The Operating System

POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 14 :: Daniel Owen on Bill Kushner

I first encountered Bill Kushner’s work at a reading at the Poetry Project a few years ago. That night, he read from In Sunsetland With You, a book of poems that emanate from young Billy’s relationship with old Abe Lincoln, poems that, with a language of grace and humor, narrate the misadventures of a lonely, horny, eternally innocent, old, sad, and joyous spirit through the wars, highway-watching nights, and skinny-dippings of Sunsetland. What struck me most about these poems, and what continues to strike me through all of Bill’s work, is the delicate balance between wrenching and buoying the heart. Bill’s poems are like walking through the world with one’s eyes open, with the workaday bullshit stripped away; he reads the raw Whitman writ on every street corner or fragment of memory, real or imagined. 

Over the course of eight books, Bill has rambled through the streets of Sunsetland and New York, across sonnets and daily diary poems, lustily crusing through time present and past, Billie Holiday records, beefcake babies, always in a mood of love, love, love. Yes, love appears on almost every page and it sure feels real, flapping in the face and the mind and the blood of a humble human life.
As Barbara Henning wrote in her review of In Sunsetland With You, “Bill writes lyrical, personal poetry that celebrates and mourns dailyness, laying out the secrets of ordinary nyc life, apples and buses and blowjobs.” It’s a poetry of lust, longing, and love, of how too soon all is gone, and of the laughs in that going like pigeons in the sky beside a building beside the moon. A tenderness and sense of play that, even in sorrow, make the world feel real and liveable.
When I Was Five
(from the recent Walking After Midnight, 2011; Spuyten Duyvil Press)

What I was was tiny balls of tinsel and
lust. When I was five I was already
in deepest love. You can say what you
want, and you will, but back then that
love it was love. I would croon to my
pillow, love oh love. I would suck on
my bottle of Yoo-Hoo, love oh love.
I would watch my father paint a room,
love oh love, and he would say Shut up.
I would watch my mother cook and broom,
oh love Mom love, and she would say Shut
up. All for love when love then was now
that was love. My restless bed awake
with it, love. Would gather sticks of wood
from the forest of love. Would I frighten
the wolves? yes, for love was love, and there
was none other. Would I even terrify the
sparrows and the doves? yes, for love was yes
love. I ate wild berries and ripe cherries, and
with my mouth as red as new blood, I sang it:
love love love. I grew angry when I could not
see my love, could not smell my love, oh love.
Everyone else I knew grew out of it, gathered
their stars and drove off in their shiny new cars,
but not I, for somehow, year after year, there I
was, still five, and they don’t allow me to drive,
no not I and my heart, drugged on love. Dear
heart, you still drugged on love? And my poor
heart’s answer? Yes, love, yes you and all you
love, love, laave.
my poem inspired by Bill Kushner:
Go To Sleep Lions
my rain is sleeping on the shoe
against the grain of the caboose
guess which kind of
toothepaste the sunrise
mimicked (a mock) this afternoon?
I am a small rodent and
I’m madly in love with shoe
I must be squeaming
my first poem was writ
for a shoe, then civilization
was writ for a shoe
my best friend in high school
was called shoe and I miss him
like a shore, like a footprint
on a shore with a wave with
no one to see it with kelp
and a hermit crab in a
tiger’s paw and an albatross
and a lung, just one
lung singing for change
Dan Owen lives in Brooklyn, co-edits Sun’s Skeleton, goes to school at Long Island University, and frequently plays gong and kemanak with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, NYC’s premiere Javanese gamelan ensemble.

[Editor’s note: Another choice participant in my two most recent Poetry Project
Workshops, Dan quickly became a go-to person for critical conversation and honest criticism. Sun’s Skeleton is a beautiful publication, and we are happy to call Dan and his magazine friends of Exit Strata. Here’s Dan and I outside St. Marks Church – photo by Tony Hoffman.]


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