Upon a first encounter, Iris Cushing’s poems read as idiomatic western lyrics—“aquifer, petroleum, / dinosaur skeleton” go two lines of “Nevada.” Yet the places in these poems act as portals to locations more capacious than the West. The word “Wyoming” becomes falling leaves or the arc of the sun or the sound a famished dog might make, “Dallas” a transvestite psychic’s deliberately mis-etymoligized name. A horse mine in Joshua Tree, California is transfigured into death. I have never read a poet both so regional and alien. “I’ll spend the afternoon / in an empty quadrant of the zodiac, // among the signs of no one,” she writes. Cushing is Borgesian, vertiginous in insight and uncanny. In “Reenactment,” she slips from a reprisal of Wild Bill Hickok’s death into the banalities of modern-day seduction, in “Horizon,” from descriptions of the western into existential nihilism: “your shadow, proof of your depth, spills from your feet to fill the place it falls.” She assembles façades only to see what is hiding behind them: “A tumbleweed cushions its empty center; / the cliffs are warehouses containing their exteriors.” There persists, these days, a low-grade allergy to content; an eschewal of the very possibility of authenticity has led to the fetishization of form, which is material and therefore thought more literal or true. Cushing does the opposite. By pursuing the personal and regional, she captures the transcendent. To say her West is metaphysical is, perhaps, beside the point: “your skin crawled with language. / It covered your body, the shape / of your ignorance, words that / were kept from their truth // by a haze, a fog, a layer of dust. / And if that dust were wiped away?” Reading this work, I fell in love again with language. Not because it is beautiful or even particularly true, but rather because it transports.
All I want to do today is sit around Wyoming
until it gets dark.
It must be the time of year: the angle of the sun
has shifted, and the leaves are finally Wyoming.
I flip through a picture-book
by the light of one long window.
Vincent Van Gogh gathered inspiration
while Wyoming through the South of France.
I think he captured especially well
the shadows that fall as the sun is Wyoming.
These landscapes unfolded
on my lap remind me
of the season I was in love.
We’d sit together on the porch,
Wyoming en Español. It was the summer
I discovered bread and butter, and walked
through golden fields of rolled-up hay—
curls on the head of a giant saint.
But it’s another season now. Soon
my pet canary will begin Wyoming.
An old German folk song
is Wyoming on the radio.
Its consonant verses, freed of meaning,
deepen the whiteness of the sky.
I give a piece of cheese to the dog
so he’ll stop Wyoming,
then I cut off a piece for myself.
Like the sun, I’ve abandoned my house
in favor of this small machine,
a plastic tube of white gas
with a metal gear I place my thumb against
for friction. A flame appears,
my eleventh finger.
Smoke signals the beginning of belief:
I’ll spend the afternoon
in an empty quadrant of the zodiac,
among the signs of no one.
I’ll undo my braids when I return
to live as a vagrant in my own home.
In the meantime, I burn
this immaterial bundle
bound with non-native grasses.
Its smoke shrinks a skin
around my breath. The names of things
feel beautiful in a false way. For example,
to call a very still blue insect
a dragonfly feels false,
as does calling it still, and blue.
When I look up, it’s moved
from a twig to the hump of a pink stone.
Its shadow alone could draw blood.
The light made by a white moon
feels white, although it’s only the color
of what it falls on. In this way,
the attention is the sensation
of what it attends. My hat, a shadow
I carry around my head.
You work at a tourist saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota,
the one where Wild Bill was famously shot while gambling.
From 12 to 8 you stand behind the bar
in a frilled corset, watching for your cue.
When it comes, you cross the room,
sashay towards a table where two men pretend at poker,
and speak your lines. One man sucks
foam fangs of beer from his moustache.
He stands, knocking back his chair.
Before you finish screaming,
the sulfur crack of a prop pistol
throws Wild Bill backward.
You fall against a stuffed buffalo,
or a biker of similar stature.
The false faint yields a dollar
in your garter belt. You right the chair
with a bullet hole in its back.
You felt something the first few times.
Driving home half-drunk,
you touch each man in thought:
Bill, his killer, beer, your garter.
One of them takes you to the firing range
and then out for pizza on your birthday.
The other gives you an elk antler as a gift.
Says he found it in the field behind his house.
You think to yourself, both of them cannot deserve this fate.
When he turns his back, you point the antler, taking aim.
Leave cityscape behind,
but take its silhouette,
a jaw of voided static.
Take the volume
of all semi-trucks in one hand.
The length of all highways
in the other. Take away state lines—
the shapes of states—imaginary
but for the serrated edge of river
borders. Make the rivers openings
through which something
enters from elsewhere.
The Continental Divide,
the center of an axis
that goes indefinitely
down as well as out.
Find whatever is rusting
inside the earth: Ag, Cu, Au,
Sharpen the difference
and its opposite.
Make of it a city
visible from space.
A city of fountains
and jeweled women,
where wide lawns spread
over the dust like loads
of spilled emeralds.
In a Winnebago somewhere
off Highway 20, you sit,
silent in a silver wig, dripping
with turquoise and sterling.
Your alter ego holds a deck
of cards between her hands.
She waits for clients to tap
on the door. Gail Powers
is twice your age, spent
seven years sitting
with sadhus in Nepal,
and maintains contact
with everything in the universe
to which we are connected
by light and other forms
of radiation. She is adept
at guiding seekers through
the four categories of knowledge:
the known known, the known
unknown, the unknown
unknown, the unknown
known. Clients in need
may pay in gemstones.
Gail’s existence depends
on your ability to believe in her.
When you take off the wig
in the cab of your truck
and drive back to town,
you are again a young man,
named after the third largest
city in Texas, a name you’d
have people believe comes
from Greek, but really belonged
to George Mifflin Dallas,
the U.S. vice president
under James K. Polk.
You go back to your job
at the grocery store,
your apartment and TV.
You wonder if Gail’s arrival
is the result of your volition
or hers. Occasionally
windchimes or dreamcatchers
cause her to stir within you
For a long time
you didn’t know
if Gail’s powers existed
outside your secret trailer.
Then one day, Gail gave
a pearl to a pregnant woman.
Swallow this pearl, she said.
Six months later the woman
returned with her infant son,
who gleamed to near-
translucence. He was born,
the woman said, holding
your pearl in his hand.
LOIS FRANK AT THE LOST HORSE MINE, JOSHUA TREET, CALIFORNIA
Beside the place where a window was,
rusty trophies the mountain keeps:
the old bed-frame. Bottle on the chimney mantle.
The map claims a primitive road
ends somewhere nearby,
but it’s only a dry creekbed
dwindling to a trail kept by rabbits.
I remember the day we left town.
I cushioned my dishes in quilts and clothes,
Tucked a supply-list inside my dress:
in soon-to-be-rusted tins, just as hatchet and pickaxe
were soon to be.
Mountains plain and brown as ant-hills
rose past our departed desert settlement,
The miner I’d married, our children, myself.
Burros’ packs covered in canvas.
June seethed on the sinewy plants,
the house waiting at valley’s end,
empty since winter.
Coyote-squash ripened on the mine-side of the mountain:
I watched their furred-yellow skins swell.
I cut one open, found a mass of white fibers,
hollow spider webs. We lived on jackrabbit meat
and wild grapes found in slot-canyon shade.
My husband showed me how to skin
prickly-pear pads with knife and glove, how to burn
glochids off the pear’s scarlet fruit.
He disappeared into the mineshaft each day,
to pick for gold with an oil-lamp.
Gold more rare than oil.
Oil more rare than wood. We cut our four chairs up for the fire.
The best part of our one-room house was the chimney.
A pipe through which the sky breathed
the smoke of our furniture, split-rails, Joshua branches.
Wood more rare than ink.
Smoke from the chimney’s flue,
clear as any letter.
My husband might’ve slipped, fallen on his pick
in a chamber muffled by a half-mile of rock.
Maybe a rattler bit me as I stooped to dig a root,
or our second summer might’ve been too dry,
and we went mad after eating our last horse,
our faces wizened until we all appeared
the same age.
By 1897 we were gone. The house dismantled:
Only the chimney stands.
Start with a Western:
Thunder in the Sun or The Searchers.
A horseback fight scene:
cowboys in a dust shroud settling a score.
Start with that, and omit the guns:
Arms outstretched, men gesture with hooked fingers.
They squint first, and jolt when they seize the air.
Then omit the cowboys.
The horses run from each other, swerving their long heads.
A bronc the color of polished oak disappears into a canyon.
Omit the horses.
Omit the pressed shoeprints, hooved echoes.
A tumbleweed cushions its empty center;
the cliffs are warehouses containing their exteriors.
The river valley moves into distance.
The sun sets.
There’s wind that carries the smell of something living.
Your shadow, proof of your depth,
spills from your feet to fill the place it falls.
Then, omit the landscape.
The year you drove West
has a cloud of dust around it,
a shroud that blocks
the sun from you. I imagine
you drew heat from the engine,
from the ground, divided it
among your sons. By Nevada
your husband had shed his Indian name
and become a mechanic: James.
It wasn’t asked if either of you
would go back and finish
high school. In Fayetteville, AR
your Cherokee father-in-law rusted
in a lawn chair, embalmed himself
under a trucker cap preserved in grease.
James sent money home.
A disaster can become an adventure—
still, I’d like to put my hand
through the cloud, the smoke,
the thunderhead that covered you then.
Roberta, when did you begin
your job at the Laundromat?
It was across the street from
the church, built from the same
cinderblocks, all contained between
ground and sky, equally soft.
California, where you loved the Lord,
where the street with your life
on either side of it
led to a freeway going North and South.
In one direction, walnut orchards
unraveled into primeval woods.
In the other, Sacramento,
then the dry twilight land
you sacrifice yourself to
in order to reach Los Angeles.
Roberta, where were you
those decades before James
bought the RV? Were you
pulling your husband’s belt
from his limp trousers, dropping it
on the floor, a length of road coiled up?
The years of laundry gathered while
you weren’t taught certain words.
You had a radio to listen to,
then a television—
black and white at first—
and club soda
to remove blood stains.
is it true you’re really one
of sixteen children, whose
names you recite in prayer
like sixteen types of tree?
Do you still have
what you carried West?
Collard greens with fatback,
hot dogs mixed with beans?
What about the houses
you moved from and to,
addresses in Dixon,
Willets, Arbuckle? You
heard your oldest brother
was living in Chickopee, LA,
and asked your pastor
to help you write a letter.
You filled a tin bowl
with water for the dog, swabbed
your sons’ wounds. At night,
your skin crawled with language.
It covered your body, the shape
of your ignorance, words that
were kept from their truth
by a haze, a fog, a layer of dust.
And if that dust were wiped away?
The words belonged to you,
Roberta. But how could you
make them into names for things
you knew about? In the dust
I’d draw a ring around the night
James fell asleep at the wheel—
a crash that caused the hair
on your second son’s head
to grow in half-white. That boy
became the man who raised me.
Each son grew to be somehow older than you,
even Marty, the youngest, the first
to die. Roberta, you never learned
to drive, so you walked
to the on-ramp at the height
of harvest season, to scavenge
oranges and tomatoes spilled
from turning trucks. To this day
you gather fallen walnuts
across the road
and leave them in a bowl
with a nutcracker next to it.
A disaster becomes
an adventure. An oval
portrait haunts the living room—
you before the West, a clarity
of plaited hair
and gingham dress.