Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1960s through 1980s, I often heard my mother talking of the “big house” and the class system that was clearly in place, ending each story with “Their ways weren’t our ways”; later, when my family ran a boarding house, she would dismiss the tourists who stayed with us with the same comment. My childhood was defined by the “if you can’t make it, you can’t have it” Ireland, a place where making things—food, shelter, ornament—and making do were central to both the physical and emotional survival of the family. That reality and the resulting radical attitude to tradition, high-class impurity, and rascality inherent in the Irish culture of that time expressed itself not only in my mother’s words but in the language, literature, people, and music that surrounded me as an adolescent. As a young painter this sensibility naturally carried over into how I looked at the modern masters, and to the questions asked of their conventions and their “ways.” I’ve always been most interested in the modest lyricism of the purely mundane, never feeling abstraction to be the sole province of the heroic and the cerebral. Throughout my career, I have been constructing a very personal and idiomatic formal language based in simple materials and unglamorous gestures, a framework which functions as a kind of syntactical grid of shifting equivalences. The “paintings” that emerge from this process know their family history, a narrative of greatness fallen on hard times. Yet, for all that, they remain remarkably un-defensive, wobbly, presuming no need to disavow the past or defy the present. I work from memoir, stories of growing up on the farm in Wexford and my life now in the States, short stories that I then fashion from the archaeology of my studio. I work the studio as my father worked the farm, with invention out of need, using my own displacement as fodder for meaning. I take things apart, forgetting conventions and reapply my own story to the form. I revel in the history of painting, its rules, its beauty, its techniques, but fold them back into the agricultural language I grew up with. I’m interested in the personal, my own story, and the history of storytelling. My new work delves into my own history as a painter, rooting in the ruins and failures of my own studio for both subject matter and raw material. I have disassembled the wooden structures of previous paintings—the stretchers, panels, and frames—and have cut them back to rudimentary hand-built slabs of wood, glued and patched together, their history of being stapled, splashed with bits of paint, and stapled again to linen clearly evident. The residual marks on the frames, coupled with their internal organization, begin to form a constellation of densities, implying an idiomatic syntax of organic fluctuation where compact spaces coexist with the appearance of gaping holes where the rickety bridges have given way. Formal and structural concerns become inseparable, the slippery organization of their fluctuating grids showing a transparency both literal and historical. With both serenity and abandon, these structures imagine the possibility that painting might take root and find a place to press forward into fertile new terrain. Humorous, enigmatic, these fragments bare their histories as well-worn objects, and in that maintain a certain irrefutable integrity, speaking to both the strengths and frailties ingrained by hard use and the passage of time. What long remained hidden as merely the bones behind the image plane have been exhumed and remade into the tendons and sinews of the image itself. Through the process of deconstruction and reassembly, the pieces invert the conventional anatomical hierarchies of painting in an attempt to find what is fresh and vital among the entrails of the image. The paintings affirm over and over again in elegant fashion the pleasures of a demanding and nonjudgmental yet always self-conscious practice of painting that gives joy to the eye and substance to the spirit. I am interested in painting that would stand up without the usual structures of support. I am looking at my own life, the history of Sean-nós singing in Irish music, Beckett’s pared-down language, and the currency of need found in most houses when I was growing up.
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