Editors’ Notes (Posit 24)

 

We’d like to welcome you to this very special 24th issue of Posit.

Although this is not the first time we have felt the need to temper our excitement to bring out a new issue with recognition of the troubles of our times, other recent troubles pale in comparison with the intensity of our current global crisis. It is difficult not to question the relevance of art during a pandemic which threatens our livelihoods, our lives, and the stability of our societies. However, curating the superlative work in this issue has reminded us of art’s capacity to transport us beyond our bodies and our trials — offering us the chance to look away, even while guiding us to look deeper.

And the work we have collected here could not be more resonant with these frightening times. For direct relevance, we are honored to present Laura Mullen’s penetrating and humane consideration of the pandemic itself. And we are proud to offer five master-crafted odes by D. A. Powell, as well as Lewis Warsh’s profound meditations on love, aging, and the brave if modest feat of perseverance. Many of the works collected here contemplate death, as well as the mysteries and perils of living, from the brilliant ruminations of Benjamin Paloff and Joel Chace, to the frank and forceful voices of Alexandra Egan and Shevaun Brannigan, to the analogical reasoning (by way of constellations on the one hand, and insects on the other) of Amy Strauss Friedman and Rich Ives, to the pared-down beauty of Laura Walker’s reimagined Psalms.

Like so many organizations in times of upheaval, Posit has undergone some restructuring. This issue is our first without the participation of Melissa Stern as Arts Editor. We could not be more grateful to Melissa for her magnificent and sustained contribution to this publication. Informed as it was by her taste, judgment, and knowledge of contemporary art, her curation greatly contributed to Posit’s eclectic aesthetic, enabling us to situate our poetry and prose in a more interdisciplinary, not to mention visually vivid, artistic context. In an era in which specialization too often devolves to Balkanization, the art Melissa gathered helped Posit chart another path.

Working on this issue, we have found solace and wisdom, release and renewal. We hope you will as well.

Susana Amundaraín’s renderings of place and light emit a quiet but intense energy. They are at once subdued and vibrant, somber and serene. Amundaraín’s paintings have an almost magnetic power: they beckon and pull, arousing in the viewer a desire to enter their layered and mysterious worlds. Interpretations of place rather than places, these abstract canvases are liminal, evoking windows, doorways, and crevices — pivot points where realities meet. Above all, they explore the seamless relation between light and shadow; layering subtle washes of rich blues, blacks, and umbers in a wide range of densities and textures, from the velvety to the translucent. Amundarain’s palette is at once earthy and ethereal: she works in soul tones. In these canvases, delicately layered sheets of color are dramatically punctuated — and brilliantly completed — by contrasting lines and dabs whose power and beauty recall Turner’s famous red buoy.

Shevaun Brannigan’s arresting imagery is as rich and resonant as it is surprising: “the road a run-over skunk’s tail,” the garbage truck with its “mouth . . . open, / a mattress stuck in its teeth,” the railroad crossing sign a raccoon mask, the sky a prom queen with its “taffeta layers, / that pink hue, a golden crown.” Many of these images wind through the course of Brannigan’s poems, accruing new implications even as they lead gracefully and organically to their successors. These powerful poems boldly confront the urge to escape the burden of trying to “be a good person” and push on past the narrator’s “frequent stops” and relish the “berries bursting in our mouths one note at a time” in “the den of our bed.”

As the title of his first poem tells us, Joel Chace’s verse is saccadic, exploring questions of aesthetics, philosophy, justice, and physics via nimble and erudite referential leaps, from Socrates to Zukovsky, from P.T. Barnum’s obscene exploitation of Joyce Heth to the torment inflicted on Io by Argos, from black hole cosmology to Charles Ives’ childhood. At choice moments the intellect informing these connections yields to lyrical beauty, leading the reader to pause “to / permit the golden dying of afternoon to relinquish / them.”

Alexandra Egan’s powerful and personal verse perfectly dissects the bitterness of death: not just the physical lack, but the emotional distancing: “I mourned each opulently . . . I cried and was ugly with it” but “each time I learned nothing, was selfish, maudlin.” In a definition of desolation, “the season stays cold as gangsters dirty rain tough as kindergarten.” And yet, we live in a paradox: “If I say I want to die / I only mean / like a matryoshka / each split doll / opens on another / shinier less useless/deathless.” Progress, in Egan’s view, is to “Know that you will die and marvel as you would at anything perfect and tiny you can crush with your hands.” But perhaps, “When you burn something the ash is soft like thank you.”

Amy Strauss Friedman’s brilliant constellation poems expand what the ancient Greek myths told in narrative form: human psychology. In rich and detailed language, the poems speak to us of our time, from the smallest connections of cells: “I diagnose you a cancer the scientific equivalent of pinned wrists in a burning barn,” to our terrestrial connections — “camouflaged in dermal scales,” pointing to the vastness of both our knowledge and our ignorance. As constellations of cells and vestiges of evolutionary change, our “fear of living small ablates us” as we look for “a fascicle of storms and thorns making the sky like nail holes in wood.”

In Karen Holman’s billowing universe, our understanding of creation, from “particle of conception in our extended family of Atom” through “each snip of code to the fluttering canopy of memory” with “everywhere women cooking, always cooking an alphabet soup” may be “proof of how lucky, unlucky we are” in “the documentary-romantic-dystopian-historical-musical tragicomedy. . . coming somewhere where someone is screaming fire in a theater near you.” Meanwhile, in the world of the minute, “a mining bee’s wings blows breath through his piccolo home, fish ascend to float through canopies of autumn” and we offer “bent knees . . . aquamarines brighter than oxygen.”

Rich Ives returns to Posit with two beautiful and mysterious prose pieces taking the perspective of particular insect species to contemplate the mysteries of identity, desire, destruction and remedy. The life cycle of Ives’ Black Swallowtail Butterfly, in which “inside was once outside and outside will soon be back inside before it’s released altogether” has wider resonance, as does the creature’s idea, which “walks on many legs to its own escape.” It is not only in that creature’s world that apologies are “voluptuous tired little savages” which “surround you with melody until you think you’re going to explode with such sacred knowing.” Like the human beings it observes, the Blister Beetle acknowledges: “I’ve been a parasite . . . but I’m growing,” observing boys who “liked to break things because [they] were broken.”

It’s an honor to include Laura Mullen’s masterful and moving response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 14 sections of Virus brilliantly unfold the contradictions, reversals and recursions of our confusion and fear, enacting our struggle to come to grips with what is killing us. Its litany of symptoms exposes the deeper implications of the crisis, both personal: “these are the symptoms dry cough fever / Empty shelves shortness of breath disbelief. . . Some of the symptoms / Include refunds and slight social adjustments / Toward mercy moving in the direction / Of justice” and political: “The symptoms include poor people / asking for debt relief and healthcare / And rich people congratulating them- / Selves on their “abundance of caution.” Amidst the fear and venality it probes, this beautiful and tragic poem wryly echoes Frank O’Hara’s invocation to Lana Turner (“oh S & P we love you get up”) while graciously including a “note to say thank you” and express “gratitude for each / Person who was careful.”

Benjamin Paloff’s poems etch a perceptive and tender philosophy of the contradictions of daily life: personal, physical, yet always intertwined with the underlying life of the mind. In this life, the narrative ‘I’ has “no reason to contradict or doubt anything said by anyone who has taken care of me” and “a dream about the inner lives of bees can end with an actual bee stinging me on my actual mouth.” In these poems, our hopes are shaped by our intellectual perceptions: “The angels have faces quite unlike those in art books. The sirens are singing with their baited hooks just to drown you on the sand. To see the forward-facing footprints of the backward-walking man.” Although it may be “excruciatingly difficult not to be distrustful when people declare April the cruelest month, when what they really mean is that April is the cruelest month for them,” these poems temper judgment with wonder: “the starfish-shaped shimmers along the invisible edge could be anything.”

In Rick Pieto’s striking Glitch poems, the intriguing palimpsest of interrupted and repeated visual symbols, color, and text suggests a possible new history, and future, for poetry — one stemming from visual as well as auditory or conceptual juxtapositions. Repurposing conventional poetic tropes while rethinking and resisting them in purely visual terms, Pieto’s visual poems invite us into a new poetic and visual multiverse where we might be able to imagine the possibility that “the field (itself) thinks.”

These five odes by D. A. Powell demonstrate the poet’s extraordinary stylistic and formal range, coupled with a master’s trust in the power of simplicity to plumb depth, and playfulness to attain gravitas. From a guilty-laughter-inducing tribute to a beef steer; to a relaxed but lilting homage to the Brazil’s ineffable magic (“bc though proper / yr improper / when you need to be”); to the near-vispo feat of First Strains, recombining only three letters to achieve not only its visual resemblance to musical notation but its aural kinship with an owl’s hoot; to the colloquial bravado of The Next Big One (“Take me up in your Rolls and // Rock me daddy”); to the haiku-like solemnity of the 17-syllable Valentine’s Day — these poems demonstrate Powell’s ease with his chosen medium, along with his empathy, attention, and sly wit.

The human figures and their oversized avian companion/protectors at the heart of Alex Stark’s canvases are frequently doubled, but sometimes halved: connected to one another, if at times divided from themselves. The visual and thematic implications of doubling saturate these emotionally charged tableaux. For instance, Stark’s upbeat, almost naïvely rosy color palette conveys a gentle optimism even while suggesting unprotected flesh. The ineffable yet subtly distorted grace of these men and birds conveys a sense of harmony and vulnerability. In their faces we see both pain and joy, fear and wonder. These gentle, giant birds offer the men shelter and solace, as do their Edenic surrounds. Stark uses colored pencil and acrylic to create a light network of shimmering lines and patches of color that breathe with life and feeling.

In Laura Walker’s poems, the lyrical cadence and lovely simplicity of the King James Book of Psalms re-emerge and resonate in a contemporary context. The speaker’s words, like the psalms, encompass self and other, but are grounded in contemporary life. “I see you there or think I do / perched on a fence with your pantsleg rolled up / eating a pear or an apple.” Although the poems are responses to individual psalms, they eschew the literal. Walker subtly and brilliantly reworks both context and language from the King James version, such as “heathen rage” and “vain thing,” which are converted in psalm 2 to “a veined thing / rage.” In other poems, the relationship of praise and love inherent in the idea of psalms remains, while the music reverberates: “your name is a plucked thing in my mouth.”

These brilliant new poems by Lewis Warsh are tributes to the limited rewards and unlimited effort of life’s one-way, one-chance path. As powerful as they are understated, they look truth in the eye, eschewing the temptation to “drop a tincture of snake oil on / the scar tissue.” Instead, they honor the perseverance it takes to continue “after so many years of fighting our / way out of a paper bag” “while all the buildings where we spent / the night crumble into dust.” Recalling Keat’s To Autumn, Johnson Road peers from the literal and metaphoric season, when “each hour a little more light vanishes” to what lies beyond, “lost in shadow.” In Warsh’s remarkable volta, the gaze shifts from the pastoral to the stark specter of final judgment, when “the prosecutor /will present inadmissible evidence / to the jury of one’s peers.” Like Second Chance, Night Sky notes the humble rewards of carrying on: “Tuesday Matinees / at the Triplex. The forklly understatift / operator’s wife at the end of the bar.” Surveying such moments from a swift sampling of lives and eras, the poem hauntingly sums up the coda waiting for us all: “Night-life in the baggage / claim area with no where / to go.”

And Frank Whipple’s collages deploy fragments of antique images and ephemera to depict a speculative and surrealistic reality populated by disturbing human/object chimeras. Many are domestic scenes featuring adults and children in genteel 19th Century attire with inanimate objects, or even abstractions, for heads. At times there is a sedate, almost becalmed nostalgia to these tableaux, invaded by vaguely frightening intrusions from a universe not subject to our physical laws. What we glimpse is at once stable and unnerving, unfamiliar and yet incomprehensibly recognizable. The dream-like resonance of these images, along with their eerie relevance, adds weight to their compositional balance and rich, subtle color palettes.

We hope you enjoy these, and that you and yours stay safe and well.

Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann

Editors’ Notes (Posit 22)

Describing the state of the world when the I Ching was written, Z.L. Zhou writes of a time “so distant from ours that some of its aspects are approachable only through inexact science, science that verges on divination itself.” Hopefully, we can all be forgiven for noting the relevance of this formulation to our own mystifying times — with its “scrappy few / . . . scraped-up many;” its “imagined nation in ruination” (Kristen Hanlon, This Week Can Go To Hell) — so “difficult to see       explain / impossible to nail down” (Benjamin Landry, It Walked Through the Clearing). Varied and diverse as the work in this issue may be, all of it “grapple[s] / toward / [a] present / understanding” of our world (Landry, Shaft of Light), and the past that brought us to this point, although “the boundary of / necessity is porous” (Heikki Huotari, The Feedback Loop).

We’re proud to include a potent selection of works strongly inflected by voice (see, e.g., Behm-Steinberg, Hanlon, Lawry, Seidenberg, and Wright) and undaunted by silence (Huotari, Landry, Zhou); laced with aphoristic gems and unforgettable lines (Behm-Steinberg, Hanlon, Huotari, Lawry, Lurssen, Price, Yakovlev, Wright). Here are dissimilar but equally accomplished takes on the sonnet (Lawry, Wright) as well as intriguing excerpts from book-length works (Behm-Steinberg, Seidenberg, Zhou, and Lurssen). These poems grapple with demons (Behm-Steinberg, Huotari, Yakovlev); the fate of our planet (Hanlon, Lawry); mortality (Landry, Wright); the past (Landry, Price, Zhou); and the present — not only its dark side, but “our rich, noble trying, our Now” (Adrian Lurssen, Alabama).

In short, here is nothing less than required reading, sweetened by copious amounts of wit, craft, humor, and beauty. Whether delivering good news or bad, these works will surely salve your spirits, as they have ours.

The incantatory ten-line sections excerpted here from Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s an end is the towards to whet our appetites, deliciously, for the rest of this longer work. Laced with allusions to popular culture and music, and song-like in their resonant repetitions, these verses, like the “next door devil” of which they sing, “put a spell on you, put a spell on you.” “Counting every never come again,” Behm-Steinberg turns phrases inside out and back again, interweaving mystery and colloquialism by way of a unique and persuasive alchemy which has “figured out // how to divide your life into little slots one bird long.”

Landing zinger after jaw-dropping zinger, Kristen Hanlon wows us with her linguistic agility and razor wit, even while compelling us to confront the gravest of questions: “What if the last chance to set things right / came and went without our noticing?” In this “backwater of nuts-and-dolts,” as she forces us to admit, our “heart’s a bag of frozen peas / closing in on irrelevance & irretrievability.” Hanlon’s vision of the status quo may not be encouraging, but it is persuasive: “If something’s gone rotten, cut it out.”

In Heikki Huotari’s small gems of meditation on the scientific and spiritual essence of nature, the deity is tweaked for indifference to the effects of its actions: Although “God stopped the lilies spinning with consideration, not pheromones,” that “consideration” included “thumbs on scales (that) precluded cataclysms and three other kinds of kindness.” “Bite me,” these poems say to the deity. “You might have spent the morning watching hummingbirds extracting nectar but you didn’t. In your stead, I did.” For Huotari, “the boundary of nature is porous.” “When in a sea of leaves and needles,” this poet “need only brandish an imagination.”

“Space it turns out is a brightness” in Benjamin Landry‘s poems, illuminating our experience of nature and contrasting it with our compulsion for measurement: “how to square a thing that cascades.” This urge, Landry shows us, may be “why we loved the topo maps/girded in concentrics /a ridge we know to its limit” — a limit that edges into the ineffable. We may think we believe that things we measure and make have to be “level true / and watertight,” but “a dowser / with a wishbone stick” (so unlike an engineer with her maps) can also find a source — while sometimes “winged things peer… down nervous and hungry.”

Mercedes Lawry’s sonnets are grim and gorgeous in equal parts, slaying us with the beauty of their music and the urgency of their alarm about the precarious fate of our planet. These are exemplary sonnets — contemplative, compressed, capped with stunning and stunningly prepared voltas. In language at once direct and artful, the imminence of winter becomes more broadly ominous, bringing with it: “the voice / of sabotage, the skin of denial . . . the mess of symmetry wriggling / in the gloved sky’s hiss.” By not privileging a human perspective, these poems bring home all the more viscerally “the ways the human / can evaporate.”

Adrian Lurssen’s Landscape No Longer In a Mother Tongue leads with an epigraph by Paul Celan, whose power and compression, intensity and transcendence resonate through the unique timbre of these finely crafted poems — along with the voice of the narrator’s mother, who “could will her // self into his dreams,” as well as that of his mother culture. These poems consider heritage as gift and shackle — or perhaps, as shackle and key to one’s escape, or at least appreciation: “Meaning formed // in the darker shades / of an uncovered continent.” That “there is no explaining / It is all part of the explanation” does not vitiate the hope saturating this poet’s vision of this “brief American moment, an attempt at affirmation . . . a flood of trying, a flight toward the innocent . . . a future engineered to be unerring.”

From the vantage point of a stark future/present, Bryan Price details how we will inscribe our species history on the Tree of Life: “Everything turned itself out broken: windows, curses, cures, cymbals, the edge of your cheekbone — a dumping ground for unspeakable horrors.” Caught in our present global catastrophes, “we can flee no further nor stay in this place ahold of the wolf this way.” However, in images that bring to mind a pre-Raphaelite painting of the mythic, we are granted a small but sparkling hope: “only ether remains as green as Night rising naked from Chaos.”

In this excerpt from Steven Seidenberg’s plain sight, the narrator’s wry humor and aphoristic morbidity are voiced in a direct address which could not be more indirect in terms of information divulged. Who is declaring that “A destiny destroyed is a destiny fulfilled?” Whose “mood clots quickly?” Who has “the patience to give voice to an illimitable silence?” Readers of Seidenberg’s book, Situ, might recognize the archaic diction and Beckettian stasis emitted by this persona, as well as the way these pieces bring us face to face with our own elemental quandary, the tension between the impulse to act and the reluctance to do so — between repulsion and attraction, the desire to know ‘what happens’ and the certainty that it will, as always, be ‘nothing’ — that we can’t read on, but we must read on.

The exuberant ease of Jeffrey Cyphers Wright’s playful, tragic sonnets belie their extraordinary craft and control. These meditation on our fate as the butt of “Laughing Matter’s” joke are no laughing matter. Wright’s virtuosic turns remind us that no matter how humorous the spectacle of our lives might be, “the gladiators are not all glad.” These missives from “the pang fortress” are sent by this profound trickster to demonstrate, if not explain, “how to draw a word out of a sword” and delight us with their inimitable display.

Anton Yakovlev’s confident voice and capacious imagination mine the fertile ground of reality’s bitter ironies to reveal ourselves to our selves. The mirror held up to our gaze by these poems is not a flattering one. But at fleeting moments we might be forgiven for believing to have spied some bit that sparkles. In a world in which “contrails cross each other / like denial” and “thieves swarm every intersection,” at most we might hope that “low-hanging fruit falls through [our] moon roof.” But when the poet considers “the architecture of love: steeples of inattention, pits of catharsis, coffins of hurry” a universal “fear touches [us] like a bouncing night.”

In Z.I. Zhou’s innovative and beautifully reinterpreted hexagrams, the ancient past is reanimated by the present, as lyrical prescriptions from the I Ching are conjoined with contemporary life and language, opening new vistas of insight and understanding. Images from “the ends of the world, the traditional fields, the\\pillars chaotic with birds. Here, mist; there, din, missed and\\empty” resound with and against the vividness of now, when “on yet another first date, when my foot brushes his, I am forced to wonder if I should withdraw the advantage.”

“Why not wear your rubber Donald Trump mask to a crowded theatre and flail your octopi limbs at the screen?” asks the narrator in one of Joanna Fuhrman’s new video poems. These sharp and funny pieces blend satire with fey lyricism, confronting the viewer with questions designed to bring home the urgency and absurdity of the current political climate and the existential crises of our age. “Did you mean to wake up with your nerves dangling like sneakers from suburban trees?” “Have you ever shaken hands with the bodhisattva of bitterness?” Fuhrman also captures the outsized influence of popular culture, where the reckless movie hero “is naked all the time” so that “even when he’s clothed, his dick swings unsheathed.” “The 21st century,” as Fuhrman captures it, with her light but devastating touch, “is riding a bloodshot Ferrari into the mouth of climate change, and it needs pure vodka to make it ok.”

Happy reading and viewing!
Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann

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Jaynie Crimmins is a magician. Her work transforms the ordinary paper detritus from modern life — catalogues, glossy mailers, and paper – and repurposes them into gloriously beautiful art objects. On first glance, her pieces appear to be graceful organic forms, based on the patterning and structure of the natural world. Second glace reveals that these complex pieces comprise a paper trail of capitalism. One can sometimes make out the ad copy, but generally the words and images melt into pattern and color. They are both clever and smart. Her craftsmanship — tearing, rolling, folding and sewing paper into 3 dimensional objects — is superb.

Scott Kahn paints lush landscapes full of color and pattern that, to me, often hearken to the rich tradition of Indian miniatures. He documents his life and the places he’s been with a delicate touch and a deep and vibrant palette. There is a rigorous discipline to Kahn’s paintings. He works within a traditional flat structure sometimes associated with American folk art. His subjects, whether they are landscapes or portraits, are full frontal — often with a somewhat flattened perspective. Their rich surfaces convey a sense of calm introspection.

Alison Lowry processes not only a profound technical and visual talent, but also a fierce commitment to social justice. Her cast and fabricated glass pieces commemorate some of the terrible crimes committed against women and children by the Irish State and the Catholic Church. Even while we are wincing from the unblinking portrayal of betrayal and abuse, we can’t help bu marvel at the sparkling beauty of her work. Her use of humble domestic forms- an apron, a christening gown, scissors — underscores the banality of evil. Her glass pieces are often exhibited in tandem with audio and text interviews with survivors who continue to bear witness to the past. Her work is urgent, powerful and transcendent.

The fun and funny paintings of Fran Shalom are full of both a “pop” sensibility and a deep commitment to the portrayal of form and color. Her brilliantly hued paintings are fundamentally abstract, but often make sly reference to figurative form. Elegantly constructed and quite precise, they seem to marry a kind of mid-century modern aesthetic with a philosophical investigation into the lyrical relationship between figure and ground. Shapes are pared down to their essence, yet the work is never austere. The juxtaposition of bright color balanced by neutral tones keeps this work alive and lively.

The visual and performative message of W.A. Erhen Tool’s cup project is deeply moving. Tool, a veteran of Gulf War I, has taken the humble craft of cup making and elevated it to something extraordinary. Tool makes usable ceramic cups that commemorate veterans and the horror of war. Using ceramic decals of real photographs, military imagery, and the beauty of glaze, he has fabricated and given away over 21,000 cups to the public. The cups themselves convey a dry sense of dark humor and a razor sharp vision of the destruction of war. At the same time they are simply beautiful.

Enjoy!
Melissa Stern