Welcome to Posit 34!
The singularly powerful literature and art in this issue challenges conventional dualities of appropriate and inappropriate, beautiful and unbeautiful – as well as the props of avoidance and aversion on which they lean. These ingenious and accomplished artists and writers find the through-line from body to beauty by celebrating the glory of unglorified physicality. It is a privilege and a pleasure to offer works of courage, conviction and love that are as profound as they are liberating.
What happens when a terrifically charismatic personage walks into a room? Galen Cheney’s dynamic paintings are that personage. These large and intricate abstractions of color and energy combine past with present as the artist reuses, rediscovers and recombines materials from past works to make new and exciting compositions. Her life-long interest in graffiti and other works that show the hand of the artist is reflected in the exhilarating movement and sure and brilliant color work in these passionate pieces. Her process involves collage, “fragments and strips of paintings that I have ripped or cut up” woven and painted into new compositions with a seize-the-day attitude that reminds us, as she says, “there is no time to make anything that is not true.”
Derek Coulombe’s musical and wildly imaginative ekphrastic poems are an exuberant and pointedly unglorified celebration of materiality. The graphic detail of his poetic reportage challenges standard notions of nature and artifice, beauty and disgust. Umberto Boccioni’s bronze sculptures (among other influences) come joyously to life in a very bronze way: “Three bronze-all-the-way-through runners running at speed under heavy sun and all atop these extremely green lawns. Bronze-all-the-way-through means bronze outers and bronze inners, bronze skin, blood, mucous, bronzy organs, bronze lungs blowing in and out all heavy under all the running, bronze colon moves bronze stool, and bronze urine comes out wet in bronze jets.” Coulombe invents a surprising, almost exhilarating moment in imaginary time: shrieking bronze runners “running heavy beneath a smiling and hot sunshine smile widely too, all three smile with smiles of bronze too, big and wide, toothy, with bronze tongues, bronze teeth and gums, and all with shrieks ringing out and upwards always.” To go further, some of the sculptures are torsoless, “and so every low roundness of every soft bronze part is a sort of smiling line, a big torsoless grin from all the hard running parts and all three times over.” Coulombe, too, details the bronze “meatuses” and “feces, mucus, spittle, wax;” in short, every anatomical organ and its concurrent actions and reactions that are strangely, yet familiarly, human. This delightful and joyous tour-de-force all takes place “under the big warmth of the sun and the kind color of the powdered blue sky.”
The queerness of Steve DeFrank’s painting defies assimilation into the stale dichotomies of conventional aesthetics in favor of a joyful and ambitious syncretism. With their orifices flowering, melting, and exploding in cartoon shapes, toy-like textures, and colors reminiscent of neon, play-dough, and bubblegum, these works combine the irreverent humor of a Shakespearian fool with a surrealistic visual vocabulary reminiscent of Dali’s dripping clocks and a graphic eroticism that brings to mind O’Keefe’s flowering genitalia. This is joyful work that challenges received ideas of beauty and humor with graceful and accomplished painterly technique.
The aural, visual, and conceptual elements of Jared Fagen’s poems operate in concert. His short, frequently one-word lines are austere in their spareness yet breathlessly urgent, enacting, in the poet’s words, “delay, deferral, suddenness, and respiratory performance” in order to reach and utter “the essential.” The “lapidary lilt” of Fagen’s prosody not only offers “a viaduct / to an / interior” via an “aria / of waves” but it operates on a visual level as well: these long, narrow poems lead the reader’s eye headlong down the (virtual) page like plumblines searching the metaphysical depths. Engaging the multiplicity (or non-existence) of identity, art’s quest for “agape” and “Tarkovsky’s gold,” and the ineluctable pre-eminence of time (“we lose / to what passes” until “we / shatter abruptly”) — these chiseled verses decline facile notions of closure with disciplined attention.
Thomas Fink’s “Yinglish Strophes” invoke the back-and-forth flow of the ancient Greek chorus to and from a point of origin to enact a dialogue with the poet’s immigrant roots. The “yinglish” of these poems channels the wry irreverence and blunt, evaluative stance of their Yiddish-speaking narrators, capturing the tension between the Old and New Country generations with humor but not condescension — or romanticization. These verses capture the economy and inspiration of their speakers’ admonitions, despite and because of their imperfect grasp of their adopted tongue: “Is brisket / shopping this?” captures every ogled woman’s sentiment in four words as efficiently as “[f]inds / the take with the /give” captures a realistic attitude towards marriage. These narrators may be dispensing advice in a new world, but their old world wisdom is clearly applicable, whether it be to love or politics, social trends or the manipulations of our market system (“would fib lots stores / from label truth”), poetry (“[t]o make / a living doesn’t flow // that river”), or popular culture. With unmistakable fondness and a poet’s ear, these verses take up the challenge: “Why not / of your origin be civil?”
Maxwell Gontarek’s intricate vision reacts to Vallejo and Lorca, language and “the stippling of science” through “lattices” that explore the idea of envelopes, and question what “envelopes” us, including history and politics, guns and antelopes; a history of the Americas where “my godmother worked at the envelope factory for 50 years + she still wakes up at 3:00 AM / you asked if she liked it I said I didn’t think it crossed her mind.” In this poet’s clear-eyed view, we may be living in “a hemisphere that is actually an envelope.” And Gontarek says outright what all poets sometimes think: that even “after the revolutionists stop for orangeade / . . . the most your poem can do to support a movement is to give someone a papercut.” Thankfully, Gontarek perseveres, giving us verses that show us hidden layers of the world we live in, slightly askew and loved: “It is such a cool night / No matter what our heads will remain cow-shaped and we will try not to tip.”
Jessica Grim looks through a green lens, sometimes dark, always compassionate, at our relationship with language, the natural world, and ultimately ourselves. We have little real control and sometimes great sadness: “west of here where / sun rises later you / could weep for the dark / compression of your thoughts.” Grim suggests we share this kinship with nature: “tiny bird / dislodging dessicated / leaves from the / smallest branch // as might become / a past we / have little relation to / outside / of having lived it.” Our own lived experience is narrow, but the vastness of our unknowing is compensated by this realization, and in unlooked for, unexpected joy: “Sky through shades / of green / defining color / screed / as it finally wanders into song.”
Heikki Huotari’s prose poems interweave internal references as well as concepts from science, mythology, philosophy, contemporary politics, and popular culture. Individually and as a group, these poems highlight the absurd yet melodious music of existence. At the same time, these “flights of fancy seek to serve.” With erudition, grace, and humor, they offer an incisive commentary on the complexities and contradictions of our lives. This work is concerned with the relationship between reality and our account of it, in which “reality is flowing and reality is ebbing on an oblique mile-wide boundary of misinformation,” and “what one knows with 90% certainty is 95% cliché.” Facing such a mismatch with our shibboleths, the speaker is sensible to “jealously . . . guard my wave state,” even as he undertakes to “sing the feedback loop into existence.”
In R.J. Lambert’s alchemical ekphrastic poems, the work of an unknown artist is addressed in the language of art criticism reminiscent of the 19th century writing of John Ruskin. But it’s as if Ruskin has been transported to a strange new realm where the membrane between poetry and art is transcended: “The draw of broken art, domi—— / The vitality. His p—— / his color—transcen——.” The work itself transforms during the course of the poem to an ecstatic and unexpected embodiment: “Minor color, L’art ancien / reports no brown ink. / Also, a mixture closer / to feathered time / which, in print / the bodily structure reveals.” The poet asks us to reflect on these marvels induced by art (“The future’s graphic/drawing of drawings/impacts the personal”) with sober joy, even wonder: “An artist playing artist, / filling out the forms / All of this is mine? / Even the cobwebbed moth / Even the flattened lizard.”
Brendan Lorber’s militant poems about the “not normal times” of the pandemic train a sharp eye and attentive ear on the exploitive underlying logic of capitalism, which makes us hope “that the economy / might not be totally over . . . despite / only ever having been a chasm we participate in by screaming.” The distress informing Lorber’s verses is balanced by the spirit of resistance animating his witty but urgent warning against the “oligarchs’ dark arts” tricking us into “driving [ourselves] down / a boulevard of faschy schemes.” These poems offer a wake-up call against the “self-lethality” of complicity. “Like someone full of sparkle in the form of batteries / and marbles they ought not to have swallowed,” we are urged not to surrender to the dominant narrative and let “ulterior neglect” become “a principle come to life within its victims.”
Suzanne Maxson’s poems are full-throated celebrations of life, even as they cast an unflinching eye on the artist’s struggle to “savor / life on two feet” and access “the catalog we call myself” after devastating damage to “those / neural threads where in the pons perception, attention, / and memory entangle.” Astoundingly, these poems find meaning even at the moment of loss: while a stroke renders “the air a bright translucent dimensional density / of motion,” the speaker finds herself “distracted and absorbed / by every beauty even in the form and utility / of that green plastic hospital mug.” These poems celebrate “the visible the tangible and the intangible / . . . this impermanent placement on the ground / called home” — the “sufficiency of beauty and feeling” of “what is.” Although “the day is only white noise / to which we dance a jerky jig // while above the birds that day / pours into itself as night,” Maxson proves that “everything is all right . . . even in the unjust / and violent world unfurling always into / chaos” because everywhere there is beauty to be found, if we know how to look: in those birds and that jig, in Rothko’s silence and Frankenthaler’s “fifty-one colors,” in a Welsh farmer’s “broken / brown teeth” and a mother calling “out to my children / Here I am for you, imperfect / but present,” and above all, in these powerful elegies to the gift of existence.
Mikey Swanberg’s poems can make you cry. They are full of humility, joy, and love serendipitously found in the details of the dailiness of life. “I knew I knew nothing / The dog of kindness / pressed her paw hard / on my hip / Wild blackberries / scratched the shit / out of my arms, but later / I couldn’t find a mark.” There’s a Frank O’Hara spontaneity and sweetness to these poems: “did birds once fly in and out of you / or was that me.” Swanberg has abundant love for the past in all of us: “my god I liked to stay up late / in the kitchen talking shit / being sweet and noisy / in those blue cat hours,” and old loves are not forgotten: “I’ve been wearing as a winter coat / what someone I love once said to me.” Along with love and life, these poems celebrate art, including poetry: “only half of the calls the birds make come with a purpose / the experts all agree / that they just really like to sing.”
Ken Taylor’s richly allusive poems combine echoes of Benjamin’s aesthetic theory, the nostalgic Americana of Western player pianos and tintypes, and Tintoretto’s “gay” depiction of Maundy Thursday, with a more personal evocation of the unsatisfying fragility of modern life, especially during the pandemic, “when the calendars quit” and “the sun rose and fell but nothing advanced.” Taylor exposes a hollow repetitiveness underlying the tales we tell ourselves, “framed as a constant stickup,” and the need to believe otherwise, “tightly bound in the chords of a pitched belief that i’d escape the lassoing abyss.” But he also celebrates defiance of stale norms, suggesting an overlap between the Holy Trinity and an anonymous, nonbinary protagonist, X (“the many unfolding as one”) who wants “to say what it is not what it means,” and “aims to make fibrous smooth — / returning to the grid of viscous promise” in the hopes of “moving closer to a feast they can almost taste.”
Kukuli Velarde’s ceramic sculptures contain multitudes and span millennia. With fertile imagination and impressive technique, she undertakes an ambitious investigation of, in the artist’s own words, “aesthetics, cultural survival, and inheritance . . . revolv[ing] around the consequences of colonization in Latin American contemporary culture.” These works bring humor, anger, love, joie de vivre, and aesthetic pleasure to the complexities of “colonization and coloniality, contemporary history, social injustice and racism” – capturing and exploring colonialism’s generative as well as destructive impact on aesthetic expression. Velarde combines indigenous and Christian, ancient and contemporary iconographies to invent an oeuvre as organically rooted as it is original.
Mary Wilson blends lyrical images with a stunning and sensitive clarity about our response to the political and natural world. “It’s raining in the news / a storm or congress of box / jellies on the artificial reef / where some “they” sank / ships, planes and concrete.” In striking metaphors, Wilson notes some machine-like qualities in us, “Before the house stands a small girl / whose face, obscured in the rubble of / the foreground has been blurred / by some precision. It’s like, “look / here, you’re a tense lens mounted / to a vehicle.” Behind these original and somewhat disconcerting perceptions where “we get the very weight of looking,” there’s a deep understanding of who we are and what we could be, “[w]hen at last we’re hopeful / Secure from our want.”
We hope you enjoy these as much as we have!
Susan Lewis, Carol Ciavonne, and Bernd Sauermann