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.