Side A Poetry Collaboration: “dear denver,” by Terence Degnan & Denver Butson

Dear New York,

For reasons unwilling to be revealed// My father is no longer with you// Grief as a tree has warned me// that I have my weapons misordered// birds come and go// willows dry// fall into the creek// Grief doesn’t follow any of these// James was killed by a falling machine// Falling grief, grief says// in the Kodak factory// Having fooled you into wondering// which end//direction// of the casket your brother was positioned// confused grief// from pall to pause// grief cheated// you being none// in the know// For a millisecond, your brother// became// a dead twitching cat// Cattail, says grief// It does not revel in being three birds// Does not take any joy// not killing the tree// A man who was not grief asked only yesterday, where he should hide his grieving from// I// thought of the child my father was as he swam the Genesee now that he was a River in Dublin// also Delaware// grief reminds you it was once a canoe// Followed the laws of nature that implore// abide// a craft of that size// only to become the hour of your brother and you// grief as canoe wonders, you knew// Caskets come ill-equipped// Sans paddles or arrows// Grief babbles// Grief as an entire navy// recruits// time, long in the tooth// Below how many// pillows has grief hid// To the man, I asked how far has grief followed// Before his mother was born// Before her first tremor whipped grief into fear// God’s rattle is in// God’s throat// Its river hung to the hull// I get the living confused// my ditches misnumbered// feathers exhumed

dear T,

I found my dead brother’s wallet in a box I picked up from storage in Pennsylvania the wallet might not have been seen by anybody else since someone probably one of my living brothers tossed it in the box over thirty years ago in the first plastic sleeve of the wallet is my dead brother’s driver’s license which was set to expire a few months after my dead brother shot himself or his wife shot him depending on how you want to imagine how that night went down

as if it matters now
how that night went down

my dead brother who would be fifty-four now is twenty-two in the driver’s license photo he doesn’t know in the photo that a few months after he stood in front of that DMV photographer and had that photo taken he would be nearly headless and certainly breathless at the bottom of the stairs of his newlywed apartment across a cornfield from the mousetrap factory and it’s good that he doesn’t know this in the photo because how else would he be smiling his lady-charming blue eyes so eager to please the stranger who said hold your chin up and look directly at me

looking at the date of issuance of the driver’s license I see that my dead brother is a brand new father in that photo and wonder if perhaps his wife and their infant son who is 35 now were waiting in the car while my dead brother was taking care of getting this license photo taken

there is a single dollar in the money section of the wallet a dollar my dead brother likely earned in the machine shop perhaps a week before his skull shrapnel pierced the ceiling tiles of his newlywed apartment or I wonder if he didn’t know where that dollar came from at all but always kept it in that wallet out of some superstition maybe or some good luck charm that an empty wallet would bring bad luck

a lot of good that did
if that’s what he believed

the wallet hasn’t been empty for the past thirty-two years and it won’t be as long as I have the wallet unless some night in a fit of inspired genius I retrieve the wallet which has been in a box in a warehouse in Pennsylvania for 32 years and now lives in a different box in the back of a closet in Brooklyn from that closet and take out the dollar as if doing so might somehow reverse what happened 32 years ago which I doubt would really be possible anyway so I probably will leave the dollar right where it is and someone else might find it in a junk shop upstate perhaps years after I myself am gone and wonder who the young man in the driver’s license photo was and what he had planned to spend that dollar on

the dollar is still crisp and looks brand new and the driver’s license photo looks like it could have been taken yesterday so absolutely alive and breathing my dead brother is in it the license itself always set to expire long after its subject had any use for it or any use for highways and roads and any use at all for smiling for the camera anymore

yours, New York

Dear Iowa,

The oaks are now cubs and nobody knows when they’ll be oaks again// I put the ghost question up to our daughter// Of course// we are ghosts// presume our avatars are trapped in the box// it hardly matters// Which begs the question// Of where our dead are and if they’re on the other side of a veiled mirror mourning us did we just dream the hospitals// Should we donate our ghost blood to ghosts who believe—like us—that they’re animated// Do our living relatives give us hints// Convincing birds to give them a turn// to perch on our hometown steeples// A cold comfort// I’ll cut this short// This whole correspondence is riddled with silence// Consonants// I’ve got bulbs that’ll never see fruition to get in the ground// I may as well be planting them in ice cream// Which some jerk once did with pistachios// How often does life ripple when you are outside of it// Wires growing into the tree// Are we// Who tolerates us// Des Moines was named after a river of monks// Everything which happened back then seems impossible// This, coming from a ghost who questions his own enlightenment

dear T.

everything that happened back then seems impossible
the way people moved so fast we see now
was recorded by moving film cameras
they ran after airplanes and airplanes lifted off the ground
and then crashed into the ground
crumpling like lampshades
everything that happened back then seems impossible
men with giant mustaches sat still for days
to have their photographs made
some died sitting that way
and the photographs which took alchemists
and magicians many more days to coax from steaming chemicals
and which were meant for sweethearts
pining away Back East while these men sought fortune
or something even more elusive comfort
became funeral portraits rather than proposals
everything that happened back then seems impossible
it took weeks to undress someone in a hurry
to get away with something you weren’t supposed to
be able to get away with in a hurry
politicians stood on actual soap boxes
and said by gum and took envelopes of cash
from men who wore spectacles at the ends
of cords around their necks
there were hangings and firing squads
there were postcards from far away
delivered long after the person who wrote them
from far away had disappeared into ether
there were hot air balloons which went up
and up and never came down
there were little girls who closed their eyes hard
and wished that they could one day go to the moon
before blowing dandelion feathers
out across the blue sky 
and little boys who snatched the dandelion skeletons
from the little girls and snuffed them into the dirt
telling them that
going to the moon was impossible
everything that happened back then seems impossible
ventriloquists slept next to their dummies
hoping their dummies would be able
to remember their dreams for them
impossible everything back then that happened seems
ice was delivered by ice trucks
beer was delivered by beer trucks
mail was delivered by whistling men
with sideburns
who held nearly transparent envelopes up to the sun
to see if they could read what was written inside
while nobody was looking
and what was written inside that they couldn’t see
was everything that happens right now
will seem impossible
one day impossibly far from right now



Dear Vermont,

In the city of the Golden Dome, there are no Golden Arches// I thought you should know that// You’ve got nothing on paradise, though// With its golden on-ramps and thunderings// When we cornered the East River, it was as if we’d trapped a feral devil and had no plan at all/ My old man was newly dead and no king’s lotion was putting him back together again// My first thought was to jackknife from the tsunami stones and swim out past the tugboats// It was only you standing there with my beard growing into wheat that cemented me// I must’ve looked like one of your tortured scarecrows// Talon-cussed and buttony// I’ve developed a nomenclature and learning to play the harpsichord isn’t looking good// Essential// The medical adjective for my tremor is wrong-headed// By the time this reaches you, they’ll have implanted a seismograph just below the surface of my epidermis// Would that I attempt a sip// from a sacred grail, I should die of wit// I should// say that I was on a swim team, rubber hats and all// Though it’s been proven we cannot run from grief, Nobody has yet to attempt the butterfly// Nobody should get a metal// Nobody birds// There was one soldiering up the pilings// You said it was your brother// I plucked a feather from his hat and called it fletching// Vermont, are we ghosts// Are your ears downwind// I have a golden tremor// My other senses are allergic to each other// When you said you buried five bullets for the exercise// I heard the sound of dandelions// Paratroopers// The river, baaing through the bed

dear t,

nobody birds the sky
the sky it must be said
cannot be birded
not by the likes of us
always trying to make
something out of what
it is not nobody
birds the sky
the wing-sliced
the tail-swept sky
nobody birds it
no matter how much
we wish that bones
might unbleach
their moon-bleached
no matter how much we
wish that flesh
might un-slide off
what were once faces
what once spoke
to us
what once asked us
to love them

nobody birds the sky

and I see you
the slurs of your
obscene longings
the longing of
your slurring obscenities

nobody birds nobody birds

I see you
your broken promises
and raise you
my longing for
one promised thing
yet unbroken
by you
nobody birds

yours, Vermont

Mini-interview with Terence Degnan & Denver Butson

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as collaborators (or continues to)?

TD: There are moments when these poems, letters, subconscious blurts, become variances and the audience isn’t only me, not only Denver, but a subset of readers who grieve, themselves. It felt like a chorus at times, including some ghosts. I know that sounds insane, but I was also addressing the freshly departed and the ether it/they entered. And if we’re making a musical comparison, I was always surprised when Denver improvised and I was able to know what notes to play next and vice/versa. I’m a fan of Denver’s poems, so when something blended, it made good sounds. To me.

DB: When Terence told me he was doing this, writing poems to me through these various states, I thought it might be one of those things (I’ve started many of them myself) that happens for a moment and then it’s done. But then all these poems started coming … definitely in Terence’s voice but with new energy and less interference from Terence himself, if that makes sense, and though I still don’t know how I’m going to respond to each individual poem until I start responding, I feel the need now to respond to all of them.

HFR: What are you reading?

DB: Since the pandemic started, I have been constantly reading novels – some on my own, some simultaneously with my daughter in our own little book club. Recently I read a few novels by Dinaw Mengastew, the stunningly poetic The Gangster We are All Looking For by lê thị diễm thúy, and Gary Shteyngart’s hilarious and timely Our Country Friends. And, short stories by Tatyana Tolstoya, Richard Bausch, and Lydia Davis. I haven’t been reading too much poetry, but when I do recently it’s been Anne Carson, John Yau, and Nathaniel Mackey. 

TD: I’m reading The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, Collected Poems by Jim Harrison, Lanny by Max Porter, The White Album by Joan Didion. I’m also reading a hundred books currently open on various flat spaces. For work, I’m reading Irish myths, but only skimming them so I can break their spells and return them back to their childhoods. I’m hoping to create an Irish tarot with the playwright Erin Courtney, but she is busy as shit. My favorite mythological creatures right now are the Half-eater: a faerie who eats half of your food, and the Dobhar-chú (otter dog): because how stupid. 

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “dear denver,”?

TD: My dad died and I returned to Brooklyn. I was sitting in an office Denver and I share and the blank stare on my face prompted Denver to suggest we go for a walk. When we neared one of his favorite spots near the East River, Denver noticed a bird singled out on a pylon, which was jetting out into the river. A little to himself, and a lot to me, he said, “Every time. Every time there’s one by itself, it’s my dead brother.” The first “dear denver” was a note of appreciation for that moment. Then I wrote some more. A third of the way, the responses started coming.

HFR: What’s next? Are you working on another collaboration?

DB: We both have books coming out soon. Mine is The Scarecrow Alibis, poems about a real or imagined or an imagined and real scarecrow, who has been dogging me since 2011. I have another book that I’m really excited about and shopping around that is a “guidebook” or annotations and marginalia, about a hypothetical history of knife throwers. We are still working on this collaboration, but who knows what might happen with another one.

TD: I have a book called I Can Wonder Anything lined up in the queue, but I have yet to learn its publishing date. February has been floated. This set of poems will be finished, and I suppose I’ll look for a publisher. That’s the natural course of things. I’ll plant some butterfly bushes during the next thaw. I will eat potatoes. 

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

DB: Nothing matters—not poems, not political action, not any single social issue (as much as they DO matter)—if we don’t collectively, selfishly, and selflessly, and directly sacrifice our comfort and the comfort of billionaires to address climate change. Nothing else matters because when we no longer have a habitable planet, we will no longer inhabit it.

TD: I am disappointed in us, but not to the point of fatalism. Being a poet during the apocalypse is like skywriting at night. Oftentimes, you don’t see the point but maybe today some kid will read one and the day won’t be as total shit. Eating the rich is still on the table.

Terence Degnan has published two full-length books of poetry. His newest collection, I Can Wonder Anything (Finishing Line, 2023), is forthcoming. He is a co-director at the Camperdown Organization which was created to increase access to publication and education as well as promote agency for underrepresented writers.

Denver Butson has published four books of poetry—triptych (The Commoner Press, 1999), Mechanical Birds (St. Andrews Press, 2000), illegible address (Luquer Street Press, 2004), and the sum of uncountable things (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015). His fifth book, the alibis of scarecrows, appeared on Deadly Chaps Press in 2022.

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