Peter Gurnis

from Light’s Glare

The woman who works at the Post Office told me that spring is almost here.
I told her, I hadn’t noticed. I’ve looked at the lilac buds, the twig-buds.
I said to the woman at the Post Office. I pay attention to lilacs, and such-like native fruit.
I pay attention to the birds. I keep count of the days by marking them off with a pencil.
And yet, nothing has changed. And then she said that the ice is almost gone.
She said the winter is about to vanish. It’s about to vanish out of sight.
You ought to pay attention, she said. You ought to pay attention to the signs.
But where are the geese? Where are the noisy geese?
He walked out to the woods. Then she locked the kitchen door.
He shut the gate as if to keep the others out, and never said a thing. In the first place,
she left the door ajar. In the first place, she could not sleep at night.
What if you could only think of the name for a river by going on a walk?
What if you could only think about a river by falling into sleep?
Say what you will about last Thursday’s freakish blizzard.
We found old names in a catalog of apples
(dried leaves, bare trees).

*

The sentence ought to be hanging from a nail.
After pushing his wife out a window, opprobrious speech.
In theory: our domestic life, especially for those at sea.

The stuffing in my head, broken bones:
what kills rats and snakes.

Excellent for jaundice.
If eaten raw, it resists drunkenness.
Any gnawing of the belly, hiccoughs, urine, coughs.
I was half-thinking about bog iron, or the noise coming out of a pond,

for instance.

Henry wandered like a cloud (an oak tree, a pile of bricks).
For those who lost their ears in a blizzard, or by walking in extremis.
It says that our rivers shall be opened by April 20th for alewives and shad.
Look up into a chimney (and see stars),
perhaps that is the lost definition of refuge: to seek shelter in a chimney,
to hide inside. And thus, escape the ambuscade.

*

Increase Mather said to his wife.
To every seed its own body (1 Corinthians 15.38).
Being so curiously wrought that He twists into shape a firmament:
an Exhortation / out of a Crumbling book: loose at the hinges.
Whosoever designedly and by any pretense,
privy or false token.
Nota Bene: because I had built a house on a cake of ice.
Before I knew any of the facts. Kisses are exceedingly sweet amongst friends.
Or else, to fly away (with a bounce or Crack).
And thus, running westerly into the swamp at the end of Little Flag meadow,
or else by going toward the east, where you will find a pile of stones at the top of Bare Hill,
on the other side of Andover. Yesterday, or the day after that, a constable came to the door
with a summons issued by the Court of Oyer and Terminer:
Its vertue doth lye in the heart, communicated by the heart, to the Pith of a tree,
and thru the [pith] to the stone inside of an open fruit,
namely in its juicy heart.

*

The child hath grievous fits.
And at Stonington an Indian came to the door. With a Book of ecclesiastical rags.
Those who are Righteous ought not to be frightened by the discourse of a coiled rope.
What kind of evidence is a handful of feathers coming out of a loving mouth?
After I locked the door to the house and climbed into bed.
After she said what she said to the others. About the time
I found Bridget in the orchard with a brindled cow. The child coughed up a handful of soot.
Indeed, I saw her crawl out of a hole. After I had locked the door to the orchard.
And Deliverance Hobbs reached out of the dark. The thing spoke plainly.
About how to insure against the loss of any fragrant vine. For example:
once he found a vacancy in the distance, which is incontrovertible proof.
Upon hearing the news, they cried, dreadful, dreadful.
At which our ears doth tingle. So an apricock [stone] brings forth a plum,
yea the seeds of an apple bring forth a thousand trees.
And the Capitalist, like a cormorant, or an indefatigable lynx.
Invisible Furies.
*

This is but a speculation.
If you follow the old turnpike to Framingham
on the back of an ox, or decide to stay in bed on a sunny day.
Think of what needs to be done: pruning the apple tree, nailing down the roof.
He walked out of the house, thinking about a wooden boat (pink azaleas, days of dreary rain).
My wife says that I am querulous. She says, a brilliantly amorphous story!
And worries about the traffic inside of my head.
Yesterday, I felt like a wasp nest.
Yesterday, I sat in my chair and tried to
imagine what goes on inside of the hive. I said to my wife,
think of a swarming hive as a brain, hanging from an imaginary branch.
And today, I don’t know why: that blue teapot. For example, once
I saw a tanager being eaten by a hawk. And in the evening, he nailed on the wall:
a landscape of greenish yellow, dark blues and black.
While his wife watched from a chair.
And the cat slept.

Peter Gurnis lives in Tenants Harbor, Maine. In 1987, Burning Deck Press published The Body of Liberties. More recently, Antony Barnett printed “The Admiralty Prize” in his magazine Snow Lit Review (#5). 

Editors’ Notes (Posit 32)

 

Welcome to Posit 32! Depth and moral courage inform the formal and substantive genius of the poetry, fiction, painting, sculpture, and collage gathered here. This is art and literature that grapples with the current state of our selves and our world: the countless ways our possibilities for living are impacted by the pandemic and the abuses we wreak upon the planet and each other — while also exploring timeless human preoccupations such as beauty and desire, aging and loss: the “inevitable / And irresistant. Ubiquitous and sacred” (Andrew Levy, “Nicked”). Here is art that “renounces renunciation” (Laura Moriarty, “Which Walks 5”) to demonstrate the “embracing // moveableness in holding on still” (Rahana K. Ismail, “Burn on my Mother’s Forearm”) — shaped with a passion for the stuff of its own making, including “words . . . like plums in the mouth—plums spirit will never share” (Dennis Hinrichsen, “[readymade] [With iPhone in It and Two or Three Plums]”).

With their elaborate agglomerations of shape, color, and texture, Ron Baron’s vases fashion beauty and vitality from sorrow and loss. Assembling remnants of discarded household objects into vessels whose curvaceous contours and expressive handles strongly suggest the human figure, Baron celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Standing tall and proud with their ‘hands’ on their hips, these figures are survivors, emerging from adversity to confront the future. At once exuberant and touching, these works speak to the potential of damage to generate the forward-looking self. These unities assembled from mementos of individual loss are also testaments to collective perseverance, with special resonance for our atomized isolation in the early days of the pandemic, when the series was conceived.

Michael Brosnan returns to Posit with a suite of elegantly crafted poems confronting the challenge of meaning-making when “[y]ou and I, we are here for a spell. / And we need to speak honestly” – and, to be honest, “our story is in tatters.” As cleverly structured as they are direct and plain-spoken, these poems deftly and probingly enact what they address, applying a disciplined practice of attention to the humble stuff of dailiness, “seeking new possibilities / in a small illusion with unambiguous lines” in order to come to terms with the fact that “we sip from words that sound like glory, / then rest on eternity’s pouty lip.”

C Culbertson’s poems create a magical space where body and intellect, emotion and abstraction commingle and sing. Culbertson’s enigmatic, sonorous formulations are as haunting as they are elusive. This gifted poet’s “thrown fragments, gathering what lush silences” manage to be at once rich and spare in an “attempt at articulating the attempt, not so much in discontinuities but // startling constants, infinite // palpable bitter its indulgent // sighs but still brackish, & / tender / heat.” “Inclined to embrace the sensuous agonies of the world,” Culbertson’s intrepid verses “trace an intensity” whose “reverberations of affect echo” in the heart and mind of the reader.

Elisabeth Adwin Edwards perfectly observes and renders the extraordinary/ordinary moments we all experience, and the questions and realizations they engender. Roaming in CVS for the obligatory 15 minutes after a Covid vaccination, she notes all the reminders of how we are limited by our capitalist consumption and its personal cost: “How many / gradations of gray / eyeliner all // the shades / of a depression,“ as well as the cost for our planet: “You say Someone //could build a raft /from these pallets/ of bottled water // if they drank the bottles first.” Then, in the face of personal loss, the stray bits of knowledge that we come across take on new meaning. We “learn that the tissues of ankles are the softest part of a body. How fragile the seams holding us together, how easily we come apart.” Even when mourning, the body reminds us, or we remind the body, that we still live: “At home I masturbate using those shorn and throbbing fingertips, the ones on my left hand, because coming means I’m alive. I’m doing everything I can to stay in this body.”

Sean Ennis’s almost-hopeful, witty but painful story of a narrator trying to cope with his partner’s mental health and his own insecurities works on several levels. In a conversation ostensibly about movies, “Grace and I talked about the type of story we’d like to see told.” Since “[t]here are, of course, multiple frameworks available to choose from,” the reader is treated to a story about the characters, but also about the act of writing itself. Everything in the marvelously unpredictable movement of this narration is tentative: the flowers that were not planted, the narrator’s struggle to make a living (“I’m becoming more non-profit”), the not-so-good meals he cooks, the “tiptoes on a sticky floor.” Ennis cleverly uses language to both shape the story and to show how language changes us as we think it, as well as how it could change us, if we’d let it: “It was a new day, but fragile!”

In poems that juggle and encompass magical shifts of time and perception, Peter Gurnis weaves the history of a place and time into the here and now, even as his narrator claims to tell time by the living detail: “I pay attention to lilacs, and such-like native fruit. / I pay attention to the birds.” In these poems grounded in a seemingly mundane domestic life, going to the post office, sitting at home, and even a simple walk engender questions of marvelous transformation. “What if you could only think of the name for a river by going on a walk? What if you could only think about a river by falling into sleep?” Gurnis’s narrator becomes absorbed into the language and events of the past, invoking Henry (Thoreau?) and further back, Increase Mather. He recounts memories and dark events: “a handful of feathers coming out of a loving mouth,” a child who “coughed up a handful of soot,” as well as “Invisible Furies” like “the Capitalist . . . or an indefatigable lynx,” but “This is but a speculation.” Yet, what happens in the brain also happens, doesn’t it? “For example, once / I saw a tanager being eaten by a hawk. And in the evening, he nailed /on the wall: / a landscape of greenish yellow, dark blues and black. / While his wife watched from a chair. / And the cat slept.”

Sue Havens’s ceramic sculptures have an almost icon-like presence. These are shapes that stay in the memory, in rich and various patterns and colors reminiscent of beautiful sea creatures like the nudibranch or different species of coral. Finding inspiration in such sources as thrift-store finds, miniature golf architecture, kilim rugs and tree bark, to name a few, Havens creates sculpted and drawn environments that incorporate layering, tactility, and the accidental. Havens is seduced by the world in its myriad forms and textures and her work offers the viewer a kaleidoscopic record of this world, so that, as she says, “content might be remembered, discovered, and felt.”

Dennis Hindrichsen’s pure honesty and explicit eye detail the brutality of loneliness and growing older, as well as our sure knowledge that we are destroying the planet, “besieged by end times // a toxic forever chemical feeling” in which “I am sarcophagus // but I don’t worry the half-life because they are better than plutonium and Jesus—the fluoropolymers—they do not break down // I ingest by pan (dearest Teflon™) // by clothing and pizza box” while exploiting people: “shirt Sri Lankan—pants Vietnamese—//the one or two women/from among the millions toiling on my behalf//muttering names under their/breath—harsh//names—mine again—their sweat and tears/falling into the fabrics (I love buying shirts).” We may say we love the planet, although it doesn’t seem to stop us from our shallow pursuits. Yet these poems also celebrate desire, “the substrate vector—why / deny it,” and the moments when love strips away our façade, as, for instance, for “a friend I love—he is failing— /death is in him like a leaf—or paddle into a river—/one heron angling crosswise. //He saw this once—shallows to deeper shallows— /and was moved by it—//and so I will pause here now (hearing voices) (reliving joy)—/obliterating all my coolness.”

In language heady with compassion and love, Rahana K. Ismail’s lyrical visual images of daily life and the natural world speak to the profound connection of the physical and metaphysical. In “Burns on My Mother’s Forearm,” “[a] moth alights on the clabbered cloudlet skin. / Brown sleep sprawled on wings, an embracing //movableness in holding on still, a cotton-woolled /confession smudging the edges…” And in “Crochet,” a troubled girl is set a frustrating task: “Having the amaranth yarn make the first hole is to open another hole another /hole another hole,” which becomes a moving meditation on loss and the learning of it. “Carrying loss is to open loss like a package: a snarl of yarn or a window you climb over/ when the bars fall away, the room you hear the ill /-oiled swing of a sewing machine, / the foot treadle groaning a rust-ridden elegy. To be unable to search for my sea-glass / quietude in the red-oxide drone.”

Jean Kane’s prose poems consider the limitations and possibilities of autonomy under existential threat. Cryptic and compressed to the point of codification, Kane’s potent, razor-sharp prose is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s virtuosic linguistic and conceptual puzzles. Evoking the emotional complexity of a father’s transition to death and a “Skewed History” of abortifacients as instruments of free will, these dense works are bookended by a meditation on the anxious vulnerability of being the “Unmasked” prey of human and virus alike, and a fantasy of what it might mean to “Unclench” and “soothe [the] knots” of the constraints of personal identity itself. Like two sides of the same coin, “Unclench” and “Unmasked Hours” evoke self-exposure’s potential for anxiety or liberation – to suffer “pit panic” or to “float walking under a bank of air,” “open and open without expulsion into the blue over bare trees.”

Francesco Levato’s fascinating combination of glitch technique and erasure strikingly portrays the social isolation of our attempts to cope with Covid and the disruption of the psyche the pandemic has caused. Words selected from pages of Jack London’s novel The Scarlet Plague reiterate our fear of death, while the distorted objects themselves, as well as the fractured movement in the glitching process, symbolize a reality that has undergone a profound change with chilling effects. Levato’s titles, too, lend weight to the seriousness of this societal earthquake and its repercussions. “Barcode, Notepad, Hospital Bracelet” evokes the dangerous and deadly consequences of the pandemic; and the allusion of “In Flag on Pole, Inert” is followed by text that suggests a society unprepared: “the way to kill it / went no / farther. /they /were /unable to move /and / years in discovering how.”

Andrew Levy invites the reader into the process of his brilliant and multiplicious thinking, which ranges (and sometimes rages) from postulating other strange and wonderful modes of being (“Nonhuman / intellectual property? //The other side of an opposable thumb”) to work that sharply makes plain the bitterness and absurdity of our inescapably political existence: “I gave a check for ten million to my friend who has been without any means of existence. // My own spirit observes the indifferent, the debris of a good atrocity.” Like a dark film, devastating and elemental, Levy’s language surprises us into a truth: “Gunmen break open / An alien distance,” as his elegant imagination leads the reader to an altered perspective: “And yet, from his writing desk, / Disenchantment inhabits the subject. Its rigorous /architectural elastic symptom.”

In this selection of poems and related artworks, Laura Moriarty heeds the exhortation of Yoko Ono’s Walk Piece to “look out / as the broken world // breaks again” in order to contemplate the variety of ways in which both world and artist are “drawn to bits.” The active reader has much to unpack in these formidable intellectual and prosodically dazzling excursions, richly conceptual and studded as they are with word play, double entendre, rhyme, and rhythmic riffs. The works of an artist “inwardly // directed to / arrange and play / as we (rapt) / are carried off,” these poems and multimedia creations emerge from a practice of “daily acquisition” not only of “beads… balls . . . brass. . . [and] steel” but of observation, insight, and recollection. Moriarty creates incantatory assemblages capable of managing “what we want: // an engine of past time, / creation, and abstraction // whose apparatus / reflects the precision of // wrapped glass / collapsed threading through / the fastness // of everything as everything / found or findable // resolves into action.” By “resolving the ‘made place” / into the made real day,” Moriarty is committed to bending art to the monumental and necessary task of changing reality itself.

Begun at the outset of the pandemic, the collages in Jill Moser’s Nude Palette reveal both shifts from, and continuities with a body of work dedicated, in her own words, to the “teasing of form and gesture each insisting on the other.” In these collages, initially assembled from fragments of past work in collaboration with poet Anna Maria Hong, Moser’s dense, vividly chromatic biomorphic forms evoke poured and pooling fluids, gels, bubbles, cells, and bodily organs layered over and contained by geometric structures in a saturated matte palette that glows with vitality. Any departures from Moser’s earlier work are in keeping with the circumstances of their conception in the early days of quarantine — from gesture to form; from line to solid; from dynamic to static (or at least contained); from a contemplation of signification (often in a tonal palette) to being (in the vital tones of Spring). But perhaps the seeming shift from gesture to form is better understood as an evolution of focus — since form, as Moser has remarked, is simply gesture suspended. And in fact, many of the ovoid, stacked shapes in these works are familiar from earlier series like Syntax, Topographies, and Naming Game. In some ways, these biomorphic forms appear as isolated and confined within their shelters as we all were during lockdown. But just as collaboration was their origin and animating impulse, these collages enact the collaborative interdependence of form and color – thereby celebrating deeper, if quieter, dimensions of connection. Texturally rich and dense as buds, these lovely works salve the anxiety of trying times by reminding us of the beauteous “thereness” of what is, ripe with the potential of what will be.

Julie Marie Wade’s Jeopardy poems contain multitudes. Playful, sly, carefully constructed verbal puzzles, they are also sophisticated meditations on the academicization of insight (“this phenomenon is college, where the lexicon begins to bloat at prodigious rates”), as well as frank considerations of desire and its elusions. This is the work of a writer who has “been studying Beauty all this time—assaying so as to essay? probing so as to poem?” – where the beauties in question are sexual, intellectual, and linguistic, as this excerpt from an extended abecedarian demonstrates. Noting the “little irony of our language that vexes as it woos” and musing about the nature and intensity of paradigm shifts in which “it’s your old version of reality that’s fading now, losing consciousness,” Wade notes that “sometimes a shift is a harsh slip. Sometimes a dig is a cruel joke. Sometimes what I actually know amounts to a weird log cabin made of used Popsicle sticks…”

Thank you for being here!

With love and gratitude,

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann