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Book review: "Happy Life"

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In his new book, Happy Life, Vermont poet David Budbill uses the ancient Chinese poets as inspiration. Our book reviewer, Betsy Kepes, reflects on Budbill's reflections.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

I first read David Budbill’s poems in the 1980’s. I was working in northern Vermont, not far from Budbill’s home and his fictional Judevine, a gritty valley town filled with strong and struggling working people. His 1978 poetry collection, Chainsaw Dance, gave voice to characters who were not seen in Vermont’s cheerful publicity for ski areas and cider mills.

Budbill still writes from his Judevine farm and the subtitle of one of his books is “Poems of a Mountain Recluse.” Over the years he’s found inspiration from many other poets and in the acknowledgments to Happy Life he thanks 48 of them, a partial list he says. His mentors range from Basho to Emily Dickenson to Gary Snyder.

These new poems are stripped down, pared of any extra words, in the style of the ancient Chinese poets Budbill admires. Here’s “Melancholy Thought.”

 

                   A bird’s path across the sky

                   A boat rowing across water

                   We are here and gone

                   Without a trace.

 

       Budbill is now over 70 and many of his poems reflect on aging and have his wry sense of humor. His titles are especially fun.

 

       Praising Myself in the 18th Century Japanese Style

 

                   More arrogant than anyone,   

                               he refuses

                   To be anyone’s pupil,

                               refuses

                   instruction from any teacher.

                               He’s just another

                   bullheaded egomaniac.

 

                   He’s famous for his gluttony.

                               He carries

                   a basketball around between

                               his sternum

                   and his pelvis.

 

                   A bald head, pockmarked face:

                               he’s a sorry sight

                   And all he ever thinks about

                               are food and sex.

 

                   You’d think a man of seventy

                               would know better.

 

       This collection of poems follows the seasons, from cutting wood in the fall to a spring poem titled: “I Hate to See the Trees Leaf Out”

 

                   I like spring warmth, the birds’ return,

                   All that sensuous summer heat,

                   but I also hate to see the trees leaf out,                                 

                   the world fill up, this summer glut of green.

 

                   All that lovely, empty barrenness

                   of late winter, early spring,

 

                   gone.

 

 

       These new Budbill poems are easy to read but occasionally so minimal that I wanted a few more words, the rambling conversation of his earlier work. Even so, the second time I read through the poems, over one hundred of them, most of the pages made me smile or nod in recognition. Here’s one last poem. “Cold Winter Night”

 

                   Fire going in the Round Oak

                   greased boots glistening

                   behind the woodstove

 

                   Pull a chair up close

                   little glass of whiskey

                   book of ancient poems

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