It is with great pleasure that we welcome you to this 28th issue of Posit.
In these times, when discouragement threatens to become permanent and loss is increasingly entrenched, the works in this issue offer views of unexpected benefits and under-appreciated treasures – the silver linings of hardship, the x-factors of deprivation, the collateral benefits of constraint. In these pages you will find literature and art that makes grace from the found, the fallen, and the discarded; harmony from entropy; and humor from sorrow.
It is not only the visual artists featured here — Joan Tanner, Robin Croft, Judith Henry, and Sarah Sloat — who penetrate and re-imagine the undervalued, ignored, and overlooked. Michael J. Henry imagines humor as well as pathos in the interior life of a gun; Ian U Lockaby harnesses the energy of linguistic combination to spark unexpected connections; and Rose Auslander, Lizzy Golda, Bryan D. Price, Rebecca Pyle, Nathaniel Rosenthalis, and Marvin Shackelford synthesize value from loss and insight from despair.
We hope and trust that all of these remarkable works will revive your sense of wonder and even hope, as they have ours.
Kirstin Allio’s poems are marvels of compression and prosodic control whose wry and penetrating preoccupations wrestle with the challenge of adaptation to our digitized, mediated lives (Adaptation II, III, and IV); the bargain we must make with death (Demeter, Wild); and our problematic compulsion and capacity for invention (Icarus). In a time when we may “miss the taste / and touch of things” and recall that “Every / one was a Special // character back in the day,” the author warns us that “Enlightenment / Thinking” may yield too much “of the wrong magic” — “a bright bland / Reason a stagnant / Season an anti-love.” To embrace the alternative, these poems suggest, requires humility and courage: an endurance of pain that amounts to “being / One with pain;” an acceptance of “the drug of not knowing / why the grassy bank across the hard / working river remains wild.”
In Rose Auslander’s beautiful and haunting poems, despair is a demon that takes on various vicious yet beguiling masks to torment us, despite our defiance: “It better keep its hands / to itself, better not / slit your wrists & / say you did.” But the demon doesn’t allow a moment of contentment: “maybe I wake singing / just a note / maybe two & / it steps on my throat. / says smile.” Still, the self fights against the insidious “carrion flower says // sssh / lie still / . . . who cares / how deep it might reach up / in you.” At each new ambush, despite the menace lurking in even the loved guises of earth, water, or a breeze through the window, the self recognizes and captures it in the written word. Even as “it seasons me / in weeds & mud,” the psyche works to transform the “softened, seeping” into a beneficent essence to “become frankincense, // almost. like / forgiveness / invisible, pure.”
Robin Croft’s site-specific installations assemble found materials to explore the effects of time and place on meaning and form. Croft’s oeuvre, including his sculptures and works on paper, with their implicit and explicit references to such “greater and lesser gods” as Van Gogh, Camus, Kafka, Guston, and Duchamp, brings us face to face with the melancholic and bitterly comedic drama of mortality. Shipwreck Irene juxtaposes the locality of its materials with the incongruity of what Croft and his collaborators have so carefully constructed, grounding a ship in a forest, the vessel meticulously woven from the deadfall like an enormous basket. The same work “in decay” reveals its integration into its unlikely setting. In contrast to its challenging namesake (Duchamp’s Étant Donnés), Croft’s A taunt done, eh? creates a window onto an actual idyllic landscape without the shocking interposition of Duchamp’s spread-eagled nude. That work, like Pandemic Portal, with its vision of an arch reminiscent of a rainbow waiting at the end of our viral tunnel, seems to offer a glimmer of hope to balance the grim humor imbuing Croft’s works on paper, notwithstanding their reminder that there “ain’t nothing funny about despair.”
A life force animates Lizzy Golda’s poetry, which casts a clear gaze on life’s joyful and generative dimensions side by side with its pain, abuse, and demise. Contemplating the remains of a home, the narrator, observing that “No one likes to be / abandoned but we enjoy / escaping problems,” nonetheless identifies with the ruin, since: “when adrenaline touches / me between the eyes, / I’m riding a horse / so giddy she thrills to throw / me like winds throw rain.” (Stone House). An address to the Aztec goddess of love and beauty celebrates the fact that “All the little seeds / of every fruit and flower / are inside of us,” while The Dybbuk speaks for the haunting and haunted spirit of a “Yiddish play / full of music no one knows / in [the] dead language” of people “They thought . . . were so ugly.” These poems sing with sensitive attention to life in all of its complexity with a gifted “tongue / curled around a star.”
Judith Henry’s photography and sculpture delve beneath the surface of appearance, broadening the implications of identity by troubling the line between self and other, us and them. In Beauty Masks, the self-portrait is re-imagined and expanded as the self is multiplied yet hidden by magazine images, composing new identities from the expected and the ‘found.’ Casting Call repurposes detritus from the artist’s studio to sculpt a fanciful assortment of humanoid figures which evoke the multiplicity of identity itself. Henry’s use of juxtaposition and repurposing enact the complex relationship between the surface and the inner life; between the notion of beauty promulgated by the fashion magazines from which her images are sourced and a deeper layer of identity hidden beneath the ‘acceptable’ and expected surface – depths into which these works allow us to peer, even as they peer out at us.
In these poems by Michael J. Henry, intimate and often surprising aspects of American aggression and its existential angst are embodied in the persona of a gun. Sympathetic as Gun is — he “wants to feel good / about coining of phrase, knowing the known,” Gun is also like “us fellas, us boys” who are “all knowers . . . big talkers . . . always lecturing.” What’s more, Gun is lonely, “his body far from all other bodies,” perhaps because, even to his own dismay, his mere attention is destructive: when “Gun thought of a hockey game — / the ice rink melted and /became a tsunami.” His thoughts alone are capable of “smashing everything to smithereens.” These poems’ analogy to American meddling is as inescapable as their evocation of its pathos is perceptive: after the “teens running from the high school . . . didn’t seem to appreciate / the kind gesture” of his “kind” wave, we are reminded that Gun “curled up fetal on his creaky bed / and wept.”
There are practical truths as well as wit and wonder in Ian U Lockaby’s pieces on work on a farm where “the sides of the well collapsed, vegetable and anxiety farmed all up the sides of the water source.” In these poems, dense with linguistic energy and implication, “the meter is the motor” and “all utility must be watched.” Lockaby’s brilliant and rhythmic use of wordplay recalls Gertrude Stein’s arch linguistic play (“There’s water in the well, well, well;” “To nib with the dibble is to wear the long red gown of the weather”) even as it beautifully conjoins the language of the trade with a seasonal and poetic sensibility. We are left with the home truths of the laborer — or any of us, for that matter – but with a brilliant and elusive twist: “Shuffle your green and wilting feet. The work’s not over it’s under you. Rising up in to and through you.”
In Jonathan Minton’s evocative espistolary poems — letters, perhaps, from another civilization, or from an imagined future for us all — the addressed “you” is a powerful personage as well as a lover. There is something of the yearning of Donal Og in Minton’s repetition of the second person address: “When I stitched my mistakes into yet another monster, / you said it was fate, but you locked the tower gates. / You took my grief into a faraway kingdom, and built a room for it, / where impish creatures scratch the floors in the dark.” But the yearning is based, perhaps, on regret for a collapsing civilization as well: “The wood is dissolving around the nails and rare coins. / They are like smooth, lidless eyes staring up from their depths.” However, it may be that memory, like a lantern, is what will keep us going on: “I carry this memory like a lantern or a cup into its next sentence. / Something imaginary keeps it there, as with all ships in their harbor, / or swords that carve their plunder into smaller treasure.”
Bryan D. Price’s starkly beautiful poems speak to, and for, all of us whose lives are “held in place with safety pins,” “just / gesturing toward life and persisting.” Despite the desperation of their “cr[ies] for help” these poems remind us of “of trying to / be your beautiful actor,” urging us not to “waste the / command to go forth and reciprocate.” The harshness of Price’s assessment of his fellow “self-contained vessel[s] of putrid annoyance” also manages to encompass and enact an implicit belief in the value of observation and representation, in “render[ing] pain . . . us[ing] small words as bitten down as seeds” “until you have made sense of the brutality.”
The women in Rebecca Pyle’s mordant and witty stories live predominantly in their own imaginations, convinced, even to the literal moment of death, that “royalty really is in your head.” Yet, somehow, there is pathos in their preference for dreams and their perseverance in what they acknowledge as impossible loves, and impossible hopes. Both stories feature idealists who “could have found someone. But they didn’t want just anyone. Not yet. They were holding out for the perfect one.” Both are “almost-astronauts” hoping to dodge “the law of averages” by which “outer space . . . would kill you somehow . . . Unless you had extreme backing, extreme luck, extreme in-the-right-place at-the-right-time luck.” In Cartoon of Goodness the narrator provides a service called “Hold You Close” in which she offers her “sweetly laundered” bed as a temporary “home base, to which frightened almost-astronauts returned.” And in The Dying Plane, the protagonist is returning to the US, soon to move “to a huge numb city in America,” after a year away in “the red-velvet-dressed great sweet bed of geographical amnesia.” As she falls asleep on the plane, thoughts of the smartly dressed airline steward, Norse-named English towns, King Lear and royalty all mingle until she wakes to the knowledge of a disaster she considers “a tailored match to her despair.”
Max Ridge’s poetry is “Half mettle and half swoon” if not also “equal parts honest and bleach.” With charming archaic phraseology (“Grains green up / and the ewe doddles / probably”) and thoroughly modern insight (“That’s the shanty, and / that’s the turncoat / who made the check out / to scandal and personality”), Ridge takes account of the suspended time we are all cognizant of living right now: “the present, / where careful heroes sit waiting / for photographs to tint.” Maybe this “time vs time” we are living through has given us a clearer self-knowledge. As the persona in Hello, Caesura says wryly: “We need not be perfect. / I, for one, gave up good / in August,” although “When I love someone . . . I want to give them everything. / I give them everything in the wrong order, / or allow it all at once. That / is how I beach the thing.” “With / interpretation, inpatient warmth” these poems’ insightful and “provocative passes at the truth” can be counted on to hit their marks.
Nathaniel Rosenthalis’s “Self Portraits” address unvarnished elements of love and longing with haiku-like economy. The blunt candor of these spare poems is balanced by their aesthetic control to combine pathos with bathos and insight with humor. Plain-spoken and vividly imagistic, these poems convey the pain of abandonment and desire for attentions that are far from idealized: a kiss like “a tiny / desktop garden / of fake succulents,” or “embarrassing / underarm stains.” These poems confront the gulf between ‘seems’ and ‘is’ when even the former is far from ideal. The intimacy of their revelations is as courageous as it is funny, and their poetic craftmanship as masterful as it is modest.
It’s easy to envision Marvin Shackelford’s vivid work as film. He has an eye for the cinematographic glance that gives the viewer the complete scene. In the hospital: “The door to five was closed, locked, but someone the other side bleated like a sheep. In four a woman lay snoring loudly, a rhythm to her breath suggesting the tremulous ringtone of an older phone.” But Shackelford’s stories move swiftly from the almost surreal-real we recognize directly to the threatening deep: “And there at the entrance you shucked rainwater from your pink umbrella. The fountains of the deep threatened to swallow you.” In The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail, a brilliant characterization of a recognizable persona in our world, the “third living pope,” explores the tailoring of religion to fit a charismatic individual who “wonders aloud what the keys he’s taken hold from Saint Peter are actually supposed to start. He pictures Heaven like a cherry-red Mustang and Hell its fuel tank, launched into the backseat when it’s struck just right.” Shackelford’s secret skill is in getting the reader to see the irony in our behavior, and yet to sympathize with our frailty: “We weren’t the warrior sons and priestesses’ daughters who took this place by force and sealed it in stone. We were a disappointment,” say those left with a world destroyed by the storied ancestors in whom they “wanted to believe.”
Sarah Sloat layers cryptic aphorisms reminiscent of Franz Kafka and Jenny Holtzer along with digital graphics over archival postcards whose relationship to the overlying material is anything but straightforward. Layered almost ominously over these quaintly antiquated scenes, Sloat’s texts and graphics seem to loom over the unsuspecting innocence of a bygone era. Against our contemporary backdrop of Instagram and SnapChat, Sloat’s revival of the postcard is pointedly resonant, reminding us of the long pedigree of the bourgeois impulse to display just how far one has come from where one began. Despite the compositional grace and mysterious beauty of these assemblages, they convey a subtle unease: All is not right in Sloat’s worlds, and nothing is simple.
The title of Joan Tanner’s series, FLAW, exposes just the kinds of assumptions her art explodes. What, after all, is a flaw? How are we to look at what is imperfect, discarded, or no longer useful? Tanner’s sculptural compositions reveal the shallowness of our hierarchical and utilitarian assumptions. Her complex groupings of category-defying materials and unidentifiable forms ask us to attend to the actual in all of its unruly and unexpected grace. Tanner re-envisions the materials of utility and function –– unfinished plywood, tubular steel, nuts, bolts, netting, gear chains, plastic tubing, wires, etc. — in forms that suggest no recognizable use. Although she neither ornaments nor refines her materials to more predictably identify them as “art,” Tanner arranges the detritus of the functional in compositions that transcend it. By suggesting such purely “artistic” images as landscapes inhabited by figural groupings, clouds, and waves, or subtly biomorphic forms floating and dancing like birds or butterflies on currents of air or water, these works transform how we perceive, until what at first blush seemed harsh or chaotic becomes graceful and harmonious. Tanner brings out the hidden music in the everyday world we might otherwise ignore.
Thank you so much for visiting. Stay safe, stay well — and take care of each other!
Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann