When I couldn’t find my writing desk for two years,
you offered to leave. Only if it would break my heart.
I reminded you I don’t get off on tragedy anymore.
And we both believed me until I could not stop crying.
I am so homesick, my love,
but not for anything on this Earth.
from “A Stay-Okay Box”
Reading A Choir of Honest Killers was a deeply personal experience for me. I have known Buddy Wakefield, in some capacity or another, for thirteen years. And perhaps that makes me unqualified to review his latest book. I don’t know. I like to believe that I can be objective in my analysis, but the truth is that I’m not sold on the need for objectivity when it comes to poetry, and I’m especially unsure that this book, of all the books I’ve read this year, even allows for objectivity. What I mean is, Buddy has given us such a raw and vulnerable look into every part of him and, by expressed invitation, ourselves. This is less a collection and more a journey. I know that sounds cliche, or hokey, or both. I don’t care, and I don’t think Buddy would, either.
First things first, let’s acknowledge that A Choir of Honest Killers is not a conventional poetry collection. Yes, some of the pieces included are clearly poems. Yes, Buddy includes many of the newest in a long line of signature poems, such as “Riled Up and Wasted on Light” and “Farmly.” But Buddy has also included a number of prose entries, ranging in style from prose poetry to diary entry. Sometimes, these entries contextualize a poem that follows; other times, the entries are full-bodied confessions that will not be muddled with metaphor. I hate the term genre-bending, so instead I’ll say that this book is genre-blending. There are moments of epistolary and journal, of memoir and monologue. Through all of it, Buddy’s voice resonates as clearly as it ever has. I could hear him read every word in his trademark cadence.
The most surprising thing, for me, is that as strong as Buddy’s voice is in the collection, as familiar and welcoming as the cadence is, A Choir of Honest Killers offers a version of Buddy that, to date, has been remarkably hard to come by. He is more honest than he has ever been, walking readers through a devastating doctor’s appointment in “Tetris” and pulling the curtain back on that old lie, Danny Oliver, in “Killing Danny Oliver.” Buddy writes, just after revealing himself to be Danny Oliver, the face-forward booking agent crafted to allow Buddy to navigate negotiations with venues and organizers, that “Danny Oliver was pretending he was not living in crippling grief. Now I just let people know it’s me.” This grief permeates much of the collection, and Buddy shares several visceral moments of suicidal ideation, but it does not define it. As I’m sure Buddy’s fans will guess, what best defines this book is healing.
Buddy has oft acknowledged that “healing is a wounded word.” Despite all the baggage that comes with that word, it is most appropriate here. A Choir of Honest Killers is about healing, and it invites the readers to allow themselves a bit of healing, too. If the first step in healing is to acknowledge that there is a problem, Buddy puts his best foot forward from the start. Early entries address his part in the collapse of his storied relationship with Steve, the lingering impacts of toxic masculinity and, yes, the now famous spiral that stemmed from a planned retreat with Ani DiFranco and a southern plantation. Buddy lets us see his self-righteous refusal to drink alcohol even while high on crystal meth and the dozens upon dozens of men he fell into during his world tour.
It would be easy for this collection to descend into self-pity, for the author to cast himself as a victim and await the outpouring of love from fans that would surely follow. But Buddy has grown, as a writer and as a human being. That much is clear in the way he frames the book with entries that employ “I learned” as anaphora, first in the fallout of Ani DiFranco’s retreat and later as an open letter about the process of writing the book. One of the things Buddy comes away with is this:
I learned that devastation has been easy to find in common with others. I learned to understand the network of lives playing into our capabilities, and the politics in play as well. I learned to walk with those who are moving from dark to light, and from light to light. I learned that humans are the masters of limitation.
This encapsulates the mentality that drives the second half of the book, the part after a particularly important “release of all hope for a better past” (“Hurling Crowbirds at Mockingbars” does not appear in A Choir of Honest Killers, but this quote is profoundly tied to Buddy’s journey). Buddy has a breakthrough during a vipassana retreat, followed by some much-needed time at the home of 100% friend Andrea Gibson. The rest of the book is infused with grace and mercy, both for himself and for those with whom he has shared his journey.
And that’s what sets it apart. It is not just a book of confessions, but of acceptance that we can be beautiful and flawed and problematic and good, that the only thing we ought to require of ourselves is the permission to be fully human. Buddy no longer apologizes for fucking things up. It is enough that he is, daily, learning to be better. He encourages us to do the same. I can’t speak for anyone else, but walking with Buddy in A Choir of Honest Killers was uncomfortable and triggering for me, but I came out the other side with a little more space in my chest for breath. I needed this walk, and I’m grateful that he took me along.
Purchase your copy of A Choir of Honest Killers from Write Bloody Publishing.