Music Speaks, by Bill Cushing
Review by Charles Farmer
Anyone who has spent time making a mixtape understands there is an undercurrent of autobiography threading the song selections. Whether the tape’s intention is to woo a crush or introduce bands to the uninitiated, mixtapes tell the curator’s story. Bill Cushing’s handsome Music Speaks reads as a reverently annotated playlist, a love letter honoring the music and artists who have provided the soundtrack to his life. While some curators might be more concerned with showcasing their eclectic, rarefied tastes, Cushing’s poems are never pedantic or pretentious; they are tender homages—sometimes exuberant, other times more subdued, depending on their subject—that reveal a mutual appreciation for music and the written word.
So often, critics argue about the use of the word poetry, whether it can be used in a discussion about music. Here, there is no hierarchy, only a mutual appreciation.
Music Speak opens with “On Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Bydlo,’ ” a response to a piece from Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite, Pictures at an Exhibit, the composer’s sonic interpretations of Viktor Hartmann’s pictures. The piece is especially significant to Cushing as listening to his father’s 1960 LP of Fritz Reiner’s recording of the suite is among Cushing’s formative musical experiences. Mussorgsky’s own work captures the trudge and resiliency of a wagon team, its oxen bearing a load of hay; Cushing’s poem captures the solemnity of music and the picture. There’s something admirable, something worth celebration as
Beast and wagon pass,
as if solemn
and then recede
out of sight
Music and images combine as the processional offers its own percussion, a “rhythmic hammering, / dull thunder / as hooves pound the earth”; the organic beat causing the ground to move “to the sound / of these hardened / timpani.”
This opening poem establishes the origins of Cushing’s lifelong relationship with music, a connection that blossoms and intensifies as he moves on from his father’s LP and discovers jazz— the focus of most of Music Speaks. Cushing’s poems conjure images of iconic Blue Note album covers, nightclubs both suspicious and sophisticated, bartenders gracious with heavy pours, the sounds of aural abandon that fueled The Beat Generation. Jazz, Cushing says in “Jazz Salvation,” is “my country’s / only true art.” It transcends “geometric” pop and “classical’s calculus.” Jazz is “our chance / to dance / in a stereotomy of confusion,” and “a road to refuge— / becoming our savior / from too many / mundane days.”
When he was young, Cushing’s heart was elsewhere. In the fourth grade, “Rock and roll was my world,” he says in, “’Music isn’t about standing still and being safe.’” Cushing, like countless others, eventually discovered Miles Davis’s cataclysmic catalog, its re-imaging of music’s possibilities. Describing his first encounter with Davis, Cushing speaks in the language of revelation:
[…] you brought me back
I walked all the way home
from that train station
my head pounding with sounds
frantic-fast as the subway
Cushing also writes in awe of Charlie Parker (“Listening to Bird”), who staccato pulse is replicated in two-line bursts:
He founds places
in his search for every note
leaving chromatic gravity,
shooing up into infinity;
And the in “Ode to Nina Simone,” whose own musical journey resembles Cushing’s, as she “[left] beloved Bach behind.” Anyone who’s seen Simone’s fiery set in 2021’s documentary Summer of Soul will recognize the goddess in Cushing’s poem, who’s “transforming us with blues, boogie-woogie / using training in classics to quash rage.”
Elsewhere in Music Speaks, Cushing writes about the effortless suave of Eubie Blake, whose “long fingers, doing what few can hope to, / creating perfect stops,” propelled classics like “Raggin the Rag” and the essential “Memories of You.” Also subjects of affection are: the contemporary, almost genre-less band, Too Many Zooz (“Three spheres of instruments—percussion, sax, / and trumpet: brass, reed, and skin—become / a discussion of brash banging fun); Dire Straits’ Mark Knopler, who’s always been more than a rock ‘n’ roller; and the recently departed and greatly missed Leon Redbone, eternally cool “decked out in black, Ray-Bans perched on / a Syrid nose,” / “ageless as a harvest moon.” Music Speak fittingly closes with “So Long, Dr. John,” a poem-as-obituary for the late, inestimable Dr. John,
Most interesting is Cushing’s poem to jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, “Singing with Both Hands,” a testament to the mystery behind the creative process. We can try to quantify and analyze creativity, dissect the muse, but creation remains a mystery. Considering the source of Robert’s virtuosity, Cushing asks, “With eight-eight steps to choose, / how do the pianist’s hands / decide which to use?” It could be that “each acts alone: one as the heart” while “the other wanders free.” Yet for of all this analysis, search for a behind-the-scenes explanation, the answer could be a simple, “Or not”—perhaps there is no conscious choice; perhaps it’s a matter of mystical surrender.
Music Speaks is a welcome to addition to my home, where I am often torn between devoting my time and heart to poetry and music. Here, my loves coalesce; there is no guilt trip. The collection succeeds as a testimony to music’s and poetry’s ability to breathe life into the everyday, where notes and words comfort, clarify, confirm, and reassure what it means to be alive.
Bill Cushing has lived in Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Maryland, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and currently lives in California. As an undergrad, he was called the “blue collar” poet by classmates at the University of Central Florida because of his years serving in the Navy, and working as an electrician on oil tankers, naval vessels, and fishing boats. Bill earned an MFA in writing from Goddard College in Vermont and has recently retired after more than 20 years of teaching English at East Los Angeles and Mt. San Antonio colleges. Bill was named as one of the Top Ten Poets of L.A. in 2017, and in 2018, he was honored as on the ten poets to watch in L. A. His 2019 book, A Former Life, was released by Finishing Line Press and recieved the Kops-Featherling International Book Award. He won the San Gabriel Valley Chapbook Competition with Music Speaks.
Charlie Farmer is a Georgia poet and professor who loves his wife, Erin, his daughters, his friends, his cats, his students, his books, his LPs, and everything else a poet should love in life.
Risa Denenberg is the Curator at The Poetry Cafe.