the eloquence and wisdom, insight and humanity of men whose own humanity was brutally denied. With maximal economy and delicate grace, Mills renders these men’s aphoristic utterances to reveal a brief but tantalizing glimpse of their untapped reservoirs of wisdom (“Death: a sad cabinet is it not?”) and a resolve as necessary as it is inspiring: that “[t]he first shall have a last and the last shall have a first.”

JoAnna Novak’s high-octane meditations assess the relationship between self and other, work and domesticity, with its “hoard of / hand-me-downs and sentiment, the flinch and shrink / and scowl before savings.” As succinct as they are popping with rhythmic energy, these verses ground their explorations in the tangible and the tactile in all of its vivid and various glory: the “joints / joists vices files ferries roses and fathers.” Optimism as well as angst propels these bold yet questioning poems, in which a narrator “surrounded by black hills / and an enemy with busy lips and a tank to burn and / pockets stuffed with chips” asks “what if simplicity saves nothing? If my monochrome / chant is a mere red grunt?” With eyes wide open, this poet has “advanced along / the plank and called it a path, an El Dorado of rubies / and routine” in the conviction that, like these verses, “we are the gale in an ordinary machine.”

Elizabeth Shull’s magical and restorative paintings consider homo sapiens as a humble but fortunate inhabitant of the natural world. In place of hegemonic exceptionalism, Shull’s humans have the great good luck to share the wonder and beauty of nature side by side with a remarkable range of fellow creatures who, as these canvases reveal, are literally, and thankfully, everywhere around us. Hers is a world teeming with graceful form and glowing color, rich texture and harmonious compositional balance, joyous vitality and an intrinsic, ineluctable strength that is humbling but never threatening. In these lush, optimistic canvases, what lies beneath the luminous surface is even more wondrous than what shines above, and surprises are gifts glowing with a life we cannot help but treasure.

To close, Chuck Wachtel’s “Sheltering in Place” directs its tender, laser gaze on the modest beauty of ordinary life under extraordinary threat. This deep and moving elegy to the “fierce, continual” struggle to survive is dedicated and addressed to Lewis Warsh, a friend and kindred spirit whose poetry and prose also confronted issues of identity and mortality via specific and loving attention to the day to day. The gentle understatement of Wachtel’s elegy to the fragile hyper-normality of our current lives “sheltering in place / for the entire moment we hover in the serene eye // of this raging storm” offers a balm for our weary, grieving psyches, even as it confronts the reason for that need, those fearful forces threatening to “come crashing through the walls.” The real challenge, Wachtel reminds us, is as modest as it is daunting: to “try to continue being who we still, mostly / are.”

On behalf of our contributors, thank you for reading. Please protect each other, and stay strong.

with love and hope,

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann