MARCH 8, 2019
I RECENTLY USED Stephen Cushman’s second collection of poems, Cussing Lesson, in a small seminar for first-year college students. This was not a poetry course, but a freshman course on myths of adolescence and the literary imagination. Before we took up Cushman’s poetry collection, we’d read a novel, a play, and two collections of short stories.
The students in the class were smart, well educated, and eager to discuss literature, but Cushman’s slim volume stumped them. Accustomed to encountering poetry on Xeroxed English-class handouts or in anthologies, or as one-offs on the internet, they were so bemused by the book they held in their hands that they didn’t know what to call it. “In this novel by Stephen Cushman,” one brave student began her weekly response paper.
For those of us who write and read books of contemporary poetry, it may come as a surprise that many readers — and not just those freshly out of high school — have no idea that poets deliberately, conceptually, organize their work, which is often written over the span of many years, into collections. And why shouldn’t they be surprised? Outside of creative writing classrooms or graduate seminars, poetry isn’t usually taught this way, as a set of individual collections by single authors — if it’s taught at all.
In our class discussion about Cussing Lesson, my students asked basic questions about the process of conceiving of and assembling the book: Did Cushman write the first poem first, and then write the next one, and then the next? In chronological order? One student wanted to know about the acknowledgments page and what it meant that a poem had “appeared previously” in a journal. They wanted to know why the book was so short, compared to novels or collections of short stories, and if the volume had made the author famous, or at least rich. Who picked the cover art? What was its relation to the book’s content? How did the poet “name” the poems? Why weren’t there chapters? Were the poems all related? How was the order of the poems determined? Were the poems telling “the truth” about the author, or was it more like fiction? And was that even allowed in poetry?
All of this got me thinking that, in my next installment of Second Acts, I would write about two second books as objects in their own right, rather than situating them, as I usually do, in a greater, overarching oeuvre or some other larger context. It seemed only right that Cushman’s Cussing Lesson, though not quite 20 years old, would be one of these books. The other is Shara Lessley’s The Explosive Expert’s Wife, which appeared in March 2018.
Who wouldn’t read a book titled The Explosive Expert’s Wife, especially when the cover art depicts a presumably married woman (she wears a ring on the fourth finger of her manicured left hand), cropped from breast to pelvis, stoking a glass container shaped like an upside-down uterus with a cocktail of ice and split-open fruits — yonic mangos, pomegranates, limes? Before they even open the book, readers are alerted to expect poems that raise incendiary, “explosive” questions about marriage, fertility, and femininity.
The promise of a feminine “Vesuvius at Home” is confirmed by the book’s epigraph from Emily Dickinson,
The Soul has moments of Escape —
When bursting all the doors —
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours,
a lens that signals that the bombs in this book will not just be literal explosives. The scope of the book widens, too, from “doors” of home to terrors “abroad.”
A close reading of the “Contents” is also revelatory; contents lists and indexes of poetry books should always be considered poem-like in their own right, something Terrance Hayes confirms and plays with in his recent “Sonnet Index” for American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Lessley’s “Contents” are divided into three sections marked with Roman numerals — a clue that this might be a book that wants to push beyond binaries. Four of the book’s poems are titled “The Explosive Expert’s Wife,” a hint to the reader to watch these titular lyrics closely, for the ways they are similar and for the ways they vary; after all, they concern our heroine, the “narrator” of the volume. Finally, the titles in each section — some alluding to places (particularly Jordan) and phenomena with Middle Eastern associations (“Arabian Night,” “Arab Spring:” and a second “Arab Spring” without the colon, “In Arabic,” “Letter to Rania in Amman”) and others to the United States (“Letter to Bruce in Paradise, Indiana”; “The Ugly American”; “The Bath Massacre, 1927”) — signal that the journey of this book will range widely: geographically, linguistically, culturally.
I linger over the book’s various opening veils (its lenses, portals) in order to draw attention to aspects of contemporary poetry collections that are often overlooked in the reader’s rush to the poems themselves. Every one of these elements, whether deliberately chosen by the poet or not, contributes to the power of the collection as a whole.
In the case of The Explosive Expert’s Wife, our attention to the “opening acts” of the front matter is amply rewarded, preparing us for the book’s painstakingly curated poems of psychological insight, lyric intensity, formal dexterity, and beauty. Opening with a poem about the Middle East’s first all-female demining team and ending with a poem in which the speaker’s husband, the “explosive expert,” has traveled to the Middle East to help dismantle terrorist Improvised Explosive Devices, the book is a journey of courage at home and abroad. The collection is part paean to the country, language, and people of Jordan, where the narrator and her growing family are living as expatriates (and where, she acknowledges, “We’re trespassers / however you cut it”); part exploration of the pregnant female body and motherhood (particularly powerful are the parallels between the ubiquitous possibility of terror-related explosions with the “explosion” of a cesarean birth); and part meditation on the often vexed “domestic intelligence” that is any attempt at marriage and a private life in a world rife with sexism, terrorism, and acts of violence both intentional and random.
The poems in Lessley’s book confirm Seamus Heaney’s conviction that one function of poetry is “to write a place into existence.” In “The Long Flight Home (Amman to Washington, DC),” Lessley writes that “distance clarifies misunderstanding.” Her travels have taught her patience and admiration for an otherness that can never be hers. Here is “Aubade: Amman,” a syntactically sinuous poem, in which a migrating bird makes a return visitation:
Wasps lap the olive pits as light
into the small yard
the tree — the half-bloomed
branches of tree —
delivering the sun-
bird delivering light’s dull
splinter: that stick
from above the nest of paper and cloth,
in an open beak. Safe
in his crib, our son has not yet
woken. I hear the bird
outside, I know her
pearl-gray belly, the metallic green
mate’s rough throat. She sounds
distressed. Waiting for someone
to call my name, I have no words for
what I feel — a flash
and my child will stand
full-grown before me, and the man
I’ve loved so long will be
breathless. I still myself
to listen — think of the sun-
bird carving, above wooded Ajloun,
night’s wintry air, gliding her
back to our small yard, back to
the olive tree
she resettles each spring, as if
to attest — with orange
scraps of song — that
silence is counterfeit,
that light will return
and rise, sloughing its previous
form for the next.
For a speaker suddenly struck by her own mortality and that of her family, this return (of bird, of day) transcends manmade borders and offers the consolation of cycle and rhythm, of the delicate transformations of music and poetry.
Stephen Cushman’s Cussing Lesson also has an arresting cover. Against a deep black background, the title appears in all sans-serif capitals on the bottom half of the page, each letter flickering on a spectrum between gold and scarlet. The letters seem to be on fire. There are no images, just the author’s name below and to the left, in white capitals. In the top right corner, like a red tab on a dictionary page, is the word “POEMS,” arranged vertically, top to bottom. The letter “O” is blocked out in yellow. The effect of the whole is dramatic and bold, evoking secrets and transgressions; the sibilant double s’s in “CUSSING” and “LESSON” sizzle on top of one another like serpents, suggesting a postlapsarian world in which cursing and knowledge must meet.
No epigraph follows the title page, just a dedication: “For Sandra, Sam, and Simon.” All those s’s again; and unless these are the names of pets or automobiles, it seems clear that this author (also an “s”) is a family man, one who pays intense attention to naming, to repetition and pattern. Likewise, the “Contents” are also straightforward — no lobby poem or coda, no section numbers or markers, no subtitles, just 44 titles in sequence. The internet tells me that Cushman was born in 1956; that would have made him 44 at the time this book was probably being put together. A coincidence perhaps, but once the reader enters the world of this book, it becomes apparent that the calendar and aging are tied up inextricably with the lessons about language the book explores.
The book begins with “At the Recycling Center,” a poem that concerns a bit of language discovered on a scrap of paper in a refuse bin (“if I have you”),
of thrown-out language,
still whispering through
and ends with “Many Happy Returns,” in which the speaker braids together the fact of his birthday, the return of Lazarus from the dead, and his young son’s anxiety about “whether the sun would burn forever” to evoke a different, more cosmic realm of cyclical loss and persistence:
After the No, we drove on in silence
toward the day there would be no light,
he panicked by the picture, I squinting into
our middle-aged star, five billion down,
five more to go, avid and virulent.
These two poems about language and its consequences (“after the No”) bookend lyrics whose preoccupations range from Biblical reimaginings and family scenarios to issues of history, sexuality, and faith. What binds the poems is their ever-present awareness of words — their etymologies, their power to hurt, to charm, to recoup, but also their limits, as in “Greetings”:
my mouth is sewn shut
on its words
and everything rhymes
At the beating heart of the book is the title poem. In it, the speaker recounts his own experiences using foul language as a boy: “I promised my mother I’d never curse / the day I was born, a promise I’ve kept / only by cursing most everything else.” The narrator goes on to say:
Scholars who read seventeen languages
impress me so much less than fluent speakers
of the unspeakable, blessed with the knack
for malediction and imprecation,
who in sublime high gear soar so far
above our daily expletives they might
as well be talking in tongues.
The speaker explains how fatherhood helped him clean up his act, and so he is caught a little off-guard when one of his sons
wants to know
the cuss words I do and offers to share
his own collection first, an impressive one
for seven years old, ruggedly Germanic,
heavy on anatomy.
After the father runs him through some “basic blasphemy, along with directions / for its prudent use,” and sends the boy on his way, he has to admit his disappointment at the fact that cussing no longer provides the kind of relief for him that it used to, when he himself was a boy:
Though I speak with the tongue of a devil,
what good does it do if I get no comfort
from demons I am deviled by? Happy the ones
whose capacity to curse keeps pace
with all they want to curse about.
Even as the speaker looks ahead to “the comic-strip / symbols for dirty words, among them / my last one I bet,” it is clear to the reader that it is poetry that has taken the place cussing once held in the narrator’s psychic and linguistic landscape. It is by wielding words into poems that the speaker now “keeps pace / with all [he wants] to curse about.” Cussing Lesson is Cushman’s testament to this realization; it is a middle-aged man’s book — turning over and over issues of the aging body, sick parents, an emptying nest, a dying planet — one that permits him to both “worship the sacred and savor the profane.”
In “The Aerodrome,” Heaney writes:
If self is a location, so is love:
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.
For this installment it’s been a pleasure to exercise the practice of slow reading, and to make forays into second books by Shara Lessley and Stephen Cushman as though I might be reading a book of poems for the first time. Ideally, I want to feel this every time I read or reread a collection of poetry, second book or otherwise — taking markings, noting cardinal points, and deeply appreciating the locations of selfhood and love each book embodies.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.