Poetry

The Red List

The Red List (LSU, 2014)

The Red List (LSU, 2014) 88 pages; ISBN: 978-0807156896

[To purchase, click HERE.]

The “red list” of Stephen Cushman’s new volume of poetry is the endangered species register, and the book begins and ends with the bald eagle, a bird that bounded back from the verge of extinction. The volume marks the inevitability of such changes, from danger to safety, from certainty to uncertainty, from joy to sadness and back again. In a single poem that advances through wordplay and association, Cushman meditates on subjects as vast as the earth’s fragile ecosystem and as small as the poet’s own deflated fantasy of self-importance: “There aren’t any jobs for more Jeremiahs.”

Simultaneously teasing the present and eulogizing what has been lost, Cushman speaks like a Shakespearean jester, freely and foolishly, but with penetrating insight.

“In this musical, magical voice, The Red List enchants readers with symphonic sound, and the substance simply becomes the lingering afterglow.” —Poetica-Place

“Cushman redefines the long poem for this age of posts-: postmodern, post-racial (well … not quite), post-9/11, post-Great Recession, post hoc ergo propter hoc. The Red List soars like the eagle as it scans our anxious, disaster-ridden, pop culture-choked, glorious, inglorious, polyglot continental empire.”  —The Driftless Area Review

Riffraff

Riffraff (LSU, 2011)

Riffraff (LSU, 2011) 80 pages; ISBN: 978-0807137604

[To purchase, click HERE.]

Stephen Cushman’s Riffraff embodies the spirit of its title, a Middle English word for “every particle” or “things of small value.” In this striking collection, scraps of the overlooked, and distasteful—a prostitute passed in the street, the speaker’s own forgotten dreams, toothless dogs rolling in deer offal—become occasions to meditate on the rich experiences from which we too often turn away.

The poems reflect on the possibilities of language, the natural world, politics, history, eros, aging, family, and spiritual devotion. Without pretension, Cushman values “adepts who can dwell in the kiosk of a kiss.” Skillfully, he transmutes his own curiosity and surprise into moments of shared instruction. “Keep low,” he whispers. “Stay put. / Learn from the leaves.” Riffraff culls what we have discarded, saves from abandonment the notions we have taken for granted, and, indeed, venerates every particle.

Heart Island

Heart Island (David Robert Books, 2006)

Heart Island (David Robert Books, 2006) 80 pages; ISBN: 978-1933456355

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In the graceful lyrics of Stephen Cushman’s Heart Island, no heart is truly an island: all are interconnected.  The human and natural environments of Cushman’s world gather together in resonant and affectionate poems that nonetheless resist an easy nostalgia.   Structured around a sequence of poems to the individual months of the year, this book recalls the ancient genre of calendrical poetry at the same time that its attention to months  suggests an elegiac homage to patterns of weather, both inner and outer, and to the integrities of seasons that may not last much longer as the earth continues to warm.

“Stephen Cushman is a poet obsessed with the calendar. His poems mark time. Personal and historic anniversaries and other landmark passages (weddings, deaths, births, diurnal and nocturnal motions, the months—his collection Heart Island, for instance, takes as its backbone 12 poems apostrophizing each of the months of the zodiac—the seasons, ‘sacred’ thresholds of all sorts) provide the occasion for poetic musings that, though they may begin with noting or honoring a pattern in nature or human behavior, always move the reader into unexpected and provocative territory.”  Chronicle of Higher Education

Cussing Lesson

Cussing Lesson (LSU, 2002)

Cussing Lesson (LSU, 2002) 64 pages; ISBN: 978-0807127605

[To purchase, click HERE.]

In his second collection of poems, Stephen Cushman explores, appraises, and celebrates many different forms of connections —domestic, social, historical, and religious. With an easygoing voice, an engaging humor, and a sure understanding of his craft, he addresses subjects from marriage and travel to urbanism and the Civil War, illustrating the rewards of a sensitive regard for the junctions in everyday life and language.

Invoking “all the lessons they ever taught me / about ordination in the ordinary,” he reflects on members of his family, affirming attachments of marriage and blood. Beyond those immediate ties lie the connections of history—which take him to ancient Egypt, wartime Virginia, and Greece under Nazi occupation—as well as the broader bonds of struggling to love neighbors and strangers: a panhandler on a city street, an inmate in a county jail, a nun at a convent window, a fellow passenger in a subway car. In trying to make and maintain any of these links, Cushman avoids lapses of sentimental piety, admitting instead, in the words of the title poem, “I worship the sacred and savor the profane.”

Deftly balancing reverence and irreverence, the poems in Cussing Lesson both bless and curse. Whatever mode Cushman chooses and whatever form he employs, connections made by heart and head find their expression in his finely tuned confluence of words.

Blue Pajamas

Blue Pajamas (LSU, 1998)

Blue Pajamas (LSU, 1998) 64 pages; ISBN: 978-0807123034

[To purchase, click HERE.]

In the title poem of this impressive debut collection, Stephen Cushman speaks as much of his poetics as he does of his role as father to a young child: “I perform the offices of comfort / as best I can. . . . I put it all on the line / one piece at a time.” In many poems in this volume, Cushman puts himself on the line with respect to family life, focusing on a parent or grandparent, spouse or child. In others he roams freely among subjects, pausing along the way before photographs from the Civil War, an engraving of Envy, a newspaper clipping about two climbers frozen on a mountain, wolves in a zoo, a woman who directs airplanes in from a runway.

Whether about family, history, religion, travel, or the natural world, these poems blend the everyday with the visionary, combining attention to detail with larger uncertainties. No matter how far a poem may wander in geography or subject matter, sooner or later it returns to the work of performing the offices of comfort, sometimes triumphantly with joy or humor, sometimes reluctantly with an acknowledgment of incompleteness and insufficiency.

Finally, at a moment in the history of American poetry when partisans of formal and free verse view each other with mutual suspicion, Cushman’s poems demonstrate the pleasures and powers of treating the varieties of verse design as a poet’s rightful inheritance.

“Poetry may be more philosophical than history, but when the events of war or peace become poetry, as in Stephen Cushman’s poems, the impact doubles, the poems both generally and incidentally true.  Blue Pajamas brings us a major new voice and a major new range.” –A. R. Ammons

“Stephen Cushman is both profound in his concerns and exceptionally skilled in the subtlety and power of his verse.  Whether meditating on animals, the night sky, the matter of belief, or his own children, he writes true poetry, always moving beyond the literal.”   –John Hollander

“A formidable talent–well worth watching.”–Kirkus Reviews

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