Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch
By David Bottoms
(Copper Canyon, 72 pp., $16)
For David Bottoms, “Clearly the door to old age has opened.”
Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch, the poet’s tenth collection, is divided into five sections, each of which has a thematic coherence. Neat epigraphs by R. S. Thomas, Louise Glück, W. S. Merwin, D. H. Lawrence, and James Baldwin and Sylvia Plath clue us in on the themes: the habit of faith despite the apparent absence of God; the look of the world as remembered from childhood (whose presiding spirit is the poet’s grandfather); the presence of the past (as personified by the poet’s father, whose death is fresh in his mind); the “autumn” of life (as personified by the poet’s mother, whose mind and body are failing); and, again, the habit of faith as enacted through prayer.
Though each of the book’s five sections coheres thematically and there is incidental content in common among the poems, the sections also relate one to another: threads of reminiscence, whose setting is the rural and small-town South of the poet’s childhood and the neighborhood of the poet’s present-day concerns, braid the sections; images recur, and phrases echo. The collection, which amounts to a lyric montage of childhood remembered from the vantage of age and spoken in an even, seemingly unexcitable, ruminative voice, has a coherent wholeness that makes Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch a satisfying work of craftsmanship as well as a haunting collection.
“Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch,” the title poem, which appears in the last, prayerful section, finds the poet, in the present, on the porch where an icon depicting Christ with his hand upraised in blessing hangs from a post. He speculates, “Maybe I’ll rise from the dead”—rise, that is, from the underworld that includes his grandfather and father, not to mention the paved-over South of his childhood, which is under a Kmart parking lot, and into an otherworld if not of God, then only of such “good things” as “honeysuckle, / robins, mockingbirds, doves, / fireflies toward evening, and along the back fence // the steady harping of tree frogs.” A fantasy, as he admits.
That prayer porch appears to be an ordinary back porch except for the Byzantine Christ. The house itself is on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood not a whole lot different from the neighborhood where Bottoms lived as a child—except, as he says to himself (in another poem) and no doubt to other Southerners of a similar age, “Maybe there was a wood where you played, / and that wood is gone now, paved over for parking cars.”
Nearby, down the highway from that remembered neighborhood (“your house and yard, // the yard and houses of your [childhood] friends”) there was the other, rural landscape of the poet’s childhood. In memory it consists of “my grandfather’s country store, his barn, his pasture,” and there the poet nostalgically goes—but only in memory, since he must now “take bearings” from “that Kmart parking lot”: “the store must have sat here, // my grandfather’s house there, / the barn behind me (somewhere), our house // down the highway”—“all’s a vague approximation,” he concludes.
“No man can read [Thomas] Hardy’s poems collected but that his own life, and forgotten moments of it, will come back to him, a flash here and an hour there.” So avers Ezra Pound; likewise I’d say of this slender book of late poems by David Bottoms and ask, as Pound asks rhetorically, “Have you a better test of true poetry?” Especially if you are a Southerner of a similar age …
If you are, you’ll be perhaps, as I am, the child of a veteran of World War Two. Perhaps your mother was a nurse (whose patients may have included casualties of that war) or else, like mine, a teacher. She may well have placed great store in a “full-length mink” and a “two-carat diamond” and numerous “settings” of crystal. You will have come of age during the Vietnam War. In 1968, much to his veteran father’s consternation, Bottoms was classified 1-A—available for military service—by the Selective Service (as I was four years later). During the summer, the family watched the news on a “portable Philco,” a black-and-white TV: “The jungle was black and white. The bodies were black and white.” Bottoms reports:
One night my old man threw an alarm clock across my room. He screamed something, but all I caught
was a cheap alarm clock, the size of a softball, ringing in the wallboard.
The screen flickered. The jungle snowed gray, the bodies gray. The alarm clock, stuck in the wallboard, rang
for a minute or more. Nobody touched it for days.
The father, as we learn in another poem, performed his service “in the oily water of the Pacific, / the black jungles of Florida Island and Guadalcanal”—where, “the water itself on fire,” he was wounded: “Only his right hand / kept his intestines from spilling into the boat,” the lifeboat.
Even if you grew up, as I did, in a state capital—in a suburban neighborhood—and not in a neighborhood down the highway from pastureland, you remember country stores. It so happens that one of my own grandfathers and, after his death, two of my uncles ran exactly the sort of store run by this poet’s, and it’s in that store I picture Hubert Blankenship. There this “father of five, owner of a plow horse and a cow … leans against the counter by the stove. / He pats the pockets of his overalls // for the grocery list penciled on a torn paper bag,” which has on it “Bull of the Woods,” a brand of chewing tobacco, “three tins // of sardines, Spam, peanut butter, two loaves of bread (Colonial),” and “a hundred-pound bag of horse feed,” which he “hefts onto his shoulder.” Hubert Blankenship has entered the store “head down”; now “He rises to full height, snorting // but hardly burdened, / and parades, head high, to the bed of his pickup.” A dirt farmer, he enters with a look of self-abnegation and exits as a one-man parade—a man whose fortitude reveals itself in animal strength. If this trajectory seems just a little too heartwarming, how well does this admittedly nostalgic poem—many of the poems are nostalgic—channel the perspective of a good-natured child, which Bottoms appears to have been.
But even if you aren’t a Southerner of a similar age, you will identify with the “I” of these poems and relate to his story thanks to the particularity of autobiographical information, the clean-edged images of material reality, and a non-idiosyncratic (though recognizable) voice. As I said, Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch amounts to a free-verse memoir with a shadowy plot. One step away from old age, the speaker of these poems lives with his wife, Kelly, and their 21-year-old daughter and a dog named Jack, who is his outdoor companion, on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood that’s woodsy enough—their fenced-in back yard, which abuts on a hillside, appears rife with maples, pin oaks, and pines—for there to be a “steady harping of tree frogs”; for a king snake, if only a little one, to make its way to the porch, the prayer porch; for the poet, when going out late at night, as is his custom, to “piss” in the back yard with Jack, to mistake a rope left by the tree-trimmers for “the old enemy coiled on the root of a cherry tree”; for bats to congregate by day in a “bat box hanging from the guest-room gable” and to emerge—a “panic” of them—at sundown; for a fox (which embodies, “scrawny” though it is, a “wilderness” that a grown-up can only nostalgically long for) to appear “at the end of your cul-de-sac.”
(I especially like, by the way, “A Panic of Bats,” in which the nostalgia is complicated, at least for the reader, by the horrifying possibility that the “wavy panic / of children crowding the upstairs window” of a burning house—a memory triggered by the bats that “rise from the box and flit like ashes” in the present—preceded the children’s gruesome death. I like it for the same reason that I miss in Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch those “deep” memories, to which Bottoms alludes in that poem about the rope-as-snake, in which “danger remains— / the fat rope / coiled and ready to strike.”)
The wife, it seems, is more religious than he is, though religion is much on his mind, “near the end” as he is. It’s Kelly’s icon depicting Christ as the ruler over all (as you find him in the dome of Orthodox churches), which hangs from a post on the porch, that the poet frequently eyes and to which, on occasion, he “open[s] [his] heart” and insists when he does that “Silence doesn’t always mean absence.” As for the daughter, over her he “hovers,” sometimes texting her a dozen times a day. (“Staying in touch”—resonant phrase, that—which is the title of a poem about a female friend of his whose brother shot himself, is one of the themes of the book: in other words, as Bottoms puts it in “Hovering,” the “problem” of “letting go.”)
With the “door to old age” ajar, Bottoms returns in memory to the landscape of his childhood where his grandfather ran that country store and, boasting a collection of fancy lures, promised to take him fishing, but never did—he wasn’t much of a fisherman—but did apparently inspire in this grandson a love of freshwater fishing. In church on Sundays—the Baptist church—the boy, who also played little-league baseball, would daydream of “breaking / a curveball over home plate, or casting // a lure.” And his grandfather trained him, this “nervous boy,” to shoot, though “I hadn’t wanted to shoot the rabbit,” Bottoms confesses; “I only wanted to hide.”
With that door ajar, Bottoms has reached the age when parents die quickly of natural causes or linger, as with dementia, and decline. His father, who was the recipient of a purple heart thanks to that wound in the Pacific, spent his working life of 30 years “prepping bodies in a funeral home.” When he “lost his job // he went to bed and never got up.” At his funeral, a recording of taps was played while a sailor bugler mimed it; the “Grand Master / of the local lodge,” the Masonic lodge, preached at the interment. The poet’s 86-year-old mother has undergone colon surgery; she’s cracked her ribs in a fall. In rehab, she frets in bed about “dust invading her house.” Afterward, suffering from dementia, she finds herself at Riverstone, an assisted-living facility. In 1945 she was a young nurse at a VA hospital. She had social aspirations, as signified by “the full-length mink / and the two-carat diamond she scraped // for twenty years to buy,” but seldom if ever in small-town Canton, Georgia, had occasion to wear.
As the story told in first person invites identification with the maker, the universality of the themes makes the poems, as students nowadays like to say, easily “relatable”: the prayerful hope that God exists, but if God exists only as a projection of your need, acceptance; the wonder-inducing vividness of childhood remembered, where you spent it, doing what, with whom; despite its physical erasure, the persistence of the past in the present, not only in memories (so long as they last) but also maybe, prayerfully, in time out of time; the fact, of course, of death; the habit, as manifest in ritual acts, of belief—a disposition that alerts you to omens, intimations of meaning (in my opinion, the appropriate disposition for a poet, believer or not).
As you close this book, you may sense that you, yourself, have been on a spiritual quest, a quest for omens—much as you feel after reading certain of Hardy’s poems, “The Oxen,” for instance, which gestures toward “the lonely barton by yonder comb / Our childhood used to know” (that is to say, the farmyard by the glen), much as Bottoms gestures toward “the landscape of my childhood” with its barn and pasture. In Hardy’s poem it is Christmas Eve, and the clock’s striking of midnight prompts someone to say, “Now they,” the oxen, “are all on their knees”—in honor, that is, of Christ’s nativity among barnyard animals. Not that Hardy believes this local superstition, still he’d go there were someone to invite him—“Come; see the oxen kneel”: “I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.”
Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch closes with a section whose theme is prayerful seeking. This section is a recapitulation of the opening section: the last poem, “A Scrawny Fox,” echoes, by repeating phrases from, the poem, “An Absence,” that opens the book, a book suffused by awareness of absence. “Near the end, only one thing matters,” both poems begin. What is this one thing? God, perhaps, the absent deus absconditus—or rather the Ineffable, whose name is not to be spoken?
“[I]t has something to do with the moon and the way / the moon balances so nervously // on the ridge of the barn” in the first poem and “on the rooftops of neighborhood houses” in the second. Moonlight, of course, hospitable as it is to the imagination, plays host to transgressions that hint at the supernatural, in contrast to sunlight, which insists on reason—moonlight illumines countryside and neighborhood, both of which are landscapes of the poet’s childhood. In the first poem, “Let’s sit here by the fence,” Bottoms says, “and watch for the fox that comes each night to the pasture.” In the last poem, in which the remembered neighborhood isn’t very different from the one where the poet lives now on a cul-de-sac, you long for “the fox you saw last week // at the end of your cul-de-sac”—as also you long for the “wilderness,” which the fox represents. But “Near the end,” the two poems hauntingly declare again, “only one thing matters.” “One thing”—is it not your life, its story, the name of which is Time, “But you must not pronounce its name,” as Robert Penn Warren (at the end of Audubon) cautions? Whatever the one thing is, “nothing, not even the fox, moves as quietly.”