National Poetry Month: BJ Buckley

I first encountered B.J. Buckley’s work one of the times when I was a judge for the Poetry Super Highway annual contest. I love this poem “Butter” and am pleased to feature it this year on my blog. 

Do you have any childhood memories connected to food? Does anyone not? Bread and butter are intimately linked to my memories of childhood happiness, specifically watching the homemade pita loaves puff up in the oven as they finished baking, and then spreading butter on them so soon it melted while the knife was still spreading it. That smell is still, to me, the scent of joy.

Butter

The cats are on the table licking butter
from my supper of stale discount bread,
whole grain loaf passed over in this whitebread
town. It’s nearly Christmas, and this memory
from childhood – December and real butter
in defiance of the lack of cheese or meat.
My father never shook the dust of Ellis Island
from his shoes. Year’s end he pinched
so on the Holy Morning we’d have oranges
in the toes of our stockings and nuts in their shells,
almonds and walnuts and filberts, Brazil nuts
and pecans, and ribbon candy made by the Cockney
man who had a tiny grocery, Greek cookies from
Mrs. Panopoulous whose first son had ended his own
life years before my sister and I were ever born.

My father drank his coffee half milk and so much
sugar that even we with our Irish sweet tooths
could barely get it down. I know from letters he wrote
to Bridie, sister left behind and never married,
that he longed for fish from the Shannon where it met
the sea, for Kerry butter, which you find now
in every market as if it were nothing special.
Those December dinners of whole wheat
thick spread with yellow are what I most remember,
more than the scrimped-for ham and sweet potatoes,
black olives and cranberry sauce in cut glass dishes,
the good silver hidden all year under my parents’ bed,
next to the string-tied shoebox with the captured
leprechaun from the Old Country and the suitcase
of graying photographs, the loved and lost
whose names were faded as their faces.

The cats are licking delicately their soft paws,
their pretty whiskers, cleaning their foreheads
and their ears. They smell of kibble-fish
and Kerry butter, of milk and wheat, a scent like
the hands of my father, making us our suppers
in the solstice dark, and then his thin clear tenor
that sang us off to sleep.

                                          at Yuletide, 2019

***

B.J. Buckley is a Montana poet and writer who has worked in Arts-in-Schools/Communities programs throughout the West and Midwest for over 45 years in schools, libraries, hospitals, senior centers and homeless shelters. Her work has appeared in Whitefish Review, ellipsis, Sugar House Review, December, Sequestrum, About Place Journal, The Comstock Poetry Review, and many others. Her book Corvidae, Poems of Ravens, Crows, and Magpies, with woodcut illustrations by Dawn Senior-Trask, came out from Lummox Press 2014. Her most recent work, the chapbook In January, the Geese, won the 35th Anniversary Comstock Review Chapbook Prize. Visit her website here.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 16: B.J. Buckley

This is another poem that I first read while judging last year’s Poetry Super Highway contest. It’s a marvelous example of a myth poem, or a poem which performs ekphrasis in response to a story or character from mythology. Diana the Hunter shows up in a few places in modern literature; possibly my favorite reference to her is Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy which begins with A Discovery of Witches.

I love the character of Diana the Hunter and the way Buckley characterizes her here: agencied, powerful, unapologetic, vivid and unafraid and embracing. She has the same verve as Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, who howls of Claudio, “O God, that I were a man! I / would eat his heart in the marketplace.”

But Diana isn’t filled with heartbroken sorrow for her cousin’s unfair misfortune and its resulting vengeful fury.

Buckley’s Diana knows from an early age the full scope of life and death and her place in that cycle, and she operates within it with extraordinary clarity and confidence.

Diana in Autumn

I am not afraid to say I live by blood.
Before that red flow gushed
from my own belly
I was a swimmer elbow-deep
in the carcasses of deer,
I ripped breath’s tunnel
from a slit throat,
used all my strength
against the weight
of a stomach full of grass
and alder shoots.
I held a heart, still beating,
in my hand,
took with soft lips
from the blade of my father’s knife
that slice of liver, hot and raw,
my first communion.
Before my breasts bloomed
I had burned bodies,
torn flesh from bones,
howled the mad wild joy of it.
Eden is closed,
and I in every ruddy leaf
am Fallen.
I love the incense of decay,
the deer,
this dust we are
and were and will be,
the arrow singing slaughter
in my hand.

***

B.J. Buckley is a Montana poet and writer who has worked in Arts-in-Schools/Communities programs throughout the West and Midwest for over 45 years in schools, libraries, hospitals, senior centers and homeless shelters. Her work has appeared in Whitefish Review, ellipsis, Sugar House Review, December, Sequestrum, About Place Journal, The Comstock Poetry Review, and many others. Her most recent book is Corvidae, Poems of Ravens, Crows, and Magpies, with woodcut illustrations by Dawn Senior-Trask, Lummox Press 2014.