Free associative, erudite, and funny, The Red List, by Stephen Cushman “begins and ends with the bald eagle, a bird once on the verge of extinction that now thrives.” Despite its naturalistic start, this is very much a long poem for the Digital Age. By the end of the first long stanza, Cushman has discussed: the bald eagle, Jupiter, his daughter (Hannah, age 13), and existence itself. Like the everyday habits of browsers, lurkers, tweeters, and bloggers, the information one encounters in this slim volume is vast, random, and free. Who hasn’t gotten lost in the rabbit hole of Wikipedia (or any other pop culture/gaming/TV show Wikia) or tvtropes.com? How did you get to this lowly blog and/or LibraryThing review? And as we survive and thrive in the new ecology of Web 2.0, we can also lament on the extinction of earlier websites (some still preserved at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine)? I can’t be the only one still mourning over the loss of the classic web-page Joe Don Baker’s Porkapalooza, a digital cenotaph to the star of “Mitchell”?
Reading The Red List is like going on a totally random web search, encountering wisdom, humor, and bon mots. Cushman achieves a fine balance between improvisational riffs and finely-wrought phrasing. It sounds both off-the-cuff and patiently crafted. How else to explain lines like this:
Wonder what the eagle’s doing
to ready for the hurricane, prophesied for Sunday
and bearing the name that might make one ask
if people to christen storms, yet another job to envy,
have anhydrous senses of humor or nasty knacks for irony
or plain don’t know Irene means peace
the bozo on the Outer Banks who thought it boss to surf,
the guy who fried while wading to save a small girl stranded
by waters hiding wires, the many hapless felled trees
crashing in windows, dropping on rooftops, swatting cars
like blood-puffed mosquitoes. What are you supposed to do?
Like clockwork or a Reset button or a browser crash, Cushman ends each long-line stanzas with a haiku. The above stanza ended with this one:
The white fog covers
island contours like the sheets
drawn over faces.
The haiku range from the traditionally nature-themed to the snarky to the self-referential. “It’s not complaining / when starling wings start grumbling: / it’s murmuration.” “Know a drama queen / of ups and downs overdone? / Slip her Dramamine.” “First it’s literal. / Then it’s all figurative. / Then it’s literal.” And so on.
Stephen Cushman excels at long line poetry, continuing the tradition of William Blake, Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, and Allen Ginsberg. Cushman seems more akin to Blake and Jeffers in this regard. Cushman’s humor, self-deprecatory and witty, aligns him with another tradition, that of the stand-up comedian. While he works as the Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia and authors nonfiction about the Civil War, his humor would make George Carlin proud. Besides being a purveyor of dick jokes and four-letter words, Carlin was also a modern-day philosopher and master rhetorician. Here’s Cushman unleashing the rhetorical floodgates:
Or ecstasy of fear as when someone says you jerk you scared me
shitlessy witless, or of boredom so bored one truly is bored
out of one’s mind and into its boondocks. Ecstatic hatred,
ecstatic jealousy, ecstatic disgust, ecstatic confusion,
ecstatic embarrassment, ecstatic bereavement,
ecstatic compassion, ecstatic detachment, ecstatic obsession,
ecstatic stress in the ravishment of overwork. So much more
ecstasy than pleasure, the back rub, the hot bath, warm bed,
the fond folderol between your legs or someone else’s.
This long poem is divided into two sections. It ends in the frigid darkness of winter, post-Hurricane Irene, and with an image of a lonely hunter above the black ridge line.
Lift the needle and flip over the LP or LaserDisc. The poem continues in Part 2 with Cushman ruminating over his own death. The lines get longer but end with the trademark haiku. Part 2 begins:
One of those things, if dead people miss, I surely won’t miss whenever I’m dead:
how long is that list, even for those who happen to convince not only themselves
but hosts of the gullible in credulous legions with acrobatic acts of contortive denial,
which make Pollyanna sound gloomy as Eeyore, that Pope had it right
that it’s right, whatever, because it exists, because it just is, full stop, no predicate,
Cushman redefines the long poem for this age of posts-: postmodern, post-racial (well … not quite), post-9/11, post-Great Recession, post hoc ergo propter hoc. The Red List soars like the eagle, to borrow the song from The Steve Miller Band, as it scans our anxious, disaster-ridden, pop culture-choked, glorious, inglorious, polyglot continental empire.