It’s not a new thing for a poet to take common everyday things, the riffraff of our lives, and use them to signify or explain something larger. It’s what poet Stephen Cushman, a professor at University of Virginia, does in Riffraff: Poems, published last year by LSU Press, but his poetry does it in at least two striking ways.
First are the subjects, or things, that he employs – a phrase, an expression (“take my advice, ” or “a way with words”), a visitor’s guide, two brothers eating breakfast together, a weather advisory, a Mother’s Day card, a toothbrush. Separately, these poems are self-contained, and would not at face value seem to lend themselves to a collection.
But they do. They fit together, and they fit well, and the reason they do is the second striking aspect of this poetry collection: the words of the poems themselves. They share a common vocabulary of the poet, a common usage and understanding.
The consonants are hard, and at times seem almost jagged or staccato in effect. The words create poems that are active as opposed to passive, sometimes quick and almost feverish as opposed to languid. Cushman demands attention, and he gets it, the reader almost compelled to reread each poem because they read so quickly, so fast.
“Hydrological” is an example:
Three quick inches drenching the ridge
make a textbook day to study drainage,
every cleft a creek and ever creek
a moiling seethe, dangerous to wade
when the watershed funnels its dousing this way,
brand new flumes where nothing ran before,
outcrops and ledges spewing like gargoyles,
and a thousand white veins,
braiding down, branching backwards,
mapped against the mountainside
as clearly as dye, shot through a heart,
traces the flow that ravels and ramifies.
The poem has an urgency about it, the words themselves not only describing the coursing waters but in a very real sense becoming the coursing waters, simultaneously describing the scene and becoming part of the danger and fascination. My favorite line: “…outcrops and ledges spewing like gargoyles.”
The poems of Riffraff: Poems read quickly, but they demand a return, a second reading, and even a third, to see their full power and impact.
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