Poems by Charles Butterfield
If we travel through life with our faithful, keen-scented dog at our side, we are apt to develop a world view and aesthetic sensibility that is decidedly earthbound. "Field Notes" by Charles Butterfield, his second poetry collection, has an earthiness about it that I find refreshing.
The poems invite us into the world of a man and his dog as they explore the fields and woods of home. While the dog is busy sniffing, digging holes, or "hovering/over piss marks/scented with possibilities," the man, a creature balancing on two legs, is attentive to higher realities.
Many of these poems bear the poetic voice Butterfield forged in his first poetry collection, "Another Light." That is, they begin with a solitary narrator on a quest and open up to the all-inclusive "we," "us" and "you," a modulation from the individual to the universal that is the trademark of the enduring lyric style.
All but one poem are under a page in length, most unfolding in one sentence, one long sinuous thought. Intrinsic to the lyric mode is the element of rhyme, those echoing sounds that are satisfying to the mind and ear and that carry a thought or a feeling along, such as this sequence from "Red Sky Morning":
Today it hangs a crimson streak
under a dark cloak
like a peek of lining
that touches the rims of hills.
What if the wrap should open
to the winter sun
and turn everything alizarin?
Many of the poems have a richly allusive quality and contain references drawn from the poet’s realm of interests and knowledge. For the speaker in "Field Notes," to watch the dog receiving messages from the grass
is to believe hierophants hover
near those places where he stops to dig
and I should get on my knees, work
my fingers to the afflatus of roots ...
Rather than be intimidated by what may be unfamiliar references or words, if we embrace them, explore their origins, our experience of the poem will be deepened and broadened. A little research will reveal that a hierophant is an ancient Greek priest who interpreted sacred mysteries, and that afflatus derives from the Latin word indicating the act of breathing or blowing on, of imparting divine knowledge.
The speaker in the title poem "Field Notes" ponders the experience of death which for him remains a corporeal and terrestrial affair. Rather than sanitize the experience, or elevate it with promises of celestial bliss, he puts his faith in the natural processes that leave us "pushing up daisies." More specifically, he hopes to "send up timothy/for the horses, vetch for the cows," and takes satisfaction in accomplishing that kind of beauty, that kind of immortality.
Poetry happens to us not as autonomous, self-enclosed bodies, but where we intersect with the world around us, a world that, as we respond to it with our human capacity to praise and grieve, empathize and wonder, completes us and renders us fully human. As the speaker observes in another poem, a whimpering dog with quills in its snout is not a fit subject for a poem, but "your opening the door to him/with a rock in your gut is."
We come away from this collection of 24 poems with our animal senses awakened and with a renewed respect for the instinctual intelligence of dogs, a creature with "jaws/ that can vise a rabbit’s neck" yet capable of displaying toward us a deep "affection without words." We take away, too, the pleasure of the poems.
Note: Charles Butterfield, Barbara Benoit and Muriel Wolf will be reading from their new works at Brooks Memorial Library, on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m., in the meeting room.
Martha Nelson writes from Dummerston.
For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect to the library’s new web catalog at brookslibraryvt.org.