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Book Review: 39 Poems by Charles Butler

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Reading through Charles Butler’s 39 Poems (No Shirt Press) brought to mind Hitchcock’s movie, The 39 Steps because each poem stretches the reader and the page towards the next poem and set of steps without explaining where he is going. Also the poems on the pages of the book are laid out in emulation of climbing up and down steps so that while reading I felt like I was skipping steps. Each poem relates to life’s struggles: the various ways love affects us and how meaningful respect is. The poet writes about everyday things moving us up and down steps lyrically and emotionally.

Butler describes how one can be oblivious to a murder and walk across bloodstains on our big city streets without recognizing them in the book’s first poem, “Crimson Stroll.” Suddenly while stepping over the red brown stains, the author recognizes it for what it is, seeing a stark vivid beauty of someone’s life bled out on the streets.

Someone’s life bled out
At your feet
Think on it
Times you bled
Times you made others bleed
Look on it
Big dark path on 8th ave
Brooklyn side
in your way

look on it
the fuel that moves us all
dried out on a dirty sidewalk
who bled …

are they dead
look at it
a dark stain
it’s almost…
beautiful
a bit of Canada flashes up your neck
and ears
back in the world you move around it
and move on
wishing for cold rain
to wash away the stain human sin
most of all
your own

We’re all here – all human and suffering – and this is the grist for this author to describe how we’re all the same and different at the same time, but he wants to show us that we have the capacity to be and do more that drives us and of course this is what drives this poet to create poetry. The stains our lives create must contain beauty; otherwise, why do we exist? Butler’s struggle is to align himself with the humanity in all of us, despite the murder the chaos, the beauty the differences between rich and poor, black and white, and he struggles with it all, climbing up and down, retreating and coming to terms with wrongs and rights and even the grays and imperfections.

The problem is that our climbing stretching and reaching is never done. You go up you descend and then you begin all over again because that’s the way life is, it’s never done until you’re done – or dead and gone, is more like it – or if you’re a quitter. Butler is no quitter and no matter how far down he’s gone – he bounces back to reexamine his roots and the course of his life, fighting to stay in touch with his spiritual side. This spiritual side is at the root of Butler’s talent, as he controls his anger hurt and humiliation when he’s experienced racism. For any of you who have never experienced racism, normal is a good place to start to understand what it’s about when you get stopped on the street because of the color of your skin.

nature of the beast
now
I’m not gonna say I’ve lost
count o’the many times I’ve been blackstopped
but
it’s more than a few
remember
I’m 16
walkin’ on a bed-stuy street
goin’ noplace fast
blue n’ white rolls up on me
unis pile out …
nicely they ask me if I’m carryin’
a gun
nicely I say no
nicely
they ask if I would submit
to a search
mind you they don’t have
to ask me
a goddamn thing
and they know it
I know it
An’ the brother
watchin’ this
who wishes right now
he was
someplace else
knows
it
nicely
I say
go ahead

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