(HOST) A new book of poetry has made it onto commentator Tom Slayton’s summer reading list.
(SLAYTON) For the past several years, David Budbill has been writing poems that echo the clarity, subtlety and simplicity of ancient Chinese and Japanese poets. Under the transparent guise and pen name of Judevine Mountain, Budbill has linked his life on a mountainside in rural Vermont with the rural lives of classical Asian poets who lived hundreds of years ago.
The amazing thing is that, in emulating the classical Asian poets, he has developed the power and clarity of his own poetic voice. And in immersing himself in the literature and traditions of the Far East, he has given new expression to the natural beauty and traditions of rural Vermont.
China is Vermont; that’s Budbill’s literary discovery.
His new collection of poems, entitled While We’ve Still Got Feet, expresses the universal concerns of human life, whether lived a thousand years ago in rural China or today, in rural Vermont.
David Budbill, now in his 60s, shares many of the everyday concerns of other Vermonters: he loves the beauty of this state, but often feels isolated in his back-road retreat. He absorbs the pleasures of life in the country, but misses the excitement of the city. The simple joy of being alive makes him happy, yet he worries about aging and death.
All those matters live in his poems.
Perhaps most compelling is his writing style: spare, terse, often wry and humorous. As in the poem “Tomorrow”, from which the book’s title, While We’ve Still Got Feet, was taken:
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
poking through our skulls.
Drunk on music,
Who needs wine?
let’s go dancing
while we’ve still
Budbill is quite aware of the ironies of his situation – writing about his quest for the simple life in the middle of busy, commerce- driven America. He writes about those ironies. Yet, for me, his poems are most telling when he looks closely and deeply at northern Vermont and sees the beauty – both in humanity and in nature – that links it with mountain vistas and mountain literature through the ages.
His “Green Mountain Woodchuck Landscape Haiku” is shot through with that universal mountain light, yet captures also the shabby elegance of the backwoods Vermont David Budbill knows perhaps better than any other poet. He writes compactly:
Dirt roads, power lines,
chicken coop dead cars trailer –
mountains all around.
It’s that honest voice, spare and clean as a brushstroke painting, that bridges the centuries and makes his poetry so compelling.
It takes a lifetime to learn to write like this. Fortunately for us, Budbill has devoted his lifetime to exploring the brevity, poignancy and beauty of his life – and this life.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.