John Walser

Joe Williams Singing

Joe Williams’s voice
is candle wax
swallow snuffing
another flame
into loose smoke:

is three in the morning
August stepping alone
out of a club
when you don’t know
it summer steady steady rained
an hour earlier:

no thunder, no thrashing:

when the night’s naugahyde
and passing taxis
sound like satisfaction:

and people stomp shake their heads
when they walk through doors:
nobody annoyed:

just the street air
like a polished stone.

His voice: that only slightly cool front
that mineral washes your neck:

and somehow the woman you love
next to you:
her hand on your arm:

and you are traveling lighter
than you have ever traveled before.

Alone again: his voice
is the sidewalks, the parkways
the curbs, the dead streetlights
slow lighting the grated stores:

and you want a joint smoked
in the gateway to that hot hunched night
streetlamp dampness:
the condensation of air conditioner notes.

And he sings:
No one needs to worry.

And you say to a barking dog shadow:
It is funny that way.

And you think: These things remind me of her:

even though she has no body right now.

Joe Williams’s voice
is your worrying
you won’t remember
how to get home:
which stop is yours:
until the bells
of the elevated train:
the Blessed Church of Here to There:

If you can get through the turnstile
and up the stairs
you are sanctified:

even if you have to wooden platform wait
five or ten minutes
for the next train to come.

This is the moment:
the opening of the doors:

this is the hardplastic sea
the soft plastic light you enter:
and you wish you had carried a flask

and you know that you don’t want to sleep.

And you don’t sleep when you get home:

you wish for a fire escape:
you wish you smoked cigarettes
so you could sit and watch
what is puffed out disappear
vapors like Joe Williams singing.

Before the Solstice

The first sweat day
of way too early this year
praise hallelujah thrash:
of vibration waves of swelter
that make the house
expand and float
and soften.

Already the irises
already the tulips
rain and wind
and early blooming
have turned the sticks
to empty green fuses
to goblets broken off
to shafts without
arrows or fletching
without flight.

June first marks:
scrub brown drought
and need and
daily watering:
coleus, tomatoes
hanging strawberry plant
the flowering vines
we hope
will climb creep wrap
like leather work
around the rust trellis.

These are the important things:
what has passed:
what’s to come:
what’s to pass again.

A broken branch:
core living:
dangle bark strapped
to the trunk
of the apron maple.

If I talk enough about
sky wind shadows June:
if I shimmer push undulate
like the flowerbed
across the way:
if I count airplanes
that leave pale contrails
against the haze sky
almost washed of any color:
if I wonder the utility flags
that mark places not to dig.

Soon: I think:
the collapse of barely blue sky:
what is crushed
and then tossed away.

A blather of birch leaves
thick tick click shifting:
another tatter surge of storms:
too says: Soon
the rain rushes:

even though this doesn’t feel
like a summer storm yet.

Somehow despite the radar
that moved a blob
of heavy green over the city
that spurred and blossomed
to red and yellow over the lakefront:
not a drop:

when all I want
is a downpour drench
that turns gutters to creeks
avenues to swelling
intersections to the drowning
bulges of rivers
the wind to vandalism:

when all I want
is the rain to really mean it.

The lightning that flashes
now to the north
is beyond the lake
beyond its other shore
beyond the expressway cutting
across space to get to
another place:

it flare outline lights
the cloud banks.

That storm won’t pass
anywhere near us either.

Call and response
in layers of slap and overlap
crows again stark as tar
bark across the different channel distances
of the neighborhood.

The sky again greys:
and I’m listening, listening, listening.

But it’s hard to tell
if that’s a thin thin rain
or just a shimmy
of the window screen.

So I’m still waiting
for the big storm to hit:
the one that silences the birds
and floods the mud spots:

the one that rush scours
a straightline disturbance:
leaves like paper ash
windcaught and lawnscattered
like itching.

I’m waiting for that moment when
despite the translucent sway canopy
I have to race room to room
upstairs to shut out
the torrent wind, the blow in soak
and rumble roll that doesn’t stop
for thirty-seconds, forty five
a minute of grind and smudge.

I’m waiting for that deluge moment
of cloudburst grace and wonder.


See today’s sky: the saturated grey
like lethargy, like giving up:
how it hangs high and motionless:

and the Irish cross of the well before January dusk
streetlamp like weak berry tea:

and the garage lights already starring white.

Last night we bolted ourselves in again
and tried not to go into the basement
or upstairs until bed or by the windows
that cold leaked through the glass.

Can we fairytale turn on the oven
and climb inside without burning? we asked.

We trade color drain for cold: or
the other way around:
those the only transactions:
the ones that hold us barely melt miserable
or bright freeze miserable:
December, January, February:

not much other than that.

But then something lets loose just a little
some shell, some husk, some bark
some pod, some rind, some hull
some skin, some chaff, some crust
some peel, some case, some carapace
some nut, some shuck, some chassis
some frame, some edge, some film
some coat, some gauze, some web
some veil, some foil.

So be my witness that the snowpile push
hardened by thaw and rain, by night freeze
doesn’t give even under my whole weight step
yet I am still body: yet I am still here.

Saturday Night, Summer Solstice

At Stonehenge this morning
people chorus sway gather watched
sun, rocks, pathway to the river line up:
the cycles of crops and breathing.

We have afternoon nap slept into the evening:
the water orange before sunset light
angle filter filling the hallway
hinting into our bedroom.

We call it Necessity: we call it Rejuvenation:
as primal as bleach: our skin on skin:
the sweat of sleep, the need for sloughing.

I love the word slough:
always have:

its dryness: the way in my throat:
a chrysalis: it gets left behind
like a jacket on a bench
or sunglasses in a bus
or whatever it was I left
on the top shelf of the garage
the apartment complex
I moved out of in the middle of last winter
boxes of books to donate
because we have found
this better place together.

And I know I’m being coy here:
because in every way this
is another love poem
although I still stick by my statement
that I wrote breakup poems
before I met you:

and I never want to write one of those about us:
although we both know
everything ends in the clay smooth flesh:
the cells that divide:
the splintering beat
the core wood snap:

and then the bark will slough
after the leaves have sloughed
and branches and limbs
under winter weight in springtime wind
will fall to become kindling.

I can hear your hairdryer upstairs
and it also sounds like the word slough:
heated and coiled.

This morning almost drunk in the friction
of night birds final notes singing the almost sunrise
we sloughed our clothes and rolled into each other
until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore:

and I kicked the covers down on my side of the bed
and we slept not enough
but rewound ourselves a little
my breath sloughing on your neck
your breath sloughing on mine.

In my office here, now: Donald Byrd plays
I’m a fool to want you
slow and low as this latest dusk:
and I’m not a fool to know that when
I come out, when I see you
when we sofa sit for an evening
when we kiss, when the windows
let in the soft eagerness of rain
on the full canopy of the backyard
when that next sweat of sleep again binds us
I will want you even more.

I always didn’t want to grow old and die:
but now it’s you I don’t want to die
so together we can grow wrinkled
and old as afternoon sheets.

We will still have all our teeth
and taste buds to still love
the roasted tomatoes right out of the oven
the herbed goat cheese crackers
the good white wine
we will share tonight:

and we will roll into each other
brittle and soft at the same time.

Forty more years, we say:
that nearly impossible promise:
before either of us sloughs
off this mortal coil.

Night starts early:
the simple wash of rain
that started while we slept
the afternoon:

the sky still bright:
but with the sun hidden:
no shadows or only shadows.

Isn’t that language for you?
I don’t buy that every statement
tetherless also says the opposite
also negates itself:
because I will walk into the living room:
find you in the slough of almost dark
watching television and I will ask
after I kiss you: Dinner?
Movie? How do you feel?

And I will say: Love.

Each of those unsloughably stable
as we can make them.

John Walser’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Spillway, Water-Stone Review, Plume and december magazine. His manuscript Edgewood Orchard Galleries has been a finalist for the Autumn House Press Prize and the Ballard Spahr Prize as well as a semifinalist for the Philip Levine Prize and the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. A four-time semifinalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize, John is a professor of English at Marian University and lives in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, with his fiancée, Julie.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 31)


Welcome to Posit 31! We’re excited to offer another selection of poetry, video, visual art, and text + image that is as aesthetically innovative as it is emotionally resonant. The works in this issue deal with matters of the gravest collective hazard: war, climate change, injustice and inequality, as well as the personal suffering caused by loss, loneliness, aging, and mortality. They also explore the tenderness and exuberance of love, hope, and the joy of being alive. Formally, these works engage a particularly exciting range of original and experimental approaches to the realities of memory and experience.

As TJ Beitelman’s “Broken Sonnet as Epitaph for Straight Talk” declares and enacts, the art in this issue offers a much-needed alternative to linear approaches which do not suffice when “topography plate tectonics free market . . . killed children six times” and “the fourth estate is dead.” Since sometimes “the only way I’ve ever made meaning // is to pile it all together” (nicole v basta, “where to begin or what are you bringing”) these works eschew the temptation “to cover the hole over” (Ben Miller, “Re: Writing”) at the heart of our messy lives. In place of any such flimsy and misleading patches, these works offer a fascinating and insightful range of approaches to its irreducible topography.

nicole v basta’s poems wrestle with the necessity and problematics of hope in a society in which materialism is more cause than salve for the misery and alienation at its core. These poems confront an “america, [where] instead of tenderness, we use plastic as the counterweight to all the violence” and a child anticipates dollar store “consolation prizes” from a mother who “prays the rosary” without hope, “knowing, deep down, we are the product of the same familiar thieves.” Aspiring to a forgiveness which may be just out of emotional reach (“on the top of my throat . . . standing on a chair”) these poems manage to grasp a wise kind of hope uncoupled from illusion and find the courage to ask “where to begin and what are you bringing” – all the way to “the end of the world.”

TJ Beitleman’s innovative “broken” works free the reader by departing from the familiar forms of hymnbook lyrics, sonnets and abecedarians to suggest new ways to interpret and perceive the text. In the “Broken Hymn” series, Beitelman offers, and scrambles, lyrics one might see in a hymn book, suggesting that the poem be read both traditionally and as a mirror image that has slipped like a fault line off its axis. All of the poems are “broken” in form as well as content, concerned with fragments of regret, broken minds and broken marriages: “Words are terrible. Music is terrible. Minds jumble in them.” With its combination of science and politics, history and geology, “Broken Sonnet as Epitaph for Straight Talk” tries to make sense of our fragmentary knowledge: “(A) Here lies topography plate tectonics free market / (B) Graveyard. This graveyard killed children six times // (C) The ranking member of this or that / (D) The fourth estate (to suit the truth // (E) Up. It never happened. It never happened.” In Beitleman’s (and our) world with its unrelenting violence, these startling juxtapositions of form and content give us a choice to either “Piece it together” or “Explain it away” in light of the fact that “Aftermath is still life.”

In DPNY’s innovative and piercing short films, the concerns of the I are shown to be inextricable from the concerns of community. In recounting personal challenges, collective experiences of war, and what it means to be human, both now and for our future, DPNY explores the visual of the body, collaged with written and spoken word, recorded interview, and innovative cuts of images meaningful to the artist’s history. In “Androgynoire,” images of the artist and their voice show us a person “fully splintered,” honoring the strength of the word “No” to reiterate “I regulate myself now.” In “Testimony 1,” a visual map of Lagos and collaged written words accompany the spoken testimony of refugees from a civil war, recalling the violence and death. We are confronted with the physical and emotional devastation of ordinary people who “used to do well” but “will never have the capacity to do it again.” As DPNY says, “The Otodo Gbame are survivors speaking their truth in the court of human conscience, calling on international bystanders, like myself, to act.”

With her signature insight and wit, Elaine Equi’s tightly crafted new poems consider how we live now with a bemused empathy that brings out the tragic humor of the human condition. These pieces center on time — “the hours that fly” and “drink the last light,” in the context of a planet reeling from a pandemic and facing the prospect of environmental doom. Yet despite their observations on isolation, decline, immorality, and death (“sweet, sharp / spider’s liqueur”), these poems are as funny as we are, teetering on the brink of our self-inflicted demise. As Equi dryly observes: “Darkness is relative / where backlit screens abound.” But the distraction of our backlit screens cannot undo the mess we have made IRL, so the time has come for “Everyone [to get] into the Pyramid,” bringing not only our “altars . . . avatars / and alter egos” but our “iPads . . . sex toys and . . . almonds/ dusted with pink Himalayan salt.”

Peter Grandbois’ bleakly beautiful verses confront the challenge of continuing to “walk through the labyrinth of days” after the loss of a loved one. Unlike someone “depending / on the safe lies of memory” the bereaved narrator cannot forget “how you said / you’d take flight / from this blind dream” rather than “sit / counting drips / from the faucet.” Eschewing the comforts of faith or illusion, these poems express a pain as palpable as the truth at its core: “There is no mistaking / this haunted sky / for a field // where you might dig free / of this chosen / silence.” Nonetheless, the narrator chooses to “walk through the soughing wind / into the dimming light” because “life hums with almost / blossoms” – thereby offering the hope of hope, if not yet the thing itself.

In another kind of sonnet, Justin La Cour writes detailed and fantastic stories for his lover’s delectation with the ease of intimacy, to “surprise / you w/a story of how a bird swooped down / & swallowed a venus flytrap, but the flytrap / gnawed a hole in the bird’s belly midair til /they both crashed by the orthodontics place.” These sonnets contemplate day to day incidents with the pathos of loneliness: “This day will disappear & / I won’t get to talk to you. /… (But if I wanted you to feel sorry /for me, I’d say I’m reading novels alone in the sarcastic/afternoon.)” Then, in an original and moving compliment to the loved one, “When you speak it’s like an animal breathing /deep inside an ice sculpture of the same animal. Even the / way you shake your umbrella is completely arthouse.”

Donna McCullough works with steel, bronze, wire, and mesh to reimagine iconic forms of feminine adornment such as ball gowns and tutus. As lovely and beguiling as they are bold and witty, McCullough’s armored bodices sculpted from vintage motor oil cans and skirts of metal mesh handily upend female stereotypes of helplessness and fragility. In their stead, these sculptures decisively enact an alternative physical and psychological narrative of fortitude and capability in which feminine strength and practicality is part and parcel of its grace and beauty.

Like maps of thought itself, Ben Miller’s graffiti-like gestures and faux-naïve doodles wander through a cornucupia of textual meditations on life, memory, and art-making. Branching and winding, traveling backwards and upside-down, Miller’s combination of abstract and representational images, sensorial memory fragments, and essayistic cogitations create a world in which Keith Haring meets James Joyce. These works explore the artist’s choice to “walk . . . out on the constructions of the page” in order “to allow the piece to have shoots like a plant” rather than “cover the hole over and hope it stayed covered.” The sheer profusion and intricacy of marks and text presented in such deliberate and exuberant defiance of conventional directionality enact Miller’s commitment to “remain enmeshed in the intent to get fully lost / in the trusted atmosphere of being,” richly rewarding the reader/viewer willing to surrender to their riches.

Soledad Salamé has created a wide-ranging body of work honoring the beauty of the natural world and the radiance of its life-giving elements while warning us of its vulnerability to our abuse— as well as our own vulnerability to the increasingly catastrophic consequences of our recklessness. The depth and scope of her investigations into our impact on our environment encompasses drawing, painting, photography, print-making, stage design, and life-sized installation, featuring dynamic, living elements such as water and plants. Salamé’s explorations of light, water, and time are as meticulously researched and executed as they are wide-ranging and inventive, featuring painstaking re-creations of natural phenomena like ice, water, and resin-interred life forms, as well as technological elements like barcodes. Salamé’s precision-crafted worlds mirror and comment upon our own with a balance, and serenity made all the more disturbing by their implications.

Mara Adamitz Scrupe finds the core connection of human spirit in the procreation and decay of nature and the beauty in the commingling of animal and vegetable as well as the human passion to be the thing, as well as admire it: “& here I am /an enterprise flawed & wounded in amalgamates /of shame & hubris / ambition & my own private /hungers / something creamed off as in /scoop the topmost richest layer as in /smash the glass door to get inside.” Scrupe’s ornate imagery binds the feminine to the life of plants: “do not think I don’t know the important /element of any fabric /landscape / wild ginger on the precipice the down /slope the true side soft /pubescent & tender.” And in “Rope,” another kind of human passion possesses a modern Leda in the hubris of youth: “I was / I know I thought I knew / enough to let go of the rope.”

In Ashley Somwaru’s brilliant poems, the speaker interrogates her own fear and shame as a witness to her mother’s life. In “Eh Gyal,Yuh Nah Get Shame” the first shocking line (“You /want / to be bludgeoned /don’t you?”) plunges the reader into a depiction of a terrible beating and the speaker’s fear and shame projected as disdain of the victim. The vivid imagery of despair and the language of remembered childhood show the inevitability of this abuse: “Spine arched /like the leather belt used for beatings. / Slicked with soap and Black / Label. Pata stink. / Your body /as boulders breaking / sea waves.” The poem-as-interview “Dear Little One” speaks with a wrenching honesty that both blames and tries to understand a child’s abandonment of, and distancing from, her mother’s failure to resist brutality. “You didn’t understand before your mother became who she was, she was a motorcycle rider, a woman who could hold her head under water long enough to show you what breathing means. You should’ve said, Mother, I’ll stop feeding off your arms. Mother, I’ll let you stop slipping yourself into the pot.”

Barbara Tomash’s sensuous imagery and serious questioning are lyrically and intellectually bonded in a modern and fantastical philosopher’s treatise, a little sacred and a little profane. The form of the poems, reminiscent of incunabula, enshrines beauty in the natural and spiritual worlds: “isn’t it better to err on the side of / the invisible than the visible a / fine film of capillaries gathered / into veins leads back to my heart / on the far shore the growling of / other animals intensifies.” But the poems are also a history of the deadliness of our human attempts at science, and our mixed prayers to be defended from our own experiments: “yes we poured vinegar / and pepper into the mouth / applied red hot pokers to the feet /let it not come near me but cells / that have been starved for more / than five minutes die not from / lack of oxygen but when their / oxygen supply resumes let it not fold round or over me.” What if this poetic history of humanity is the foundation of a new way to think about the world? “What if I told you there is a peg in my center secured to the ground and yet I am freely spinning.”

In John Walser’s lyrical descriptions of music, an afternoon, or a word, each further search he makes deepens the feel of the described object, which also turns out not to be the subject of the poem, but rather the unnamable feeling behind that object: “But then something lets loose just a little /some shell, some husk, some bark /some pod, some rind, some hull /some skin, some chaff, some crust /some peel, some case, some carapace;” and “Joe Williams’s voice / is candle wax / swallow snuffing /another flame / into loose smoke.” And in as beautiful a love poem as ever we’ve read, the word slough is defined, refined, and redefined into another word for love: “I love the word slough: always have: /its dryness: the way in my throat: /a chrysalis: it gets left behind /like a jacket on a bench…”

In considering the process of aging, Donald Zirilli’s poems are both witty (“Imagine how cool I look lying on landscaping bricks, wondering when the ants will reach me, / considering I might be in a Tai Chi position called Unable to Get Up”) and disorienting, as poetry itself is disorienting and yet centers us in truth: “I have a warning / about the poems I sent you. They’re not done. The poems that you asked for / are not quite written. Whatever you saw in them is not entirely out of me.” Some realizations can only come later, as the poet remembers his childhood numbness in the face of a grandmother’s death: “but I believe I heard her long ago forgiving me /already for today /for the wintry / blankness of my head / the dull abandoned / fireplace of my heart / in a house burned down /that she would answer /to whom I would not speak.”

In Martha Zweig’s compressed poetics, wordplay and prosody are not ornaments or highlights but the very stuff of the poem’s construction. There are as many levels of irony and pathos in these lines as there are layers of assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme, all delivered in snappy staccato rhythms underscoring the sharpness of the poet’s vision. Zweig’s punchy, high-friction linking of ending and beginning, creation and destruction, and ultimately, life and death throw off sparks of insight at gleeful risk of bursting into flame – not, perhaps, an altogether unappealing outcome for the narrator of “Gloaming” who prefers to “take another flirt at the world” rather than let herself get “suckered & sapped” by the “bluedevil dirty earth” with its “gory locks of lice / & beggary, strategy, calculus, scrapheap / scrubbed & pricked to glitter.”

Thank you so much for being here.

With love and gratitude,

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann