Saturday, August 20, 2016

Review of Bill Cushing's Notes and Letters


From time to time, book reviews appear in The Song Is...  Tonight I'd like to post my review of Bill Cushing's recent book, Notes and Letters: A Celebration of Music and Poetry.

Cushing, Bill.  Notes and Letters., 2016.  ISBN: 978-1365021527 .  $8.00.

At first glance, as a title, Notes and Letters seems more suitable to an academic journal than to a book of poetry.  Yet, in the hands of poet Bill Cushing, this title is a perfect fit for his intriguing new collection.  Performing in the L.A. area, he recites his poems to music by jazz guitarist Chuck Corbisiero.   In his introduction to this chapbook, Cushing graciously thanks his collaborator for inspiring him in his current projects, including this book, Notes and Letters.  Indeed, this collection includes poems inspired by the music of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker but also poems on a variety of other topics such as travels to the Peruvian city of Cuzco, religion, and the individuals he encounters in Los Angeles.  These topics appear unrelated to music.  Nonetheless, for Cushing, the influence of music is more than the direct influence of specific musicians, whether in performance or in recordings.  Komunyakaa in an interview included in his jazz inspired book Testimony describes his poems as “word paintings”; Cushing could refer to his poems as “word music.”

One particularly striking example of Cushing’s “word music” is “At a Mountain Waterfall.”  Here his diction, line breaks, and formatting combine to convey the experience of climbing past a waterfall.  The poem begins in mid-sentence: “water slaps/my face,” communicating the immediacy of the moment. The subsequent one-word lines cause the reader to focus on each handhold and the strain of each muscle during this climb.  Eventually, the music shifts as vines “begin to/take root” and the poem’s formatting standardizes.  Shortly thereafter, the speaker finds a stable place to stand where he “hold[s] a stone/shaped like an ax/blade” and the lines lengthen.  At the end of the poem, the speaker is able to build on his individual observations and come to a conclusion that “this island/reminds one/of all things/primitive.”  I wonder what this poem would sound like in performance, accompanied by Corbisiero’s guitar to emphasize the music of this poetry.  I would also love to hear a performance of “Cusquenos,” one of several poems set in Cuzco.  This long, richly textured poem juxtaposes observation of the city’s natives, such as its stonemasons at work and its vendors, with the sensations of tourists “attempting to adjust/to the heights.”   Corbisiero’s guitar would add even more texture, not only highlighting the poetry’s musicality but also contributing to the depiction of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cushing also uses his “word music” to respond to music itself.  Full disclosure: two of his poems “Music isn’t about standing still and being safe” and “On Modest Mussourgsky’s ‘Bydlo’” have appeared in this blog-zine, The Song Is…  “Music isn’t…,” a tribute to Miles Davis, like “At a Mountain Waterfall,” draws on diction, line breaks, and formatting to convey its message.  The poet also creates a kind of refrain by repeating Davis’ first name, at times in the punning way that the musician used it in Miles Ahead and Miles in the Sky.  Indeed, one refrain is “Miles/ahead of everyone else.”  This poem is also intensely personal as the speaker remembers his response to Davis live.  At first this response is playful, almost hyperbolic, as the poem’s formatting makes one believe that the speaker literally “walked all the way home” from Madison Square Garden to Douglaston on the eastern edge of Queens, a considerable distance.  Then, as the poem continues, we recognize the visceral nature of the speaker’s response, his “head pounding with sounds” as he rides the subway, then takes the train, and finally walks home. “Listening to Bird” is much less personal, echoing the observations made by Komunyakaa and others about Parker and his approach to music.  With “On Modest Mussourgsky’s ‘Bydlo,’” Cushing shifts gears, showing that his poetry is not limited to honoring one type of music as he moves on to classical music.  This poem draws on a variety of sensory details, most notably in the “[s]weating flanks/of coarse,/matted hair,” which indicate the realness of the oxen pulling this cart as well as the poet’s keen sense of observation.  Interestingly, the poem ends not in a meditation on sound but with an evocation of smells, both the oxen’s “strong pungent odor” and “the sweet sharpness” of the hay. 

Notes and Letters concludes with a series of shorter, more conventional poems that draw on Cushing’s powers of observation.  Like Mussourgsky’s individual Pictures at an Exhibition or Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, these are sketches.  Some are quick and vivid, like “Las Croabas” or “Pelicans.”  Others are more in-depth like “Clarence” or “Easter Island in Koreatown.”  Several appear to be set in or near Los Angeles, the city where the poet is based. 

In this collection, Cushing has shown that “word music” can appeal to both jazz aficionados and readers less enamored of this genre, especially since he writes on a wide variety of topics, not simply music, musicians, and the poet’s response to them.  Furthermore, this collection proves that collaboration with artists in other media enriches poetry directly and indirectly.   It would be interesting to see the poet respond to other jazz musicians who are performing and recording music today, but the indirect influence of music is truly what strengthens the collection.

Since Bill is inspired by both jazz and classical music, I am going to take the opportunity of mixing music, starting with Miles Davis.

Let's start with "Spanish Key" from Bitches Brew:

"Sivad" is from Live-Evil:

My husband just informed me that this "Guinevere" reinterprets the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song:

This past week my husband and I went to the Staunton (VA) Music Festival, so this is a good time to post a few of the pieces we heard there.

This is actually a newer piece: Toru Takemitsu's "Rain Dreaming":

At one point four harpsichords took the stage for Bach's Concerto in A Minor for four harpsichords:

Galina Ustvolskaya's Grand Duet for Cello and Piano was also quite interesting:

I'll finish with Mendelssohn's Double Concerto in D Minor:

1 comment:

  1. I found this review to be spot on and top shelf all the way. I enjoyed it very much, awesomely informative!