Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.
The New Woodcutter of Old
“You can make something become a poem by looking at it a certain way,” said William Stafford. Not that David Budbill’s poems in While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press) need to be looked at a certain way to become poems, but a way of looking/listening to the poems in Budbill’s newest collection is to see/hear that these poems are mostly built on a friction between the ancient Asian & the American linear. More precisely, the two temporal locations rub up against each other to help Budbill reflect on life/living. This happens in a few ways.
For Budbill, it physically happens like this: “In the fourth century C.E. T’ao Yüan-ming” purposely choose to live reclusively, “Four hundred years later Han-Shan” did the same on a mountain, “Seven hundred years after that, Han Shan Te-ch’ing” did the same, “Another five hundred years later and here I am / on Judevine Mountain” in Vermont, contemporary America. In all cases, all these poets had “. . . this urge to go away / into the quiet, to sit down and listen for that / still small voice whispering from within.” The reader walks away with this feeling & this mountain, also, but imaginatively.
Physically for the reader what happens is the reader hears/sees poems written with an ancient Asian tone but with an American linear language, or at least presentation. That is, one tends to think of ancient Asian poems as having a calm reserve about them & as poems that sometimes make brilliant leaps – as you might expect to find in Han Shan or Muso Soseki or Li Po or in The Kokinshu – but the momentum of the poems is in the American language, which makes the thinking of the poems forward moving – no great associative or unassociative leaps. For example, consider the opening poem:
Gama Sennin Gut hangin’ out Stick on shoulder. Toad up on me head. Singin’ me songs on Red Dust Road, headed toward dead.
You can clearly see/hear the contemporary American language with words like “Gut,” “hangin’,” & “singin’” & with the use of “me” instead of “my.” And you can sense the ancient Asian tone, in part from the toad on the head & heading toward death. In part, the tone is derived from Soga Shohaku’s Gama Sennin & his three-legged toad, which is the book’s cover art. But that is how this book works – many of the poems need the other poems to work in full, & that is another way we can look at these writings to make them become poems. (This poem, however, does have a leap from “headed toward” to “dead,” The leap pronouncing the tone a bit more. However, this type of leaping, however, is rare in While We’ve Still Got Feet.)
Another manner in which Budbill accomplishes this friction between the ancient Asian & the contemporary American is by quoting an ancient Asian poet & then responding to the poet. For example:
Ryokan Says With what can I compare this life? Weeds floating on water. And there you are with your dreams of immortality through poetry. Pretty pompous – don’t you think? – for a weed floating on water?
By writing in this fashion – ancient Asian rubbing up against contemporary American linear — Budbill can confront issues in his life & the world.
Consider the dozen or so political poems in this collection. Almost all are written as if in or for ancient Asian times, but the poems, in actuality, talk to present America. Consider:
The Emperor Lao Tzu said flexibility and resilience are what it takes to stay alive. And kindness, Confucius believed, is the highest virtue. So why is the Emperor so spiteful and malicious? Why does he go around beating up on everybody all the time? Why do so many people have to suffer and die just because the Emperor and his Imperial Court have an idea?
If you read “President” for “Emperor,” you can hear the poem speak to our times, especially Some of the temporal parallels in other political poems are more obvious, or become obvious with the simple substitution of “President” for “Emperor.”
Budbill’s fusion of ancient Asian tone & the contemporary American linear language helps him contemplate his ego, too: should he care about his wants, needs, pleasures or should he care about the horrors of the world?; should he live on the mountain or in the city — both of which have desirable attributes?; should he live in solitude & write poems for the simple pleasure of the poem & for sharing them (“. . . What if I wrote my poems // only on walls or scraps of paper / and gave them away to strangers? (“Wild Monk Or?”); or should he write poems to become famous & satisfy his ego?
It’s the latter fame/solitude issue that is significantly derivative of the ancient Asian/contemporary American theme in this book.
Let me expand more generally: the mythology of the ancient Asian poet seems to be about a poet who lives alone, perhaps on a mountain, & is writing poems to help clarify the world for himself or to share with whomever he wants to read the poems – there’s no fame-driven poetry in that mythology. Now rub that up against the developing reality of the contemporary American poet who seeks to publish for prizes, honors, PhDs, or a professorship at a college.
If the poet chooses the latter, the ego/fame, then two things can occur: one – & this is a theme of a few poems – the poet will end up living a life with death as a finish line or a goal (as if climbing to the top of the mountain is the only goal) as opposed to the poet who lives a life as if death is a place of great reflection, as if by climbing a mountain, & once at the top, you can see where you have been – “Summer’s here and we can hike the peaks again, / have lunch and tea on mountaintops look down // on the backs of circling hawks and laze away / the afternoon watching blue-hazy, distant hills” (“Summer’s Here”); or two, the poet & his poems will be rewarded with prizes & honors which will satisfy his ego.
But how will the satisfaction come – by being judged & rewarded abstractly, & “Why should a bag of bones / [. . . ] / get all dolled up / in all these honors?” (It should be noted that in this poem “a bag of bones,” though a cliché, works based in part on the poems & images that precede. As a result, the concreteness of the “bag of bones” rubbing against the surrounding abstractions actually fleshes out the cliché-image – it becomes “a bag of bones,” it becomes real, which is what most poets want to do.) And once the poet & his poems are judged, then one can wonder: for who is the poet writing? Or, how is he writing? Is he writing genuinely? Or, as William Butler Yeats says in “A Coat,” is the poet writing for “the world’s eyes / As though they’d wrought it,” & thus judged it? I like how this subtle allusion from “dolled up” calls up this Yeats’ poem, & does it in a good way, perhaps unintentionally. For if we continue with Yeats’ poem, we can see what else can happen after the poem becomes judged & as if the world wrought it: “Song, let them take it / For there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Obviously, Yeats & Budbill had similar issues.
So Budbill’s book is not moralistic. It’s a book of simple poems that accumulate an overwhelming amount of depth & reflection (like The Kokinshu), but it is written with the anxieties & confusions of an American. It is written by a man who has lived thirty-five years on a mountain & is looking back through two important influences: ancient Asian wisdom & his contemporary American life. Budbill is a man trying to understand life while he can still think on his feet. And this reader left Budbill’s While We’ve Still Got Feet with a new lens through which to view life & is feeling damn good about it.//