The 33-year-old graduate of Cleveland State Community College said the recent tragedy became the inspiration to share his personal experience with close friends who suffered loss on that fateful day.
“Family friends of mine — Katie and Wade Butzer — lost their home completely,” Downes said. “Coming from Florida, I’ve experienced lots of hurricanes and seen their destruction. It always aches you.
“When I went to what was (Katie and Wade’s) home and to literally be in a neighborhood untouched one moment and then to cross over to the next street and it appears as though a war has been raging for years — it changes your field of perspective.
“I spent some time working with them — digging through the rubble. Katie was keeping it together but she appeared to be in shock.”
Downes’ tragedy-inspired poem, “People’s Lives Fell Into the Sky,” was dedicated to his close friends who lost everything but found shoulders to lean on and love in abundance.
According to Downes, a student of literature and poetry, it was around the middle of high school when he first displayed a partiality toward poetry, although his mother recently presented him with an envelope full of his earlier writings in elementary school — material which he had forgotten and surprised even him.
“It was full of my writings from creative writing classes,” he said. “It was a total surprise that I had done that much writing as a youth. I have them from kindergarten through the fourth grade. Some of the little stories I read out loud. It was very amusing to see I could not spell the words I was using but they were the right words and pretty advanced.”
Downes said both his parents were teachers who impressed upon him and his three siblings the importance of education and knowledge. But Downes was not interested in maintaining the status quo of pursuing a career and a “normal life.”
“I’ve always blazed my own path,” he said. “When I left high school in 1995 in Florida, I decided I wasn’t really interested in going to college — at least for a while, because I wanted to live in the real world and work.
“It was in this ‘real’ living that you come to realize you don’t pull as much weight as you do with your family. That’s part of the stage, I think, where if you really want to be a poet or a writer, you have to make a very real decision — if you would continue to do this without recognition or support.”
Looking back on when poetry captured and enraptured him to the point that it became a form of expression he could not live without, Downes took a retrospective look at the year that proved to be his turning point.
“Around my junior year is when I started dabbling to express myself poetically,” he said. “There’s a poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda which pinpoints his moment of awareness where poetry literally takes hold of him like a strickening — not so much like an illness, but like a weight of perception. That explains it completely.”
Paraphrasing the sentiments of renowned Bohemian-Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke, Downes said, “If you feel in those moments when you are not writing, not creating, that you could literally die — that’s a significant sign that you are more than invested.”
When asked to describe his style of poetry, Downes, who recently received an associate of arts degree at Cleveland State Community College, said, “The closest label for me would be ‘narrative’ poetry.”
“I tend to write narrative poetry that tells a story in the way the older, classic poems would — the way really good short stories do, but without the traditional structure of literature.”
Downes added, all his poetry comes “completely from experience.”
“I deeply respect (novelist and poet) Herman Melville — someone who wrote what he lived. I think that’s the best way to communicate the truth of your perspective. I think poetry is for us to share the truth and give somebody a moment of immersion into a different perspective.”
Although he is well aware that poetry is less than a lucrative career move, Downes maintain that its relevance and rewards exceed material things and they speak to the very history of humanity.
“It wouldn’t seem very relevant today but there’s an excellent poet, Saul Williams, who is a practitioner of what is called ‘Slam Poetry,’ which is much more animated. He points out that before there was written history there was oral history.
“And that oral history was passed from tribe to tribe, nation to nation — memorializing the events at hand and the people involved — by poetry. Those were the things shared with dinner, families, holidays and events. Now that we have televisions, movies and restaurants that take the place of that, we lose the sense of importance of poetry and how meaningful it can be.”
On Mondays around 8 p.m. Downes can be seen reciting poetry at Gabriel’s Pizza in Cleveland and encouraging other poets to join in expressing a creative art form that brings life to words like no other.
Although both his parents are Irish, Downes said he does not favor limericks of any kind and avoids rhyming in meter and scale.
“I tend to believe that Jack Kerouac the American poet was on to something with writing from the direct, constant flow of experience,” he said.
Like many poets before him, however, Downes is proving to be an artist whose creative spirit is best served on the move, interacting with people, observing life’s nuances, in touch with nature and experiencing life as it unfolds.
“I cherish the new experience,” he said. “I think that’s something vital for poetry. You are constantly like a child in that you observe everything and you don’t lie well. You are quick to point out what you feel — whether it’s something beautiful or something unjust.
“I have been fortunate to be traveling. I spend a great deal moving around the U.S. and I hope to return to South America this summer where I started to write more poetry.”
After 15 years of writing poetry while moving around the country, Downes said he has been writing “on a professional level for the last five.” He is currently pursuing a writing degree at Lee University.
"People’s Lives Fell Into the Sky"
For Katie and Wade
The cardinal frantically called into the sky, from atop a tiny branch stripped of its leaves,
once stories high, she calling out now feet from the ground
for her nest is gone, and her children are gone, and the world has changed such that
familiarity is but memory now tied to twisted metal, broken wood and glass spilled and
splintered throughout brand new groceries, cinder block and brick atop children’s
photographs and grandma’s jewelry box, these once things having a place, now hold each
other, inconsolable ...
People’s lives fell into the sky
turned ever upward in blackened hands,
electrically charged in a sickening air that in the roar of moments
made us small, and unimportant
At the point of horror, came the quiet withdrawal of matters human,
the sibling grudge, the delinquent bill, and delineation of responsibility,
for now as all are huddled together with burning elbows and knees,
as heads pressed down in a kowtow to the basement floor,
victimized by wonder,
we prayer petition
we exist naked and waiting in a shuddering cry
we ball fists and grind foot into flooring, waiting for the right moment to stand, rushing
ourselves-against the night and the ice, and the way our world has been changed, the hot
sprint through a cold sweat, as adrenaline wraps your chest like high-tension line coils of
serpents in darkness
the landscape familiar but unjust, in its reflection of our revelation
that this-is the truth
that we maintain this life, yet are now called to live it differently,
fervently, without the dallying mechanics of maintenance.
As fathers sit at stairs and stoops, or stand amidst the folded brokenness of the room
where children were made, where birthdays were celebrated,
where winter holidays were made warm by the colors of tree light, of hot food, song and
They begins to cauterize the open wound with acceptance, of destruction,
of the unknown, of aid and friendship from those
without the necessity for acknowledgment, or thanks, for in part,
this is how those who have been served so graciously,
return to honor the grace that had been shown,
to lend shoulder for tears, for might,
and to rebuild.