Suzanne Maxson


In a time before this time
I bought a plane ticket and ascended through the sky
to Los Angeles for the day just to see some murals
from the cave temples of Dunhuang. The line was long
even with a time-ticket and they herded us mercilessly
through the reconstructed caves replicating the darkness
of the temples with barely a minute to see the paintings
but it was an experience worth seeking. And then
I ate some lunch because I like a small meal after art
and museum food is often pretty good, and wandered
in the various beauty which is the Getty until it was time
to get back to LAX and catch a plane north to home.
Who lives in the privilege to do such a thing? I did
in the time before this time. Despite anxiety
about the cost I flew Virgin Atlantic (in their violet
illumination of the cabin) to London just to see
some paintings by Rothko and that was more
than my money’s worth as the capitalists say, a feast
in silence on abstraction. I’m running low on words
but to see requires no words, which is why to go alone
to art is so desirable and the particular wordlessness
within that solitude so glorious. Silence he said
is so accurate.

Once in a Blue Moon on All Hallow’s Eve
at the end of a long Leap Year: a stroke, and to those
neural threads where in the pons perception, attention
and memory entangle by subtle means there was a wound
rendering the air a bright translucent dimensional density
of motion, the space before me jelly through which
I found my way slowly, distracted and absorbed
by every beauty even in the form and utility
of that green plastic hospital mug. To be absorbed
into beauty cannot be undesirable, nor can it be
unwise to learn from the snail, and anyway the time
for ascending on a whim into the sky, unmindful
of planetary consequences, is over for all of us.
Go slowly now, understanding the art of the snail
in her silver trail.

The neurologist advises
(looking straight into my eyes) to savor
life on two feet and recommends a book by Ram Dass
whose practice was love in helplessness—a profound
practice as the doctor pointed out although my thought
left unsaid was of those devotees who wheeled him
through the airports and museums. The actual
question for me now is not of possibility but of desire
and whether I might desire ever again to leave home
for art or for love or forever not to leave home
where with little dog I live in long tranquil mornings
and crickety nights and might enjoy that monkish life
which for me has always had both abstract and
emotional attractions. But what I know is that it’s
all here, in the visible the tangible and the intangible
in this impermanent placement on the ground
called home, in this sufficiency of beauty and feeling
while I’m breathing

Southern Exposure

Frankenthaler, thanks

In fifty-one colors intended
she said to be only beauty

(despite telling myself
& little dog     who doesn’t mind

that the day is only white noise
to which we dance a jerky jig

while above the birds that day
pours into itself as night, not

of the birds nor in the blue
nor even as some meditative

moment winding into itself
but only in the movement)

appears in that paint
what is

All Right

Everything is all right
he said. That everything
is all right
the message delivered to me
from my cousin who visited on a whim
a psychic who told her someone
has a message, your uncle, the one
with a daughter has a message
for his daughter: that everything
is all right
. And so the message

was delivered although she was
skeptical because my father was
dead for more than a year
and this cousin far away never
thought of him nor of me, and because
she went with a friend to the psychic
only as a lark. And I do not believe
in the endurance of personality
after death and surely not in the form
of psychic messages from the dead
although my grandmother
did receive letters from the dead
in what she called automatic writing
but my father, the psychic said, desired
only that I hear this reassurance

that everything is all right even
that day, my mother wailing Don’t go
No don’t go & my urgency in his ear
Yes, you can go & with everything
else left unsaid in whirlwind around us
his hand emptied into mine and he did go.
And what I wanted was for everything
to be all right, that it be not chaos
nor my will nor the terror in her need.
And thus it is, in a moment which

might be that one, might be also
this one in the nature of time
as with the help of the Physicists
the Buddhists the Aboriginal people
we have come to understand it,
because forty years later everything
is all right
upon awakening today
in the bright room, all right in the yellow
and in the blue and even in the unjust
and violent world unfurling always into
chaos, where still there might be stars
in a night sky, time to breathe a little
longer and for everybody for even just
one nanomoment in a lifetime to be offered
the news that everything is all right
and feel that.

I do not believe that personality
endures after death but as for my father
it seems he acquired there some power
to offer authoritative reassurance,
the last word so to speak, about my life-
long entanglement with worry and doubt,
an offering which in retrospect
in prospect of its usefulness was there
as an expansion of presence
in his soft hand in my hands, felt
as yes, and found its way back weirdly
through my cousin, and in the forms
and the colors I arrange within
the rooms in which I practice the art
of routine, and as the sky
is always changing.

And I suppose this is a prayer
that every being in the depth
of their suffering might even for one
nanomoment in a lifetime be offered
a night sky of stars and from my dead father
the news that everything is all right
and feel that.

The Long Thought

The neuroscientists
located some places in the brain, a network
where apparently the catalog we call myself
lights up their brain-screens when intention takes a break—
posterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex
constructing the long thought called myself. I am
I am the person who

mother and child, my tentative hand
on the flesh of her arm, wishing to be beside her on the couch
but reaching for the ashtray she swats it away, and cruelly
I reduced her character to this, although that body
contained complexities not manifest in photographs
now confused with her stories, her stories with the catalog
of memory & with those stories wherein I wrote her life
as fiction in an effort to decipher the single remaining snapshot
2×2 inches & blurred of a little girl, short bob & bangs
as that mother. And all along she was? In her body surely
and in mine now as shadow, developing sometimes into presence
as the photograph once developed in its chemical bath (which
is a way to explain one effect
of aging and its ailments)
or of another moment only her words, no photograph
but which I remember as a photograph: on a park bench
holding the hand of a tiny girl wearing a brown coat
and a bonnet, whose white shoes/red shoes dangled.
and her first intention
to leave that child on the bench
but how she held on, clutching (my word) the little hand
(my hand) unable to let it go, and then the second intention.
but a timely rescue. The doctor diagnosed a suicidal mood.
Hysterectomy might open a mood like a wound. Bonnet
brown coat red shoes probably my embellishment. That she
clutched the little hand my embellishment, an effort
to understand. Park bench? Possibly all embellishment
of a fractured remark as she wandered in the urgency
of language vanishing into the factual tumor
as the long thought called Ruth
came to an end, entering mine.


Choosing to settle in mystery which is
preferable in any morning to the news

as good fortune gave me senses
and time to read & contemplate

that in the Peruvian Amazon for example
& elsewhere, a butterfly feeds on the tears

of a turtle. Those tears they say
are never shed in grief but only

as a physiological process, an excretion
of sodium, & the butterfly’s attendance

only to some nourishment there & not
a kiss upon that turtle’s grief nor even

the impulse to grace in such a kiss
but only supply & demand. I disagree.

Capitalism never satisfies and Darwin
only partly. Sometimes what we perceive

as the perfection of tenderness is just
that, presenting itself to perception

just as in Wales we met an old farmer
blessed by crooked teeth untouched

by any dentist, & love for these broken
brown teeth arose like love for all

we call human, the unAmerican
imperfection of his teeth, their beauty

beyond reason, arising still in dreams
as the meaning of life. So you see

how it is, the geography in all of it
& the shock of benevolence & how

we come to a kind of settlement
with what we have allowed

into understanding, how we keep on
coming into mystery, choosing it

An Offering of Vowel Sounds

According to a white-haired writer
the musician has notes for making music but the poet
has vowels.     think about wind     in Japanese maples.
thinking to read this book under my crooked hand
about the soul of an octopus     but unable.
to read. lacking concentration     thinking
one summer on the Strait, practicing departure
as line breaks, feeling for the first time movement
as wind in pines     undertaking perfection
as a celadon Hermes 3000 typewriter
in a battered VW van, campground
on the water, a cushion, a mug

Now move some furniture. Carry a painting
to this wall from that one, table better there
than here, lamp four inches farther left on that table
now get up and move it back again to get it
right, precisely. thereby disturbing little dog
at rest. all this compulsive up & down
a seasonal weeding out
out out of mental disorder.
But I do have vowels.     In the subjectivity
of the vowel sound, assonance
might open like a state of grace.

Every death a disappearance into bone or shell
& what to make of it. Make home
in memoriam of those
disappeared into these
objects of beauty and devotion.
into photographs     (the camera
re-engineered our experience of death. of life)
But equally floats this home     on joyful motion
as a Tibetan prayer begins
Having obtained this excellent free and well-favored life
and it is

and in vowel sounds I call out to my children
Here I am for you, imperfect
but present     into the future
which already is here

Questions Before Sleep About Iris Murdoch

To pierce the veil of selfish consciousness
and enter the world as it really is—this unselfing
she described as an effort of goodness, and art
as an occasion for that release
into the world as it is
and wrote that the essence of art is love
in its many dimensions, and that love, like art
is the discovery of reality.

It’s possible I have her thinking wrong.
I encountered her words in a casual way
and not from careful reading of her work
but I wrote this down and I wonder now

about her last years
how that unselfing we call dementia
changed her mind. No effort of goodness in it, no art.
Did she pierce the veil of selfish consciousness?
Did she enter the world as it really is
or was it lost to her?
And love?

Suzanne Maxson was raised in suburban Southern California (with a fortunate interlude in Iran), and migrated north in 1972 to the Russian River watershed of Sonoma County. As a public high school teacher she integrated the arts and literature with history, social justice, and comparative religion. Movement, a collection of her work, will be published by Fernwood Press in November 2023.

Editors’ Notes (Posit 34)


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, mucus, 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