Apr/May 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

Before You've Done Half Enough Living

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

While We've Still Got Feet.
David Budbill.
Copper Canyon Press. 2005. 132 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-223-2.

Happy Life.
David Budbill.
Copper Canyon Press. 2011. 122 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-374-1.

It seems like life is by you before you've done half enough living. I've intended to review David Budbill's delightful While We've Still Got Feet since I received it in 2005. There's a lot I've intended to do since then that is still awaiting its time.

When Happy Life arrived, I recalled the pleasure of reading the earlier Budbill title. It was the perfect excuse to do a double review. That was in 2011. It has only taken me two years to follow through.

Meanwhile, David Budbill and I have grown a few years older, he with considerably more grace. We both started Facebook pages, but his is tastefully accessorized with videos of him reading a poem about his beloved wood stove or to the accompaniment of a jazz trio. He has lived the round of seasons on Judevine Mountain, planting his garden, eating its produce, cutting and stacking his wood, while accepting an honorary doctorate and traveling to New York City now and again. And, of course, writing.

Budbill was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Forty-some years ago, the chaos of the world grew too much for him:

Nineteen sixty-eight was a hell of a year.
Riots, assassinations, wars, mere anarchy—
as W. B. Yeats said—loosed upon the streets.

I hung in there as long as I could...

Like everything in his poetry, the feeling is immediately recognizable. The rest of us feel we have no choice but to stick it out, but he feels compelled to get some distance between himself and it all. This poetry argues that he made the right choice to get that distance.

The poems in these volumes are, at their best, deceptively simple. As anyone knows who has tried for such simplicity, it is hard to come by. Those who try for it generally find themselves dragged back to the complexity they've tried to escape.

Budbill does not meditate on his mountainside in a bamboo hut, though. He lives in a sturdy and decidedly Western, small house with an open porch, centered, during the winter, around the warmth of the woodstove of his poem. He is married and has a daughter, now grown. He remembers nearly having moved when he became the target of his community's ire as chairman of the local school board. The poems and the life they celebrate are about more than escaping to a Vermont mountainside.

Then there's the complexity that we carry within us wherever we go. As Budbill's poetry makes clear, the human heart still has its issues for a quasi-hermit poet. Trips to the city have their pleasures, their allure:

If you hide yourself away in the thickest woods,
how will your wisdom's light shine through?
A bag of bones is not a sturdy vessel.

Back and forth, back and forth.
That's the way it goes.
Happy and content one day,

ambition and desire eat you alive the next.

One day he is joyfully cutting wood for the winter, wise old man of the mountain, with an equilibrium we might envy, and the next singing out "So now let us sing praises to / Ambition and Lust."

Generally, the closer these poems are to the brevity of the Chinese masters, the better they are. While they don't share the strict formality of those masters, there is an underlying control (almost an impassivity) that suggests it. This is not to say that Budbill is yet another poet seeking refuge in the myths of Far Eastern clarity, for all that While We've Still Got Feet includes a reading list, in its last few pages, citing works he loves from the translations of Red Pine, Sam Hamill, and Gary Snyder. He is neither a Buddhist nor Taoist as best he knows, however much he reads their poetry, respects their philosophy. His own poetry is particularly striking for the fact of how Western it is in spite of its familiarity with the East.

The more involved poems tend to be a bit too intellectual to compete with the striking simplicity of the others. The same may be said of the more overtly political poems. The very best, however, defy these distinctions. "Here and There: A Sunny Day, April 2003," from While We've Still Got Feet, is a stunning poem, perhaps Budbill's best, for all its political charge. The seven tercets of "After the Vision Festival: New York, New York," from Happy Life, amount to a fine poem.

The two volumes each have their own very different flavor. While We've Still Got Feet contains the more striking poems. Happy Life is mellower, plainer. The latter book may be described in the remarkable poetic credo contained in the poem "Sometimes":

...at those times when I feel so happy, so good, so alive, so in love
with the world, with my own sensuous, beautiful life, suddenly

I think about all the suffering and pain in the world, about
all those people being tortured, right now, in my name. But
I still feel happy and good, alive and in love with the world
and with my lucky, guilty, sensuous, beautiful life, because

I know in the next minute or tomorrow all this may be taken from me,
and therefore I've got to say, right now, what I feel and know and see,
I've got to say, right now, how beautiful and sweet this world can be.

Some books just seem to review themselves.


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