David Budbill’s recent collection of poems, Happy Life, doesn’t beg to be discovered; it smiles and waits for the reader to take its hand and take a walk through the woods.
In an ever-growing sea of poetry that is both perplexing and self-absorbed, it’s a bit refreshing to read a poet who has no intention of hiding his meaning or images. Perhaps it is even more refreshing to see it reflected in a collection’s title. David Budbill’s recent collection of poems, Happy Life, doesn’t beg to be discovered; it smiles and waits for the reader to take its hand and take a walk through the woods. The title is both layered and simple, both honest and ironic. And this reflects on the book itself, because the author is excruciatingly honest about what matters to him.
Budbill is an experienced poet and writer of everything from children’s books to the libretto of a friend’s opera, and Happy Life, is his seventh poetry collection to be published since his first in 1968, “Barking Dog.” At the ripe age of 71, Budbill lays his cards on the table in this latest collection, sharing his zest for life while accepting that it won’t last forever.
The root of the author’s happiness is explained in the poem “Forty Years Ago,” telling of his self-imposed exile to the mountains of Vermont, where he still lives today. He accepted the things he would never have because of this, and explains his decision in the final line, “I felt at home among these people and in my new mountain home.” Many of the poems describe this life of living in the woods, as if to prove to us that he did make the right decision. In “Out in the Woods,” he tells the reader that “the only time I’m really free is when I’m out in the woods/ cutting firewood, stacking brush, clearing trails” and in the end, “Ah, this would be the time and place and way/ to die.”
He continues to insist to the reader (convince, even) that living in the mountains is perfect, that it is the only way to live. The poem “Question and Answer” continues this diatribe:
You ask me
why I live on
this green mountain
I smile: no answer.
Poems like this make Happy Life, effectively a book of nature poems, as even the poems that are not about nature utilize imagery of the woods, mountains, and animals that Budbill sees around his home. One of the most beautiful poems in the collection is so because of this distinction from the rest: “Everything” (after 9/11/2001) gives a powerful image of the state of America in the wake of September 11:
Budbill describes the feeling to the world around him in the only way he knows, and the seeming contradiction (sweeter/fragile) makes the poem all the more intense.
Though the use of natural imagery is often beautiful, it can be unoriginal in places and repeated so often as to lose its effect. Budbill loosely arranges the structure of the collection around the months and seasons, both starting and ending in the Autumn. Many of these seasonal poems, such as “September Visitors” and “Now” can be quite beautiful and profound, but the inclusion of both “Out in the Woods” and “Out in the Fall Woods” appears less of a clever method of coming full-circle in terms of seasons and more of an excuse for the author’s lack of original things to talk about. I can appreciate Budbill’s love of the mountain life and the beauty of nature, but one can only enjoy so many poems about firewood. (See the dull trifecta of Odes in the middle of the book.)
Repetitive imagery aside, what really drives this collection is the dichotomy that Budbill experiences on a daily basis: the need and desire to love and enjoy life while knowing and accepting that death will come one day, and that day could be right around the corner. It takes a vast amount of maturity and experience to admit this, and Budbill looks the reader right in the eye and unabashedly speaks the truth. The last stanza of “Sometimes” exemplifies the mood perfectly:
I know in the next minute or tomorrow all this may be taken from me,
and therefore I’ve got to say, right now, what I feel and know and see,
I’ve got to say, right now, how beautiful and sweet this world can be.
The book is also filled with short, bursting poems rooted in Budbill’s love of Chinese poetry. The author is entering into an ancient dialogue with these poets, emulating them with his own distinct flavor. He often has an epigraph quoting or dedicating his poems to his ancient Chinese heroes, or occasionally shaping his poems around these old poems that shaped him during his time in solitude. The title poem, Happy Life, contains the real ethos of the collection:
At my desk all morning.
In the woods all afternoon.
Headed home now through the yellow light.
Yang Wan-li said,
There’s enough to eat.
Who needs a lot of money?
I’ve led a happy life
doing what I want to do.
How could I be so lucky?
These themes and images are often beautiful, but Budbill’s biggest problem is that he seems stuck on this one idea and its related branches. At first the poems seem warm and inviting, the speaker asking the reader to stay in the mountains with him for awhile, to see how beautiful the scenery is. The speaker is convinced that this will be a life-changing experience for the reader just like it was for him. Some poems have different iterations for different seasons, but they don’t feel different enough to evoke the subtleties that Budbill had planned on.
Happy Life, while full of the rich neo-transcendentalist beauty that only Budbill can provide, has the tendency to feel like that cheesy vacation to the mountains that you seemed to take every year as a child because your parents were convinced it would keep you off drugs. By the end of the book, you’re feeling like you did when you were sixteen or so, and one parent exuberantly says “now isn’t this beautiful, aren’t you so happy here?” Right on cue: you roll your eyes, shut the book, and walk away.