The Southern Review once called David Bottoms “an exquisite storyteller.” It is interesting to think about what is meant by “exquisite.” Perhaps because Bottoms’ stories are told most often in poems, and poetry has a way of being exquisite as in “choice,” “careful,” “acute,” “intense.” A doctor once told me that a procedure I was about to have might include pain that was exquisite. The word might refer to something that focuses the mind intensely. In case I seem to be wandering here, I am doing so on purpose. To be caught up in the wandering directness of a poem by David Bottoms is an exquisite pleasure, even when exquisite pain might be its aim. Emotional pain, say, as when you realize that your father is no longer capable of thinking clearly or thinking in the same space and time as yourself, and yet is in your very presence, talking to you. Bottoms’ aim in any poem may be like Frost’s in his poem “Directive”: it is to get you lost and, once you are lost, to find you, to make you “whole again beyond confusion.” I have always loved the sleight of hand, the enchantment, the lure of a story that seems to be heading one direction only to make many twists and turns before it arrives. I am thinking here of a poem from Bottoms’ 2011 book We Almost Disappear. I hope it’s all right to include it here, because there’s no way I can improve on it with my somewhat analytical perspective without letting you in on the magic:
A CHAT WITH MY FATHER
Sometimes when my old man tries to talk, his mind runs like a small boy
on a path through the woods.
You know the story. There’s home to get to and it’s getting late,
only a little light still slicing through the trees.
And the boy has walked the path so many times
he thinks he can do it in his sleep. But no. Some bird sounds off
way back in the woods, and he tries to ignore it, but it harps again,
and suddenly he’s off the path, deeper and deeper
into the trees, wading the shadows, following the strangest
and most beautiful birdsong he’s ever heard
until he crosses a stream and catches in the corner of his eye
a ruby as big as his fist, sure, a ruby or some rock
just as precious, and bends to pick it up when a wild dog …
no, not a dog, when a wolf barks across a gully,
and he’s beating his way through brush and briar, trailing
those barks and howls already fading
in the distance. All the while the woods have grown dark,
and suddenly he looks across the table,
and you’ll see in his eyes that he’s lost.
Nineteen lines, nine couplets and a one-line coda, each couplet with a long line, then a shorter line but not all of them because the third couplet, the crucial moment, starts with a shorter line, then the longer line. Any poem by David Bottoms includes a variety of lines, often between pentameter and tetrameter, but varied, longer than that, shorter than that, pleasingly varied, in varied stanzas, in a kind of unself-conscious way, which evinces the sleight of hand Frost himself was so good at, looking one way and pointing another. I’ve mentioned Frost twice now though I know for Bottoms the great Robert Penn Warren is the guide. What I admire so much is the way Frost and Bottoms, and Warren too, tell us a story. The story of loss includes redemption, even when redemption is denied, because we know there ought to be redemption—we wish for it. In “A Chat With My Father,” we find ourselves in a beautifully made extended simile in which we are also lost. Sometimes I like finding myself in an extended metaphor or simile because by its very nature as a figure of speech it is a new thing, a new place, a new world. Here we find ourselves as soon as we realize that the father has lost himself in his mental traveling. That last look “across the table” may be the appeal he makes to his child to save him from confusion and restore him to wholeness. And you can see that there is nothing you can do to save him except to recognize his confusion. The pain is rendered exquisitely here. And the art, too. The second to last line, “and suddenly he looks across the table,” is iambic pentameter to my ear, albeit with an unstressed eleventh syllable. We cross a vast space between it and the final line, “and you’ll see in his eyes that he’s lost,” an anapestic trimeter line tossed like a rope that falls short. All is offered as if it were the informal exchange of a casual conversation at the dinner table, a chat, which turns out to be shattering. David Bottoms’ gift as a poet and storyteller is exquisite, and it is also great.