POETRY MONDAY: April 3, 2017

James Cummins


Is it spring yet? Hard to know, since here in the Northeastern U.S. as I wrote this, we were in a storm that just got upgraded to “blizzard” status, and I could hardly see out of my Berkshire windows. But here we are, anyway, thinking about what makes us happy – poetry.

As befitting National Poetry Month, our poet today is one whose life and career are devoted to poetry. Curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection, where he is also a professor of English, James Cummins has published five books of poetry, the most recent of which is Still Some Cake (Carnegie Mellon Press). His others are The Whole Truth (North Point Press); Portrait in a Spoon (University of South Carolina Press); Then and Now (Swallow Press); and, co-authored with David Lehman, Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (Soft Skull Press). But this is far from all. Honors for his work include poems selected for several Best American Poetry  volumes and a number of anthologies, some of which, such as The Oxford Book of American Poetry and 180 More, may be on your own shelves. He has also published poems in many journals, including The New Republic, Paris Review, Partisan Review and recently in The New Criterion, The American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, Shenandoah, and Agni. He is also, I’m happy to say, one of the poets in the anthology, Climate of Opinion: Sigmund Freud in Poetry, which I have had the good fortune to edit, forthcoming from IP Books. His former co-author, David Lehman, is also in that volume, represented by a poem that I hope you will find as funny as I still do.

Below are three fine poems by James Cummins. “My Father’s Rope” and “Fling” have already been published. “The Cows” is a new one, appearing here for the first time.

                    –Irene Willis
                       Poetry Editor



My Father’s Rope

My father packed a rope into every suitcase
when he went out to all the wooden towns
after the war, offering his wares.
Each suitcase was made of cardboard,
like all the other suitcases
of the men offering America’s wares
after the war, the necessary war.
“All those hotels were made of wood,”
he told me once, cunning and fear
I’d come to know in him at war
in his face. “The Allegheny, the old Fairfax
in Wheeling, the Dexter, pride of Fremont, Ohio.
I’d call ahead; sometimes I had to call
more than a month ahead, to book a room
that wasn’t higher than the second floor.
Fire took ’em all—yeah, every single one
burned down. I’d been to war, I wasn’t going to fry
on a fourth-floor ledge. I packed my rope.”
Standard-issue clothesline, doubled back,
and tied at three-foot intervals with a knot
they taught him in the Navy, in the war.

from Still Some Cake (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012).




He wanted to tell her the weekend idea was “neat,”
But he kept hearing himself repeat the word “funny.”
She named the names of trees, flowers: sycamore, tulip.
He asked her who did she think she was, Gary Snyder?
Above the car, then over the hotel, the spring moon
Was full, orange. “This isn’t just another fling,”

She said suddenly. “Don’t dare think it’s some fling.”
The Jack Daniels arrived, hers on the rocks, his neat.
“I didn’t think that at all.” Behind her, the moon
Looked away. She fretted. “I just—I feel funny.”
Amazingly, it occurred to him something Gary Snyder
Once said was appropriate. He repeated it. “Tulips,”

She smiled back. “Let’s take a walk through the tulips.”
Later, they didn’t make love. She was shy. Some fling,
He brooded. Did she really think he liked Gary Snyder—
That he, too, thought he had it all summed up in a neat
Little package? Funny, he groaned. Worse than funny.
I get it all right, for once: drinks, room, even the moon

Cooperates. How often can you count on a spring moon
Slipping through the sycamores, picking out the tulips
In the night air? She should feel romantic, not “funny”!
Lying next to her, he felt so restless, eager to fling
His body atop hers—seeking, yet in control, his need
Ascetic, sensual, yet poised—a suburban Gary Snyder …

In the dark, she teased: “Thinking about Gary Snyder?”
Then: “I’m not so shy now.” He thought about the moon,
And a Grace Paley character who “liked his pussy neat.”
Then she was touching him, needing him, her two lips
Soft flowers, emissaries of her body, gently ruffling
Against him, moving him, so powerfully it wasn’t funny . . .

Afterward, they were awkward, shy, trying to be funny.
They couldn’t get any more mileage out of Gary Snyder.
“Some fling,” he said, and she flung back, “Some fling!”
But mostly they were quiet. Outside, the big yellow moon
Yawned. He made a mental note to send her some tulips.
She stared out the window, thinking about the word “neat.”

He thought of how she’d fling her hair. And the moon …
It was finito. Next week he got a book by Gary Snyder
In the mail. That was funny. He sent her the tulips.

from Portrait in a Spoon, (University of South Carolina Press, 1997)



The Cows

Next to him
the animals grazed,
lowered grass-sweetened
mouths to water
broken by a falling
bird or a last sunlit
Their heads
lifted & turned
as the car sped by
& he inhaled coffee
through a straw.

There was nothing
he wanted to kill.

Like a door swinging
open unlocked
after he’d battered
on it for days,
those heads swung
from those big shoulders,
white faces the source

of powder a mime
smears on her face
before she accosts you
on the street
in front of a crowd

& walks along behind
for maybe a block,
swinging neither your
arms nor hers,
calling you names
with her body,

calling your name,
to catch up—
everyone sees it—
how important it is
she catch up.

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