Welcome to our (gulp) 30th issue! Although (to paraphrase David Byrne) we’re not quite sure how we got here, we’re thrilled that we have, thanks to the vivid and continuing engagement of our growing family of contributors and readers. For this milestone issue, we have once again gathered the work of distinguished artists and writers (both acclaimed and emerging) that is as resonant and relevant as it is aesthetically exciting.
Here you will find poetry and prose by Isaac Akanmu, Tyrone Williams, and Pearl Button that confronts the historical and contemporary poison of racism and colonial appropriation, alongside work by Julie Choffel, Erika Eckart, Vi Khi Nao & Jessica Alexander, Jo O’Lone Hahn, Sam Wein, and Nancy White exploring gender repression and violence – as well as its persistent, sometimes even exuberant defiance “swinging ourselves to wonderment” (Sam Wein, Season of Fanny Packs). The innovative poetics of Kristi Maxwell, Benjamin Landry, and Dennis James Sweeney speak to the state of the planet and even the dubious nature of the future itself, while the visual art of Andrea Burgay, Taraneh Mosadegh and Ana Rendich grapples in a different idiom with the existential challenge of living as moral and emotional beings in a threatened and threatening world.
In this abused and abuse-riddled world, the need for art that speaks to the struggle between fury, despair, and hope is as great as the necessity for wonder and delight. Defying the temptation to let “your horror here . . . be unheard” (Tyrone Williams, History, History, All is History) these works confront the way our “sense . . . of apocalyptic expectation, wars with the roiling beauty” of existence (Pearl Button, to Mr. B. Spinoza). That our species is blighted and blessed is inescapable. This very duality is addressed by these works, even as their virtuosity offers proof of the latter.
Isaac Akanmu’s inventive prose texts with lyric counterpoint begin in first person at a cookout that turns into a shooting, move to the descriptive third of a “teenage alien who searches for rest in [the] tired song” of the national anthem, and finally pan to a prison ballgame. Each poem exposes the experience of America’s promises violently broken. The protection promised by the mythicized “rockets’ red glare” is no match for the “red glare, blue glare, then red glare . . . of cop cars.” And at Pelican Bay prison, “uncle sam has them under duress. clamped. shackled. locked up. the defensive player of the year. unanimous. four hundred years running.” But as a coda, in spite of all this, a sweet, sad lyric keeps singing of the persistence of life as resistance in itself: “perhaps red blue glare, then red glare again is proof / through the night that he too still lives.”
By preserving the shapes and structures of the books whose covers and pages she deconstructs for her sculptural collages, Andrea Burgay reorders and builds upon their ruins to reconstruct new artifacts of singular energy and intensity. Mysterious, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring, the works in this series comment upon and take flight from our literary legacy – from anonymous vintage paperbacks to Dante’s Purgatorio and Shakespeare’s plays – to engage the limitations and potential of verbal narrative. Peeling open and exploding the problematics of the past — the very “rhetoric and false decoration” identified by T.S. Eliot and incorporated into the title of one of these works — these complex and probing artifacts uncover and create fragmented and elusive glimpses of the multitude of futures our problematic past might seed.
Pearl Button’s delightful and poetic postcards are full of the erudite and charming personality of the sender, whose name and essence we never know, and who is an intimate friend of Spinoza and Newton, the Venus Hottentot and the Venus of Willendorf. The postcards effortlessly shift from witty to lyric and back. She seems equally at ease admonishing Spinoza: “The wonder of your conception of the relative nature of morality, snaps against the absence of chance in your necessity. I am no abstainer from reason, but can’t you see that . . . we only inhabit reason as one does a cottage in the summer?” as she is evoking her own physicality to a 30,000 year old statue: “When I walk? Mostly it is a rushing of sky. . . My knees became soft levers emitting a contralto hum; hips lilac rockers, arms, golden clock hands on silicate wheels, spinning Mingus’ goodbye pork pie hat.” These excursions of intellect and imagination are a celebration of the cerebral and the poetic. Button also captures our yearning for connection and our hope for the future in a redressing of our cruel and colonialist past, imagining “a world where you [Saartjie Baartman-Khoikho] are what counts as normal, and you can imagine a world built for someone like me.”
Julie Choffel’s poetry grapples boldly and bluntly with fundamental questions of living and parenting, like how to “find. . . beauty in the terrible world” and “see abundance in the wreck,” or how to teach our children anything of value beyond the plea that they “pretend I DID THIS DIFFERENTLY.” These darkly witty verses challenge the value of human industry and its fundamental egotism, exposing the mess we humans have made with the very impact whose value we so grossly overestimate. The radical alternative proposed by this brave and brilliant “conscientious objector of /the whole way” is a “not-lesson / not wealth accumulation / not permanent structures / not award ceremonies.” These poems offer an ambitiously unambitious inaction plan, modeled on the modest efficiency of gleaners, grounded in the admirably ego-less goal of making “nothing but room / for something else.”
In Erika Eckart’s brilliant and moving short fiction, women desperately struggle with the consuming worry of being a parent despite the societal forces stacked against them. In Sight, the pain of a parasite in one eye creates an alternate, desired vision of an alcoholic daughter’s life, in which she is “sober, happy, apple-cheeked, riding a fucking horse, lisa-frank style” although “[i]n the other open, still-operational eye, the daughter is running up a hill mostly naked, it is cold out, she is warning the neighbors about hallucinated phantoms.” In Prepper, a woman so used to trying to keep her children fed through a lifetime of poverty that she “for dinner once prepared a box of Jiffy muffin mix with nothing but water and split the rubbery yield among 5,” continues to hoard stale food after the kids are grown, despite the fact that “[m]uch of it was boxes of dust,” because “[w]hen reconstituted with water it transforms to the equivalent of stacking all the furniture against the door.” In the pull of the water, a mother struggles to keep her small boy from climbing a fence to get to the swirling creek below because “[h]e needs to throw himself in, to be the thing dragged by the current and pulled under, to dance against the rocks.” Eckart’s answer to the question posed by a passing stranger, “What are you going to do when he’s too big for you?” brings light and a wry kind of comfort.
Benjamin Landry’s penetrating and resonant engagements with The Arcades Project build on, and take off from, Walter Benjamin’s contemplation of the aesthetic and societal significance of Paris’ Galeries de Bois. With meticulous economy, Landry’s spare and musical verses consider aspects of the “[f]eatureless desert of now” such as the problematics of closure (“you’d / never guess completion’s sickness,”) the “dissolute gravitas” of grandeur in contrast with “the wet white teeth / of modesty,” the dehumanization of war, with its capacity to convert us into “regiment[s] of brute-faced / animals” by suppressing the “crucial information” that “everyone / has a mother,” and the soulless ease of mercantile capitalism so effectively served by the Galeries de Bois to offer a seductive “place out of the weather where the remains / of the world are brushed clean, cataloged, / reconstructed, finally understood.”
Kristi Maxwell’s extinction poems delight the ear, the tongue and the intellect, while reminding us that language used inventively can uncover, through humor and surprise, a deeper and sadder truth. “Chromosomes form self’s reef—we reek of luck” begins extinction (Giant Panda), calling into question our human tendency to believe we somehow deserve a superior place on the planet; no matter how much we value ourselves, we too, are subject to extinction: “Messy crumb of us crumbles more. We’re else.” We are also the means of extinction for many species, and likely our planet itself; we’re “da bomb’s damp wick.” But maybe there is yet a way for us to “unbecome to become.” After all, “[w]e’re our souls’ humus, yes?”
Taraneh Mosadegh’s reverse-glass paintings depict abstracted organic forms in translucent, jewel-toned layers that explore the interconnectedness of existence. These works feature reiterated motifs recontextualized to reveal the porous nature of conventional distinctions between sky and sea, animal and vegetal, animate and inanimate, and micro and macro, by way of images resembling plankton, flowers, and stars; cells as well as eggs; and human heads as well as planets. Layered over Mosadegh’s generous engagement with the unbounded and un-boundaried plentitude of the natural world is her engagement with human culture and social justice. The land of her birth is invoked in The Wind Will Carry Us, which is named for either Kiarostami’s film, the poem by Forough Farrokhzad for which that was named, or both. Her depiction of Mount Damavand, the iconic “roof of Iran,” recalls Cezanne’s studies of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Other works take their titles from the poetry of Bashō and Celan (including an image, in the latter, reminiscent of a hooded Guantanamo prisoner). Mosadegh’s use of a Venetian technique not used in Iran until the late 19th and early 20th centuries further enacts the syncretic inclusivity of this artist’s vision.
In A Dead Cave Called Sleep, Vi Khi Nao and Jess Alexander’s intense color exposures of a train station mirror the bold and surreal text made up of both actual and internal journeys of the narrators/lovers. Changes in color and font within the text heighten the emotional impact of every element, from recalling newspaper accounts of a tennis star’s abuse to observing an abusive interaction in real time: the outer observation and the inner pain mingle. In a frighteningly familiar scenario, “[t]he door opened and the angle of their bodies was so covert and revelatory, you felt as though you’d crawled into a stranger’s bed and you apologized and let the doors close on them again and took the steps up to the pedestrian bridge. And when you arrived she was stepping out of the elevator and he was gripping the back of her neck and telling her they’d work it out. They’d work it out.” These almost-daily assaults on women’s psyches are one of the sources of pain for the narrator and color these lovers’ relationship as intensely as the photos, preventing, perhaps, the intimacy that would heal it: “You wished I had a pain free life. That’s called death, I said, and you disagreed. Death isn’t life you said and repeated yourself, knocking each word out – like a mallet sounding out the hollowness of a wall.” Or, perhaps, like this powerful piece, sounding out its resonance.
Jo O’Lone-Hahn’s stark and artful cycle of interconnected poems confront a young woman’s struggle with the ever-present threat of violence. In these powerful poems, the toxicity of objectification embodied in a trophy of feminine desirability, a County fair princess sash, is exposed for what it is by a refrain which evokes the dread “draped across your breast” by the menacing reality of the stalker’s ‘admiration.’ In a brutal world defined by power, where “eating is always / death & equally / so for / all things / eaten” and “scientists / often choose / to save only / creatures that / eat smaller / creatures,” a preyed-upon young woman is driven to contemplate suicide in order to “decide between // sacrifice or triage” in her desperation to regain control of her own fate.
Ana Rendich’s masterful variations of intensity and translucence in color in both painting and sculpture, and her innovative use of materials such as resin, paper, and old tools, combine to make powerful, startling statements about the emotional nature of our lives. Rendich says, “Hope in the light of loss and displacement is my primary subject,” and indeed, joy (surely a form of hope) is invoked in the viewer in pieces like littlegiant, a delightful assemblage of machine, resin and paper; while on the other hand, we feel the loss in the tattered grey of the moving Rescued pieces, and Mourning and Hope (a response to the artist’s research into personal letters from World War II). These works remind us that although we experience fear and loss, art is a form of reparation and healing.
Dennis James Sweeney’s singing poems alternate between the communal “we” and the personal “I” while operating on both the immediate and figurative levels. One can imagine a community of beings who express themselves in images rather than narrative, viewing history and its most problematic elements through a more purely lyrical lens. In Sweeney’s complex formulations, imagistic and idiomatic implications build meaning in layers: a “moon as blue as gold / the chosen pockmarked in it” draws a parallel between the rarity of gold metal and a ‘blue moon’ while evoking their glowing colors scarred by damage. Sweeney’s resonant neologisms recall Celan’s, and add to the sense that this work creates its own idiom to address the puzzle and paradox of existence: the body’s “box- / house of organs,” the “already-said” “rightlanguage” to which “[w]e gave the years,” the “rest-road” that “does not flake / but hollows / with throat talk.” In the almost neo-Imagist poem, “I built a subtle,” emotion (gasp) is embodied in startling metaphor: “I slept like an egg through the ungulate night: I clenched like hard bread, gray in back of blue.”
Sam Wein vividly details the pivotal moments in a closeted childhood when the wide-open future could suddenly be envisioned, in spite of the social mores of the time. Although the narrator had a loving and perceptive grandmother who he wants “to think . . . knew about all my boyfriends like I knew a handful of treats would be waiting” whenever he visited her, it was the discovery of the magic of defiance as a self-defining experience that was pivotal to his self-realization: learning “how to talk my way under the water slide /over the sledding hill, up the chimney / where I grow glittery wings / Wings made/of lies.” He recognizes the delight and necessity of pushing against the expected when he sees “a queer, 70s themed dance troop from/ the Valley with packs at their waists” and thinks, “I need / to be that. I need to be them. The judges told them I want / to see the fellas dance like fellas and they didn’t—they didn’t listen.” The reader applauds, and is inspired by, his exuberant breakthrough: “I’ll have style at my waist, like you. I won’t listen to anybody.”
Nancy White’s poems consider the sorrows and joys of life and death with serenity and tact. If entire poems can be onomatopoetic, these gems of craft and compression are just that. Deftly enacting what it depicts, Spell rings with an incantatory music that is as compelling as it is hypnotic, casting a spell designed to ease one’s passage from weight to weightlessness (“Instead of stalking, flutter. Swap pound / for patter and shank for shim”) and life to death (“Soften, offer, / drift. Oh, weep. Waft, puff, / settle. Widen. Stop.”) And Traveler, like its eponymous narrator going home to a land of “homes drastic and identical” to visit parents who “were not [her] people,” hints at the wrenching pain of her dislocation — and the more drastic measures we surmise she later needed to take in order to fully chart her own course, as well as the victory of that liberation — with delicate subtlety, aware that the “correct way” the family “embraced at formal events” might “corrode” “[s]hould the sight of [her] uncovered throat” or “the smell of joy provoke.”
The spare, objective imagism of Tyrone Williams’ A Little Coffee In A Saucer recalls William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow and purple plums — haunted by the ghosts of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, and the countless other victims, past and present, of racist violence. Tyrone Williams’ musical prosodics elegantly ‘rhyme’ with the visual effect of his one- and two-word lines to keep the stanzas flowing in a long, thin, liquid stream. But the spilled brown coffee that “cools / as it pools” over the (white?) “faux / porcelain” chillingly recalls the unchecked stream of cooling Black blood still being met by “brown // lips” with a “black shiver.” History, framed by a haunting quote from a documentary about Lebanon’s home-grown 1960s space program, laments the endless cycle of colonization and appropriation, from concealment (“In the lawn around an island of sycamores the roots are beginning to show”) to denial (“Throw a few bags of denial on ‘em”) to the complicity of difference and distance that lets us “slip into the trance of another life, needing your horror here to be unheard.” Not only, the poem reminds us, are such differences and distances illusory, especially when a “patch of Yankee know-how updates the trick,” but we have no choice but to “resign . . . ourselves to one another” since the cycle will go on “indefinitely.”
Thank you for helping us celebrate this milestone by honoring their incredible work!
Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann