Review by Mack Hassler
I had just finished reading the 2023 collection of Clutch, which is published just at the edge of the UP, when this collection of poems by Michael Butterworth came in the mail from much farther distant but still with what I hear as deep resonance for what we are working with in our small region in trying to make a literature for and about the UP. Both our own Splake and his champion Zoschke seem to bear similar literary genes to Butterworth, to the sense of the “Beat,” and to writing at the edges of the center of things; and I think these ideas can benefit from more discussion because they are driven by what our UP is all about and are vital to literature in general. Besides as a reviewer, I like to write about this sort of work and feel lucky to be able to do so thanks to the UPPAA.
Many decades ago when I was beginning to work with literature seriously, I hosted a reading by the Beat Gary Snyder, who was and is a brilliant Reed College educated writer able to do whatever he wanted with words, read his poem on “being eaten by a bear.” The verse was open breath, free verse, the speaker was enjoying the mastication. It was Buddhist. It was Beat. It was open breath expression. I did not like it. Now this “Complete Poems” by Butterworth does the same thing. He loves publishing. His love “Sara” is an ordained Buddhist Priest. He loves the Midlands (Manchester in particular and the Pennines) far from London. He loves his mother, women in general, his family of several grandchildren. All of this “eats him up” continually. The Manchester Police, the loss of homes in the region, the sadness of women [I think the most effective poem in the collection is “The Mad Girl” with a huge tone of pathos]. In fact, the great Exhibition about his bad boy publishing business with David Britton that goes much beyond the New Wave nearly gets him put in prison by the Manchester police; but it is the City of Manchester where the Exhibit opens – it traveled also to Kent State just like Gary Snyder. That Exhibit did not actually get eaten up either by the police nor by my conservative university. But there was the risk. And personally, having moved farther into my own life and writing, I loved it.
Nature seems more designed for police surveillance, for predation, for being eaten up than not—like my old friend Erasmus Darwin, who stays far from London in the Midlands in the Pennines and away from the famous Sam Johnson. I think it is that distancing by Butterworth that this carefully constructed book maps for us, I had known the map was there from his smaller pieces in Carter Kaplan’s Emanations and from the literary history of Moorcock and the New Wave. Butterworth, also, has advised us often on independent publishing for Kaplan’s projects because Butterworth seems most interested in making something new in the world This is what publishing is and what the risks are. So the book has a huge autobiographical interest and structure as well as some nicely effective individual poems on what is at risk. The whole is an open embrace of the flowing risk of time.
My favorite section is the one on the decade of the “nineties” that opens with a poem about trees: “These strange things called trees…./ Inevitably, like the rest of Nature/ They will succumb / To a grim determination.” (p 141) Butterworth’s short poem is so different from the famous Victorian tree poem he riffs off of by Joyce Kilmer, who did not survive the Great War but who did write that huge statement of straight belief. That fine little verse along with the longer Mad Girl poem I mention above are worth the price of this book. Butterworth sums up a life and a branch of the Beat movement for us that ought to get a lot of notice here. We can read him and think of Splake. In fact, I think many of us in the UP are a bunch of “Midnight Cowboys” in our work–poetic Hustlers in a cold and predatory environment. (That film from 1969, which I think was the same year that Gary Snyder read at Kent, has a great Beat feel to it and is haunted with cold death.) Something to think about. To conclude with a bad pun, maybe I am ready to go back to my Victorian roots.
Complete Poems, 1965-2020, by Michael Butterworth, edited by Jean-Paul L. Garnier
(Space Cowboy Books, Joshua Tree, CA, 2023), 193 pages, hardcover, n.p.