‘At the frayed edges of existence’… Sascha Akhtar on Cut the Black Rabbit by Benjamin Cusden

9781916344716As night falls, sympathy’s a starving bird, empathy/an unknown world. Fear is a hyena’s hunting pack.  Pg.18

We are fortunate to have the work of Cusden in our midst. The inner experience of being devoid of shelter, of a centre, of a system of nourishment, sustenance and protection is what we have with Cut The Black Rabbit.

We are privy to a document that tunes us into the effect of externalities on our existence and their absences. How theses absences may affect the individual, how each moment, each event of ‘not-having,’ may correlate to a psychological response is a very personal, subjective experience.

Poetry then is the perfect language for this, but how many individuals struggling for their survival can find that strength to document their process thus? Or are able to access a language of symbology and nuance to describe the suffering, the isness of being a human who has had the bottom fall out. This is why I say, we are fortunate to have the work of Benjamin Cusden in our midst.

Cusden maps the territories he moves through assiduously. As if by doing so he can tether himself to the concrete even through the inner disorientation, defragmentation and dissolution. Signs are documented, dialogue —cities, and motorways.

In this decentred state all things are reversed. Nature is not a friend. The poet has reverence for Nature, and in fact, appears to turn to the earth, fully —he accepts it, he absorbs it.

The Sun, The Moon, the circle of stars… Pg. 12

Indeed, this may well be how he managed to get through:

Every day has ritual… Pg.13

but when you are utterly exposed the sun is satiated…fat, unwelcome,/rips the sky —/ Pg. 23

And in the poem Cold, it is the cold that has been made homeless and now it squats in the poet. The poet has lost ‘home,’ only to become one:

I am the home of the cold. Pg. 15

There is a detachment, a distance between the experience and the experiencer in Cusden’s poems.  In Hyenas we witness a homeless man being beaten unconscious. The use of the symbology of the hyena seems wise and almost empathetic. The horror of what occurs is left to the imagination, the reader only receives the details form a police-style report.

No emotion, no feeling of what the individual suffers is prevalent. Just the display of the ‘hyena’ —ready to tear in with violence into the body of another with no rational thought. Indeed, Cusden’s work invites us to contemplate such things. What does stop the human from becoming ‘animal’? What keeps us ‘civilized’? Certainly not the privilege of a roof over one’s head as the ‘hyenas’

…tanked up bravado, they prowl for prey;/swagger-full of testosterone, hair trigger tempers… Pg. 19

in the poem illustrate and by the same token having no shelter can yet not render us ‘animal,’ and this is what Cusden’s poems talk of —how to remain a ‘human,’ when you’re put out to the wolves —even when you are…paid in pigs eyes wrapped in rags;/  Pg. 11 and constantly reminded that in the eyes of others you are sub-human:

I wanted a snout or at least an ear/but such treats are reserved for dogs Pg. 11

In part iii Sofa Surfing of the poem I Am Homeless Mornings, too there is that sense of detachment, within the framework of a truly horrific experience, again at the hands of a ‘hyena’-like individual.

Cusden reveals the world to us of the dispossessed. In his experience, those who may wish to show kindness are almost always unable to see it through.

Your conscience clear,/at least you saw me sitting here/at least you recognized my fright/and didn’t pass… Pg. 14

In Cut The Black Rabbit, the poet and the poetry are one —the flesh and bones of the poet fused with the poetry. …red trails seep through/congealed/under skin… Pg. 23

The earth, the animals and indeed, their carcasses all come together in a kind of unity. The poetry is the viscera of the experience.

I’m naked to the world whether clothed/or not, deskinned to flaunt my inner workings  Pg. 16

The animals are always with him —fox, mule, hyena, starling, goose, rabbit, badger, in any form. Prepping roadkill isn’t easy Pg. 24 When being forced to eat them too, they are supporting him and he becomes one with them. In the Transcience we see shape-shifting as a means to transcend the parameters of one’s existence…feet become claws… Pg. 13

In Sufi mystical writings, the dervish trope wandering the earth, with no possessions is a common one. The dervish or majnun (lover) is one with everything. A sense of this is prevalent in Cusden’s work— he and his words become one for he has nothing else but these words in every moment — his record, his observations, his way to make sense of being up close and personal with concrete, dirt, blood (often of others), hunger— the tropes of survival. This is his account of survival. In the last poem ‘This,’ his life and the poem overtly become one. His existence was a ‘poem of certainty,’ which then turned uncertain:

This…was once a poem of certainty…Now this poem is uncertain

until this poem hasn’t been written at all… Pg. 32

The poet undoes his own work with this sentence, because the truth is, his poems could have not been written at all just as he may not have lived to share them. When you are out on the streets matters of life and death hang dangerously close, moment to moment. This much is certain from the poems and what is  also true is that even by reading them, we may never fully grasp what he experienced, but through his words perhaps we can edge closer to an empathetic understanding of what the human experience can be at the frayed edges of existence.

Yes, Benjamin Cusden lived and so, his poems. This is why I say, we are most fortunate.

Sascha Akhtar 

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