Bill Kushner's He Dreams of Waters
(Rattapallax Press, 2000)

Call Me 'Pluto'
by Karin Randolph

Bill Kushner is the master of backstage dramas. In He Dreams of Waters, long-gone parents make cameo appearances; a stranger in a restaurant is for one bittersweet moment a mourned lover; fleeting encounters on city streets lead to evanescent sex. Kushner's poems slide invisibly from persona to persona, faster than a sleight-of-hand on a cardboard box.

These poems tap the logic of dreams. "In the middle of a thirsty island, I'm forever/ Stopping, for a light, or for love, that light/ Where's the fire? Sometimes I burn all afire." In these lines from the opening poem, "Bike", the reader is taken from desire and forever to stopping for a light, to love, to lost love and to desire once again, all in three lines, with the simplest of language, the most casual shifts of meaning. Constantly on the move, Kushner's poems race like bike messengers through phantom Midtowns, pedal strange lanes of lonely towns, park in the shadows of forgotten films. With haunting grace, his voices sound the depths of self.

Best-known on the Downtown NY poetry scene, Bill Kushner is one of America's most inventive poets, updating the New York School [Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan et al.] for a fast-paced, new world. He writes on a smaller, nimbler scale than its founding members, fragmenting sentences to those parts of speech that communicate with the speed of Pentium chips. With greater intimacy than Frank O'Hara or John Ashbery, he cuts to the heart of growing up and aging, of parents, of gay sexuality and gender. Kushner achieves emotional depth in short poems, often sonnets, richness with scant words.

If this collection has a weakness, it is one Kushner shares with others similarly gifted: His lyrical facility is so effortless that he can get carried away with the sheer joy of language and sometimes verge on clever. However, such abandon is a happy fault, the mark of one in the throes of a love affair to whom the world's disparate motifs appear sublimely of a piece.

Kushner brings adoptive voices into a unified frame as well. Since he is a reader who takes on fully the otherly voices that wend through his poems, it is particularly appropriate that this long-awaited fourth collection comes with a CD. In "Take #9, At the Ocean," Kushner opens with a boyish voice, "People jump in, don't jump back. I/ watch them sink under like glittering/ diamonds, as I on sands . . . ," then shifts to a fatherly voice, with advice about sand castles, "Next time, you must build one/ stronger! next time, my son." He evokes a Ferris wheel, "who/ roars 'Come in! Everyone welcome!'/ its deep voice booming," then ends on an elegiac note: "When I look about me, the beach is empty/ but for swoops of birds screeching/ of their hunger, and me, the foam. I pick up/ the pinkest of a shell, and I listen, listen/ all our voices in it, 'til we wake and drown."

Tone in Kushner's poems veers from the comic to heartfelt and back, disrupting our orderly categories, blurring the borders between. Ampersands drive the poems forward like a kid's breathless "And then . . . And then . . . ." Seduced, we commit to the course of Kushner's startling twists and flips:

& the boy is gone, he is piss & tadpoles
& stands a man, he of muscle, sinew
& a hunger unheard of, blood on his tongue.

Pour glass. Survey kingdom, once a
mighty nation, now a sparsely furnished
room. 'Love has no boundaries,' you say
cocking what looks like a gun.

They flap in the crackling winds of
doing backflips like horny crickets
on wings of speed. I call these memories
like dewy raincoats on sunny days of
Elvis is Hound Dog. Hound Dog is.

Welcome to Planet Kushner where the world is language, not translated, not transcribed, but tongue in all its Rabelaisian bawdiness, free-wheeling, flicking in and out of grammar. Kushner dreams free-style through his waters, a baptism by immersion with all the promise of a fluent, new world verbs uncoupling with subjects, mixed metaphors, a voice indeterminate, but never passive. Voices shape into brief lives, only to decay like quarks or muons and then reappear, a different age, a different gender. Kushner's poems are precarious; they tempt incomprehensibility, but deliver a shocking clarity that strikes home beneath defenses. Yes, he's dangerous: With a deft twist of a word he may tell you something you would prefer to repress. So read him at your own risk. He'll leave you stunned, perhaps perplexed, but always more vital.

Moi, I'm nobody. Vous, et tu? To remain humble
In the face of such vast indifference. To remain pure
As the driven slush in the dry heaves of August.
You can call me Pluto, I who once was
A mighty planet, now your old faithful dog.

And so we swim with Bill Kushner from Mlle. Dickinson to Caesar's question, from cosmic indifference to pastoral absurdity, then, with a hint of Ishmael, come home to Disney's Pluto and finally, loyalty, and it all makes sense as a closing to this remarkable new collection.

(Poet Karin Randolph is the former editor of Mind The Gap, a U.S./U.K. literary and arts journal.)

©2000 Big City Lit™