Story & Luck
by W.E. Butts,
Adastra Press, 2015,
26 pages, paper, $17,
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“W.E. Butts understands . . . what the great jazz man Charlie Mingus meant,” writes David Allan Evans, “when he said that ‘anybody can play weird, but what’s difficult is to be simple.’”
Fundamentally sound, a poet of immense depth and consideration, Butt’s work is primarily informed by two seemingly different eras. One influence is the post-WII period, with its well-earned nostalgia for home life and its attachment to honest living, dignity, and tradition, which makes for a poetry highly reflective and quietly infused with the language of his Catholic upbringing, ever reaching at earnestness, and given over to a lower-case truth-telling. A second influence is the 1960s, with its inherent tensions, upheavals, and mad rush into experiment and text-distrust, resulting in a heightened engagement with the world, more questioning, and even some strands of ambivalence and disillusionment — though all of it tempered by a Near-Eastern economy of gesture and preoccupation with the thought-ordinary image, this idea of writing-as-practice or inquiry, and an almost noir-ish nod to the past with a loosening up of his diction and lines.
Eventually, he would combine the two strains into a lyric-narrative hybrid that is remarkably thoughtful and wise, clear-eyed and urgent, and mightily concerned with humanity and its shaping, ongoing push towards the ideal. Regardless of what stage in his evolvement, Butt’s poetry is always unfailingly devoted, ever-measured and studied, to the rooting out of one’s voice, the perfecting of form, and the demands placed on us by being: the self-made-poet.
So it’s fitting that Story & Luck kicks off with this house brand of mysticism from another great jazz man, Fats Waller — “One never knows, do one?” — with its makeshift narrative, this strut of sorts, trained as best as it can on uncertainty, fate. While still interested in the same time-tested matters of his earlier work, Butts’ delivery feels even steadier, more determined, as he knowingly metes out this wisdom that, while modest, risks being dismissed by a younger audience seemingly addicted to the slickest of skill sets, power pointed-ness. Unlike the mass of writing today that opts for either stylistic overkill, cleverness (for not even cleverness’ sake . . . ) or these lists making much too much of one’s (you must forgive me . . . ) listlessness, he can always be counted on to meet not only memory, and all it asks of us, but his readership, more than halfway. Butts does so from the opening poem, “Primary”— a short and rarified briefing on politics, both local and not so, that draws more from the natural world than it does from the humanly legislated (“Weather reminds us / we too will settle”), its final gesture more bent on firming up and abiding-in, bringing to order, than it is about resignation, putting desire to rest — to the last, “James Wright’s Horses” which signs off with a familiar blessing still essential even when stared down by a battery of ailments (“There are certain words / that will transport us / to that other, flowering self ”), a benediction not only in mind of the words but the breaths that go into it.
Yes, grief figures in some way, in all of these poems, how the letting go of things, living, is both sired and resisted in the telling of it. But while the mood is meditative, tenderly voiced, its cast is democratic and masterfully commanded, whether it be the near-metaphysical trek of “The Cabin” with its half-imagined
gaining-on (“ . . . the higher you go / the cooler the air, the more / you feel elemental / and necessary”) or the tenaciously summoned reminiscences of loved ones in “Story”:
You look at the photograph hanging on your wall,
the one your friend took after a snow storm
of you and your wife, alone on the street, remote,
that could be anyone, and above your heads
the Rosa’s sign in red script glowing against a
Butts also gives numerous shout-outs to art — to music (“Some Small Blessing”), sculpture, photography (“In the Hand of a Graveyard Angel”), and, not surprisingly, literature. It is here where Story & Luck gains its hardest thought insights, its final
three poems registering one’s first and furthest initiation into that most noble of start-ups, where our words are forever working their way out from the dark:
First, “Lucky Deer,” a poem, which Walter’s wife S Stephanie explains in the Introductory Note, was “inspired by his grand-daughter Catherine, and his reading aloud a book (Brothers of the Senecas, which was actually written by Walter’s uncle Walter E. Butts Jr.) to her and her sister Chloe.” He reads the poem reverently, stirring to the line “Because history holds us to who we are,” before retiring, after several beddy-time misreads, with “The story changes, but it is always ours.”
And next-to-last, “Learning Williams,” in which a teacher’s animated lesson sells him on that most lyric of doctors, leading to this sermon-like moment: “I had come here an outcast, a kid in trouble but / one who loved / what words could do, how they silenced poverty / and shame, / and showed me things for what they truly were.”
And then, finally, “James Wright’s Horses” where that earlier seed-planting pays off with a wealth of what is most pressing.
And so, let us all say it now. With new meaning: Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.
— Mark DeCarteret