David Budbill, Moment to Moment
Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1999.

Joel Weishaus

 

 

 

1.

A few years ago I walked this trail easily. Now my breath comes fast, feet painful, sweating, almost from the start of the long walk in. Drawn to earth's pungent scents mixed with wiffs of woodsmoke, leaves float down as the path rises through autumn's early morning mists. To be wet is to live both inside and out.

Most people still worship the sun, as if their skin were green. I shine when peaks are hidden and the Mystery draws its forms in roiling clouds. Thus, Budbill and I begin with "How He Writes" on a "gray and drizzling day/here on Judeville Mountain./The birds and the wind are still/and he too so dolorous and quiet/even his breath seems shrill." Written in the third person, it recalls for me that at the time Budbill was beginning his eremitic life in Vermont, another "hermit" poet was exiting his in California, leaving a parting note: "I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends. I can't make anything out of it—never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up."
Budbill continues:
His life is a vessel of silence
into which now voices begin
to flow. Slowly the vessel fills
like water filling a well...(p.5)
Even as one life ends, another begins; not really a beginning, but a move, an affirmation. “What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!" But Budbill is not alone. He has a wife. Just as Thomas Merton's hermitage was on the monastery's grounds. There are those few who live a truly sequestered life, as the Chinese hermit who asked his American guest, “Who’s Mao?” But Henry Thoreau's mother cooked her son's meals, as his prodigious literary skills didn't extend to the culinary. In the backcountry of northern California, the poet Gary Snyder is surrounded by family and friends. Even Han-shan would come to the temple to warm his hands and talk with the monks. Are we ever alone? Are we ever not alone?

Frost fondles cheekbones and pinches my nose. Leaves crunch beneath boots that have gathered dust over summer. Gaining strength from early rains, the creek carries me downstream, while I remain in place. With the cool air, the forest seems happy again. Or is it me?

 

Always in these ancient Chinese paintings, the rocks, the sky, the fog,
           the endless mountains loom
                        over the tiny humans...
(p.7)

 

climbing up that narrow mountain path, up and up, fading into
           those remote and towering mountains...

 

2.

On a bright day in early October, 1972, I hiked up a trail lined with boarded-up summer homes to a small cabin. Above, fresh water rose from the pine and oak forest and made its way down, through pipes to the cabin, or around, then 100 miles south to thirsty homes in San Francisco. The kitchen had a refrigerator, the main room had a good wood stove, the bathroom was off a back porch built on stilts. This was my hermitage for one year.

                                     Why have I stayed here all these years
among these mountains far from the city? What keeps me here
in this lonely place separated from the world I love?
(p.43)

No phone, no TV, one night, bouncing from one dark tree to another, a disembodied voice announced that Picasso was dead, as if Great Pan had died again. Then it occurred to me that, like Einstein, Picasso had been alive during my lifetime! Who should I visit before they're gone too? For now walking down the mountain for the mail, left by the side of a road "less taken," would be the journey of my days.

"rost definitely was a guide. And when he died in 1962, I had read everything he had ever written, and had been written about him; I was devoted to him. This was while I was still living in Ohio, long before I ever came to Vermont. I think coming to Vermont requires of writers a kind of divorce from Frost, if you're going to be yourself."

Frost comes at night
           and is gone in the morning...

I wasn't prepared for winter, which was already in the air. The tenant before had only left a cord of wood. As the cabin's walls were hollow, I knew I'd need much more. As it turned out, it was to be the coldest, snowiest winter in forty years.

Snow comes in winter
          and is gone in spring....

Is being oneself a matter of insulation, the cozy illusion of thinking original thoughts? Or is it learning how to absorb the canon and shape it by the heat of your own psyche, tempered with experience? The door to creativity is hinged on both sides. But every biography, no matter how gifted the subject, has the same ending.

For us, if we're lucky, there is only this
          slow, painful going away.
(p.65)

Each autumn, deciduous leaves dress in yellow mottled with brown spots of age, and uninhibited red...

are slowly absorbed into the earth, or huddling on faceless pavement, are bagged and hauled away.

3.

Sitting on a splintery wooden bench, writing by a soft October light, pine needles lay dying on grass sparkling with dew. People drift past, looking higher, to wilting darkening rows of roses.

I visited my father a year before he passed away. Lost between airport and apartment—I hadn't been to Ft. Lauderdale for twenty years—, it was midnight when I arrived. Hearing voices in the livingroom, he woke up and walked in, asking Mother, “Who’s that man?” “He’s your son,” she replied.

The death of any man’s father opens up for him the great abyss of inevitable death
on the edge of which he stands without a mediator. The son whose father died is now
in an inexorable ‘next’ position and feels, on whatever level of consciousness, his own
mortality in his bones.

"What I Did Today: The Sixth of May" (p.88) is a list that begins, "I stacked rough-cut lumber," and includes, "I thought of my father's death." The next line is, "I thought of my own death," followed by, "I took a nap" — the kind of sarcastic, self-depreciating humor that undercuts much of this poet's work. In contrast, in While We've Still Got Feet, Budbill writes what might be the best passage in both these books —

I've got my father's ashes on my desk
in a little brass urn so I can look at them
every morning before I start work, so
I can pick them up and shake them, hear
what's left of him rattle around in there,
the larger pieces of bone and tooth claking
against the side of that little brass urn.
(p.21)

Music ascends, and a dead leaf falls, as the sun illuminates spider’s web spun between the arms of two deciduous trees. There’s this emphasis on off-the-page and in-performance poetry—among ancient poets, non-academic, non-white poets and current performance poets. I’ve got at least one of my feet in that tradition. It’s a different kind of poetic tradition. As I grow older, I want to cross-over more and more to that.

Can a poet of our time reach a multivalent audience "not specializing in literature, with many members who lack the training to unlock hermetic verse," without sacrificing the work's layers of cultural and linguistic horizons? Most who try fail. Those who are successful usually exhibit a naturally cadenced line, preferably long, with the poet's life focused on surviving between winks of the public glare—while Budbill retreates to the mountains of northern Vermont.

    Recluses were the personifications of the mountains
    themselves, lonely, untamed, unkempt—storehouses
    of the secrets of nature. Caves, huts, and mountain
    temples were their lairs.

                      In some cases,
             they even took, and are
        now only known by, the name
   of the mountain on which they lived.
Thus, Han-shan means "Cold Mountain."

Although, "it is odd that he called himself Han-shan, when,
in fact, the place where he lived was never called Hanshan,
but rather Cold Cliff."

 

4.

Han-shan makes an appearance in many of Budbill's poems, to the extent that the initial section of While We've Still Got Feet is written in the spirit and beat of some translations of his poems, with Judeville Mountain, where Budbill lives, substituted for Cold Mountain, or Cold Cliff, "a two-day walk from the East China Sea."


Sometimes people ask me how to get
         to Judevine Mountain.

I can tell you how to get to where
         the road ends, but when

you get there, you've only just begun.
         After that I can't be

any help at all. It takes years to find
         the way. And anyhow...



Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain: there's no through trail.
In summer, ice doesn't melt

The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
How did I make it?
My heart's not the same as yours.
If your heart was like mine
You'd get it and be right there.


Red Pine tells us that the poet we know as Han-shan found himself in the employ of a man who was on the wrong side of the An Lu-shan Rebellion of 755. In danger of being executed along with his boss, the young man left his wife and family for Kuoching Temple in the Tientai Mountains. Even so, we're not sure exactly when he lived. "The Kuang-t’ing (850-933)…says that Han-shan returned to the T’ien-t’ai Mountains during the reign period ta-li (766-779). Tsan-ning, on the other hand, felt that Han-shan, Shih-te, and Lü-ch’iu Yin all lived during the reign of Jui-tsung (710-712)…And looking further into Sung and Yüan sources, Hu Shih notes that the meeting of Lü-ch’iu Yin and Han-shan is variously placed in 633, 642, 643, 712-713, and right around 800."

Budbill's poem, "The Story of Chi Mu Chian," tells the story of another poet who left the city "and went into the mountains knowing he was a failure.” Not only was he forgotten, his poems were “lost forever,” which Bubbill attributes to they not conforming          

to the fashion of the time,
nor did they obey the rules of the academy. His poems
were plain and simple, so blunt and common the literati
didn’t even see them.

Only people who didn’t matter loved his poems. (p.34)

This theme is taken up again and again, as if the poet were excusing himself as to why in the future his poems will molder in the canon's fine sieve.

In a generous interview with poet David Meltzer, Lew Welch tells how Po-Chü-i, one of China’s greatest poets, and a possible contemporary of Han-shan, would engage in conversation a peasant lady, “ who was illiterate but very very smart,” during which he would “dump the poem on her and if she didn’t recognize that he had just said a poem, he figured that he had written it right." Budbill’s poem, "An Age of Academic Mandarins,” is probably based on this interview:

Ah, Po Chü-i, how they would laugh at you,
My friend, standing there in your kitchen
testing your poem on your illiterate cook to see
if it is plain enough so that she and people like her
will be able to comprehend what you have to say.
(p.74)

We live in a different era than the one Budbill (and Welch) subscribes to, in which illiteracy is not acceptable, no matter how poor the person. "Testing your poem on your illiterate cook to see/if it is plain enough so that she and people like her..." says more about the social conditions of that time, including the subjugation of women, than about the quality of the poem. But Welch then goes on to say: “At the same time, that very poem would have more literary references in it for the literate reader than we can imagine today.”

Although oral poetry may have been plain-spoken, written language, for "the literate reader," is a means of complexity, which is the unfolding of nature itself. Written langauge “for example, didn’t record oral language; it was a new language, which the spoken word came to imitate.” From a different angle—

Whereas language processed visually is here-and-now stuff of great density; acoustical language permits
a level of abstraction that creates a higher inclusiveness, achieved by a necessary dropping out of detail.

Since the Beat aesthetic of written-to-be-spoken words, carried out brilliantly by Lew Welch and others, there has been a return to poetries written to be read on the page, some of a density relevant to linguistic research. Of course, this is not the only approach that extends language and deepens culture.

eighth century or twentieth,

Cold Mountain
          or Judeville Mountain—
                    what’s the difference?
(p.52)
       

In both East and West, poetry traditionally carried the myths,
folk tales, songs, philosophies, and sciences. Although every poem is an alternative aesthetics,
in an era of computers, multimedia and mass transmission technologies that link academic and lay terminals, undreamed of unstaged performatives are materializing.

 

5.

This poet should be praised. He dared to leave his parents' House-of-Belief and take a few steps east, raising the question: Can someone born into a theistic religion and culture grasp the essence of non-theistic Buddhism, and understand the cultures it generated? Can neurons connected in childhood later be circumvented? Or, as we approach death, does the depth of our psyche run in reverse?

While most of these poems fail as literature in the canonical sense, Budbill plods on, his failures like chunks of mud sticking to the soles of his boots. “We might mention that the Japanese word for ‘walk’ is the same word which is used to refer to Buddhist practice; the practitioner [gyoja] is then also the walker, one who does no reside anywhere, who abides in emptiness.”

They say Ryokan’s brushwork
was unaffected and free-flowing

That’s the goal of these poems:
no duplicity, or guile,

Just simple, honest,
direct, and free.
(p.36)

Bullbill’s poems are read by popular radio personality Garrison Keillor on his show, "The Writer's Almanac." Reviewing Keillor’s recent anthology of his favorite poems, Good Poems for Hard Times (Budbill was in the first book, Good Poems, but not this one), David Orr wrote: "According to Keillor, 'Poetry is the last preserve of honest speech. . . . All that matters about poetry to me now is directness and clarity and truthfulness. All that is twittery and lit'ry: no thanks, pal.’" "Well, (Orr continues) fair enough, pal. Of course, in the literary world, directness and clarity and truthfulness are themselves matters of artifice, but a man is entitled to his preferences."

Nothing is simply honest, but "a language of relations, which consists of expressive movements, paralinguistic signs, breaths and screams, and so on—with modulation, never moderation." The brain is continuously reshuffling its codes. We are always role-playing, unless we are free of ourselves, and few have accomplished this except in a few extraordinary moments. But what of poetry? Without its texture, the gravel in its voice, the arrhythmia of its heart—it deteriorates into self-indulgent speech acts, confession without unique expression. What is heard is what Thomas Merton called “the anxiety to be heard.”

David Orr continues: "The meaning of poetry is poetry. But a more subtle and intractable difficulty is that Keillor's taste isn't just limited, it's limited within its limitations. He likes plainspoken writing that is long on sentiment, short on surface complication - a defensible aesthetic, if one that occasionally condescends to its subject matter and audience." This is followed with a pun on Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show's signature signoff: “But great poets often produce mediocre work, bad poets can be surprisingly good, and very good poets are frequently no better than consistently above average.”

Judeville Mountain really isn't that much.
It's higher than some of its neighbors, lower
than lots of others. It's not lofty or difficult.
It never has its head in the clouds.
(p.18)

Winds finally sweep the haze and fog west, toward the ocean. For the first time in a week, Mount St. Helens appears, with snow and ice up to its truncated summit, fissures running down its slopes. I say to a friend, "If the mountain blows today, we'll have a clear view of it." Late afternoon: smoke and ash.

Running through both books is a stream of complaints about aging, poverty, and not being recognized in academia's testy eyes. I suspect Budbill's knowledge is more profound than his poems, but this is what he lets us see. In, "After Reading Meng Chiao's 'Seeing Off Master T'an,'" he writes: What I can't comprehend is how

   Master T’an could grow old, hungry, and neglected because of poetry,
   yet never dry up, never

   become nasty, sarcastic, or bitter. How did he keep his innocence? (p.27)

Of Meng Chiao, the great Sung Dynasty poet, Su Tung Po, said: “His every poem came from his heart and marrow—passionate, sincere, and more than a little bitter. Su Tung Po also began one of his two poems on Meng Chiao’s poetry with the line, ‘I can’t stand the poems of Ming Chiao.’”

 

References

Note: Unidentified page numbers in the text refer to While We Still Got Feet. D. Budbill, Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

1.

another "hermit poet": See, "Hermit Poems." In, Lew Welch:  Selected Poems.Grey Fox Press:  San  Francisco, CA, 1982. pp.34-43. Lew Welch disappeared on 24 May 1971. He had been "locked in a deep  depression, heightened by the course of antibuse (for alcoholism) he was taking  and by the difficulties he faced trying to raise funds and muster a crew to build a  cabin in the woods. His revolver was missing, Gary (Snyder) said, so he must  have taken it with him and found a final resting place in a thicket high in the  foothills of the Sierra Nevada. His body was never found." D. Allen. In, Hey  Lew: Homage to Lew Welch. M. Cregg, Editor. (Privately Published:  Bolinas, CA.,1997.) p.85.
What a thing it is: T. Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros.”   Raids on the Unspeakable. New  Directions: New York, 1966. p.10.

2.

Frost definitely was a guide: D. Budbill. From, "Back There: A  Conversation  with David Budbill."  Rivendell. Summer, 2003. (He is speaking of the poet Robert Frost.)

3.

The death of any man's father: R. R. Gunn, Journeys in Emptiness:  Dogen, Merton, Jung and the Quest for  Transformation. Paulist Press: New York,  2000. p.113. 
Music ascends:  "Well, I fell in love with jazz when I was about 12 years old in junior high  school. I was 12 in 1952, and, for reasons I can't explain...Why I got  obsessed with this music I don't know. But I remember very clearly sitting in  my room getting stoned out of my mind listening to Gerry Mulligan's Tentet,  maybe it was the harmonies, the rhythm, the swing; I don't know what it  was,  but that stuff blew my mind. The more I listened, the more I wanted to l isten. It  took me away from my life. It was like traveling in outer space. I wasplaying  trumpet at that time. My interest in jazz just grew and grew and it's never  stopped growing." D. Budbill. From, "Back There: A Conversation with David  Budbill."  Rivendell. Summer, 2003.

There's this emphasis: David Budbill. From, "Back There:  A Conversation with David Budbill."  Rivendell, Summer 2003.
Not specializing in literature:  A, Schelling, “How the Grinch Imitated  Gary Snyder.” Sulfur 13 (1985).  pp.157- 161.
Recluses:  V. Cass, Dangerous Women: Warriors,  Grannies, Geishas of the Ming. Rowan  and Littrlefield: Lanham, MD, 1999. p.17
 it is odd that: Red Pine (Bill Porter), The Collected  Songs of Cold Mountain. Copper  Canyon  Press: Port Townsend, WA,  2000. p.13.
Cold Cliff:  "Among the Evenki (Tungus), there were cliffs (bugady)  that served as clan sanctuaries at which the most  important social activities and public clan-worship were  conducted ...In Siberian ethnography generally, cliffs are  held to be the dwellings of totemic divinities." A.I.  Martynov, The Ancient Art of Northern Asia. Urbana,  IL., 1991.

4.

a two-day walk: Red Pine (Bill Porter), The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA, 2000. p.4.
Sometimes people ask: From, "Directions." While  We've  Still  Got Feet. p.11.
Men ask the way: G. Snyder, Translator, "Cold Mountain  Poems."  Riprap, & Cold Mountain  Poems. Four Seasons  Foundation:  San Francisco, CA, 1969. p.43.

The Kuang-t’ing: R. G. Henricks, The Poetry of Han-Shan.  State University of New York Press:  Albany, 1990. p.5.
who was illiterate: The San Francisco Poets. D. Meltzer,  Editor. Ballantine Books: New York,  1971. pp.189-227.
for example: E. Carpenter, “The New Languages.” In,  M. McLuhan and E. Carpenter, editors,  Explorations in Communication. Beacon  Press: Boston, MA, 1960. p.162.
whereas language: T. McKenna. In, R. Sheldrake, T. McKenna,  R. Abraham, The Evolutionary  Mind. Monkfish  Book Publishing Company:  Rhinebeck, NY,  2005. p.36.

5.

We might mention: A.G. Grapard, “Flying Mountains and  Walkers of Emptiness: Toward a  Definition of Sacred Space in  Japanese Religions.”  History of  Religions, February 1982. p. 206.
Keillor's anthology of his favorite poems: G. Keillor, Editor, Good Poems for Hard  Times. Viking Books: New York, 2005.
Budbill was in: G. Keillor, Editor, Good Poems. Penguin  Books: New York, 2003.
David Orr wrote: “Hit Parade.” Review of, Garrison Keillor, Editor, Good  Poems For Hard Times. The  New York Times, 13 November  2005.
a language of relations: T. Lamarre, "Diagram, Inscription,  Sensation." In, B. Massumi, Editor, A  Shock to Thought. Routledge: London,  2002. p.165.
His every poem: M. O’Connor, When I Find You Again It  Will Be In Mountains: Selected Poems of  Chia Tao. Wisdom Publications: Boston,  MA, 2000. p.5.