In this new collection from J David Cummings, he applies his training as a theoretical physicist to the instrumentalities of poetry, elucidating the dark matter of the heart.
The title of this new collection from J. David Cummings suggests a forensic investigation, or perhaps an archeological dig — and both are apt metaphors for these poems, which indeed do probe into mysteries and unearth the past, in this case the poet’s very personal and sometimes painful past. Not incidentally, Cummings is a theoretical physicist by training, a field devoted to elucidating hidden order out of the ineffable, and that background serves him well as he applies the instrumentalities of poetry to the dark matter of the heart. Likewise, the title of his long central poem “Praise Dust” suggests both the “star stuff” out of which we are composed — “the ceaseless anarchy of the small invisible” – and the final destiny of all flesh. “Praise equation / and number, poem and song” he proclaims, and if this seems an odd juxtaposition of head and heart, it isn’t really — for like physics, poetry deals in both precision and abstraction. Cummings wields his verse like a finely calibrated tool, delicately peeling back layers of memory to expose meaning. Near the end of this intensely personal process he finds his “self / Still the flickering illusion, the question mark,” encompassed by “the loud silence” of being – not an ominous silence, but “the quiet inside a poem, when words / Align in the innocence, when an old hand gathers.” What Cummings has gathered here, the bones of truth that he has handled, reveal a common humanity – how the story of every one life enlightens everyone’s life.
“Deeply felt, and deeply thought, Cummings’ book—like all fine lyric poetry—confronts and loosens the bonds of time. From children playing tag on a lawn at dusk to an elder’s labored breathing, we are held in a delicate balance of inevitable darkness and hard-won grace.” —Elizabeth Chapman, author of Candlefish & Light Thickens
“In this collection of heartbreaking but, finally, heart-whole poems, the ‘bones’ are the truth—of Cummings’ father, his mother, and Cummings himself. We progress from the lies Cummings’s abandoned and beleaguered mother tells him—Only I didn’t know they were lies. They were / my story—and the fictional father, and fictional self, the child dreams, and finally reach the mature poet’s drive for truth in his poetry, an ambition beautifully realized in this book. The truth is much more than literal, of course: the poetry is in the insights, understanding, and forgiveness these poems work their way toward, in the wisdom they slowly attain as we read, and in the late love they celebrate. Cummings’ unobtrusive craft captures the effort of even partial forgiveness, making us feel the weight—Yet even now / there’s a stone / in my heart. But these poems also show us the mystery of love emerging painfully, but whole, out of the depths; they also sing:
‘To say I have driven the interstates at night too often,
to say I have fallen in love with the motion of night,
to say lights approach and quickly pass and narrow to nothing,
to say one is so completely alone one can’t be lonely,
is to say love cannot hide forever inside the darkness.’”
—Patrick Daly, author of Grief and Horses
J. David Cummings worked as a theoretical physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for more than ten years. Some years later, after visiting the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park, he began writing the poems that culminated in his book, Tancho, which Alicia Ostriker chose to win the Ashland Poetry Press Richard Snyder Publication Prize in 2013. His long poem, "Praise Dust" was one of five selected for honors by the W.B. Yeats Society of New York in its 2018 annual competition. Judge Leslie McGrath said of the poem that it "...conjures out of lush sounds the smallness of the self when backgrounded by eternity." His poems, whether interrogating the world-historical event of the atomic bombings and their long aftermath, delving deeply into the mysteries of human psychology (sometimes with metaphors stolen from physics), or re-membering his own complex and difficult family history, are heart-centered, searingly honest, and layered with multiple meanings. He believes poems must have music, passion, and beauty, and strives to imbue his work with those qualities. He lives in Menlo Park, California with his wife Christine and a house full of books.