A Former Life: An Overview of Two Centuries 60 Years in the Making, by Bill Cushing,
Finishing Line Press:
Reviewed by Richard Lance Keeble
American poet Bill Cushing is best when dealing with the intimately personal, the familial, the painful. This new collection of 42 poems (many of them previously published in anthologies) is split into three sections: ‘People’, ‘Places’ and ‘Things’. Particularly moving are the opening poems – about his father, his son, and dear family members all ‘touched’ by cancer.
In ‘Planking the Tango’, he is 16 and spending a summer holiday with Harry, ‘a Polish carpenter with blunt fingers’ redecking the teak of his father’s ‘forty-two footer/a cutter built after World War II’. As a result, tar becomes ‘so persistent/a presence/that only a monthly/buzz could get it/out of my hair’. And he ends tenderly: ‘although/my father isn’t always there/as I go through/each sweat-soaked day it is the/closest I ever felt/to him’.
Thumbing through some photograph albums, he sees (in ‘Pictures at Five’) his son ‘on Santa’s knee;/your first sailor’s knot/in Cub Scouts’. Today, he is a soldier in Ramadi, Iraq. A sudden drama follows: an insurgent attacks his son with a gun: ‘and you/with your M16/’not readily available’/grabbed your knife to spare/your life’. Again, the concluding mood is reflective, measured, sad and loving: ‘These are not the times/I wanted for my son/so I went back to those old shots/and remembered those days/to avoid the images I now endure…’
The appalling impact of cancer on his family is confronted with stark honesty in ‘Recalling Their Smiles (being both a love and hate poem)’. His grandmother died before he was nine: ‘I saw her/a stick figure under sheets/holding a skull draped in/ parchment skin.’ The child is terribly confused: ‘I ran from the room/insisting/ she was not there.’ He next watches his wife, Ana, ‘eaten alive, vomiting/the green mucous that was/her flowing out/of her mouth/as she became less and less/the person she was’. His friend, William, hid ‘his disease so well/that I didn’t know it/until/he told me/one night, between reps.’ Finally, there’s brother-in-law Patrick who ‘shrivels in size and prepares/to leave life/three children, and my sister’.
Perhaps the most impressive poem in the collection is ‘Gabriel’s Coming’ in which Cushing tells with remarkably stark frankness the birth of his seriously disabled son: ‘a twisted pretzel/of a person/…shaking and bloody/as a wounded bird and/not much different’. He explains calmly: ‘all these deformities/from blood that had/clotted in the brain:/a stroke’. Yet he is still able to end on a moving, celebratory note: ‘out of that/unquenchable panic/came/a boy who/did not interrupt a family/did not join a family/but who/created a family.’
Cushing’s eye for the fascinating detail amongst the clutter of everyday is particularly striking in the ‘Places’ section. For instance, In a café, ‘A single waitress covers ground/Butter, warmed by sun shining through slatted glass/slowly rolls down a stack of browned pancakes;/silverware clatters, china/against china; napkin falls;/voices chatter…’ Visiting the French Loire valley, he sees ‘a castle more squat than wide./Torch-lit halls linked galleries/ballrooms, the castle fastened/riverbanks with black-and-white tiles’. And in ‘Washington Street’, ‘Purple-painted cement patios/seem to bend under maroon velour couches/filled with larger-than-life women/fanning bandanna-wrapped faces…’
The final section, in which Cushing moves away from the deeply personal and the precise detail towards a rather unwieldy mix of moods and topics, is inappropriately titled ‘Things’. It begins with tributes to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and novelist Joseph Conrad; moves on to a lovely, delicate description of a pelican (which ‘with a single/motion of wings/glides on the wind’); then shifts to pondering life at fifty (‘If you’ve done life right/you do not feel or even/see the years coming/until they have long passed’), before yet another tribute to Miles Davis. Then follow a quirky meditation on Barbie (of all things) and a clutch of religious poems (perhaps over-stretching here for profundity and seriously out of place in a section headed ‘Things’).
Yet Cushing (in ‘Final Flight’) is able to end on a typically tender, melancholy and touching note – blending the personal and the patriotic – as he reflects on the plight of those 200 folk who jumped from the blazing Twin Towers on 9/11: ‘facing the option/burning alive, knowing at that moment/they were indeed dead/chose instead, like Icarus/to spread their arms/in almost welcome-embrace of/the quarter mile journey back to earth’.