Jack Butler’s Broken Hallelujah: New and Selected Poems is a celebration that refuses to explain away pain and trouble, or to oversell the very transcendence it seeks. Its poems are always musical, whether formal, improvisational, or written according to the music of speech itself.
Butler understands poetry more nearly as the essence of that speech than as one of its products, the heart of the ways we know each other. Some of these forms are as old as English, but the voice stays immediate; and whether dark or hopeful, comic or sober, passionate or calm and knowing, these poems speak with the urgency of praise itself.
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New and Selected Poems
By Jack Butler
Texas Review PressCopyright © 2013 Jack Butler
All rights reserved.
I will create a device (said the mechanic)
so that when vectors, like flies on a horse,
attack, you will keep steady course.
It will deliver incredible moment
simply by spinning in glimmering rings.
Tick-a-lock, I will say, and open a childhood door
I will enter, I will descend that long corridor,
and working by touch in the dark, and singing,
I will install my felix machina.
Then, though you go from dark planet
to dark, an arc like fish on the wing,
you will know your own weight:
Though the universe whirl in confusion around you,
your own whirring heart will hold true.
They never work, not them—they play.
They seem unaging, day to day.
But soon they'll have to work, they'll see.
I change the earth, it changes me.
I'm not the man I used to be.
They want to change the world. They'll see.
Nobody can love and still be free.
Living subtracts the strength from us,
in work, in love, in coitus:
I'm not the man I used to be.
They join together in a band,
mocking my standards down. They'll see.
The man to whom they give their hand
will turn against them finally.
I'm not the man I used to be.
Great love goes mad to be spoken: You went out
to the ranked tentpoles of the butterbean patch,
picked beans in the sun. You bent, and dug
the black ground for fat, purple turnips.
You suffered the cornstalk's blades, to emerge
triumphant with grain. You spent all day in a coat
of dust, to pluck the difficult word
of a berry, plunk in a can. You brought home
voluminous tribute, cucumbers, peaches,
five-gallon buckets packed tightly with peas,
cords of sugar-cane, and were not content.
You had not yet done the pure, the completed,
the absolute deed. Out of that vegetable ore,
you wrought miracles: snapbeans broke
into speech, peas spilled from the long slit pod
like pearls, and the magical snap of your nail
filled bowls with the fat, white coinage of beans.
Still you were unfinished. Now fog swelled
in the kitchen, your hair wilted like vines.
These days drove you half-wild—you cried,
sometimes, for invisible reasons. In the yard,
out of your way, we played in the leaves, and heard
the pressure-cooker blow out its musical shriek.
Then it was done: You had us stack up the jars
like ingots, or books. In the dark of the shelves,
quarts of squash gave off a glow like late sun.
That was the last we thought of your summer
till the day that even the johnson grass died.
Then, bent over sweet relish and black-eyed peas,
over huckleberry pie, seeing the dog outside
shiver with cold, we would shiver, and eat.
Homage to the First Geometer
All things are water, Thales said, and meant
a universal clarity underlay
the granular, turbid, obdurant
stones, the tendons of a child at play
in a backyard puddle, the firmament
(that blue corneal bulge, that film blown full
atop the rumor of an irised world)
itself. All things. Off Bimini,
the broken-backed surfer drowned in surf,
dawdling, staring down eternally
to realms of coral. The translucent leaf
dancing in jaded sun, the 22
whales one strong mind storied me,
who beached themselves repeatedly
on a small round island—though the coast guard dragged
them one by one with cables to the drink
each time but the last—and died, fatigued,
successful, bloody. All things, old Greek?
Some ambitious, over-pedagogued
incurious student (may he have caught a tumor)
misunderstood your aqueous humor
in his note-taking haste, laid waste a life
to unholster a meaning: I have idled
all afternoon by the floor-stove with my love,
watching the incandescent, blue, unbridled
rush, rush, rush of
multiply-kerneled heat. I—sheathed like sun-
sheathed wheat in her whose blue-green
iris in a slant of late light pulsed sheer cell, sperm, nuclei nibbling void—thought, another afternoon, of
porches, Thales, the shells of novae. You had a laughter that fanned your genius or else drew
sustenance. Oh not yet wholly gone, accept this benison,
these sprinkled drops, these votive quanta,
from one who, diametrically mistaken,
nevertheless is going to
subscribe to a physicist's equation—
light as the rod of all. Where do you wander
now, Miletan? Which spark, what star?
O Thales, Thales, Thales ... all things are fire.
After John Wink Tells Me How He Would Like to Write a Villanelle on Jesus,
A Villanelle on Lynnice, and a Villanelle on Desire, I Am Seized with a Vision of
Blessed Order, and Steal His Subjects
Jesus desires Lynnice in this villanelle.
He probably sort of would've anyhow.
The long and rolling trouble of a bell
disturbs him here, however: heaven and hell
are dull, dull matters to our savior now—
Jesus desires Lynnice in this villanelle.
And shall he have her? The question will not quell,
but gathers more rowdily than he would allow,
the long and rolling trouble of a bell.
And would his stars all tumble? Oh who can tell?
The angels in their melodious powwow
sing Jesus desires Lynnice in this villanelle,
and choir on ringing choir in loud rondelle—
green waves that ramble to cream upon a prow,
the long and rolling trouble of a bell—
assail his soul, extol, appeal, compel.
Oh let him bleed in other poems. I vow
Jesus desires Lynnice in this villanelle,
longing to roll and trouble her like a bell.
Accident or the gods,
processes busy about their own directions,
touch you, transform you. I found myself
six feet tall,
dressed in coachman's piping, a whip coiled
in my right hand—and in my stomach,
the same half-digested cricket.
Oh, I remembered—the rat still crouched
in my brand-new brain, and I could almost
twitch my nonexistent whiskers.
Far below, I saw the bricks of the floor
ripple for miles. Out of the window
I saw, for the first time, hills,
truncated with evening light. Later,
when I drove up the road,
there would be brightnesses overhead
I thought of as stars.
It became dark. She bent over once
to put on her shoes, hand against the mantel,
each breast succulent, dependent
against her bodice, the fire
flickering on their curves. Her hair fell over
her shoulders like water.
Sitting in the coach outside the dance,
I had hours to settle it all.
Laughter rang from the lighted windows,
music drifted out. The horses
whuffled and shuddered. Water lapped
on the stones of the palace pool.
Leaves whispered. Mosquitoes whined, and bit me.
I couldn't bring myself to kill them.
I had hours to settle it all.
If I had touched her or run away,
they would have changed me back.
I had hours, hours.
Then the doors burst open, flooding the yard
with light and clamor,
and she fled down the steps like a bird.
All the way back down that country road,
the silver, impassive moon
rode in the sky in front of me. I lashed blood
from those foaming backs,
I shouted scripture and algebra.
"I will turn blank eyes to the moon," I cried,
"The rest of my nights! I will be clubbed to death
"gnawing on a dead child's foot!"
Here in the jungle, the material jungle,
I at the age of twenty-three found
Luna, hung like a bell-note, a gong.
I wasn't always a werewolf. Once, like you,
I worked for Ralston-Purina,
obeyed the law, on Sundays attended church,
and slowly gave in to death: It did no good
to smoke a cigarette in the factory-yard.
Ten-minute break broke no tedium, no bond.
I tell you turkeys hung by hocks beyond
the night-shift door, dangled like fat, dead men,
naked, decapitate. I talk turkey now:
Second by second I grabbed the plucked things down,
broke the stiff, dead wings, sacked them in plastic
and let them go by. And all night long
the hockhung moon swung on its creaking chain.
The grave, meantime, like mercury,
rose gradually in my veins.
O citizens of northwest Arkansas,
O poultry capital of the world,
what can I tell you? It was not not my choice
but hers, the goddess of poets,
lechers, and thieves: I found a voice
and lost my job. Light clanged in my eyes,
the grave's black blood dropped out to zero.
The moon, the moon became the only door.
So now I have too much hair, I wear
the stinks of my poisons about me.
Wolves' knowledge: Your feet will take root
unless you keep moving. Refuel on the run,
with Luna your engine, Luna your fuel.
The moon's acetylene will slice their fences,
will disconnect the loud alarms
installed by bankers in the virgin's throat,
and she will lie at ease and silent in your arms.
Think on your feet and your way with dogma
will be the way of a wolf with a chicken.
The light cannon of the moon will zero in
and punch holes in their moral armorplate,
the cornered preacher will turn around
and recognize the werewolf as a friend.
The men whose thinking crawls like ants
are closing in, the women whose eyes
are spiderwebs. O sweet bird moon,
O night bird moon, rotund and fleet,
they'll disembowel you. Or so they plan.
Deputies crosshatch the world, move in.
I feel the crosshairs on my back, and cringe.
That deadly aim will take me out, I know—
it has nailed down a king of wolves.
I will come back, he said, like a burglar,
a thief. Just talk, the hunters tell themselves.
At night, the moon like shallow water
ripples thinly. I know how to step through that
and leave no trail, but still, still
you got me. I have to stop to howl. Oh I'll
take a couple of hunters with me before I go:
Vacuity, your guts can still be stuffed back in,
the lunar brain revived. Wolves go on.
You can't be safe. Call it wolves,
disorder, sex, or poetry. It'll get you.
Or it'll get your child. Why, T. S. Eliot
will grab you in his jaws
and savage you, no matter what.
So come on and kill me. Tack my hide
to your wide barn door. You won't have won.
Not though you load your leaden days
into the clicking chamber of a gun.
So I Went to the Ant
Convinced of my own end coming,
an extinction more imminent than that of the sturgeon,
I left the house for a few cold slices
of March sunlight coupled edge-on
to the hill we call a front yard,
those final, improbable moments
when the plane of the horizontal light approaches delta t,
sweeping up from the roots to blink out,
doing god knows what to the hairs on the leaves
of the green groundcover
and god knows what in the amber guts of an ant
hanging head-down by the spurs of his heels
and cleaning his jointed antennae
like a woman brushing out tangles. I would say
it was the sun that had joined us, I would draw
some such moral if I was still able
to hold anything together. But he wasn't studying morals,
clambering in absent-minded solitude
over the bristling leaves to poke his head,
his electric razor of a head,
into each four-spiked bud-chamber he came to, where,
at the bottom, there waited
the quarter-sections of impending flower, precise
as a flash-bulb's socket.
My face hung there, shadow in his sun,
a cloud too huge to register
in the periods of his eyes,
and it was better than forgiveness to watch him
continue without interruption
whatever he thought he was doing.
If I made the ant talk, he would say,
Level on level, plane after plane, world flowering up from world forever—
here are the springs of existence,
here is the source.
I have studied the underworld, you realtors,
you Caesars and Nixons, studied the plaintain
curled in the tube of its waiting, and been drawn down
that green and luminous funnel
to node, seed, dark, and the door
to that wilderness where beetles scuttle
through latticed moonlight in halls of night grass,
where flowers orgy in the wind's will
or not at all.
I have watched a sandgrain
make ladders in the creek, have seen the bell spider
loping all day long on the silvery trampoline
of the underside of the pond's surface tension,
and I know one thing: You may butcher the earth
the way my steps crashed into that jungle
before I lay down and became silent,
but you will never own it. Change upon change
will wipe you clean from the earth,
as easily as the released springs of the groundcover
forgot my mass when I left, the sort of event
neither you nor I can observe,
but some can imagine.
Out of the Ghetto of Angels
Oh heaven is a hilly town
where all the houses rise
white among the up and down
and curve and twist of street
on street of brick and green
the overhanging trees
and blue the overhanging skies
and yellow the light of afternoon
and nights the gangs of angels meet
in the coffeeshop saloon
and tell each other lies
and make their glasses clink
and all the angels kiss and tell
and all know what to think
and all their thinking is a flame
as blue as alcohol's
that whispers in the gutters
and whispers at the walls
and all that's rank or stubborn
that flame it will sublime
and what it can't will suborn
and flame is all that matters
and boredom is a public crime
and I was once an angel there
but I got sometime bored
though I set my tattered tongue
to melody like the rest
I never met the Lord
and I missed my mother and father
who did not quite belong
I knew something was wrong:
When I ate air I'd vomit air,
and I got so depressed
they thought I was the devil
and I knew I was in hell
and that is how I fell
to the country I now travel
where half the roads are gravel
and half the flowers weeds
and a man halfway gets what he needs.
Excerpted from Broken Hallelujah by Jack Butler. Copyright © 2013 Jack Butler. Excerpted by permission of Texas Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Homage to the First Geometer,
After John Wink Tells Me ...,
So I Went to the Ant,
Out of the Ghetto of Angels,
No News at All,
Under the Fingernail Moon,
The Kid Who Wanted to Be a Spaceman,
Not Quite Like Son,
Concerto for Walleyed Weary Woman,
Blues for Lynnika at Two,
Apology for Hope,
The Pain that Vision Cannot Heal,
One Reason for Stars,
A Song for Easter,
On Fire for the Lord,
The Binomial Theorem of Hope,
The Theory of the Rose,
The Old One,
... And Love to the Air It Resembles,
Mr. Entropy Meets the Weak Antropic Principle,
The Interstellar Tourist Shows His Slides,
Solomon in His Wisdom,
The Changing of Vision with Time,
Paradise Is a Hard Gig:,
The Constancy of Existence,
The Spider at the Bottom of the Bottle,
You Wax Sausage Apparatus after Rain and Shade,
Youth Is a Passage, Aging's the Play,