|Jan/Feb 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
Tumbling toward the End
Copper Canyon Press. 2017. 110 pp.
David Budbill toppled over in his garden in the spring of 2013 at the age of 73 years and was unable to get back up. He had been more or less gracefully growing older until then. As was always his habit, he had been writing about the experience for us. But this was something that made him admit to himself that some of the changes he had been attributing to the aging process might be something more.
Before that day, he had been writing about a dawning realization that he was able to do fewer of the things he loved to do in life:
When I came to this mountainside almost fifty years ago it never occurred to me that there would be an end to it.
I went never thinking about the time when I would have to quit. I imagined—I guess—all this would last forever, if I imagined it at all. Now I am in my seventies and all I can think about is the time when my life here will be no more.
Being all he could think about, it was what he wrote poetry about. He had chosen, nearly 50 years before, to live a life of solitude in a mountain cabin with a wife, a cat and dog, and, eventually, two children. He never regretted the choice for a moment, it seems. It was his way to write almost exclusively in his poetry about the life of body and mind that went with that choice.
The poems of Tumbling toward the End, were written before that day in the garden—before he had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare and particularly potent form of Parkinson's disease. There is in it no sense of crisis beyond the realization that time was running out. It is difficult to imagine a better book about how it feels to come to the end of so particularly rich and rewarding a life, after it's fashion, as the poet had led—how it felt, in his case, not to be able to march out into the woods with customary vigor and cut a winter's worth of wood.
The tone of these poems is unusually prosaic even for the ever more prosaic Budbill. The reality of aging-out is too much of a show-stopper for even the slightest whiff of style:
All these crazy
stack up like
As the years passed, he had become quite forceful—perhaps defensive—about poetry properly being no different than prose. The poetry properly resided in the life portrayed not in the language. This is his definition of "anti-poems."
One anti-poem is a favorite summer pasta recipe. Lu Shan, his "all-time favorite dog," is an especially fond memory in others.
There is his son:
It's the tenth of May
and the shadblow tree
we planted to honor
our son's death—
he died at the age of forty—
is in full bloom now.
Peeking out here and there is his wife, still living, with whom he planted the tree. There is the wood stove at the center of his life that gives warmth to it all.
When the computer first appeared is not clear. Perhaps about the same time Garrison Keillor started reading Budbill's poems on The Writer's Almanac radio program and he began to be solicited to travel a bit and attend performances of his plays and read his poems. That the audience responded must have opened up vistas to him he hadn't expected. He was no longer a local recluse, and he allowed himself to select from that world's ways so long as they didn't interfere too much with the life that gave him a wealth of rich detail to live and to write about.
His identification with the reclusive mountain poets of ancient China weaves, as always, through his text. (The first Budbill poem Keillor had read on the Almanac was "What It Is Like To Read the Ancients.") He was certainly uniquely well qualified to join in what has long been now a highly popular sub-genre. Death, as everything, reminds him of them, and he reflects upon reading a poem by Yuan Hung-tao about reading a poem by T'ao Ch'ien.
...three old men.
More than 1,500 years between us, yet
we are one,
companions—joined by our aging,
of this sweet world, and our
melancholy over leaving it.
For all that Tumbling Toward the End is surprisingly universal, given its author's uncommon life, there are also a few moments such as this that make clear that David Budbill truly was also a member of a special brotherhood. For all the ancients would never have considered writing a poetry in prose, there was a link with them and those who have revived them that colors all of these poems. Still, the poet's greatest strength vis-à-vis the East continued to be that he didn't try to be eastern.
Like his Zen predecessors, he is wholly himself. When he names friends who have passed away before him, he is recording what the moments are like when he reflects on the rich life of friendship that went before. He is writing poems about what it is like to draw toward the end of a long and rich life and honoring those who helped to make it so.
Aging and loss intensify
the anguish and the beauty
of this life.
But every moment and memory becomes more precious, as well:
Every moment becomes
more real, more important,
Many of those moments now include encroaching pains of neuropathy and an aging back weaving through personal traditions gathered over nearly 50 years. They are simply stacked together with the rest.
Until that tumble in the garden, David Budbill, albeit feeling his mortality, was replacing his wood cutting abilities with rapidly expanding creative possibilities. He had announced with enthusiasm on Vermont Public Radio that he expected his 70s to be a decade of creative projects.
I'm just getting warmed up. I've got so many projects going that I think the 70s for me are going to be hell-bent for leather. I'm not slowing down at all.
His videos on YouTube suggest an expanding field of possibilities. He had been reading his poems as a member of a jazz ensemble. His various works about Judevine mountain (the fictional name he had sometimes given the mountain on which he lived) were being developed into an opera. He was doing traditional readings at small bookstores filled with admiring listeners.
For all that, he was still stacking the cord wood and anti-poems of an aging poet in a small cabin on the side of a mountain. He was paying to have his winter wood cut and stacked. With his new free time he was learning how to gather armloads full of the world. In Tumbling Toward the End, it was easy for David Budbill to say:
I like it here.
I don't want to go away.
Gilbert Wesley Purdy has also reviewed two earlier books by David Budbill in an previous issue.