Of David Bottoms, My Friend

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My earliest memory of David Bottoms is reading his first collection of poetry Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, which won the Walt Whitman Award judged by Robert Penn Warren. I suspect I wrote to David to say how much I admired the work. In those days we wrote actual letters, and we poets loved to receive such mail. I thought David showed exceptional feel for sentences, a fine ear for cadence, and lovely narratives about family and experiences of the natural world. I wrote to David what Richard Hugo had written earlier to me: you are my kind, friend. David’s poems and novels, book after book, have affirmed my judgment, that he is an extraordinary gift to American letters.

Over forty years now we have exercised each other in conversation and correspondence about poetry. And bass fishing in Florida and Georgia, and baseball all over. And maybe southern culture. But always poetry, often exchanging drafts of poems. David’s judgment is gentle, accurate, constructive, and I have always trusted what he had to say of my poems. And in his poems I have found, not coincidentally, a no-nonsense observer trying to understand what lived around him, a local world abundantly rich with unexpressed mystery. I learned a lot from his direct but rich language, an approach whose premise holds everything has latent metaphorical resonance. The really good poets know how to release what’s already there and they do it as effortlessly as a shortstop making a smooth double-play. David always did.

By 1983 we agreed to coedit an anthology of poets, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, published by William Morrow & Company, including more than one hundred poets. We made a few rules to operate by with each other, we made lists for selection, argued choices, compromised, and ended up friends for life, feeling we had each been fairly and honorably matched by the other.  I learned to know and to say what I thought about poetry because I had to test it continuously against David’s intelligent judgments and resistances. When we disagreed, we found resolutions. Together we created a portrait of American poets born after 1940, one which reviews, sales, and the subsequent accomplishments of the poets proved had enough value to stay in print almost twenty years. I am proud and grateful to have had that experience with David Bottoms. In the years after that, I had the good fortune to see my poems published in Five Points, the literary journal David founded and published at Georgia State University until he retired, and that meant they were ok—David liked them.

I suppose everyone knows about David’s long and honorable career as a professor, certainly about his award-winning books, all of which I read in manuscript, and for which I therefore feel a sort of personal investment. When I reread those poems they radiate with a love that is manly, embracing, and piercingly sad in recording all that passes from us, none more so than poems about his mother and father. He may be the most trustworthy and effective describer of parents in American poetry. But with David the greatest emotion is always buttressed with a hardheaded irony. Who among us has written a more touching elegy than “My Father’s Garbage Can”?  David can tell a reader what it is like to care for a dying father and a deteriorating mother in poems that hurt you but also make you grin, proud of the people he shows you—proud of being human. His great talent is, of course, the elegy.  “Vigilance,” for his late friend, the novelist Barry Hannah, is as good as Whitman. But once you start rating David, you want to quote him to people around you, for he is both avuncular and intimate, a man of wisdom and grace. Let me offer this from his poem “Romanticism I”:

so little survives the world’s chronic revision—a boss line, maybe, from a poem you’ve forgotten, a penny you picked up in an alley for luck, …………….a voice that blessed you in passing.

I have, I am afraid, made David Bottoms sound like a dour, wizened old spirit, an iconic Kiwanis elder who happens upon visionary moments.  He has never been that. He is quiet and self-effacing until you realize he has just said something extremely sharp, often funny. A man who plays exceptionally well a number of stringed instruments, who collects gospel record and tapes, who carried on with the Allman Brothers, who loved fresh gossip and good jokes, David could be the best company you’d ever want. In the last decade we have nearly worn out cellphones carrying on, laughing through one tale after another while he walked his surly German shepherd, a dog he has said was so mean to him he often bit it back. Maybe there are several David Bottoms. One of them, my friend of four decades, is the poet of Atlanta David Bottoms, outgoing, affectionate, passionate about pistols and sunsets and his daughter and her child. This a man I have reason to love. The other one, the inside David Bottoms, is available only in poems that end like “A Little Dream of Fishing” where when the fish bites “…I jerked, you jerked, and the boat shook the stars.” Well, I love that David Bottoms even better.