Happy Life

by David Budbill,
Copper Canyon Press, 2011,
119 pages, $16.00,
ISBN: 978-1-55659-374-1
Buy the Book

It seems that the title of David Budbill’s latest volume of poetry tells the truth.  It is not a sardonic commentary on life in the twentieth century.  It is rather a collection of warm and accessible poems that grow out of the poet’s experience and his meditations on who he is and how he found himself over the last forty years. What keeps these poems from being just another man’s reflection on aging and vanished hopes is Budbill’s clear language, his wry, self – effacing humor and his humble recognition of all the poets to whom he owes his poetry.  Oh, and it also includes verse dedicated to chainsaws, sex and ambition, and an over – riding arc of stillness in the face of natural beauty.

So what happens if you take a working class boy from Cleveland with a love of jazz and a penchant for Zen poetry to the woods ?  Something like the poem “A Day Off,” which, after an opening of spring planting and endless work, work, work, opens its second stanza:

until, that is, I hurt my foot and now

I’m so lame I can barely stand,

which means, I have to spend the day in bed

with tea, the history of

Sung Dynasty poetry and the life of Yang Wan-li—

Showing once again how


sometimes brings the opposite.

This is not to portray Budbill as out of the loop of current events. One of my favorite pieces in the book is the terse poem “Cynical Capitalists”:

Privatize profit.

Socialize loss. (40)

After listening to endless social commentary on the radio, it is comforting to read such a pungent distillation.

While to some these poems may seem uncomplicated, even simple, they have the feel of a thing made, filed sharp until the rough edges run smooth, then oiled until the words slide across the page.  Too often I think contemporary poems run to the jagged and fractured, the overly complicated and dense. Sometimes the simple thing is all we need, and belief is all the poem asks of us.  This is a lesson Budbill has learned in his forty years in the woods.  It is not the only lesson, but it is an important one.

At times among these poems, we get to go to the city, as in “Three Days in New York: A Blues in B flat.”  The poet wanders the city eating freight cuisine, pondering wonders of the non – European world at the Metropolitan Museum and musing: “Who told us Europe discovered the world ? ”  But it is the final stanza of this longer poem that pictures the poet as he is:

And here I am this old white guy all decked out in my

yellow, orange, red, black, blue, and white dashiki

and my blue and gold African mirror hat playing

Japanese bamboo flute and ropes of bells from India

And a gong from Tibet, with these far – out, crazy

jazz musicians what come in how many different

shades of flesh and nationality, and me right here

on the Lower East Side in New York City reading my cracker,

woodchuck, honky, ofay, green mountains,

ersatz Chinese wilderness poetry.

Whatever David Budbill is, he is in the middle of it.  Whether as an observer diving into his dreams, as a jazz musician, a poet, a playwright, a wood – cutting monk, or a scotch – drinking old man with his cheeks to the wood stove, he is all in.  If we all went that far, wouldn’t it be a happy life ?

As he says in the sixth stanza of “Three Days in New York”:

Polyglot  Gumbo  Masala  Stew

Hybrids  Bastards  Mutts  All of us

All sloshed together  Ain’t it grand ?

I, for one, need to be reminded of that.

Michael Macklin


N.B.  A Happy Life is the third in a series of books which also includes: Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse (1999) and While We’ve Still Got Feet  (2005) published by Copper Canyon Press.  Each of these is part of the chronicle of Budbill’s journey which involves spending nearly forty years on the side of a mountain in northern Vermont.