Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of Bill Cushing's A Former Life

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


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

More Poems from Alyssa Trivett

Photograph by Jean Beaufort

 Tonight I'd like to post a few more poems by Midwestern poet Alyssa Trivett.  I know that you've enjoyed the directness and simplicity of her poetry.

Snow Drift

I half-flutter like a bird 
with a broken wing,
caught in a spider web,
sinking in quicksand.
Any move or turn cauterizes the underbelly.
I swoop myself up,
and laugh victoriously,
video-game like.

Cortisone Shots in Both Wrists

My hands shocked on the 
steering wheel
like a key to an electric kite
or a roller-skate shooting firework sparks on hotter than
HE-double-hockey-sticks pavement
still waiting for the wheels 
to Flintstone fall off
and knock over some bowling pins
and not be so useless
as my hands carpal-tunnel electrocuted from recent events.


Clocks talk back 
to one another.
My writing
is a cartoon character showing up
amidst normal conversation,
only to pie-slap words
into neighborhood fences.
Trains hopscotch at
off and unwanted hours.
My carpal-tunnel arms
quake, a broken rollercoaster
before the seventy five foot
comma drop begins.
Clocks now sing.
I described it to one of my best friends as a blessing 
and a curse.


Would rather be hit 
by ceiling fan blades
by the neighborhood kids or skate on the thinnest ice
with unsharpened old kitchen knives
at the bottom of the skates
or skydive with no shoes on
or register weekly 
for health benefits
for the rest of my life
or smash my mailbox
or volunteer to paint the walls of 
my elementary school gym
by myself on a time limit 
or eat chocolate 
covered ants
for fifteen days
than to ever 
deal with that again.

Alyssa Trivett is a wandering soul from the Midwest. When not working two jobs, she chirps down coffee while scrawling lines on the back of gas station receipts. Her work has recently appeared at The Rye Whiskey Review and Beakful.

A while back, I started listening to Dr. Lonnie Smith's tribute album to Beck.  (I'd love to know how he came up with the idea.). Here is his version of "Where It's At":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wib18QjR63o

I have to include "Devil's Haircut":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U59bQhwbl_Q

Dr. Lonnie has also covered Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9wK3ydpDmg

Here is an earlier song by Dr. Lonnie:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lsZb93rY8E


Friday, July 5, 2019

Mike Bayles in Chicago

Summer is a fine time to be out and about with friends and lovers, listening to music.  So let's go out to Chicago's Old Navy Pier with Mike Bayles.

Chicagofest at Old Navy Pier

Lake Michigan’s waters lap at her shoulders,
and the waters hold onto the sun’s lingering
reflections of summer.
Seven dollars apiece,
and my lady friend from the suburbs and I
can see musical acts of different styles
performed on seven different stages.
Just steps away from the glittering skyline
Navy Pier wants to offer the magic of Chicago
as we walk through its gates.
Melodies and chords come together
as we walk inside the pier,
trading small talk to get to know each other.
We pass food vendor stands offering an international
flavor while we share our worlds,
and we pause to savor the taste of gyros.
We sit together in front of Main Stage,
and taking in a gentle breeze from the lake,
we watch Boz Scaggs perform.
The spell is cast, and we sway
to the music as it rocks
late afternoon into dusk.
As the band plays I swat lake flies
descending from the sky.
My date and I swat insects,
and I look around to see others,
a wave of humanity doing the same,
keeping rhythm to the beat
of songs played.

Mike Bayles, a lifelong Midwest resident, writes about human connections to different settings, nature, and with each other. He is the author of Breakfast at the Good Hope Home, 918 Studio Press. This mixed-genre' piece tells the story of a son  visiting his Alzheimer's father in the nursing home, and about the loss of the life he's known. He is also the author of three books of poetry: The Harbor I Seek, The Rabbit House, and Threshold. 

Let's start with a live version of Boz Scaggs' "Lido Shuffle":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pefnn2Ccp-8

I'll include a live version of his "Lowdown," too:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-C6Azq3ecrA

This is a cover of "Harbor Lights," another of Boz Scaggs' tunes:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrBIHzRZx4I


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Sheikha A. Returns

Tonight I'd like to welcome Sheikha A. back to The Song Is...  This first poem fits perfectly with the evening humidity.  Perhaps I ought to turn the lights off so that I can see the moon!


It’s hard to resist a provocation
dressed in your favourite colour;

when summers become a case
of scant apparels,

and there is never enough breeze
in the wind’s reserves to swathe

the night moon’s forehead
with a cool dampness;

I cover my body with white
thoughts from black books,

learning the speech of the tarrying
seas with its rightful pauses.

There are cliffs facing my door
sending in guests that will incubate
on cold walls;

there are trees facing my windows
bearing nests greater in number
for its branches can carry;

there are youthful evenings
that visit every moonrise
bringing promises to settle
in the pores of my garments;

and there is memory of life –

the musical shades
of your footsteps arriving –


Life was when a baby was born
and looked up to the sky

at his home; cried the tears of a stone
yet unwritten; fell into moment’s

silence to remember the stars
he saw on the way down,

and became aware of his eyes
that had now closed to the esoteric

to have to open them later to speak
the language of aesthetics. His mind

would not be unknown to secrets
of origins, if moulded by a knower

of truths; and if he were to be
raised by a believer of fantasy,

he would learn to write on water
in a life that is about saving none

of its parchments. He would grow
fast in body, ageing faster in sight.


Beyond where the sky rests,
I imagine a city at night,
it is large in size of land
but scantly populated,
there stands a pale walled
fort, wide and high
to house detached spirits
whose bodies have left
behind, their foreheads
wearing a dust not of earth;

aglow faces with contentment
treading no more cautiously
but freely, unhooked,
unshackled to preachments
previously hefting minds;

stirring fathomers
un-incarcerate of laws,
confident of their walk
into beckoning shadows;

they are no more unaware,
secrets of the sun -  its fire,
of the moon - its light,
every element
Of course, I am going to begin with Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpVx1KujaRY

Fred Hersch's version of "Heartsong" follows:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czCivvnX0ME

I don't think I've posted much by Bill Evans, so here is his "Like Someone in Love":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?


Monday, June 24, 2019

Douglas Malan, Jazz, and Trains

Photo by DVS

Tonight Douglas Malan brings us back to the theme of music, specifically jazz.  

I intended to be way up there,
Vermont, perhaps,
playing jazz
into the blue
predawn hours
sipping something strong. 
I intended to be there,
wrapped in meditative comfort
surrounded by walls of circles
possessing hot magic
in vinyl grooves and pockets.
I intended to be there,
the tick-tock of the wooden clock
marked the rhythmic electric flow
and ancient pines caked with snow
welcomed another midnight dusting
of slow, acoustic grace. 
I intended to be there,
watching from the window
speaking only when necessary
in low, liquid tones
to no one, or everybody
all of them unseen
from my den. 
I intended to be there,
but knew the velvet night
never lasts
and the sharp light changes me
agitates, enervates, misappropriates
pulls me out as I give in. 
I intended to be there,
but never went. 
Originally published in Jerry Jazz Musician.

Forged and Cast
I sit in the darkness,
eyes closed, but not asleep, 
listening for distant sound. 
Quick arrival, low hum leading 
to a mechanized rumble
and iron clacking drumbeat. 
Then, gone. 
Return to the night 
of crickets
and wisps through leaves. 
The faceless among them
hurtle into the mystery 
with industrial rhythm
powerless, hopeful.


I’ve been there. 
Boarded the City of New Orleans, 
northbound train #59,
Christmas season,
countryside lit up with joy and hope.
The potbelly stove and grandfather clock 
saw me off around midnight 
from Newbern, north of Memphis. 
Journey on. 


Low lights, scattered sleep
DuQuoin, Illinois 
God, don’t I know you well. 
Mom always held my hand tightly across Main Street, 
until she didn’t need to anymore. 
Got sick of this place, vowed never to return.
But it can’t leave me, and I love it more 
with time and distance. 


Black canvas, blur of light
drunk on sleeplessness
16 hours without speaking, 
I liked it that way.
Chicago, Omaha, Denver
retracing boyish steps, 
as a man. 
Breathless in Vail’s blue-haze snow
another clumsy attempt
because I didn’t belong. 
I was a connection 
humble farmers of dusty overalls
and jet setters of champagne baths
who will never meet. 
Every wailing train
makes me daydream.


Of course, I am going to start with "Moonlight in Vermont," but this is a 1952 version with Johnny Smith on guitar and Stan Getz on tenor sax: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRNpc-hFkCs

Here is Ahmad Jamal's version from 1958: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Fqq8A61KFg

Now you have jazz in Vermont.  The Brian McCarthy Quartet plays "The Feeling of Jazz" at the Vermont Public Radio's studio:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfL0KC_eHq4

I'll finish up with Chuchito Valdes playing at the Vermont Jazz Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5WfKYpTH3c


Thursday, June 20, 2019

Poems by Ryan Quinn Flanagan

Tonight I'd like to post some poems by Ryan Quinn Flanagan.    Enjoy!  I certainly am.

Poem for a Man Who Thinks of the Children 

The crossing guard is there so  
children can cross the river Styx 
like the rest of us.

One side to the other.
Pennies over the eyes like government spending.
This man who cannot quite bring himself 
to be retired.

Two wives departed.
One through her lawyers, the second by death.
A long white beard with food in it.

And it is just a passing moment, but I see it 
sure as quarried rock. 

Any man who hates himself 
will never find the love of another.
He will curse the moon and replace the sun 
with a sky that paints ancient deserts
over electric flip phone hearts.

Belief is Better than 

The monk 
in orange robes
went down 
to the river.

Getting drunk
on wine
and throwing 
his poems 
upon the rocks.

If they are meant 
to find meaning 
they will find it 
without me,
the monk 
in orange robes

Before passing out 
under a banyan tree 
that offered little shelter 
from the 

One Giant Leap

There was a rooftop party 
the same day 
the jumper showed up 
prepared to take 
the plunge.
And he felt obliged 
to stay 
and have a few 

Before excusing himself 
to go find 
another building.

Man Walking Three Ferrets 

I guess they’re not quite clogs, but his gait is struggling
right out of the block.

That unnatural limp of back pain 
and hidden opioid addiction.

Do not foist your various machinations upon the day, 
I must remember this, like scouting out the
hands of a clock for time.

What are intrigues if not an eye to confetti?

Certainly not this man walking three ferrets.
Three separate leads entwined into a single mess.
Blood pressure cuffs converted into black Velcro
shirts that fasten at the bottoms.

Three of them.
And many tiny wool booties of animal hosiery 
so feet forget the cold.

The rain is for wet and introspection.
With all these views, I have only seen myself.

It Could Be Worse

How the hell are we supposed to make ends meet?
she screamed from the kitchen
what about food?
what about rent?
what about...

It could be worse,
I said.

And it could be better,
she countered.

it could be better,
I said.
But we both knew it would 
be worse.

Soaker Tub

Out west 
we had a soaker tub
and nothing else.

No furniture
except a single rod iron chair 
in the kitchen.

Then we got a used bed 
and a dresser from the St. Vincent de Paul
and a table from the transvestite 
next door.

And we took turns with the soaker tub.
It was all we had and we enjoyed it.
Living like kings with warm cloths over our heads.

And each day 
we were back down at the employment office
looking for work.

We had our resumes out everywhere.
No one would give us anything.

In the evenings we would sit on the floor
with our bowls of rice and butter.
Beside the phone in case of call backs.
Then soak our tired feet in the tub
and go to bed.

Her with her favourite book about a time traveller
who finds love in ancient Scotland.

Myself with a biography of Claus von Stauffenberg.

And it was strange to do everything three hours
before you had always done it.

And it rained incessantly  
so that you came back home wet
but somehow smelled like fire.

No one to talk to but each other.

It was odd and cold
and ours.

De Niro

Bobby Milk
along Hester Street,
Little Italy;
all pale 
and silent 

before the driving
of taxis
and taking a dive
to get his shot

and Tribeca 
and Stella Adler
and the hours of Marmont 
with cubby hole smiles   
and Belushi 

while the Best Man in a Leading Role
fails to show,
the mean streets 
break into laughter,  
and little Marty
behind the camera

never stops

Let's finish up with a little music.  The other day my husband and I went to hear Ultrafaux open for Anat Cohen.  Here is Ultrafaux's "North Avenue Stomp":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHAGWq2mEcs&list=PL7rSkAMVTDVcyhZlX2mIlpj3TLxtBpu23

Their "Bartender Blues" sounds like an appropriate choice as Ryan has been published in The Rye Whiskey Review:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5-8mVjKbmk&list=PL7rSkAMVTDVcyhZlX2mIlpj3TLxtBpu23&index=7

The Comet is Coming's "Summon the Fire" makes for a good change of pace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G55GspnNkBo

I'll finish with their "Start Running": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7Px2wK10jg