There’s nothing like a stroll through the park. It’s refreshing to catch a whiff of the grass, feel the breeze in your hair, hear the birds chirp. But, admit it: Sometimes people get in the way. Though we may step into the park to enjoy nature, we can’t seem to get away from others. People are everywhere.
Wolcott poet David Budbill is well acquainted with these people of the park. They form the cast of his new book Park Songs, a hybrid poem-play. The book is a series of short vignettes — generally snippets of dialogue, with occasional monologues, blues songs or longer conversations — that all take place during a single day in a “small green space surrounded by a great gray city.” This green space is managed by Mr. C, a “would-be poet, keeper, attendant and guardian of the Park,” and shared by the homeless and various passers-through, both named and unnamed.
If that cast sounds fluid, open-ended and difficult to pin down, that’s because it is — as is the work itself. People come and go as they would in an actual park, and reading Park Songs is somewhat akin to sitting on a bench, watching it all happen. There is no overarching drama to speak of, save for the accumulating tension of worlds approaching each other and sometimes colliding. There is no clear main character (although we spend more time with some than others). In fact, even “character” seems the wrong word, as the players more often function simply as voices in a collective song, distinguished only by line breaks and alternating fonts.
This hard-to-define quality is, of course, typical of a genre-bending work, and Budbill’s experimentation shouldn’t necessarily be mistaken for messiness. Park Songs resembles a play in its theatricality (and in the author’s stated desire to have it read by a cast), while it resembles a book of poems in being a series of strung-together moments more than a sequence of scenes. But these are just semantics; perhaps “song” indeed captures the genre best. In the afterword, Budbill encourages theater companies to do what they will with this “raw material.”
The idea of using a park as a natural stage of sorts is intriguing, even if, in the process, the work takes on a form difficult to recognize as drama. It all happens with a kind of ultra-American twist on Beckettian terseness. The vignettes rarely last longer than two or three short pages, with one exception — “Let’s Talk” — which Budbill says in the afterword could work as a one-act play. And the dialogue of many (though not all) voices in Park Songs is full of idiomatic vernacular and candid, imperfect syntax, which contribute to a down-to-earth plainspokenness. These seem like people we can connect with, and it’s refreshing (as Budbill’s work generally is) to be offered regular ol’ simple beauty in place of incomprehensible, postmodern mumbo-jumbo, which contemporary poetry can so frequently be.
Yet, when the park people speak of their personal lives, their utterances often feel too forward and abrupt to elicit any emotion in the reader. People come and go in the park, and when they sit down to chat, their conversations move too rapidly in the direction of emotional divulgence. Even when we assume there is a backstory to justify their melodrama, we are caught off guard by their succinct, unhesitating confessions.
Take, for example, the vignette in which Jeanie, a young waitress, and Sue, a mother, sit down together. Apparently, the meeting was prearranged, because Jeanie apologizes for being late. Sue asks, “Anyway, what’s new with you?”
Jeanie replies, “Ah, I don’t know. Nothing. That’s the trouble. Nothing’s ever new. I’m 27 years old and I feel like my life is over.” She goes on to explain that she feels stuck at her diner job, and resents having to live with her mother. “Is this all there is, Suzie?”
Sue responds: “I’m sorry, Jeanie. Look at it this way if you want: at least you got a Mom. My mother died when I was 19 … I had so many things I wanted to talk to her about, things about my childhood, questions to ask her…” She explains that she wishes she had asked her mom if she’d ever had an affair, just to know. Then, abruptly, Sue says, “I got to get back to work.”
This ultraconfessional style is barely tolerable in first-person verse; in dialogue it sounds forced and abnormal.
The work sounds a disingenuous note again in passages where some of the park people wax self-consciously (and defensively) literary. On the more tolerable, though still tedious, end is Mr. C. A failed poet, he not only shares some of his compositions with us, but verbosely curses the literary elites in several freewheeling monologues: “If I choose to speak in an archaic tone; salubrious and beautiful, cadenced and melodious, I can! Which is to say: I actually, premeditatedly, deliberately and consciously speak in this harsher tongue…”
We forgive Mr. C’s mistaking GRE word lists for eloquence because he is, after all, a “would-be poet.” Harder to stomach are his self-congratulatory spiritual indulgences à la the drunken father in Nick Flynn’s memoirs, or his laundry lists of clever curse words. But, amid all his nonsense, Mr. C is a tragically funny voice, insofar as it’s funny to watch a failed poet justify his failure with false pride.
On the less forgivable end, as shoehorned-in literary language goes, are parts of the awkward dialogue in “Let’s Talk.” Fred, who, according to his character description, “fancies himself a ladies man,” tries to strike up a conversation with Nancy, an overthinking mother and partner to Judy. Fred says he’s lonely, and Nancy declines to continue the conversation. He asks why, and she proceeds to talk his ear off explaining that when she talks with people, she always ends up playing the listener.
It’s a funny idea, but occasionally Nancy lapses into a strange, misplaced verbal self-consciousness that takes away more than it gives to the scene. Take, for example, the moment when, after several paragraphs of passionate confession, she corrects a prepositional ending. Or worse, when she compliments Fred’s “sensitive” wordplay in tedious detail:
Yes. Loony. Lonely. The near rhyme. The subtle similarity in sound yet also the difference between the diphthong oo in loony and the long o in lonely. oo/o. And the same subtle similarity yet difference between the long e sound in loony and the ly in lonely. ee/ly.
Not only do these writerly interruptions detract from the park’s authenticity, but they place the work more on par with that very self-conscious, postmodern tedium from which, in Budbill’s previous work, readers were so relieved to break.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Budbill himself admits, in a speech quoted on his website, to being “suspended between the working class, peasant world of [his] birth” and the “elite world of the arts.” Park Songs strives toward encompassing both, but most of the time it falls flat in its attempts at impromptu, poetic sincerity and gauche high diction. As a poem, it could use less confession, and as a play, it could use more genuine character development.
Budbill is at heart a nature guy. When he moves from his own backyard to a city park, people get in the way, and he loses his hallmark simplicity and attention to detail. As walks in the park go, this one is not so refreshing.
"Park Songs: A Poem/Play" by David Budbill, Exterminating Angel Press, 112 pages. $14.95. davidbudbill.com