David Bottoms’ “Transfiguring Angels”

“We will not sleep. / We / will be changed.” A framed copy of my late friend Franz Wright’s poem, “The Crawdad,” which concludes with this allusion to 1 Corinthians 15.51, hangs on a downstairs wall in my home, and the mystery of transformation is one on which I meditate frequently. It is, for me, a persistent source of wonder that so many unconsidered, haphazard, and entirely unplanned eventualities can become transformative moments in our lives: the chance meeting, the fortuitous reconnection, the sudden and seemingly random insight. In these moments, one seems to apprehend, beneath the apparently solid and sometimes even stolid appearance of material reality, that constantly fluorescing flux which Whitman conjured when he wrote “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.”

While I occasionally experienced, as a small child, an intuitive connection with this transformative and creative urge of the world, such connections can be difficult to sustain. I went to St. Joseph’s Sunday School every week about half-a-block from where the 19th century poet, Sidney Lanier, was born in Macon, GA, a city in decline during the late 1980s and early 90s as businesses fled. When I was in school, we were required to memorize some of Lanier’s verses, mostly, as I recall, from “The Marshes of Glynn.” On the other hand, it seemed to my child’s mind as if nobody from Bibb County had written a poem since Sidney Lanier moved north to Baltimore: we certainly didn’t study any contemporary poetry in school, much less contemporary poets from Georgia or the Macon area. It seemed as if, for most of the city, poetry had left with Sidney Lanier: “fled [was] that music,” as Keats might have had it. Of course, in those same years, very fine poets like Judith Ortiz Cofer and Judson Mitcham were working in and around the Macon area, but I was a mere child, and I was oblivious.

Early in my undergraduate career at The University of Georgia, I discovered and came to love many of the Modernist poets, but it wasn’t until near the end of my undergraduate studies that I began to develop an interest in contemporary poetry. It was as if a blindfold had been removed. Suddenly, I was spending hours and hours in the stacks perusing the PS3553 section: I’d pick up a book and read the first poem, the last poem, and a poem in the middle of the book. If I liked any of those, I’d check the book out and read it. If I liked the book, I’d check the “Acknowledgments” page to learn where my favorite poems had been previously published, and I’d look into those literary journals, and then I’d pick up books from the writers who had offered “blurbs” on the jacket. Slowly, I began to make a kind of private map of Contemporary American Poetry.

It was, I think, in 2003 or 2004 that I drove for about an hour to attend a Writer’s Conference at Georgia College in Milledgeville, headlined by the late, great Larry Brown, and by Georgia’s Poet Laureate, David Bottoms. I had heard of David Bottoms, as I had been striving, in vain, to be “literary,” but I wasn’t prepared for those readings. Larry Brown read a story of such horror and power that it still haunts me to this day, and Bottoms, in his quiet and understated way, transformed me. Not only did his poems do what I had thought impossible, but they also made the impossible look easy: the way a great shortstop, like Ozzie Smith, made a diving catch look easy, or the way that Lebron James makes a Herculean slam-dunk look casual.

For those who grew up in places where soi-disant ‘High Culture’ has long thrived, it may, perhaps, be difficult to imagine how shocked I was to find that this great poet’s first book was called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. I was, then, maybe twenty, and I’d spent plenty of time with friends who really went out to shoot rats at the real Bibb County Dump in Macon. David Bottoms was writing poems about the people and places and experiences that I knew, which otherwise had no representation in poems. He wasn’t writing flights of sonority like Sidney Lanier had written; he was writing about things I had experienced personally, which he’d experienced, or had at least experienced imaginatively, while studying at Mercer University in Macon, and he had made real poetry out of these experiences, so often unlovely in themselves. The discovery of this book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, picked by Robert Penn Warren for the Walt Whitman Award in 1979, changed my life forever.

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In his essay on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote:

Faulkner’s vision of the world can be compared to that of a man sitting in an open car and looking backward. At every moment, formless shadows, flickerings, faint tremblings and patches of light rise up on either side of him, and only afterward, when he has a little perspective, do they become trees and men and cars.

This passage brings to mind any number of poems, from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Man-Moth,” that figure of imaginative flight who “always seats himself facing the wrong way” on the subway, to Greg Williamson’s fine “Outbound,” in which “We passengers ride backward on the train / And train our eyes on what has passed us by.”  And then, of course, Sartre’s passage also recalls the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, in which the blind man who has regained his sight tells Christ, “I see men as trees, walking,” before Christ fully restores his sight.

If we blend Sartre’s comment with the Gospel, we move in the direction of appreciating how a great many of David Bottoms’ finest poems work. In fact, many of these poems depict the actions, in present or past tense, of those who lack, or have imperfect, spiritual sight; however, in a kind of dramatic irony, the speaker of the poem, usually a first-person speaker included in a first-person plural “we” with the actors of the poem, presents these actions in such a way as to afford the reader, via a kind of quiet revelation, an illuminated vision of the reality, of what’s at stake for those who act in the poem. This mode allows Bottoms to be absolutely realistic in his dramatic situations, imagery, and narrative while simultaneously using subtleties of diction and syntax to lift these realistic situations and narratives up to the level of metaphor, so that the poems speak both the literal truth and a different, often contradictory, figural Truth simultaneously, creating a kind of ironic poetry of dynamic oscillation that embodies the struggle of the human individual between the realm of material and the realm of the spirit.

This mode, I suppose, is what Robert Penn Warren was after when, having selected Bottoms’ brilliant first book—Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump—for the Walt Whitman Award, he wrote:

David Bottoms is a strong poet and much of his strength emerges from the fact that he is temperamentally a realist. In his vision the actual world is not transformed but illuminated, and in his language the tang of actuality whets his compelling rhythms. Of few this can be said.

Indeed, although he was good friends with James Dickey, Bottoms’ poems seem far more indebted to Warren’s own, which similarly rely upon a kind of dramatic irony established by the separation of the present speaker from the remembered actions he describes, a separation Warren lifted primarily from Dante’s Divina Commedia, in which Dante Poet is famously distinct from Dante Pilgrim.

For instance, in his wonderful early poem, “Wrestling Angels,” a crew of vandals and thieves has gone into a cemetery (presumably Rose Hill Cemetery off Riverside Drive in Macon).

Only the ironwork will bring us money,
ornamental sofas overlooking graves,
black-flowered fences planted in marble,
occasionally an urn or a bronze star.

But if there is time
we shatter the hourglasses,
slaughter lambs asleep on children’s graves,
break the blades off stone scythes,
the marble strings on silent lyres.
Only the angels are here to stop us, and they have grown
too weak to wrestle.
We break their arms and leave them wingless,
leaning over graves like old men lamenting their age.

These plunderers have come to steal what will “bring [them] money,” but there’s a greater destructive urge within them, a kind of quasi-Puritanical nihilism. Like the vandals of Old Misery’s home in Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” the “we” of this poem seek freedom in the purity of nothingness. Hence, with a brilliant bit of irony, “if there is time / we shatter the hourglasses”: that is, like so many youths—at least like so many youths in Bibb County, where I grew up—they would attempt to destroy time itself in order to make themselves immortals, that perennial habit of youths called, aptly enough, “killing time.” However, in a further paradox, they are destroying their own innocence when they cruelly “slaughter lambs asleep on children’s graves.” That is, the purity and perfection they seek is betrayed by the violence with which they seek it. Nonetheless, their ironic pursuit of that ἄμβροτος (“ambrotos,” or “deathless”) quality of the gods, is made clear when they “break the blades of stone scythes,” certainly the scythes of the Reaper, Death.

Finally, then, after so much violence and destruction, “Only the angels are here to stop us, and they have grown / too weak to wrestle.” Here, the literal sense is perfectly right: the stone angels remain, but they are stone and cannot wrestle. However, the figural sense is also correct: the better angels of the vandals remain, but they have been vitiated by the violence of the vandals themselves, as each act of cruelty or violence one commits makes it more difficult for one to possess mercy or peace. The vandals then “break their arms and leave them wingless, / leaning over graves like old men lamenting their age.” What’s wonderful here is Bottoms’ sleight of syntax, the subtlety of the revelation. The wingless angels are left “leaning over graves like old men lamenting their age,” as if angels and the grace they represent had been defeated entirely; however, by this perfect sleight of syntax, we may also read that final line as referring to the “we.” In this reading, the “we,” having destroyed so much and having sought to destroy even grace, are left without any hope of redemption; despite their desire to make themselves immortal and transcend time, or rather because of that desire, they are left without any hope. Because they are, ultimately, mortals and have, in abandoning faith, charity, mercy, and grace, forsaken their spiritual immortality, they are left, via this peripeteia, themselves “leaning over graves like old men lamenting their age.” Without hope, they cannot be transformed, cannot be changed, but can only lament.

We find this same paradox in other early masterpieces. For instance, “Smoking in an Open Grave,” begins:

We bury ourselves to get high.
Huddled in this open crypt we lay the bottle, the lantern,
the papers, the bag on a marble slab,
tune the guitar to a mouth harp
and choir out the old spirituals.
When the shadows of this life have grown, I’ll fly away.

It has been, at least throughout my lifetime, a tradition in what’s now called “Macon-Bibb County” for rebellious young people to go to Rose Hill Cemetery to indulge themselves in various pleasures and debauches, largely because the rock-n-roll guitar hero, Duane Allman, is buried there. Bottoms brings a spiritual illumination to this bizarre and rather morbid pastime. Again the “we” of the poem seeks exaltation or immortality by artificial means, by self-destruction, the sort of adolescent dérèglement de tous les sens of which Rimbaud would, upon reaching adulthood and discovering the gravity of his claim, Car JE est un autre, repent. But I would note, in addition to the wonderful paradox of the opening line, how Bottoms uses a sleight of grammar in the second line so that the reader may take “the bottle, the lantern, / the paper” as a straightforward list, or may, because of the savvy line-break, read “the lantern” as an appositive renaming “the bottle,” thus suggesting that the “we” seeks the false illumination of “the bottle” rather than a genuine spiritual illumination. This subtle point is reinforced by the equally subtle deviation from the lyrics of the Albert Brumley gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away,” which properly run: “When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away.”

And again we see a similar movement in the magnificent, “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” in which we find more young ruffians: “Loaded on beer and whiskey, we ride / to the dump in carloads / to turn our headlights across the wasted field.” I should note that, in the days before the internet, it was a common pastime for youths in Bibb County to spend their evenings engaged in such sophisticated tasks as shooting rats at the dump. (I have been gone many years, and I’ve no idea what the youth do now for recreation: whatever it is, I doubt it could be less intellectual than that.) Why go shoot rats at a dump? Well, it’s another version of the destructive impulse we’ve seen in “Wrestling Angels” and in “Smoking in an Open Grave.” The inly desire for destruction all too easily becomes a desire for outward destruction, as if we could sanitize our souls and regain innocence by devastating the world around us to eliminate the recriminations of an imperfect reality.

Nonetheless, I would note how the poem, again, subtly turns from the literal to the figural, from the material to the spiritual. The young marauders shoot at the rats, which

…drag themselves on forelegs across our beams of light
toward the darkness at the edge of the dump.

It’s the light they believe kills.
We drink and load again, let them crawl
for all they’re worth into the darkness we’re headed for.

One of the things that I love here is the magic of colloquial Southern locution: “It’s the light they believe kills.” That is, the rats believe that the light kills them. But the syntax might also be read to mean: “it is the light that they believe in which kills them,” and this reading leads to the identification of the prey with the predators, as the shooters here pursue a false light which both leads them to kill rats for no reason and to kill themselves for no reason by getting “Loaded on beer and whiskey,” a reading especially salient if we recall the potentially appositional grammatic structure of “the bottle, the lantern.”

In each of these poems, which are all in the present tense, Bottoms presents memory as an ongoing chronicle of secular history and as an illuminated speculative, or spiritual, reality. Those who are destroying the figures of angels in the cemetery don’t know that they are destroying their own better angels; those who nestle down in graves to get drunk and smoke weed aren’t aware that they’re killing themselves to feel exalted; those who destroy themselves with intoxicants aren’t aware that they are, in seeking to kill the unwanted rats, simultaneously killing themselves because they do not want to live the imperfect lives they live.

It’s an almost Frost-like miracle that all three of these poems appear in the first six pages of Bottoms’ first book, and that they’re the first three poems in his magnificent Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems (1995). Few poets ever write one poem this good, this subtle, this poignant, this lasting: the three I’ve discussed bring us to page 6 in his Selected Poems, which itself was published more than a quarter-century ago. And David Bottoms has only gotten better.

In subsequent books, the collocation of time, the synchronic vision of time, is evident even in Bottoms’ titles, such as In a U-Haul North of Damascus, Vagrant Grace, or Waltzing Through the Endtime. (I’d note that the “Damascus” of that first title is both the township of Damascus in Early County, deep in Southwest Georgia, and also, inevitably, the Damascus of the Bible.) One of the striking features about Bottoms’ poems, separating him from a poet like Warren, is that, in Bottoms’ poems, as in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, grace seems always hovering about. Indeed, this ‘vagrant grace’ seems always possible from the authorial point of view, and inflects that point of view, even while the actors of the poem may not perceive its real presence. The result is that Bottoms’ characters have, as we so often do, an imperfect understanding of what they do in the moment, while Time the revelator shows possibilities and potentialities unforeseen and unimagined at the time of the action, possibilities and potentialities affording the possibility of redemption, of transformation.

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This understanding of Time as revelator is brought home most clearly, perhaps, in what I think is Bottoms’ finest ars poetica. For many years now, I’ve been something of a connoisseur of poems about birds that are also examples of the ars poetica, the poem about poetry: Alcman’s “Kerylos,” Horace’s “Ode ii.20,” Keats’ “Nightingale,” Shelley’s “Skylark,” Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush,” Frost’s “Oven Bird,” and many more canonical poems share in this tradition: Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl”; Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy,” Claudia Emerson’s “The Practice Cage,” etc. In Bottoms’ third book, this ancient figuration is made startlingly new when, in a “jon boat,” he passes beneath a tree filled with vultures. First, he describes their appearance in the tree: “The black leaves shined, the pink fruit blossomed / red, ugly as a human heart.” Anyone who has even glimpsed a vulture’s head can see it in the phrase “the pink fruit blossomed / red”; however, this phrase also conjures the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Of course, to eat from the Tree of Knowledge exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden and brings red, bloody Death into the world; however, here, we find the vultures, emblems of Death, have their significance reversed to make them fruits, suggesting that, on the other side of death are new fruits, a rebirth, and the poem’s theme will bear out the orchestration of this image.

But what I most love in this poem, which I keep close to my heart, is the final verse-paragraph:

And I drifted away from them, slow, on the pull of the river,
reluctant, looking back at their roost,
calling them what I’d never called them, what they are,
those dwarfed transfiguring angels,
who flock to the side of the poisoned fox, the mud turtle
crushed on the shoulder of the road,
who pray over the leaf-graves of the anonymous lost,
with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings.

Notice that, only while he “drifted away” was the speaker able to call the vultures what they were, “those dwarfed transfiguring angels.” In the moment of beholding, he had no language for what he’d seen, just as we so rarely can name the things around us if we pay attention.  We can parrot the generalizing name-calling we hear all around us, but who among us takes care to name accurately each thing we’ve seen? To give each thing its right name? It is only as the moment is lost, when the speaker has “drifted away,” that the he can call the vultures “what they are.” The wonderful paradox here is that vultures take what is dead and make it live again; and, of course, that’s what Bottoms’ poem is doing: taking a dead experience and making it live again, just as the sentence describes the speaker giving language to a lost experience after he’s “drifted away.” That is, the opening few lines of this excerpt point back to Sartre’s note on Faulkner: only as he “drifted away” could the speaker know the vultures for what they were. Only in retrospect can we understand what our experiences mean because only within memory can we place an experience within a context, and no experience has its meaning outside of historical context. To attempt to understand an experience’s meaning in a temporal vacuum is to distort, and most often to hyperbolize, its meaning, because to attempt a temporal vacuum is to attempt a rupture of cause-and-effect relationships, which is to murder time, and the murdering of time is only ever desirable or pursued because the abolition of time would mean the abolition of death.

David Bottoms’ poems do not attempt to abolish death, or to deny death, which cannot be abolished on a physical level. Rather, they trace with gentle delicacy the fleeting nature of experience. They often take on subjects that would, otherwise, have no life in the imagination of many readers, and they give those subjects life. (I am supposing that relatively few contemporary poets or readers of contemporary poetry are outdoorsy fishers like Bottoms, or savants of bluegrass music like Bottoms.) And moreover, Bottoms has become, over the years, ever subtler and ever more masterful in bringing his visions to life. I could, I think, make a plausible argument that his best poem is “Spring 2012,” from his most recent book, the tremendous Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch (2018). When “Spring 2012” appeared in The New Yorker, I remember: I was flabbergasted by its conjunction of cosmic reach and minimalist presentation, of dailiness and permanence, of unpretentious contemporary speech and eternal concerns. I was, once again, beholding a mystery, how David Bottoms’ poetry had transformed pollen, bird feeders, scones, dogwoods, and fences into a poem I think worthy of the linguistic equivalent of immortality, how he had given forgettable things I’ve seen all my life flight, had given what I’d failed to watch closely enough wings.

Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilsonwas born in Griffin, GA, and raised in nearby Macon. He is the author of The Stranger World (Measure Press, 2017), winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, and of How to Think Like a Poet (Wiseblood 2019). His work appears in periodicals such as: Best American Poetry, Five Points, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. The Administrator and C.F.O. of the ALSCW, he lives north of Baltimore and teaches at The Catholic University of America. He is Editor-in-Chief of Literary Matters.
Ryan Wilson

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Author: Ryan Wilson

Ryan Wilson was born in Griffin, GA, and raised in nearby Macon. He is the author of The Stranger World (Measure Press, 2017), winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, and of How to Think Like a Poet (Wiseblood 2019). His work appears in periodicals such as: Best American Poetry, Five Points, The Hopkins Review, The New Criterion, The Sewanee Review, and The Yale Review. The Administrator and C.F.O. of the ALSCW, he lives north of Baltimore and teaches at The Catholic University of America. He is Editor-in-Chief of Literary Matters.