David Budbill moved to Vermont in 1969, settling in Wolcott and building a house there that he lived in for 45 years until his declining health prompted him and his wife, the painter Lois Eby, to move to a condo in Montpelier. Born in 1940 in Cleveland, Ohio, David’s colorful life included being a track star in high school, attending Union Theological Seminary in New York City, teaching at Lincoln University (a historically Black college in Pennsylvania), laboring on a Christmas tree farm, playing myriad musical instruments, working for racial and economic justice, tending a large vegetable garden, cutting his own wood, riding a mountain bike, and writing a staggering amount of creative material. David had a gift with the written word, with storytelling and with striking the heart of the matter with astonishing clarity and simplicity.
During his prolific career David authored ten books of poems, seven plays, two novels, a collection of short stories, two picture books for children, and the libretto for an opera composed by Erik Nielsen — “A Fleeting Animal,” which toured Vermont to rave reviews in 2015. David loved to write but he also loved to perform and did so in many venues — from schools and prisons in Vermont to avant-garde performance spaces in New York City — often with bassist William Parker and other musical collaborators. Garrison Keillor frequently read David’s poems on NPR’s “A Writer’s Almanac.” David was the recipient of many awards and honors in his lifetime.
Life in rural Vermont provided much of the inspiration for David’s work, be it cutting wood, putting a vegetable garden to bed, a bird’s song, or the struggles of working folks. He was keenly attuned to the world’s suffering and had a passion for social justice, particularly issues of race and class, that infused much of his work. David lived his life to the fullest — aware of his relative privilege but determined to enjoy and savor what he had, particularly the simple things: a neatly stacked woodpile, a good meal and lively conversation, a cup of tea. He lived with incredible love for this life — for humanity and for the natural world around him.
After several years of struggle with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare form of Parkinson’s Disease, David died peacefully at home on Sept. 25. He is survived by his wife, Lois, his daughter, Nadine Budbill and her partner, Mia Roethlein, and his granddaughter, Riley Budbill-Roethlein. He was predeceased by his son, Gene Budbill. In the wake of his death, his family, friends and fans are left with a profound hole but his legacy will live on, in the words he has left behind and in the indelible mark he has made on Vermont and beyond. A public event to celebrate David’s life and work is planned for 2017.
by Nadine Budbill
Some poems by David Budbill:
Sympathy for the Poor
Just because you have what you want today
doesn’t mean you will tomorrow.
On a whim you could be homeless, on the street,
out there in the cold and wind.
Better you should have some sympathy for the poor,
since you might be one of them tomorrow.
Almost all the leaves
are down. Rain.
Clouds make a fog
just above the trees.
The world colder
more empty every day.
time of year.
The Fall Almost Nobody Sees
Everybody’s gone away.
They think there’s nothing left to see.
The garish colors’ flashy show is over.
Now those of us who stay
hunker down in sweet silence,
blessed emptiness among
gold tamarack, a few
remaining pale yellow
sedge and fern in shades
from beige to darkening red
to brown to almost black,
and all of this in front of, below,
among blue-green spruce and fir
and white pine,
all of it under gray skies,
chill air, all of us waiting
in the somber dank and rain,
waiting here in quiet, chill
waiting for the snow.
Stillness, O Stillness
Low clouds and gray, cold and spitting snow,
more like the first of November than October first
except for the geese going over low all morning.
Their frantic cries of leaving fill me with a quiet joy.
The world gets emptier, more barren, and I more alone.
Stillness, O stillness, this damp calm of autumn, this
relinquishing, giving in, gray turning toward winter,
sweet melancholy, welcoming, opening, acceptance,
receiving, this embrace of the quiet and the dark.
All of Us
Out of the undifferentiated Tao
come the ten thousand things:
the bug in the bird’s mouth,
the bird in the tree,
the tree outside the window,
the window beyond the chair,
the chair in the room,
the man in the chair
who has just risen from the chair
and walked across the room
to look out the window
at the bird in the tree
with the bug in its mouth.
See how all of us,
at our own and different speeds,
return to the Tao.
Oh, let us all
sing praises now for all of us,
so briefly here.
At my desk all morning.
In the woods all afternoon.
Headed home now through the yellow light.
Yang Wan-li said,
There’s enough to eat.
Who needs a lot of money?
I’ve led a happy life
doing what I want to do.
How could I be so lucky?
“David Budbill was an alchemist. He took bits and pieces of people and through his skill with dialogue and stagecraft brought them to life. Working with him on our “A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine,” as he adapted a number of his Judevine characters and created new ones, was an absolute joy and an experience I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. The emotional depth, fleeting joys and seasonal panoply of life in Vermont contained in David’s poetry continue to inspire me and bring out my best as a composer. He was also my friend and I miss him greatly.”
–Composer Erik Nielsen
“The actors I worked with looked forward with pleasure to working with David. We came to know that he often would spend vast amounts of time at rehearsals, especially when plays were in development, listening. If a line came out “naturally” in rehearsal that differed from his written line, he could consider whether the mistake worked better than the original line, and, occasionally, change it. It didn’t happen all that often, but his ego DID allow it to happen.
Mainly, I remember his personal generosity and warmth, which helped make us all want to ensure that we got his intent right when performing his work. He was generous to actors, welcoming and appreciating their work. It always felt safe working with David. He listened, and he gave people room.”
–Bob Nuner, Montpelier, actor
“I met David Budbill in the late 1970s at a poetry reading picnic at Oakledge Park in South Burlington. He was standing on the rocks on the shore with the Adirondacks at his back speaking the words of the French Canadian logger, “Antoine.” It was a magical and revelatory experience for me, because, as a 6th generation Vermonter, I knew this man — and a poetry reading was the last place I expected to run into him. David brought all of his heart and soul and writing skill to the task of speaking in an authentic voice. The collection of characters he created in the made-up town of Judevine are so true to life they are larger than life.
Working with David and presenting his work on the stage has been one of my greatest joys. Plays come and go, but David’s work gives voice to Vermont in a way that will live forever.”
–Kim Bent, Founding Artistic Director, Lost Nation Theater
“David’s living friendship had a profound effect on my life. His death to date has affected me beyond what I might have imagined.”
“We lost a great poet, one who understood Vermont and the human condition. His poetry was accessible: sometimes raw, sometimes filled with humor. He was PoemCity’s Kick-Off Poet in April 2014. David’s message was that our society doesn’t value poets as indicated by the amount of money poets are paid. In another PoemCity offering David and Charlie Barasch reprised a poetry and fiction reading they had given in 1989 at Bear Pond Books. The reading was called, Baseball with Budbill and Barasch. I’m not sure who had more fun, the audience or David and Charlie. When the library instituted the Cabin Fever Spelling Bee, an adult spelling bee, David readily agreed to be on the Writers Team. David Budbill was generous with his time, talent and books. We will miss him.”
–Rachel Senechal, Program and Development Coordinator, Kellogg-Hubbard Library
“Central Vermont has lost a loyal friend and an important literary voice.
David Budbill wrote poetry and plays that tapped into and expressed the essence of northern Vermont so deeply that they became universal. His rural characters, Antoine, Grace, Tommy and others, are quintessential Vermonters, but they are also vivid human beings with the same sort of hopes, fears, triumphs and disappointments experienced by all of us. Likewise, his “Judevine Mountain” poems were expressions of his own life, but they continue to resonate deeply with the lives of everyone who has read and loved his poems.
In short, David’s poetry and plays accurately and profoundly depict rural Vermont — his place that is also our place. They are, in fact, universal, and will enrich the life of Vermont and the larger world forever.”
“David left us all those beautiful, plain, musical, deeply meaningful poems and plays. But we will miss his voice, his presence, his sensibility and musicality, and his attention to social justice. His generosity of spirit and his encouragement of other poets will shine as examples to those who are continuing their work. He was and is our Vermont People’s Poet.”
Books by David Budbill-