In the title poem of this impressive debut collection, Stephen Cushman speaks as much of his poetics as he does of his role as father to a young child: “I perform the offices of comfort / as best I can. . . . I put it all on the line / one piece at a time.” In many poems in this volume, Cushman puts himself on the line with respect to family life, focusing on a parent or grandparent, spouse or child. In others he roams freely among subjects, pausing along the way before photographs from the Civil War, an engraving of Envy, a newspaper clipping about two climbers frozen on a mountain, wolves in a zoo, a woman who directs airplanes in from a runway.
Whether about family, history, religion, travel, or the natural world, these poems blend the everyday with the visionary, combining attention to detail with larger uncertainties. No matter how far a poem may wander in geography or subject matter, sooner or later it returns to the work of performing the offices of comfort, sometimes triumphantly with joy or humor, sometimes reluctantly with an acknowledgment of incompleteness and insufficiency.
Finally, at a moment in the history of American poetry when partisans of formal and free verse view each other with mutual suspicion, Cushman’s poems demonstrate the pleasures and powers of treating the varieties of verse design as a poet’s rightful inheritance.
Stephen Cushman is the author of the poetry collections Riffraff, Cussing Lesson, and Blue Pajamas and the nonfiction book Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle. He is Robert C. Taylor Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
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