Congratulations to Bill Cushing on the publication of his new book!!
Cushing, Bill. A Former Life: An Overview of Two Centuries 60 Years in the Making. Finishing Line Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-63534-938-2. $19.99.
Bill Cushing’s new book, A Former Life: An Overview of Two Centuries 60 Years in the Making, could almost be titled Former Livesas its poems reveal a rich variety of encounters and experiences over sixty-plus years, almost too much for one lifetime. Rather than following the strict timeline of the poet’s life, the book is divided into three sections: “Persons,” “Places,” and “Things.” This division allows Cushing to juxtapose fragments of experience and keep the reader from thinking of the poet’s life as a simple arc leading from twentieth-century New York City to twenty-first century Southern California, even with a few detours along the way. Instead, his life is an album, not quite an old-school concept album whose cuts fit together smoothly but a collection of songs whose themes and variations make the pieces distinct yet surprisingly unified.
The “Persons” section allows Cushing to depict individuals he has known or observed over the course of his life. His father, a man larger than life, appears first as a presence (and absence) in “Planking the Tango” and later as an elderly man who was able to “give [his wife]/ the gift of dying” in “Father’s Day: June 20, 2004” and who will always loom large in his son’s mind. (The father will return as a younger man in the next section’s “Drydocks and Parades.”) Cushing’s son also emerges in the heartbreaking “Gabriel’s Coming” and the sonnet “What Love Is” as “a boy who…created a family” with the poet and his second wife, whom we see in “Morning,” the sensual poem that concludes this third of the book. These poems, which focus on other people, are quite personal and vulnerable. Indeed, the proximity of “Recalling Their Smiles,” a four-part meditation on friends and family lost to cancer, and “Father’s Day” reveals that the poet is writing not just as a son witnessing the death of his mother but also as a husband who has experienced the death of his first wife from cancer “as she [like her mother-in-law] became less and less/ the person she was.” He therefore deeply understands his father’s situation. Similarly, the contrast of “Recalling Their Smiles” and “Gabriel’s Coming” underscores both the loss the poet and his wife felt at their son’s severe injury and their love for him.
“Persons” is more than a contemplation of family tragedies. Other poems in this section bring to light his talent for observation and sensory detail even when writing about people he has simply glanced at. “The Ancient Flocks of Wilson Street” and “Girl in Green” come to mind here. I especially like the first poem’s opening, “They flock/to the park/cloaked in black,” with its tight lines and crisp consonants that evoke the elderly Armenians who have taken over a park in California. In “Girl in Green,” the poet depicts a sexy woman through not only her hair and face but also “her green sleeve [that] bends/ from the stiff leaves/ of a potted plant.” This theatrical gesture makes her more individualized and therefore more compelling.
“Places” juxtaposes Cushing’s very fine poems set in Central and South America with startling pieces set closer to home. “At a Mountain Waterfall” continues to amaze upon rereading. “Easter Island in Koreatown” and “Cusquenos” fit together especially well in their blend of the exotic and the everyday. The figures at the heart of each poem share a certain kinship. “Easter Island in Koreatown” depicts a Los Angeles street musician “delivering/ a weird brand/ of royalty to the curb/ of Vermont Avenue” as a “touchdown” Buddha passes by on the back of a truck and a local bar advertises one of Anheuser-Busch’s brands of beer. With his “square face, brown:/ a cross/ between some ancient/ pharaoh/ and a gargoyle,” this musician could fit in with the indigenous inhabitants of Cusco, Peru who “make their shuffling way/ up these narrow and steep/ streets” while tourists from the U.S. brew coca tea to survive the city’s high altitude and thin air. The theme of tourism, an outsider’s attempt to sum up a richly complex world in just a few lines, continues in poems set in the U.S., such as “After El Nino: February 24, 1998,” written for a guest whose trip to California was spoiled by rain and cold, and “From California to Chicago,” set at O’Hare Airport where Cushing and his wife land.
The next section, “Things,” touches on music, the dreams of a wolf, Barbie, religious iconography, and an image from coverage of September 11, 2001. ”Things” also includes some personal poems, notably “Sailing,” a rare depiction of the poet in solitude, and “Turning Fifty,” a meditation on middle-aging with the poet contemplating his hand intently. Although these poems are very skilled and moving, the category seems a little broad. I’m not sure how I would classify the subjects of these poems. I’m a little dismayed to see Cushing’s wonderful poems about music categorized under “Things. “ “On Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Bydlo’” and “’Music isn’t about standing still and being safe’” evoke rural Russia and a young New Yorker’s initiation into jazz, respectively. “Listening to Bird” celebrates Charlie Parker just as “With Dad” honors the poet’s father. Others like “Sailing,” “Ecce Homo,” or “Final Flight” may also belong in other sections or perhaps even other books. However, “Final Flight” is a compelling ending to the entire book as September 11 is a pivotal historical event in Cushing’s lifetime so far and can be considered the true ending to the twentieth century, the setting of many but not all of the poems in this book. After all, the subtitle is An Overview of Two Centuries.
Earthy, exalted, at times both, Bill Cushing’s poetry is moving in both senses of the word. I remember the first time I read “At a Mountain Waterfall.” Its short, jagged opening lines made me feel that I, too, was “scuttling/platform/to platform/along the rocks,” not finding a foothold until later in the poem. I also recall listening to Bill read “Gabriel’s Coming” on Dr. Michael Anthony Ingram’s radio show, Quintessential Listening. This heartbreaking poem reveals his unconditional love for his son born “shaking and bloody/ as a wounded bird” after a prenatal stroke. His poems will always have a home at my blog-zine, The Song Is…. I hope they will always have a home with you as well.
And now the music....
I'm going to start with Sonny Rollins' "Where or When" from his concert after 9/11: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dc3eAIK-lT4
Another song from that album is "Global Warming": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0-X5qR08o0
I have to include Miles Davis' "Freddie Freeloader": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPfFhfSuUZ4
To represent LA, I am including Robert Glasper's "The Worst," as performed live at Capital Studios: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g6MsY8vD1A
Here Glasper plays with Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin at LA's The Virgil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cztfG98qelA