Reading Rick Bass's lyrical memoir Why I Came West, I thought of a writer from back here in the east, David Budbill, most famous for his poems about the imagined town of Judevine. I've read Budbill since Ben recommended him, though when he first gave me Judevine I was too green to appreciate it. I came back to Budbill through Hayden Carruth and some experience and wisdom before I appreciated enough to hear what he wrote. Happy Life and While We've Still Got Feet are precious books to me now. In my classroom, I went to the computer and searched for a new Budbill book. There is one, but there's a catch: he died in October 2016.
I get attached to writers. Learning that Budbill had died was a shock. Realizing he had been dead seventeen months without my knowing felt like I had been a bad friend.
No, I didn't know the man.
I had a similar feeling when J.D. Salinger died in 2010. It was a terrible time in my life and I stood in another classroom when I learned of his death the day he died. There wasn't any guilt over having missed it, and I understood I was never going to meet or correspond with the man, but I still felt as if a friend had died.
Driving to get gas today, I passed a car like that of a neighbor whose husband died about the same time Budbill passed. Throughout her husband's cancer I kept tabs on her online and tried to be of some use. My wife had gone through cancer treatment too. She came through bald but on the mend. The neighbor's husband was taken off life support and passed into the other life. Since then, we haven't had much contact. It's as though she lives across the world instead of a block and a half away.
Yesterday, I spoke with a woman who has been through chemo and radiation and who prays she is free, that cancer won't come back to her. She asked what exact kind of cancer my wife had had. I didn't know. I probably seemed clueless, out of the loop. In many ways, I was. I simply believed nothing bad could happen. I went to appointments, sat with her for chemo, and fainted while the plastic surgeon removed stitches from her mastectomy, but I didn't pay attention to names of things or exact details. If felt like ignoring some of that might make it go away. That's a fool's philosophy, but it worked for us this time.
David Budbill has died. His last book of poetry is in paperback. I'll need to get a copy. I'll want to tell Ben because he gave Budbill to me and I eventually came to treasure that gift. Is it ridiculous that I'm grieving Budbill? I am, just as I grieved Salinger, and I hope it won't diminish the neighbor who died or his wife to say I felt similarly about that too.
I'm whistling past the graveyard here. I often have. My wife is healthy, thank heavens. I'm healthy enough to grieve a poet I met only through words on printed pages. Then again, not much brings me closer to someone than their words on a page. About the only thing, holding my wife and not letting go.