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The Reading Life: Mountain hermit poems

August 1, 2011 | 11:36 am

This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I've been reading David Budbill for better than a decade, ever since "Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse" came out in 1999. There, he invents a persona: a poet, living alone on the side of a Vermont mountain -- a contemporary analogue to the 9th century Chinese poet Han Shan, or Cold Mountain, who took his name from the mountain where he lived.

Like Han Shan, Budbill's hermit writes in straightforward but poetic language about the paradoxes of being alive. "When I was young, I believed my work and passion / would get me where I wanted to go," he explains in the short poem "No Trail":

Now my hair is falling out and I know
nothing I have done amounts to anything.

My life is like the bird's path across the sky.
It will leave no trail.

Budbill's new book, "Happy Life," represents, in many ways, a continuation of the themes in "Moment to Moment," themes that have defined Budbill's poetic life. He is, after all, his own version of the Vermont hermit poet; with his wife, the painter Lois Eby, he has been a solitary (or nearly solitary) mountain dweller since 1969.

In "Happy Life," however, Budbill speaks directly, without the filter of another voice. He takes as a frame the idea of the seasons, breaking the book into five sections that together trace the inexorable flow of a bit more than a year. As always, he is funny, pointed even, in a sardonic way.

"I've spent most of my life / pissing and moaning about / never having any money / not being known, never / getting any honors, not / getting to travel," he observes in the collection's opening poem, "Chia Tao Begins a Poem to Subprefect Li K'uo of Hu County by Saying," before acknowledging how little these things matter in the end:

And yet,
for more than forty years
my days have been my own.

It takes a long time for some people
to realize how lucky they are.

There we have it in a nutshell, the defining terms of Budbill's vision, the tension between worldly desire and quiet wisdom, the intent to be here now. It's a focus that infuses nearly every poem in this collection, whether he is writing about nature, or chores, or celebrating his occasional visits to the city, where amidst the "[c]rowded and noisy streets," he feels "the solitude of / the quiet mountainside."

Such resolution is difficult to come by, and more difficult to maintain. It requires both self-awareness and a touch of self-deprecation ... or, at least, the ability to see yourself plain. For Budbill, this comes together in "Fake Hermit," which opens with a revelation: "I'm not the mountain hermit I pretend to be."

Still, for all his attachment -- to "a wife who's been here with me for more / than forty years, and a grown daughter // who lives down the road, a dead son, and / we've got lots of friends around here, too. / I'm not the hermit I pretend to be" -- he manages to find a point of integration, concluding that "I like my life this way: mostly, // but not entirely, alone."

This is it, the key idea of "Happy Life," the way solitude returns us, in some fundamental sense, to ourselves. Or, as Budbill writes in "To the End," one of the closing poems in the collection:

I've been here forty years.
I'd like to be here forty more.

The longer I'm here the less
I want to go away, the less

I want to be known. I'd like to
disappear into these mountains,

and never be seen again. I just
want to do my work, make my

poems, and be left alone.
I want to stay here to the end.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Vermont mountains. Credit: Barry Pouseman via Flickr