This is another installment of Poetry? I just don’t get it.
A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work.
Today’s poem is "Two Stairways"
by Bill Cushing, from his new book:
A Former Life.
I met Bill in Jacksonville in the late ‘80’s. He was one of a group of poets and artists I was lucky enough to hang around with, and learn from, right at the beginning of my own strange journey as a poet.
His apartment was right down the street from mine and there were frequent impromptu poet-gatherings there my first summer in the city. A memory from one of those gatherings: I told Bill that I liked Mahler, especially the 4th Symphony, and he shook his head and said “Mahler learned everything from Bruckner. Listen to Bruckner.” And then he put some Bruckner on the turntable (probably to everyone else's dismay).
Bill moved to California after earning his MFA from Goddard College. Besides writing, he teaches college English classes and facilitates a writing group (9 Bridges). Honored as one the “Top Ten L. A. Poets of 2017,” he was also named one of Los Angeles’ “Ten Poets to Watch in 2018.”
He also collaborates with a musician, Charles Corbisiero, on a performance project called Notes and Letters. Their Youtube channel can be found at Notes and Letters.
will be appearing this spring from
Finishing Line Press.
You can pre-order the book here.
The first greets those who promenade
through the foyer to a sunken
living room; its steps—wide with
carpeted tread—ease beneath gilded panels
lined with portraits of staid patriarchs
long dead. Bright red lips brush fair cheeks,
besitos de cultura alto,
as these elegant guests parade
through the living room past a massive
dining table and walls affixed
with innocuous ceramic buttons,
doorbell fixtures to summon the help
from the kitchen hiding a second staircase:
steep, jagged, and above all concrete.
Servants—rough hands wrapped in skin darker
than the mahogany furniture
they rub to a high shine—trudge between floors
carrying the weight of meals, loads of laundry,
flutes of lemon water, and whispered curses,
triggered by constant buzzing commands.
Meanwhile, quiet worms of hate burrow, deep
yet imperceptible, into their hearts.
(Previously published in the 2018 issue of the Altadena Poetry Review)
Looking at Two Stairways
This is the story of how a single visual cue along with several personal experiences grew into my poem “Two Stairways.” Having married a Peruvian almost a quarter-century ago, it only made sense that we visited her homeland, and this poem was born out of my first visit.
Just as some personal background, I am the product of an upper middle-class family. My parents weren’t rich but did well, and we never really struggled during my childhood. I was able to attend some first-rate private schools, and the small suburban town we lived in consisted of professionals from all fields. However, being from New York City, I also had the chance to see people living in worse conditions than I had experienced, yet none of my “worldly” experience prepared me for the extremes in economics I saw while visiting Lima for the first time—and this was even after spending three years in Puerto Rico, another country where there were stark differences between socio-economic classes.
In Peru, there seemed to be no discernible “middle class” as Americans tend to view things. It seemed to me people were either well off or dirt poor. Taking the cab from the Lima airport, I surveyed a “neighborhood” of people living in structures assembled out of pallets stuffed with cardboard or any other insulation that could be found by the residents of these structures. The city didn’t even attempt to hide this spectacle, indicating that this must represent the norm.
Conversely, the home my wife grew up in was massive in comparison to what I’d seen on the way.
One event that really punctuated the class differences was seeing a boy of about seven or eight sleeping on a curb on New Year’s Eve while a police officer stood not more than 20 feet away. Here it was around 2 in the morning, and this “public official” stood there, not intervening at all, yet even that was not the central “image” of this poem. That resulted from the array of doorbell ringers I noticed in the house of my wife’s parents.
“What’s with the doorbells?” I asked her, pointing at one attached on the wall behind the sofa we sat on. She explained that her parents had them installed to make it easier to, as the poem states, “summon the help.” From that gut punch of the reality that existed there, I began noticing many other idiosyncrasies (for lack of a better term) that seemed common practice. The obvious differences between citizens of European descent presented a stark contrast with the indigenous people who occupied the positions of servitude.
And “servitude” is not too harsh a term. Of all the households I visited, only one person—one of my wife’s classmates, meaning someone a tad younger than all the aunts, uncles, and others I met—even bothered to introduce me to the woman taking care of his home. In every other case, it seemed that household pets received more recognition than the people cooking, cleaning, or often raising the children.
In many cases, these people lived in the house with the family, meaning this was not a case of hired help doing a job and then going back to their own families at the end of the day. One family even told me, without any pain of shame, how the young woman working for them had been left at their doorstep as an infant since her mother felt she had a chance at a better life as part of the household where she’d been abandoned. In short, her own family had sacrificed the child to ensure that, at the very least, she would be able to eat decent meals and sleep in a bed.
That trip felt like stepping back into some 18th century colony and dining with the colonizing force, not visiting people of the 20th century who had done well.
Seeing this disparity led to questions about what and how these workers must think during the daily course of their lives. So, I hope that “Two Stairways” provides those of us who live in relative comfort with a possible insight of what it must be like to live a life of indenture.
Finally, I hope that “Two Stairways” accomplishes two aspects of good poetry. Donald Justice once proclaimed that a good poem should appear cinematic in nature; the second milestone I heard from an unknown Canadian I met on a train ride from Vermont to Florida. He defined poetry as “the history of the human soul.” I like to think this one accomplishes both of those.
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