The Rural Imagination of Michael

Poetry / Joshua Butts

:: The Rural Imagination of Michael ::

Your father moved here for tim­ber, cabinetry. 

On Cut­lip Rd., in the sleep­over light, we watched C.H.U.D.  

Your grand­moth­er fold­ed my first omelet. 

Your bed­room win­dow on the high­way side & stars. 

We rode bare­back hors­es & the hairs cov­ered my black joggers. 

Your par­ents bought prop­er­ty at the dis­used orchard. 

My dad drilled two-by-fours, string­ing Romex as it ran out 

through the walls giv­ing light from the break­er box. 

Near the end, we walked through woods to a pasture 

with a two-lane crawl along­side. There were cows. 

A bull (row­dy spouse). There was a white S10 parked off 

in the weeds. You stole a pack of Win­stons from the dash. 

At the farm­house the old lady thought we were Depression 

giv­en our clothes—tears in our jeans, flan­nel. I don’t  

remem­ber walk­ing back from the farm­house. She was so nice 

she told on us. I was ground­ed for your smokes. In high school 

I drove out at lunch to see you fight Guy & Eddie (both wrestlers). 

We’d thought the fight wasn’t going to hap­pen & then over the hill 

from your par­ents’ land, some kind of bul­ly choreography, 

you appeared in the back of a pick­up with Chris Cos­by, the truck 

blast­ing Soundgar­den or Tool or some shit. The entrance was 

cin­e­mat­ic. The fight (real­ly wrestling: Guy & Eddy) like all fights 

was a mix of blunt­ed lust, then fear, then the sen­sa­tion of 

tast­ing your own throat. We drove away from it into our lives. 

Your trou­ble, Michael, wasn’t so strange & tor­tured that it couldn’t  

be mea­sured for heav­en, or I’d like to think. Maybe you deserved all of it. 

Once we were lit­tle boys togeth­er for as long as we were lit­tle boys.



From the writer


:: Account ::

Nos­tal­gia locates desire in the past where it suf­fers no active con­flict and can be yearned toward pleas­ant­ly. His­to­ry is the anti­dote to this. 

  —Robert Hass, “Lowell’s Graveyard”

Dur­ing a post-talk Q&A, I once asked Greil Mar­cus if nos­tal­gia was any use at all. I can’t remem­ber what he said, but I knew it was a ques­tion I need­ed to ask myself continually. 

 In Cam­era Luci­da, Roland Barthes writes: “Per­haps we have an invin­ci­ble resis­tance to believ­ing in the past, in His­to­ry, except in the form of myth.” Barthes goes on to say that “[t]he Pho­to­graph, for the first time, puts an end to this resis­tance: hence­forth the past is as cer­tain as the present, what we see on paper is as cer­tain as what we touch.” Per­haps this is so for the pho­to­graph, but in poems the amal­ga­ma­tion of lan­guage isn’t “cer­tain,” is always an approx­i­ma­tion. Does that mean poems are always myth—whether will­ful­ly so or not? I don’t think so. Still my past poems delight­ed in myth­mak­ing, pre­sent­ing a sort of Amer­i­can strange­ness prob­a­bly influ­enced by or filched from The Anthol­o­gy of Amer­i­can Folk Music, C. D. Wright, & Bob Dylan. I have tend­ed toward the per­sona poem—poems that speak in the voice of anoth­er, & in my first book, voic­es from an Appalachi­an past. 

Post-2016, jour­nal­ists went look­ing for an answer for why white rur­al folk vot­ed for Trump when the answer was clear­ly racism, misog­y­ny, ableism, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, & xeno­pho­bia. J. D. Vance, for one, offered a ver­sion that deflect­ed from these real rea­sons, a ver­sion that also offered a delight­ing-in-vio­lence vision of rural­ness that I found trou­bling. In spite of class issues, lack of edu­ca­tion, one must nev­er assuage or cov­er over the racism, misog­y­ny, ableism, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, & xeno­pho­bia men­tioned above. White rural­ness doesn’t require these fea­tures, but they are preva­lent fea­tures in white rural­ness (& preva­lent fea­tures every­where for that mat­ter, as wit­nessed by a quick scan of Twit­ter). Rural­ness is not a monolith—is not always hill­bil­ly, or Appalachi­an, & cer­tain­ly not always white. Yet it can be sort of a city imag­i­na­tion, or sub­ur­ban imag­i­na­tion, to think it those things: hill­bil­ly, Appalachi­an, white. 

I start­ed writ­ing these rur­al imag­i­na­tion poems in an expos­i­to­ry mode, using a straight­for­ward use of the title: The Rur­al Imag­i­na­tion of X. When the sub­ject was “Music” or “Hol­ly­wood” or “Dri­ving to the Near­est City,” you would get an explo­ration of that issue or theme. But was there any of the “active con­flict” Hass men­tions? As I wrote more & more poems, I start­ed to think about how I am some­one who no longer lives in a rur­al place. Am I no bet­ter than Vance? I grew up in a small town in south­east­ern Ohio. I’ve hunt­ed, fished. My father bought me a 20-gauge when I was ten, but I dropped it & broke the stock. I was punched in the face at least three times with­out provo­ca­tion by peo­ple like those in the above poem. I was a skate­board­er, braid­ed neck­laces, played in a punk band. If I am employ­ing the imag­i­na­tion, it will hope­ful­ly all the while be in search of some­thing like a com­pli­ca­tion, a slow­ing down. 

The poems I keep com­ing back to in this project are more close­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. The fight in the poem above hap­pened. Our high school would give us twen­ty-five min­utes for lunch & let us leave in cars & trucks. I drove three friends out there to Michael’s land in a beige Dodge Aries. We were lis­ten­ing to the Dead Kennedys. If more close­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, they are also often clos­er to an “I.” But what is an I? Poet Kath­leen Graber writes in “Self-Por­trait with The Sleep­ing Man,” from her recent & amaz­ing book, Riv­er Twice:  

Some­times I say I, as though someone 

might still believe there could be a coher­ent, dis­tinct self in there.

Barthes would also resist such a coherence—as if the poems were uttered from some Author-God. The rur­al imag­i­na­tion “I” is kind of a con­struct to speak through, employ­ing mem­o­ry & an insid­er plus out­sider sta­tus (if that is even pos­si­ble). While, like Graber, my sense of “I” is not “coher­ent,” I am also just myself & am try­ing to write poems with that aware­ness. As I step inside & out­side of the project, I can exam­ine nos­tal­gia, I can resist essen­tial­ism, I can try to rec­og­nize my priv­i­lege. I cer­tain­ly do not con­tain, nor speak for, any multitudes. 


Joshua Butts is the author of New to the Lost Coast (Gold Wake Press, 2015). His poems have appeared recent­ly in Black­bird, Pleiades, & South­ern Human­i­ties Review. He has held res­i­den­cies at the VCCA & Byrd­cliffe, was a Ten­nessee Williams Schol­ar at the Sewa­nee Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence, & attend­ed The Home School. Butts received his BA & MA in Eng­lish from The Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty & his PhD in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati. He cur­rent­ly teach­es & serves as Dean of Fac­ul­ty at the Colum­bus Col­lege of Art & Design in Colum­bus, OH