Bill Kushner, In Sunsetland With You, Straw Gate Books, 2007.
An ominous and surreal pall infects this bittersweet collection by two-time NYFA Fellow Bill Kushner, who pairs a character named Billy with Abraham Lincoln. Billy is cast as a simple, wayward lad, innocent but seducible. Lincoln is an adult with “hairy arms.” Yet he also embodies an unattainable quest. These two encounter other characters and provide a rhythmic structure, as does the liberal and musical use of repetition.
Vernacular is gnarled and garlanded in a balanced combination. Kushner is going for the jugular as he opines. Lines hiss and spit and bite, snarling like Catullus only to capsize in a wave of Whitmanesque sentiment. “More shall we fly together/ of our dark dark midnights/ in search of America, that far lost/ country, I say no more.”
The last poem breaks away from Kushner’s parables. Here the cartoon aspect disappears. The pain of loneliness is countered with the joy of sex as the author navigates diary entries on a “sad slushy” morning or a “Night sitting alone in some cheap… place.” Penury is lamented but glorified. Companionship is lost and found and then remembered and eulogized. Strains of Ginsberg’s exalted desperation bubble up and win us over: “I wander naked weeping through Chinatown.”
Wise and wicked, Kushner winks as much as he winces.
Janine Pommy Vega, Trans., Estamos Aqui: Poems by Migrant Farmworkers, Bowery Books, 2007.
As a teenager, Janine Pommy Vega fell in with the Beats and later traveled the world. She spent a lot of time in Peru and became fluent in Spanish. For many years now she has lived in Woodstock and paid the rent by teaching workshops to “those behind the bars.” As a translator she is, how they say “simpatico.”
Some of these poems by migrant farmworkers are like jeweled oral histories. The best recall the same spirits that visited Lorca, Paz and Neruda. There is danger. Witches and ghosts flit by. Lovers are separated. Places are missed. Consolation is found.
In a poem by Humberto Hernandez, a man plants a tree. “I made sure to plant you with love/ You are so special.” Each season, the poet asks his friend, the tree: “How many promises of love/ And secrets will you keep?” We should be very glad these people are tending our food, as Vega points out in her introduction.
The poems are presented en face, across from “Gota de Agua” by Romulo Bernardo Cortéz, we read of “Drop of Water.” The author extends water as a metaphor with dead-on effect. “Please…/ take me to the contour of your lips/ and convert this simple drop/ into the moist diamond/ of a tender kiss.”
Nate Pritts, Sensational Spectacular, Blaze VOX, 2007.
Ah, to be young and full of energy, as “feet barely touch/ the ground… running straight out.” Nate Pritts writes like a receiver barreling down the field to catch the long bomb. He’s a conquistador in a funhouse. He’s out to explore the universe and carry on.
The collection begins with a quote by Kenneth Koch who “never mentioned… friends” and then presents 24 catchy poems about friends. Trips, games and conversations shift from quirky patter to philosophical dictums. Grand ideas evolve from communal pursuits.
In “Outcasts of Infinity” Pritts notes “whenever one… gets down in the dumps/ it’s up to the rest of us to come to the rescue.”
The next section, called “Big Crisis,” shows Pritts to be a metaphorical metaphysicist (think of John Donne). He starts with implausible images and turns them into elegant equations. “Each thought in my head is a missile/ … and each thought chunk is an explosion of me.” Several thoughts and “Booms” later, and Pritts has reinvented an amorous entreaty.
Prefacing the last section, “The Brave and the Bold,” Pritts cites Coleridge: “well they are gone, and here I must remain.” Yet he returns to the shorter friend poems. The only problem with this book is the repetition. Too many friends and fast feet.
ContributorJeffrey Cyphers Wright