by Abby Paige
Park Songs, by David Budbill, Exterminating Angel Press, 2012.
For the sake of simplicity one might be tempted to describe David Budbill as a rural poet, maybe even a nature poet. His 1991 book, Judevine, a local classic, deftly captured the character and speech of the Vermont of my childhood, the one that tourists up on ski weekends would hardly glimpse. His more recent collections, Moment to Moment, While We’ve Still Got Feet, and last year’s Happy Life, have chronicled the wood-chopping, tea-brewing, and snowed-in silence that pervade life in rural Vermont, at least and especially in the off-season. Yet despite his pastoral leanings, a tension between the rural and urban has always pervaded Budbill’s poems. While he celebrates natural beauty and the quirkiness of backwoods culture, awkward moments of encounter between disadvantaged locals and clueless, well-meaning “flatlanders,” including the poet himself, keep his earlier work from feeling too reverent. Ambivalence, even frustration, just beneath the surface, have expressed themselves more prominently in his recent books, where the influences of both Buddhism and jazz are evident, and wistfulness about the urban life unlived is a subtle but recurring theme.
Budbill’s latest collection, Park Songs, brings his work full circle, demonstrating that he is above all a poet of place – not of any particular place, but of the power of place to mark us, hold us, and bind us to one another. Set in an unnamed Midwestern city (perhaps Cleveland, where Budbill was born and raised), Park Songs captures a day in the life of a city park. Once the homeless people scatter in the morning, the regulars begin to appear: Judy and Nancy, whose domestic squabbles follow them out onto the street; disabled Wayne who uses the park as a safe testing ground for his independence; teenagers Kathy and Shaun, for whom life in the park seems safer than the contested territories of home or school; Isaiah, the street preacher, whose incantations devolve into a dreamlike jabber version of the Apostle’s Creed:
We jeep in one Wow, Good galontly, from whom our elver amerdang.
And in the ooark Bright of Wow, who was rejesten of Wow forebee
elver dees and forebee elver restáning, and through whom elver
amerdang came into areing, both pleezible and impleezible…
Moments of real language breakdown like this are unusual, though. Budbill favors the cadences of everyday speech over more complex forms of poetic diction. Like others of his books, Park Songs is a poem/play hybrid, and while there are monologues here, many of the pieces are meant for more than one voice. Most seem like brief excerpts of conversations, the bits and pieces one would catch eavesdropping from a park bench, like this exchange between two friends, “Jeanie and Sue”:
Why don’t you get your own place?
I don’t know. I guess I should.
Maybe if you two could live apart you could get along.
I doubt it. Besides, what would she do without me? She can’t
get along without me. She’d fall apart without me.
The language here is so familiar and conversational, its simplicity detains the reader, inviting us to consider the poetry of everyday speech, the way a simple phrase (she do, she can’t, she’d fall) can get stuck in your head like a song. The longest poem, “Let’s Talk,” a chat between two reluctant strangers in the park, has a fast-paced, Who’s-On-First feel that makes the book’s second half move briskly. The speech is so natural, it brings forth questions about the relationship between contemporary poetry and speech. Mr. C, the park’s groundskeeper, who keeps the place clean and is also a poet, serves as Budbill’s proxy, defending the text from within, haranguing:
…I actually, premeditatedly,
deliberately and consciously speak in this harsher tongue, in
vulgar tones, mordant, acrimonious, base,
insulting, pedestrian, and contemptible, because
in this gross speech, I hear lyric beauty—the untutored
crassness, the common moans—that overflows my soul and I
know a sense of love and oneness with ordinary people which
lifts me up above the arrogant literati, like you, you little twerp,
and I float on these common songs to a place I know as home…
It’s hard to know how much of this crankiness is Mr. C.’s and how much is Budbill’s; he has bemoaned a lack of serious literary attention to his work in other poems. (“What good is my / humility / when I am / stuck / in this / obscurity?” he jokingly laments in “Dilemma” from his 2005 book Moment to Moment.) Some readers likely will find Park Songs’ language too unpolished and “common,” but this is where Budbill’s genre-bending becomes significant. Use “mordant” diction in a poem, and some people get tetchy, but in a play, the speech must sound as natural and commonplace as possible. He ingeniously borrows the authority of the playwright to get away with speaking in a grittier and more guttural register.
Putting unremarkable, everyday speech on the page invites the reader into a different kind of relationship with the text. One is not transported away from day-to-day concerns, but rather, deeper into them. Language is not the specialized medium of the artist, but a common tool shared among us. This is poetry with a communal, even democratic aspect. Budbill’s Judevine made a similar invitation, rendering back then the cadence and accent of backwoods Vermont natives in way that now seems to have been as much an anthropological project as a poetic one. But while that book was grounded in and softened by images of the natural world, the urban setting of Park Songs offers no lyrical oases from the poverty and deprivation of its characters. There is nothing pretty or nostalgic here, and the effect can be claustrophobic — a bit like that feeling of panic that descends when a stranger sits down next to you on a park bench.
Park Songs captures the importance and the difficulty of public space. The park is a pleasant convenience for those who eat their lunches there or simply walk through on their way to someplace else. But for other city dwellers the park is essential: if it is not the place where they rest their heads, it may be their only access to the outdoors, their only escape from poor living conditions, maybe even their only exposure to other human beings. The park is a space at once public and intimate, inviting and uncomfortable. It forces us into relationship with one another. What if poetry could do the same?
Abby Paige is a poet, playwright, and performer whose writing has appeared in publications in Canada, the US, and the UK, recently including Arc, The Montreal Review of Books, and Structo Magazine. Her solo show, Piecework: When We Were French, was commissioned for the 2009 Champlain Quadricentennial Celebration in her hometown of Burlington, Vermont, and has toured throughout New England and in Quebec. She has also appeared in two productions of David Budbill’s play, Judevine, at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier, Vermont. She immigrated to Canada in 2008 and currently lives in Ottawa. She posts updates about her work at abbypaige.com.