Francesco Levato

from SCARLET

Margot
Barcode, Notepad, Hospital Bracelet
Hell-On
Caffè Macchiato, Cloth Napkin
Three Neck Distilling Flask
Flag on Pole, Inert
Artist’s Statement

 

SCARLET began as a digital visual/poetic meditation on the fractured state of psyche induced by extended social isolation under COVID-19 lockdown. The project has since evolved to document the social disruption of the pandemic as we move through its various mutations and surges.

The digital/visual poems are created through erasure of the novel The Scarlet Plague collaged with glitched imagery from everyday life during the pandemic. The titles of poems in the series are then derived from objects contained in each glitched still life.

Glitching is a technique that introduces errors into the code of a digital file or stream that distorts its presentation. The error-induced fracturing of images in SCARLET is intended to defamiliarize everyday objects and surroundings to reflect the psyche under the constant stress of the pandemic.

The Scarlet Plague is a post-apocalyptic novel by Jack London, published in 1912, set in California during the year 2073, after the world’s population is decimated by an uncontrollable pandemic.

Francesco Levato is a poet, translator, and new media artist. Recent books include SCARLET (forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil in 2023); Arsenal/Sin DocumentosEndless, Beautiful, Exact; and Elegy for Dead Languages. He holds an MFA in Poetry, a PhD in English Studies, and is an Associate Professor of Literature & Writing Studies at California State University San Marcos.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 32)

 

Welcome to Posit 32! Depth and moral courage inform the formal and substantive genius of the poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, and collage gathered here. This is art and literature that grapples with the current state of our selves and our world: the countless ways our possibilities for living are impacted by the pandemic and the abuses we wreak upon the planet and each other — while also exploring timeless human preoccupations such as beauty and desire, aging and loss: the “inevitable / And irresistant. Ubiquitous and sacred” (Andrew Levy, “Nicked”). Here is art that “renounces renunciation” (Laura Moriarty, “Which Walks 5”) to demonstrate the “embracing // moveableness in holding on still” (Rahana K. Ismail, “Burn on my Mother’s Forearm”) — shaped with a passion for the stuff of its own making, including “words . . . like plums in the mouth—plums spirit will never share” (Dennis Hinrichsen, “[readymade] [With iPhone in It and Two or Three Plums]”).

With their elaborate agglomerations of shape, color, and texture, Ron Baron’s vases fashion beauty and vitality from sorrow and loss. Assembling remnants of discarded household objects into vessels whose curvaceous contours and expressive handles strongly suggest the human figure, Baron celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Standing tall and proud with their ‘hands’ on their hips, these figures are survivors, emerging from adversity to confront the future. At once exuberant and touching, these works speak to the potential of damage to generate the forward-looking self. These unities assembled from mementos of individual loss are also testaments to collective perseverance, with special resonance for our atomized isolation in the early days of the pandemic, when the series was conceived.

Michael Brosnan returns to Posit with a suite of elegantly crafted poems confronting the challenge of meaning-making when “[y]ou and I, we are here for a spell. / And we need to speak honestly” – and, to be honest, “our story is in tatters.” As cleverly structured as they are direct and plain-spoken, these poems deftly and probingly enact what they address, applying a disciplined practice of attention to the humble stuff of dailiness, “seeking new possibilities / in a small illusion with unambiguous lines” in order to come to terms with the fact that “we sip from words that sound like glory, / then rest on eternity’s pouty lip.”

C Culbertson’s poems create a magical space where body and intellect, emotion and abstraction commingle and sing. Culbertson’s enigmatic, sonorous formulations are as haunting as they are elusive. This gifted poet’s “thrown fragments, gathering what lush silences” manage to be at once rich and spare in an “attempt at articulating the attempt, not so much in discontinuities but // startling constants, infinite // palpable bitter its indulgent // sighs but still brackish, & / tender / heat.” “Inclined to embrace the sensuous agonies of the world,” Culbertson’s intrepid verses “trace an intensity” whose “reverberations of affect echo” in the heart and mind of the reader.

Elisabeth Adwin Edwards perfectly observes and renders the extraordinary/ordinary moments we all experience, and the questions and realizations they engender. Roaming in CVS for the obligatory 15 minutes after a Covid vaccination, she notes all the reminders of how we are limited by our capitalist consumption and its personal cost: “How many / gradations of gray / eyeliner all // the shades / of a depression,“ as well as the cost for our planet: “You say Someone //could build a raft /from these pallets/ of bottled water // if they drank the bottles first.” Then, in the face of personal loss, the stray bits of knowledge that we come across take on new meaning. We “learn that the tissues of ankles are the softest part of a body. How fragile the seams holding us together, how easily we come apart.” Even when mourning, the body reminds us, or we remind the body, that we still live: “At home I masturbate using those shorn and throbbing fingertips, the ones on my left hand, because coming means I’m alive. I’m doing everything I can to stay in this body.”

Sean Ennis’s almost-hopeful, witty but painful story of a narrator trying to cope with his partner’s mental health and his own insecurities works on several levels. In a conversation ostensibly about movies, “Grace and I talked about the type of story we’d like to see told.” Since “[t]here are, of course, multiple frameworks available to choose from,” the reader is treated to a story about the characters, but also about the act of writing itself. Everything in the marvelously unpredictable movement of this narration is tentative: the flowers that were not planted, the narrator’s struggle to make a living (“I’m becoming more non-profit”), the not-so-good meals he cooks, the “tiptoes on a sticky floor.” Ennis cleverly uses language to both shape the story and to show how language changes us as we think it, as well as how it could change us, if we’d let it: “It was a new day, but fragile!”

In poems that juggle and encompass magical shifts of time and perception, Peter Gurnis weaves the history of a place and time into the here and now, even as his narrator claims to tell time by the living detail: “I pay attention to lilacs, and such-like native fruit. / I pay attention to the birds.” In these poems grounded in a seemingly mundane domestic life, going to the post office, sitting at home, and even a simple walk engender questions of marvelous transformation. “What if you could only think of the name for a river by going on a walk? What if you could only think about a river by falling into sleep?” Gurnis’s narrator becomes absorbed into the language and events of the past, invoking Henry (Thoreau?) and further back, Increase Mather. He recounts memories and dark events: “a handful of feathers coming out of a loving mouth,” a child who “coughed up a handful of soot,” as well as “Invisible Furies” like “the Capitalist . . . or an indefatigable lynx,” but “This is but a speculation.” Yet, what happens in the brain also happens, doesn’t it? “For example, once / I saw a tanager being eaten by a hawk. And in the evening, he nailed /on the wall: / a landscape of greenish yellow, dark blues and black. / While his wife watched from a chair. / And the cat slept.”

Sue Havens’s ceramic sculptures have an almost icon-like presence. These are shapes that stay in the memory, in rich and various patterns and colors reminiscent of beautiful sea creatures like the nudibranch or different species of coral. Finding inspiration in such sources as thrift-store finds, miniature golf architecture, kilim rugs and tree bark, to name a few, Havens creates sculpted and drawn environments that incorporate layering, tactility, and the accidental. Havens is seduced by the world in its myriad forms and textures and her work offers the viewer a kaleidoscopic record of this world, so that, as she says, “content might be remembered, discovered, and felt.”

Dennis Hindrichsen’s pure honesty and explicit eye detail the brutality of loneliness and growing older, as well as our sure knowledge that we are destroying the planet, “besieged by end times // a toxic forever chemical feeling” in which “I am sarcophagus // but I don’t worry the half-life because they are better than plutonium and Jesus—the fluoropolymers—they do not break down // I ingest by pan (dearest Teflon™) // by clothing and pizza box” while exploiting people: “shirt Sri Lankan—pants Vietnamese—//the one or two women/from among the millions toiling on my behalf//muttering names under their/breath—harsh//names—mine again—their sweat and tears/falling into the fabrics (I love buying shirts).” We may say we love the planet, although it doesn’t seem to stop us from our shallow pursuits. Yet these poems also celebrate desire, “the substrate vector—why / deny it,” and the moments when love strips away our façade, as, for instance, for “a friend I love—he is failing— /death is in him like a leaf—or paddle into a river—/one heron angling crosswise. //He saw this once—shallows to deeper shallows— /and was moved by it—//and so I will pause here now (hearing voices) (reliving joy)—/obliterating all my coolness.”

In language heady with compassion and love, Rahana K. Ismail’s lyrical visual images of daily life and the natural world speak to the profound connection of the physical and metaphysical. In “Burns on My Mother’s Forearm,” “[a] moth alights on the clabbered cloudlet skin. / Brown sleep sprawled on wings, an embracing //movableness in holding on still, a cotton-woolled /confession smudging the edges…” And in “Crochet,” a troubled girl is set a frustrating task: “Having the amaranth yarn make the first hole is to open another hole another /hole another hole,” which becomes a moving meditation on loss and the learning of it. “Carrying loss is to open loss like a package: a snarl of yarn or a window you climb over/ when the bars fall away, the room you hear the ill /-oiled swing of a sewing machine, / the foot treadle groaning a rust-ridden elegy. To be unable to search for my sea-glass / quietude in the red-oxide drone.”

Jean Kane’s prose poems consider the limitations and possibilities of autonomy under existential threat. Cryptic and compressed to the point of codification, Kane’s potent, razor-sharp prose is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s virtuosic linguistic and conceptual puzzles. Evoking the emotional complexity of a father’s transition to death and a “Skewed History” of abortifacients as instruments of free will, these dense works are bookended by a meditation on the anxious vulnerability of being the “Unmasked” prey of human and virus alike, and a fantasy of what it might mean to “Unclench” and “soothe [the] knots” of the constraints of personal identity itself. Like two sides of the same coin, “Unclench” and “Unmasked Hours” evoke self-exposure’s potential for anxiety or liberation – to suffer “pit panic” or to “float walking under a bank of air,” “open and open without expulsion into the blue over bare trees.”

Francesco Levato’s fascinating combination of glitch technique and erasure strikingly portrays the social isolation of our attempts to cope with Covid and the disruption of the psyche the pandemic has caused. Words selected from pages of Jack London’s novel The Scarlet Plague reiterate our fear of death, while the distorted objects themselves, as well as the fractured movement in the glitching process, symbolize a reality that has undergone a profound change with chilling effects. Levato’s titles, too, lend weight to the seriousness of this societal earthquake and its repercussions. “Barcode, Notepad, Hospital Bracelet” evokes the dangerous and deadly consequences of the pandemic; and the allusion of “In Flag on Pole, Inert” is followed by text that suggests a society unprepared: “the way to kill it / went no / farther. /they /were /unable to move /and / years in discovering how.”

Andrew Levy invites the reader into the process of his brilliant and multiplicious thinking, which ranges (and sometimes rages) from postulating other strange and wonderful modes of being (“Nonhuman / intellectual property? //The other side of an opposable thumb”) to work that sharply makes plain the bitterness and absurdity of our inescapably political existence: “I gave a check for ten million to my friend who has been without any means of existence. // My own spirit observes the indifferent, the debris of a good atrocity.” Like a dark film, devastating and elemental, Levy’s language surprises us into a truth: “Gunmen break open / An alien distance,” as his elegant imagination leads the reader to an altered perspective: “And yet, from his writing desk, / Disenchantment inhabits the subject. Its rigorous /architectural elastic symptom.”

In this selection of poems and related artworks, Laura Moriarty heeds the exhortation of Yoko Ono’s Walk Piece to “look out / as the broken world // breaks again” in order to contemplate the variety of ways in which both world and artist are “drawn to bits.” The active reader has much to unpack in these formidable intellectual and prosodically dazzling excursions, richly conceptual and studded as they are with word play, double entendre, rhyme, and rhythmic riffs. The works of an artist “inwardly // directed to / arrange and play / as we (rapt) / are carried off,” these poems and multimedia creations emerge from a practice of “daily acquisition” not only of “beads… balls . . . brass. . . [and] steel” but of observation, insight, and recollection. Moriarty creates incantatory assemblages capable of managing “what we want: // an engine of past time, / creation, and abstraction // whose apparatus / reflects the precision of // wrapped glass / collapsed threading through / the fastness // of everything as everything / found or findable // resolves into action.” By “resolving the ‘made place” / into the made real day,” Moriarty is committed to bending art to the monumental and necessary task of changing reality itself.

Begun at the outset of the pandemic, the collages in Jill Moser’s Nude Palette reveal both shifts from, and continuities with a body of work dedicated, in her own words, to the “teasing of form and gesture each insisting on the other.” In these collages, initially assembled from fragments of past work in collaboration with poet Anna Maria Hong, Moser’s dense, vividly chromatic biomorphic forms evoke poured and pooling fluids, gels, bubbles, cells, and bodily organs layered over and contained by geometric structures in a saturated matte palette that glows with vitality. Any departures from Moser’s earlier work are in keeping with the circumstances of their conception in the early days of quarantine — from gesture to form; from line to solid; from dynamic to static (or at least contained); from a contemplation of signification (often in a tonal palette) to being (in the vital tones of Spring). But perhaps the seeming shift from gesture to form is better understood as an evolution of focus — since form, as Moser has remarked, is simply gesture suspended. And in fact, many of the ovoid, stacked shapes in these works are familiar from earlier series like Syntax, Topographies, and Naming Game. In some ways, these biomorphic forms appear as isolated and confined within their shelters as we all were during lockdown. But just as collaboration was their origin and animating impulse, these collages enact the collaborative interdependence of form and color – thereby celebrating deeper, if quieter, dimensions of connection. Texturally rich and dense as buds, these lovely works salve the anxiety of trying times by reminding us of the beauteous “thereness” of what is, ripe with the potential of what will be.

Julie Marie Wade’s Jeopardy poems contain multitudes. Playful, sly, carefully constructed verbal puzzles, they are also sophisticated meditations on the academicization of insight (“this phenomenon is college, where the lexicon begins to bloat at prodigious rates”), as well as frank considerations of desire and its elusions. This is the work of a writer who has “been studying Beauty all this time—assaying so as to essay? probing so as to poem?” – where the beauties in question are sexual, intellectual, and linguistic, as this excerpt from an extended abecedarian demonstrates. Noting the “little irony of our language that vexes as it woos” and musing about the nature and intensity of paradigm shifts in which “it’s your old version of reality that’s fading now, losing consciousness,” Wade notes that “sometimes a shift is a harsh slip. Sometimes a dig is a cruel joke. Sometimes what I actually know amounts to a weird log cabin made of used Popsicle sticks…”

Thank you for being here!

With love and gratitude,

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann