Four Poems by Dan Butler

A Picnic in Golden Gate Park

Sunny, shirts off, he newly moved
to San Francisco, me at the end of
a solo cross-country bike trip, we’re
making out on a blanket in the midst
of kids playing, families and friends
having a good time. I’ve never kissed
a man like this, outside, among other
people, but he seems so comfortable
that I follow his lead, amazed how it
feels so easy, natural, sublime.

And now he tells me he felt the very
same thing, that he’d been raised never
to show affection of any kind in public.
And I laugh, ‘So I was leading you?’
We’re on the phone, connected for
the first time in 40 years, reliving that
day. “You were so fucking cute” he says,
the thickness of his Minnesota accent
surprising me, the memory of his beauty
still bowling me over. “An elderly couple
was on the bench beside us,” he says,
and the gratitude, realizing that this day
was as indelible for him as it has been for
me all these years, is beyond words.

And I still can feel the brush of his leg on
the back of mine, momentous and ordinary,
40 years ago and now at the same time,
basking in the newfound happiness of being
more completely me.


Father Son Talk

My mom and dad dated again
after their second spouses died,
some 30 years after their divorce,
and they’d call me up giving their
versions of how it went. I could
only utter single syllables like
‘oh,’ ‘wow,’ ‘good,’ the kinds of
words I was trained to use on the
suicide prevention line where you’re
urged to never challenge any of the
callers’ delusional voices they might
be dealing with. Dad had all these
plans for their future while mom
was reminded why they had split up
in the first place. He was excited, she
found herself getting depressed.
The dating only lasted a few months
when mom finally called it off and
afterwards every time I’d visit, dad
would pour over conspiracy theories
of who had poisoned her thoughts
against him. “It was all going so well,”
he’d repeat and I’d mostly nod, try
to steer the topic off in another direction,
avoid giving advice or hurting him further,
thinking of all the plans, romantic and
otherwise, that hadn’t turned out even
near the place I’d intended. ‘Sometimes
there isn’t a reason, dad. Things just
don’t work out.’ And we drive in silence
for a while, on our way to Smokey Bones
for a little barbeque, corn fields spreading
out forever on either side of the interstate,
silos standing sentinel in the distance.


Mom in the Nursing Home

          Where or When – from “Babes in Arms” by Rodgers and Hart

I sit by her wheelchair. We listen to a jazz duet
entertaining the memory unit. She’s all smiles.
The keyboardist is me and I’m a guy hitting on her.
When we’ve held hands, it’s been a death grip; now
it’s soft, intimate. Her Estee Lauder is all for “me.”

          And so it seems that we have met before
          and laughed before and loved before
          but who knows where or when?

She’ll know me again in the morning, but for now
it’s getting late, so I kiss her goodbye on the cheek
and tell her that I’ll see her tomorrow. Pleased, she
fixes me with a look I’ve never seen before and asks,
“And what’s going to happen then?”


Early December Farm Breakfast with my Grandpa, 1962

Why do I keep coming back to this kitchen?
What dark nourishment do I seek?
I sit at the oil-cloth covered table watching him
fix breakfast, the meal I’ve watched him make
a million times before.

The grease sizzles and pops in the cast iron skillet,
smelling of smokehouse and slaughter. He has
his back to me, focused on the task at hand.
The eggs are hard for him to break. He tries to
work the arthritis out, opening and closing his
thickly calloused hands that smell of lava soap
and work, a life of work. He takes turns rubbing
each hand, trying to bring life back. Useless,
useless, he whispers, as if I’m not even there.
He leans against the counter near where his
cane is hooked, near where his birthday cake
sits, barely eaten though it’s apricot, his favorite.
He wears faded bib overalls and flannel to keep
the December chill out. He’s kept the heat off
because it costs dear. He’s a man of few words,
but I wish he’d talk to me. It’s all on his terms.

Outside it’s dark, down in the coal mines dark.
Inside too. Eggs sunny side up, though the sun
won’t be up for a good while now and he won’t
be here to see it. The ground outside the breezeway
waits, as does the hunting rifle. Ground he plowed
and planted and harvested, all grey corn stubble now.

Breakfast made, he places a plate over it to keep it
warm. He’s not hungry. Down the hall, Uncle Bob,
who will find him, dreams of robbers. And as Grandpa
makes his way out of the room toward the inevitable –
a smile on his face, something I didn’t expect – he turns
to look at me. He sees me, years older than he was then.
And he leaves. Again.


Dan Butler is known primarily as an actor whose credits include major roles On and Off Broadway, on television, and film where he has also written, directed, and produced. In 2011, Dan adapted and directed a screen version of Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s verse poem “Pearl” starring Francis Sternhagen and himself which had a great life on the film festival circuit. In addition to being published in ONE ART last April, Dan’s poems have been seen on the Poetry of Resilience site, on the “Commissary,” a creative artist’s collective, as well as in the anthology “The Paths to Kindness: Poems of Connection and Joy” edited by James Crews.

Two Poems by Dan Butler

Let Me Lay One On You

That’s dad’s signal that he’s about to tell a joke,
usually something racist, though my sister and I
have told him a million times we wish he wouldn’t.
“Two black guys fishing in a boat – ” and we’re off!
I look to Richard, who pastes a smile on his face.
I warned him this might happen. We’re standing
in the parking lot at Cracker Barrel, dad’s choice
for breakfast. And we’d almost made it to the car.
“- and one of them gets bit on his penis by a rattlesnake.”
Every part of that sentence defies logic, but I let it go.
I know the joke – the unbit fisherman races to a doctor,
explains the situation, omitting the specific location of
the bite, and the doctor tells him to make an “X” on the
fang marks and suck out the poison. And I wonder why
on earth dad chose this joke to tell his gay son and his
son’s partner at their introductory breakfast? Is he really
that unaware? Or maybe he’s just nervous and this is his
way of coping with it. Or – could this be dad’s attempt to
say it’s okay that I love another man, that this is my life,
and why can’t the three of us share a little laugh together
to mark the moment? And whether that’s true or not,
I realize that it still matters that this man – who I have often
made a joke – accepts me. And dad says “So the guy gets
back to the boat, his friend says ‘So what’d the doctor say?!’
And he says “He said you’re gonna DIE!” And dad gives us each
a clap on the back and saunters off, jingling his car keys happily
in his hand. And we climb into our rental car and just sit there,
staring straight ahead. Then we turn to one another and say,
“And why were they black?”



It’s the quarry beach and the air is all
Coppertone and the top 20 countdown
blasting over the snack bar speakers;
there are corn dogs and sno-cones
and the jabber and squeeze of people
sunning on every side of us.

I’ve never seen Michael with his shirt off.
He always seemed so student council
and swing choir, but there he is stretched
out on one elbow with his squinty smile
and his Submariner stomach and all I can
do is keep cracking jokes.

And then we’re holding hands
and everything feels like church.
Everyone on shore stands looking at us,
a chain of us, walking slowly through
the shallows toward the bobbing buoys,
searching for the drowning boy, the only sound
the steady dribble coming off the end of the big slide.
And as the water inches up my chest, I shiver
thinking of brushing up against something
beneath the surface.

Later, on land, we watch them bring him
to shore like they’re teaching him to walk.
He’s skinny, in bright floral trunks, eyes shut,
not a boy like I’d imagined, but hovering
somewhere between boy and man – hovering
there forever now – for when they lower him
to the wet, foot-printed sand, his limbs go
every which way like a puppet cut loose.
And I feel Michael wrap his towel around
his girlfriend from behind. And I watch
the lifeguard kneel to kiss the young man’s lips.
And all I can do is keep cracking jokes.


Dan Butler is known primarily as an actor whose credits include major roles On and Off Broadway, on television, and film where he has also written, directed, and produced. In 2011, Dan adapted and directed a screen version of Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s verse poem “Pearl” starring Francis Sternhagen and himself which had a great life on the film festival circuit.