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Welcome to Posit 29!
As we find ourselves heading into a third year of the “cruel ongoingness” (Jared Stanley, Air is Normally Invisible) of this pandemic in which “we / are all held captive” (Burt Kimmelman, Cicadas, July), we’re grateful to offer this exceptional selection of poetry, prose, and art as a salutary and substantive alternative to doom-scrolling and despair. Much as we may feel like “[t]he chaos wheel is gaining momentum” and we are “cage mates together / in some psychodrama” (Barbara Henning, Naked), the rich variety of work in this issue offers enough wisdom, resourcefulness, and creative mastery to make even the worst of our “world-weariness . . . fade.” (Patty Seyburn, Against Weltschmerz).
Many of the pieces featured here directly address the experience of living during this pandemic, whether to “sketch out / this prison” (Rodrigo Toscano, 21st Century Odyssey), or to remind us of what persists, or might emerge, beyond the bars. But more importantly, all of these works illuminate ‘how we live now,’ even as they remind us of the inspiration, and sometimes hope, that can be found in what is all around us: “postcards // of French women smoking long cigarettes” (Glen Armstrong, Cherry Cola XVI), “[f]og – when the car light hits it just so” (Dennis Barone, Copious Notes), “the beauty of pigeons” (Barbara Henning, The Beauty of Pigeons), “a little treat, something bubbly but uncaffeinated, something with tropical packaging” (Elise Houcek, Whose Shirt Was Surely Fleece), “a vee of geese/ push[ing] south” (Jill Khoury, chronic lyric: corrosion), “white trees, forest- / dark trunks to no end” (Burt Kimmelman, Mid-February at the Parapet), “’Rent Me’ / billboards // on a ghostly interstate” (Richard Peabody, The Show Me State), planets which “touch on the lip of the horizon” (Jared Stanley, Air is Normally Invisible), Greek mythology (Holly Wong’s assemblages), the properties of light (Al Wong’s installations and videos), organic forms (Tamar Zinn’s canvases, Adrien Lürssen’s cyanotype erasures), and even the “dozen discourses // . . . vying / for your attention” (Rodrigo Toscano, 21st Century Odyssey) – as well, of course, as language itself, from “Aureole. Aurora. Antibody” to “Wreath. Zodiac” (Maureen Seaton, Corona) – not to mention “words with spit in them like ferkakte” (Patty Seyburn, To My Daughter: a prophecy).
Glen Armstrong’s Cherry Cola series documents how the themes of childhood and the strangest and smallest bits of the past – “the crawl spaces, / attics // chambers for squirrel bones, baby hair / and broken Christmas ornaments” – still play upon us in the present. In both form and content, the poems brilliantly and seamlessly shift time for the reader, as well as for the narrator and “sister” who, as in a gently haunted house, are the childhood characters who find themselves grown up and grown older, living still in the enthusiasms of childhood; living perhaps, as “[c]ircuses . . . [which] think of themselves as yesterday / while arriving tomorrow / night.” This time shifting has advantages: “Sister hears the trailers that unfold / into wonders, hears the / elephant / dreaming,” and the caring relationship between the siblings continues, preserving hope, even in the face of the foreboding future: “Hope or the way you have to think in order to go on.”
Dennis Barone’s lyrical and elegiac prose poems from his forthcoming Field Guide to the Rehearsal grapple with the frustration and wonder of the human condition, as well as the inspiration to be found in the “millions of facts in the night of knowledge.” These powerful, understated pieces remind us that “everything has to start: blue water in the oceans, for example . . . and endless charts that correct error and a fragrance that perpetuates gospel hours.” At the same time, we are “[g]hostlike,” “the batteries that hammer our steel in the shadow of an abandoned factory.” Barone also takes “copious notes” on the full range of poetic muses embedded in living, from the quotidian details of inanimate objects like a “coffee-mug with no coffee,” to the lyricism of the everyday: “a voice speaking and the listener not yet ready to hear it,” or “scarecrows. . . lift[ing] their faces to the moonlight.” And, in addition to the wonders of the imagination, like “a meeting with the speaking tiger,” there is the dialogue of art itself, such as “Wallace Stevens in winter” or “a melody: oboe concerto” by Bellini to sustain and be sustained by this accomplished poet.
Barbara Henning recounts the experiences of the poet living in the city, literally living the phenomenology of what she sees, hears, and experiences, written into clear moments of conscious existence. Like the drama of a breakup unfolding in real time “[a]t the table next to me in Veselka’s,” in which the narrator “overhear[s] a couple arguing. You idiot. This judgement of me and you tell me now?” Ambulating within and around her living map, the poet notes the reality of the metaphysical: “in a secret, dark, ambiguous language the trees in Tompkins Square, my big old friends, spread out.” Henning writes the events of life with uncensored honesty; aging and the ills that come with it, the shock of a diagnosis, then the mind’s instinctive turn to the visual and concrete, so much easier and more comforting to ascertain and inventory: “Hello, I just found out / I have a heart abnormality. / Three teaspoons and six handles / of dessert spoons.” And yet, Henning shows us we are timeless beings, too: “In the mirror, my lips look young / and swollen like orange segments.” Henning’s characteristic ingenious and beautiful enfolding of simple statement and stark emotion encompasses the very spirit of poetry, its pathos and wit. Her voltas bring to mind the familiar perception puzzle of woman and vase: “The century’s turned and I’ve / lost my remote control.” Wandering in Henning’s city of the mind, we find the depth in what we daily see and hear, and a hoped-for connection to a life profoundly lived.
The pathos of Elise Houcek’s prose meditations on our frightfully narrowed pandemic lives is leavened by their sharp and sparkling layer of irony. This suite of poems takes off from the non-events of pandemic life: grocery shopping as “a date idea,” a walk past a stone lion guarding a small white house “in this frenzy-ornamented town,” and the “deconstructed tableaux” inside the closed eyelids of a narrator lying in the “Saturday morning casket” of her bed, contemplating the possibility that she “would never return to work again.” These poems open out from the specificity of our myopic historical moment to illuminate universal challenges of identity itself, reminding us that “the real beauty” of the word for a certain failure is “not its clicking into this particular question but its clicking more generally.”
With lyrical musicality, Jill Khoury’s poems distill chronic illness’s saturation and domination of the sufferer’s psyche – evoking not only the isolation it engenders, but the courage it demands. In pure o, the poet’s wordplay and prosody give voice to a consciousness locked in a harrowing inward spiral of doubt, the “i myself in blame only / this self- / appointed pointed i.” And in these three chronic lyrics, we get an intimate glimpse of how pain can commandeer a life, becoming, seriatim, the architect of its “brutalist masterpiece . . . dollhouse;” the companion “lay[ing] across me like a crust — / dissembling, our easy husk;” and its fate – a hyena “pac[ing] by the front doorstep / . . . scent[ing] an abundance of gifts.”
With tanka-like quiet and perception, Burt Kimmelman’s short and intense poems capture the beauty of nature, and more. With their seeming simplicity of attention to ocean, snow, and wind at a particular time and place, these poems reveal the disquieting and impersonal (as the gods are impersonal) essence of nature, and the delusion of our apparent indifference, that “we no/longer care for/the dark blue sea.” Because we are human, we want to believe that somehow, benevolently, “The snow bounds, / binds us / to our pact” offering “stillness / to catch us when we / fall,” although the question is, rather, do we have the strength to endure among the “white trees, forest- / dark trunks to no end.” Perhaps, in the end, we are not really the actors on our surroundings or the engineers of our fate, relative to the “sun in morning / trees, summer heat” by which “we / are all held captive.”
Adrian Lürssen’s cyanotype erasures from Rudyard Kipling’s A Second Rate Woman produce visual artifacts of resonant calm and glowing beauty. Their spare and lyrical texts are salvaged from the yellowed pages of an old paperback, allowing rips, creases, and ragged edges to enhance the fractured glow of the few words left to float on cerulean grounds. The minimal texts Lürssen extracts are quiet and intense (“The City / silent and I / open;” “first / to speak / but / their / teeth / un- / earthing”), layered over the ghostly shadows of vegetal forms which bring to mind lithe aquatic plants swaying in limpid blue water, as well as starry night skies. Created in the midst of the pandemic, these works extract ineffable beauty from a historical moment as freighted and problematic as Kipling’s text itself. In this poet’s hands, the notion of erasure takes on new interest. Like swords into ploughshares, Lürssen’s excisions of Kipling’s texts answer a moral imperative, even as the act of salvage and the loveliness of its artifacts is optimistic.
In Richard Peabody’s punchy, plain-spoken poems, the stagnation and provincialism of “Banana Republican” American culture is juxtaposed with the synthetic, and ultimately transcendent power of art – not least the poet’s own. Peabody’s sharp, spare, unflinching observations of a culture in which “every highway / . . . is a runaway truck ramp” deliver a complex critique tempered by appreciation. These poems take us on a road trip that yields not only a “one-way ticket / to Biscuitville” but also a “walk / through / Gabor Szabo’s / dreams.” In Peabody’s clear-eyed but undaunted view, Susan Rothenberg’s abstract yet recognizable, moving yet mysterious canvases offer a critical answer to the “[w]hirlwind / in the distance” that it is “[a]s necessary and / ephemeral as that.”
Maureen Seaton’s poetry contemplating the subject of death is “astonishingly open.” The very aliveness of her approach, its humor, gratitude, and compassion, gives us a new way to understand the commingling of our pasts with our certain, inescapable future. This poet’s joie de vivre and insight, with the aid of the muse, help stitch it all together, from the youthful freedom of inspiration, the “words straight from the horizon where light begins // where if you wanted / to be quiet w/a hat pulled over your ears // or wrapped in a silence / even multitudes could not pierce // you couldn’t,” to desire: “the scrappy nuns warned us / from our biblical beginnings / that messing around with boys / would be the death of us /and they were right, oh God! / Now here I am, tarnished / as a sad old silver gravy boat” – all the way to the present. In Corona, a tour de force combining definitions with quotations from an early British 20th century novel, Seaton’s insight and contagious optimism delight and inspire, even when “the world simply continues to be witless in ways that involve the dying and the dead.”
In Patty Seyburn’s supremely well-wrought verse, insight and humor emerge organically from a sparkling amalgam of erudition and colloquialism, intellectualism and humility. In these poetic pep-talks, a hyper-educated yet down-to-earth narrator is “relying on the 7 Greeks for solace. / The 7 Greeks, and leftovers” to cheer herself up. That she loves “spatulas because they flip things over /so you can see the other side / and know there is another side” should come as no surprise, as Seyburn wields her prosodic spatula with sly grace, dazzling agility, and impeccable timing. Juggling references to Archilochus and broccoli, Plato and pump toothpaste, Marvel comics and homo habilis, fovea and shayna punim, these sure-handed constructions master volta after nimble volta, striking the bull’s eye of irony and insight (without a hint of hamartia).
Jared Stanley’s dreamlike evocation of the uncertainty of our world right now, in which “snow melts in the gaps between pavers” with “a faint scent (cool) / born in peacetime, fooled by permanence,” reflects our disorientation with the pandemic, the myriad effects of climate change, and our efforts to cope. Although we do what we can, and what we hope will work, “teach[ing] the kid to eat tubers and avoid roads,” these poems remind us that “it won’t help when things get serious.” And they do: “On Saturday my son lost his sense of smell” / it had no public meaning.” We are as helpless as “lungs in Pompeii, lungs in plaster.” But Stanley’s poems offer a prayer, a wish, that catches the shimmering beauty of the world and gives us hope, “crack[ing] the window enough to let him / glide through on a hairstreak’s back.”
Rodrigo Toscano’s new poems take a grave yet playful giant step back to reveal the universal nature of the social and psychological predicaments of our times. These poems “sketch out this prison” of our 21st century, pandemic-shrunken lives to expose the ways that ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ From sexual politics to aesthetic camps, Toscano looks backwards and forwards in time at the “constraints / and liberties,” the “ends” and “means,” the “rituals” and “vying” and “vanguards” that have been “retrofitted / jimmied / just enough to /make relevance.” These humorous, hard-hitting poems hold a mirror to our species, forcing us to confront the “sentiments, sediment / surfeit of silly stances” making us so “frisky-frightened” of ourselves, and what we have wrought.
Viewing Al Wong’s sculptures depends on our experience of moving through opposites like dark and light, as separate entities that make a whole. In his video, Fire on the Line, the element of time gives us a further dimension. Instead of the slow moving of time we associate with the pandemic, and the longing that it be over which makes it seem even longer, the movement in Wong’s light sculpture explores another aspect of time; its ineffability and changeability. We can suddenly apprehend a brightness like a butterfly or a falling star, brief delights that are somehow part of the whole. Throughout the film, we are held by the interplay of opposites: shadow and substance are interchangeable, sound is evocative, although it gives no clue to its nature, and we are invited not to analyze but to experience iterations of movement and color, luminous canes of light. We see and hear rhythms separately, but time makes them whole: a ritual chord of music, the shapes of light and darkness that make strangely compelling suggestions of icicles, wind, a fountain, a waterfall becoming fire – elements that embody both presence and absence. It is this harmony that Wong asks us to notice and delight in.
Holly Wong’s vibrant, dynamic multimedia works embody a synthesis that is as optimistic as it is ambitious. Uniting a wide range of visual elements and cultural referents, the interconnected multiplicity of her constructions evokes the living, breathing energy of communities, and even worlds. Suggestive of petals, vines, hair, muscles, and scales, webs, grids, nests, wings, and flames, Wong’s interdependent forms swirl, flow, and spiral outward and upward, unfurling from their energetic centers to float and reach, grow, and become. The delicacy of her interwoven forms reveals the power of motion, the strength of flexibility, and the resilience of porosity. Intertwining the organic and the geometric, vivid color and black and white, wind and water, flowering and flames, Wong’s creations synthesize the resonance of their mythological and cultural referents with her visual and tactile imaginative fertility to harmonize the past with the future, adversity with hope.
Tamar Zinn’s paintings and drawings come from personal meditation where breath provides the opening for the spaces in the work. In the drawings, line is the delicate boundary delineating separate moments, while always moving and exploring the space of the canvas. In the paintings, unnameable colors range from subtle to shimmering. Not depictions, but suggestive of clouds or stormy weather, the shift of these forms evokes the feeling of evanescence, while the forms themselves create the soft and mutable “lines” of the work. Formally, Zinn’s paintings touch on the glory of a Turner sunset or seascape, but untethered, as if they are the free and drifting presence of a dream.
Thank you for being here.
Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann