Lovers Borrowing the Language of Cicadas

Cyrus Cassells

No one would suspect from the cicadas’ criesthey’re on the verge of dying.—Bashō

That plate-smashing, ladder-to-the-moon
summer you first shadowed methrough my sea-lit hotel’s
innocuous corridors,down to the inlet, and I grasped
it was no mere coincidence(well, I’d never have imagined you
a lover of men),I told myself to memorize
all the deluxe lightsof the boisterous dance hall,
the canopy of attention-getting stars,and even now, decades later,
I can summon themnearly at will: balm
of the emboldening evening air,glory-bound clouds,
blanched further by the immoderate moon—No rhyme or galvanizing reason why
almost every afternoonwe beat an unfailing route,
past the frail but cordial puppet seller,through the sun-bullied park,
through a barrage of voluble cicadas—bristling and wild as mayhem
but truer than that—as if their unbridled strains
were nimbly revealed,sim sala bim,
as our own maverick vocabulary—In Hersonissos, when we flourished,
minus any shared language,no scaffold of expressive Greek
or all-conquering English,only hasty drawings on a pad
and pressing gestures of desire—I swear I didn’t know
you had a kept-quiet wife,a luckless child on the way
(a stillborn son),so when I consider, inter alia,
your coppery beard,your wine-soaked tongue
laving my young man’s body,lanky and elegant as a kouros,
in glimmering covesand hideaway olive groves,
my body, once skittish and bronzedby Crete’s commanding sun,
I want to strike outthose Aladdin’s carpet escapades
like glaring errors,because a lie is a lie
in any language,even the cicadas‘—

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Cyrus Cassells

Cyrus Cassells is the author of The Mud Actor, winner of the 1981 National Poetry Series Competition; Soul Make a Path through Shouting, nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the William Carlos Williams Award; Beautiful Signor, winner of the Lambda Literary Award; and The Crossed-Out Swastika, finalist for the Balcones Prize for Best Poetry Book of 2012. He teaches at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Consisting of two dynamic song cycles, Cyrus Cassells’s sixth poetry volume, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, keeps the reader on edge with a timeless and beguiling feast of language that fuses together history, memory, and family.

The first cycle, rooted in the culture of the Gullah people of Charleston and the Sea Islands, celebrates the resilience of the rice- and indigo-working slaves and their descendants who have forged a unique Africa-inspired language and culture. Set against a Mediterranean backdrop, the second cycle explores themes of pilgrimage, love, and loss, concluding with a pair of elegies to the poet’s mother and the many men lost in the juggernaut of the AIDS crisis. Throughout, Cassells invites the reader to consider the duality of grief and love, as well as the shifting connections between past and present.

Cassells’s language is always striking, unpredictable, and beautiful, conjuring a world not only of “placid seagulls perched / in priest-gentle pines / like festive Christmas ornaments” but also one where “Death prevailed, / tireless as a forest partisan.“His poems transport the reader across time, space, and language, searching constantly not just for empathy but also for the human spirit in its triumph, for “our human joy, / laced with an ageless grieving.”

“The Gospel according to Wild Indigo is an ecstasy, a god’s-eye-view of place, time, and the vivid revelations of flesh and spirit. Cassells strides from Georgia Low Country to Van Gogh’s Auvers to a tank pulling out of Dachau, and rapturously on and on. In this great sweep, I recognize a poet at the height of his powers becoming ‘all poetry, / all silence and verse.”
—Tracy K. Smith

“‘A true Gullah valentine / would surely have to feature / Low Country branches graced,’ writes Cyrus Cassells, and boy, does he, in the beautifully arresting lyric of The Gospel according to Wild Indigo, where a reader, battered by mean weather, may enter a world that is, like Neruda’s ElementaryOdes, a paradise of small things, and the memory of the overlooked is justice, if the poet sings it true. This is how a poet, as he reaches the peak of his considerable powers, sings it true.”
—Cornelius Eady

“At a time of spiritual uncertainty, America’s most important lyric poet offers us a gospel on the ways of the world and the spirit. These poems, rooted in the experience of the enslaved but also the free spirit, come and lift us up. What does The Gospel according to Wild Indigo teach us? In these beautifully crafted poems we learn that darkness is of our own making and that the potential splendor of the spirit lies always within our scope: resident in the magnificence of the natural world and in the possibility of human communication, eros, and reconciliation. At this most unlikely of moments, The Gospel according to Wild Indigo comes to our rescue.”
—Ellen Hinsey

“The astonishing lyric fabric of this book is weighted, as the true lyrics of earth must be, with the sorrow and cruelty of history. The sparkle of light on waves, the ‘foam and fish-scale blue’ of wild indigo can only be sung honestly beside the memory of the Middle Passage, ‘the well-deep dark of the hold, . . . thick as blackstrap syrup.’ One side of the song doesn’t cancel out the other; they are held, in Cassells’s sweeping oratorio, side by side. Love and holocaust, poetry and fascism; can the dialectic ever cease? Still, the overriding quality of this gospel is joy, earned both by the poet’s art and the world’s often haphazard lurch toward justice.”
—Mark Doty

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