by Stephen Cushman
(LSU Press, 2018, $19.95, 88pp.)
. . . [anxiety] thins the rhythms, rushing into longish gaits, more
distance in less material time: it hates clots, its stump-fires
level fields: patience and calm define borders and boundaries,
hedgerows, and sharp whirls: anxiety burns instrumentation
matterless, assimilates music into motion, sketches the high
suasive turnings, mild natures tangled still in knotted clumps.
from “Anxiety’s Prosody” by A. R. Ammons
Substitute “ecstasy” for “anxiety,” and what A. R. Ammons says in this poem could as well describe what drives the linguistic and emotional velocity of Stephen Cushman’s decidedly un-mild latest collection, an edgy, excitable book-length foray into the ideas, erotic play, natural phenomena, and technologies by which the self is transported into the myriad, paradoxical ravishments of language and of the world that words at least half-create.
In a 1980 interview for the The Manhattan Review with editor Philip Fried, Ammons—who was Stephen Cushman’s teacher at Cornell in the 1970s and clearly one of his aesthetic antecedents—says:
I may have said somewhere, but I think it’s still true, that you don’t want the poem to amount to no more than what you already knew when you began to write. Whatever kind of instrument it may be, it must be one capable of churning up what you didn’t already know. That’s what creativity is, and it is to be surprised by the end of the poem as much as you expect the reader to be surprised.
It is this quest for “churning up,” this creation of a real-time and reader-participatory, often meta experience of discovery, that marks Hothead as perhaps the fullest expression of the range and praxis of Cushman’s ever-curious, prodigious “hothead” poetics to date. Readers of Cushman’s work over the past twenty years—Blue Pajamas (LSU, 1998), Cussing Lesson (LSU, 2002), Heart Island (David Robert, 2006), Riffraff (LSU, 2011), The Red List: A Poem (LSU, 2014), and now Hothead—will note that many of his flood subjects—bodily desire, God-hunger, wordplay, history, the limits of human consciousness, a jones for the natural world, travel, and for what he calls in an earlier poem the “ordination in the ordinary”—and many of his modes—cataloging, listing, slang-slinging, scat-singing, etymological plundering—abide. But as he has matured as a poet, he has moved away from collections of deftly handled, discreet shorter lyrics that often write toward endings that wrap up wittily, punchily, self-assuredly, even aphoristically, and into longer-lined and longer poems that make more room for open-ended tangent, doubt, divergence, contradiction, spontaneity, a change of plans.
It’s not that Cushman has abandoned his gift for colloquial compression; in fact, his ear for the knock-your-socks-off, lyric one- or two-liner is part of his ecstatic prosody and serves him well in his two most recent, book-length poems. Nor are these long poems without formal dexterity. In fact, the suasive swervings of the narrator are paid out in lines that range out and backtrack, that switchback and pause before leaping forward again. This turning of “music into motion” is accomplished in both The Red List and Hothead, at least in part, by Cushman’s adaptation of the haibun form, in which longer passages of rangy, largely six-stress lines are punctuated with revelatory haikus that foreground his own process. “Stand clear of the doors,” he writes in one of these haiku palate cleansers. “Digression’s not a sidetrack. / It’s a faster train.”
Hothead starts out, appropriately, with a question:
What’s the true summit,
exact patch nearest the sun,
of Lonesome Mountain?
In a way, this query about mountain-top ecstasies and existential loneliness is the engine of the entire book, but what follows are 78 pages that devolve and revolve into a host of digressions on everything from tobacco smoke enemas to the poor spelling of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), from Paschal theophany to the life-cycle of 17-year cicadas, from the speaker’s crush on his sidekick laptop, Patience, nicknamed Patty, to the vicissitudes of fame.
Throughout this wild ride of a book, Cushman invites the reader to travel with him, not only as witness to one mind in heated, nimble action, but as genuine, and much needed, companion. A mind like the narrator’s, capable of such avid, ardent hotheaded engagements, risks obliteration of perspective and is especially attuned to the mortal fact that finally everything must end (even long poems). Does Cushman confront these hard truths? Yes he does. But while doing so in the company of Patty (who is, after all, the Patient Reader) may make this realization all the more real, it also makes the sojourn less terrifying. The following, rollicking, moving, comma-spliced passage, in full, coming as Hothead begins to move toward “closure,” exemplifies ways in which the poem engages, dodges, and then returns to the very anxiety and ecstasy it knows can never be fully answered, not in literary theory, not in prayer, not in poetry:
What’s the true summit?
Depends on how you hum it
on Lonesome Mountain.
How do we end this and why should we bother
plotting out closure if everything’s precarious, closure will come
with no help from us, much obliged anyway, thanks just the same,
three cheers for precarious, today’s sexy lexeme, well I’ll be
a laptop’s despoiler, dependent on prayer, makes perfect sense,
what’s left to say, oh Patty now really, there’s lots left to say,
how could there not be, it’s only a matter of whether we say it
or keep our mouths shut so people won’t bristle, take umbrage, get pissed,
for openers for instance, let’s talk dependence, dependence on prayer,
what the heck is it, does it resemble dependence on Xanax,
our true Xanadu, Marx certainly thought so and theorized accordingly,
though I must say, confess would be truer, theory’s the opiate
of my tested choice, potent hypnotic, late afternoon, stretch on the couch
with a nice chunk of theory, preferably some descending from Marx,
as much of it does, he’s in the bloodline, and wham I’m out cold,
wake with pillow marks, thank goodness for pillows
or what brains I’ve got would spatter all over, I should be wearing
a helmet when reading, talk about precarious, some people write
as though killing others is what they intend, sentences that suffocate,
what air there is, just as recycled as airplane miasma, then there are people
who never touch prayer, deny both dependence and efficacy too,
we don’t need prayer, that’s what they say when really they mean
prayer is for sissies and retro reactionaries, how happy for them,
they don’t need prayer, they have something else, but having something else
means you’re not precarious, endangered you may be, in a tough spot,
unnervingly uncertain, vulnerable yea verily, but precarious, no,
sorry it’s true, precarious means the end of the line, hanging by a thread
that’s seven-eighths frayed, plunging is imminent, oh and another thing,
this is not new, precarity theorist, if anything’s new it’s expecting security, when did that start, cue another world war, or maybe a plague, H7N9,
that’ll take care of entitlement to safety, out of the white a message from Patty, how very sweet, we’ve crossed a line, “There are too many
spelling or grammatical errors in hothead to continue displaying them,”
just like that her green lines are gone, no more of her chiding
about comma splicing, this is great Patty, now it’s just spelling,
red for precarity, that’s okay honey, ten months it’s been
and now you accept me, or one thing about me, at least it’s a start,
what I was asking about how we end this, please disregard,
I’m thinking suddenly we have a future.
The ménage à trois
A haiku is is worthy
Of close inspection.
Ammons’s well-known adage in Sphere: The Form of a Motion—“ “Touch the universe anywhere and you touch it / everywhere”—certainly applies to Cushman’s cosmos of a poem. There is much talk in recent years about the lyric poem—what it is, what it isn’t, its failings, its misreadings—and not as much discussion of the epic or long poem, perhaps because any sort of expansive vision seems impossible, or moot, in our weirdly fragmented and cyber-enmeshed time. Of course many great, long poems—think Blake, Eliot, Rankine—are driven by very human-scaled anxieties, desires, and ire, and in a move that evokes Whitman’s “Poets to Come” (“I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face, / Leaving it to you to prove and define it, / Expecting the main things from you”), the narrator of Hothead acknowledges that this poem, any poem, is not any one person’s to complete: “maybe we need many more poems, it isn’t my call, but I’d like to see / a poem the end of I’ll never see, a poem I’ll help with, then I’ll die during.” I won’t give away the beautiful end-game of this extraordinary, genre-bending book, but the “poem” begun by Stephen Cushman when he began to write is one that his readers can hope to see him extend in many books to come.