Disaster on Buttermilk Creek

On a long walk I cross the eastern bridge
over Buttermilk Creek, the flat slow brown
water moving below, and above the edge
of the far bank, I stop. I’m looking down

on widely scattered colorful stuffed animals
and dolls dumped in attitudes of death,
face down in slick mud shaded by willows
or sprawled with gaping mouths of comic teeth

and googly eyes wide open to the sun
and the hollow sky. A cartoon plane wreck—but
something has really crashed. These are lost ones,
betrayed by rage or someone growing up.

A hand took them away from home and chucked
them into the rank mud of Buttermilk Creek.

© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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18 Responses to Disaster on Buttermilk Creek

  1. bryon says:

    What a scene! Quel désastre! Such powerful images and stark, moving phrases. The almost lazy first quartet setting the scene offers no hint of the carnage to come. The second quartet remedies that ever so sharply, and it’s all downhill from there: “something has really crashed” and “betrayed by rage or someone growing up.”

    As a middle-aged man who still smiles politely at the stuffed animals in the stores, I find this heartbreaking. And a wonderful poem.

  2. Julie says:

    Exquisite imagery. Beautiful setting. Perfect ending couplet. Nice placement of periods. I’m not understanding the rhythm. Some iambic pentameter, and some not. Is there something I’m missing? Also, I always just called it Buttermilk Creek. [Fixed. Thanks! See reply below. -gb] Did you add the possessive for some reason, or is what you call it?

    • Greg Bryant says:

      I think I shouldn’t have called it a “sonnet.” It is, but that term makes people expect regular iambic pentameter and stricter rhyme than I’ve used here. I have a lot of slant rhymes, half rhymes, feminine rhymes… and as for the meter, it’s very free. Like Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, this style of meter (I don’t know what it’s called) is governed by a certain number of stresses per line (five, though, not four), and not very close attention to the number of unaccented syllables in between. So a line like:

      over Buttermilk’s Creek, the flat slow brown

      would be stressed like:

      _   _   /   _   _   /   _   /      /      /

      …a sort of pentameter, but not iambic: instead, two anapests, an iamb, and a trochee spondee. You might say four feet, but I count five the way I read it. [I can’t find a name for a single strong syllable that is spoken so slowly it is a foot in itself, occupying the interval of two syllables. There should be such a term; there are two of them at the end of the line quoted above. -gb] When I say it’s “governed” by five stresses per line, I mean if you read it with the idea of looking for five stresses and fairly natural expressive modulation, you’ll probably come up with what I intended.

      This is ironic! I’m the guy who writes overly structured stuff like “Our Town Is Not Dying,” self-consciously aware of how old-fashioned and jingly it is, especially knowing that it may be read by really skilled writers of free verse like yourself. Ha!

      Barbara Babcock told me once that the creek was named after a man whose nickname was Buttermilk, so it was actually called “Buttermilk’s Creek.” She said he was a possibly mentally handicapped guy whom people might find sitting at their kitchen table when they got home, asking them for a glass of buttermilk. Barbara may have been pulling my leg. Or I may have misremembered. Coincidentally, Susan brought home an 1887 plat map of Robinson Township tonight for some unrelated purpose, and the tributary in question is labeled “Buttermilk Branch.”

      Think I should change it?

    • Greg Bryant says:

      I remembered the name of what I’m doing: “sprung rhythm,” coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “But Hopkins went further than Whitman in trying to notate his poems as a sort of musical score. The sonnet form is twisted and pulled by the rhythm–what Hopkins called Sprung Rhythm (every foot begins with a stressed syllable, and the unstressed syllables, of variable number, are crowded together so that each foot takes exactly the same amount of time to pronounce)” (Albright). There’s a good PDF I don’t have time to read. You’ll find it if you google this line:

      sprung rhythm site:edu harvard

      Pick the one called “[PDF] Modernist Poetic Form.”

    • Greg Bryant says:

      Okay so based on Julie’s question and the 1887 map I changed it to Buttermilk Creek. Feels right to me. The possessive was distracting, anyway.

    • Greg Bryant says:

      And now I’ve been tinkering with the meter. I’m glad you brought this up, because it really did limp and stumble here and there. Maybe still does.But I think it’s better.

  3. bryon says:

    I see why you rewrote “jetsam” into the poem; it makes good sense and I might well have used it myself. I miss “betrayed,” though. I think betrayed lends a little more universality to the poem, taking it beyond the immediate fact of stuffed animals and dolls and into the broader human realm of the people we hurt and cast off and betray in rage or because we believe we’ve outgrown them. [Thank you. I changed it back. More changes pending in-person discussion with both of you. -gb]


  4. Julie says:

    The other thing I was going to talk to you about was the physical movement in the poem. To see what I mean look at the movement of the child in Whitman’s poem. (http://www.bartleby.com/142/103.html) Notice how when he’s little, the child sees things close to him and as he grows, he walks and sees in an ever widening arc.

    I’m looking at the movement in your poem, because you’ve done some beautiful work.
    You are walking in the first stanza and the water is moving slow and you come to a full stop, which feels as if you’re looking over the face of a metaphorical cliff, and mimics how starkly and unexpectedly death attacks. Perfection. Do nothing else with this stanza.

    The second stanza naturally progresses to the grave. You’re (as are we, the readers) standing beside the grave, looking down at the carnage, just as we look down in submission to death/God/overwhelming trauma/trouble. Brilliant.

    The third stanza has eyes staring up, way up, at the sun and moves our vision to the sky with the plane image. Fantastic! …Then, I’m not sure, it feels like the third stanza is not quite finished. I agree with Bryon about putting the word betrayal back. [I changed it back. More changes pending in-person discussion with both of you. -gb] Who betrays us? God? Time? A person? Ourselves? Or is it not betrayal, but a loss of innocence? Or is it both? These are the questions I’m asking of the poem at this point, and the third stanza is where the knife needs to twist into the final couplet.

    And, by the way, this is very fine work. Almost ready to pop into a Norton Anthology or submit to the New Yorker. I AM NOT BEING OVERLY GENEROUS, EITHER, GREG, JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE MY FRIEND. When I’m being overly generous, I don’t say anything at all :-)!

    • Greg says:

      Thank you for the compliment, and especially for helping me understand the more universal meanings of this poem. Your comments — both of you — help me see the poem through the eyes of good readers, articulating themes that are pretty fuzzy for me, and other themes that I look at as opportunities to add depth I hadn’t expected.

      I’ll work on this. These are subtle points that imply more than casual word changes. “Movement” is a great concept here. It’s the physical image and it can’t be ignored. And the idea of who is betrayed, and by whom, has never crystallized for me, partly because I’m puzzled about how those dolls got there. They’re really there, you know. This poem started with a real observation. Since then, Susan has seen two other such “disasters” in different locations. I have to ignore that because it’s even more confusing.

    • Greg Bryant says:

      As I read the poem today it seems to me that there’s a problem of focus in lines 11 and 12:

                     These are lost ones,
      betrayed by rage or someone growing up.

      The problem is, “lost” and “betrayed” pull in two directions. “Lost” suggests the loss is someone else’s — someone lost a brother, daughter, parent in the wreck. It focuses on a different victim, a gentler damage. I want to emphasize the damage to the dolls, and by implication, real violence to the souls who used to own them. What do you think of this change?

                     These are the ones
      betrayed by rage or someone growing up.

      I want to discuss this in real life, though. I like the resonance you two have brought to this and want to include it and bring it out.

  5. bryon says:

    The change from “These are lost ones” to “These are the ones” is fine; I don’t think you can go wrong with either. I don’t have the same sense of the word “lost” you refer to, though. For me, “lost” is still describing the casualties, not in the sense of an accidental loss but in the sense of that next line: betrayed or abandoned. Or perhaps even “lost” in a religious sense: of not knowing where one belongs, of not belonging. or bewilderment (tossed into the wild without map, compass, friend, or hope). I’ll be interested to see what Julie — and perhaps others in NEKWE — think.

  6. Greg Bryant says:

    Okay, Bryon and Julie, try this on for the sestet:

    and googly eyes wide open to the sun
    and hollow cobalt sky. There is no sound,
    no vapor trail, no crumpled cartoon plane,
    but something must have crashed. These are lost ones,
    betrayed by rage or growing older, chucked
    here in the rank mud of Buttermilk Creek.

    I need feedback on this. I can hardly hear this poem any more.

  7. bryon says:

    I really like the new language. I miss the line “A hand took them away from home,” though. I miss that human agency in the disaster at the creek, the ripping away from the love and safety of home. But I certainly don’t know where to put it back in. The new sestet is tighter and tauter; it takes the reader the same places but does so wish a sharper edge. I do think this is nearing perfection.

  8. Greg Bryant says:

    Here’s an edit that gets back that line, which I admit I hated losing, and also eliminates something that felt wordy to me and sort of directionless. This takes us almost back to the original except that it holds the gaze on the empty sky longer, as Julie suggested:

    …and googly eyes wide open to the sun
    and hollow cobalt sky. No vapor trail,
    but something must have crashed. These are lost ones,
    betrayed by rage or someone growing up.

    A hand took them away from home and chucked
    them into the rank mud of Buttermilk Creek.

    Actually I think I might like this. It doesn’t feel like bullshit to me. I guess that’s something.

  9. Greg Bryant says:

    Except, of course, “trail” and “up” aren’t even half-rhymes, and I wanted to have a sort of sonnet. Still working on this.

  10. Greg Bryant says:

    While I’m proliferating drafts in the comments section, here’s one that’s different from the original only in the second line below.

    …and googly eyes wide open to the sun
    and hollow sky. A cartoon plane wreck? But
    something has really crashed. These are lost ones,
    betrayed by rage or someone growing up.

    A hand took them away from home and chucked
    them into the rank mud of Buttermilk Creek.

    This is tedious. Don’t feel like you have to remark on this unless something comes to mind you really want to say. I’m just working out the problems here.

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