On David Bottoms: Hymns to the Unknown

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A late Friday afternoon in October, Detroit, 1980.  I was standing in the aisle in Marwil’s bookstore on the corner of Warren and Cass, shaking off a long week of teaching freshman composition, browsing the new poetry books—they didn’t have many—when I hit upon a thin volume called Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.  I had never heard of the poet, David Bottoms, but the title was startling, and the collection had been chosen for a prize by Robert Penn Warren, whose late poems I had been carrying around for weeks (Now and Then, Being Here), and so I stood there reading while the traffic thickened the corridors outside, and the shadows traveled slowly across the store.  I did not notice Mr. Marwil at the cash register, eyeing me suspiciously, making sure that I did not steal the book.

It was an urban surround, but I was immediately transported to a southern countryside where a group of rowdy teenagers were getting drunk and driving around in carloads looking for trouble.  One night they were vandalizing the local cemetery, walking through a valley of tombs with crowbars and drag chains, prying loose the ironwork, and breaking the arms of stone angels.  Another night they were taking out guns and shining their headlights on wasted fields.  I was one of them, or could have been, if I hadn’t grown up in Chicago, a different sort of neighborhood, but with the equally sketchy morals of adolescent boys.  It was not only the casual cruelty of shooting rats at the local dumpsite that haunted me, though I could not shake the image, but also the self-awareness of the speaker, who did not shy away from convicting himself for killing rodents in some sort of misbegotten, toxic idea of male sport:

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.

There’s a shock of recognition here that is characteristic of Bottoms’ work—the almost imperceptible pivot of pronouns from them (“It’s the light they believe”) to us (“We drink and load again”).  I thought of Gloucester’s comment in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.”

I bought the book, much to the proprietor’s relief, and read it on the bus ride home, and sailed past my stop on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Eight Mile Road because I was so engrossed in the country of Bottoms’ youth, a world of cockfights and southeastern fairs, lonely truck drivers, traveling faith healers.  Jimmy’s Grill, Ray Boone’s Reptile Farm.  I was swept away by the narrative titles—“Jamming with the Band at the VFW,” “Writing on Napkins at the Sunshine Club”—that catapulted the reader into notably unpoetic scenes.  The poems were presented in the present tense.  I had discovered a free-verse poet who could spin a yarn, but who also implicated himself in the tales he told, who twisted the knife.  He probed the unconscious for its dark secrets and showed us human cruelties that were discomfiting to read, that one did not necessarily want to see.  He was a seeker on an unusual mission, and that mission was a search for something large and elusive, a deeper meaning, hidden purpose.

I scraped together a couple of hundred bucks and invited David Bottoms to give a poetry reading at Wayne State University.  I met a thin, polite, bearded storyteller who dropped peanuts into his Pepsi and won the audience with his sly wit and dry humor, his slow drawl and down-home manner, but I was wary and suspected an intellectual opossum at work, a loner who kept his own counsel, who believed in literature as a higher calling.  We started talking about poetry then, almost offhandedly, and have kept it up for forty years.  The flow has always been natural between us.  We came from different parts of the country, separate worlds, but we shared a region, too, an aspirational literary one.

From the beginning, it was apparent to me that David had put himself to school on the work of Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, Robert Penn Warren, and James Dickey.  There was an overlap in sensibility with some of the other contemporary Southern poets whom I was discovering at the time, such as James Seay, T. R. Hummer, Rodney Jones, and especially Dave Smith, with whom he would co-edit The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets (1985).  I recognized some of the tonalities of Richard Hugo and James Wright in their work.  But it took me longer to sus out that Bottoms’ work also had a somewhat different torque and trajectory.  He had read and reread Jung, particularly concentrating on Man and His Symbols; he loved Chekhov and the Russian novelists, their outsize human longings; and he had studied the Christian mystics, especially St. Augustine, who compared the soul to a house in ruins: “It contains much that you will not be pleased to see: this I know and do not hide.”  Bottoms staked his claim as a gritty regionalist, but then so did Reynolds Price and Flannery O’Connor, who, as a Christian writer, recognized that “the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul.”

David Bottoms is a poet of idiomatic eloquence.  Warren identified him temperamentally as a realist, but also suggested that “Underlying all his work is the unusual conviction that the world we see is trying to tell us something.”  Bottoms is a compulsive, almost religious phrase maker, whose early book titles firmly rooted us in places that do not usually appear in poetry: In a U-Haul North of Damascus (1983), Under the Vulture-Tree (1987).  He appeared on the scene as a conscientious lyric ethnographer, a participant observer who had decided to study his own culture, its country bars, wilderness motels, gated pawnshops.  But the local color can be deceptive.  It took me a while to figure out the strategic method of his poems.  For one, there is an element of persona operating; the poet is throwing his voice, projecting himself into dubious, quasi-autobiographical, quasi-fictive situations.  As a maker, Bottoms typically began a poem in a narrowly specific, somewhat unlikely place, and then storied his way to a conceptual statement, a larger conclusion.  In “Smoking in an Open Grave,” for example, the speaker starts out with a bunch of kids having a drag in an open crypt—“We bury ourselves to get high”—and then subtly moves toward a swift ending, a final generalization: “It’s a strange place where graves go, / so much of us already geared for the journey.”  It’s this gift for generalizing that sneaks up on you in Bottoms’ poems and gives them an unexpected scope and meaning.

I’ve always been entranced by the way that David captivates folks with his local drawl and country twang.  We once read together at Mercer College, his alma mater, and he quoted folksy sayings from his father (“Maintenance is the life of a car”), but didn’t mention that he had minored in Philosophy, and had especially loved studying Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whose existential plaints have continued to haunt him.  It is characteristic of him to show up wearing a baseball cap and listening to the Carter Family, but not to let on that he has been reading Wordsworth, Frost and Lawrence.  Because he was writing about places that one did not automatically associate with lyric poetry—he wasn’t describing the Lake Country—it was also possible to overlook the fact that that he had taught himself to become an amateur naturalist.  In truth, you can map his poems over time by the region where he was living (Georgia, Florida, Georgia, Montana, Georgia).  He has spent most of his life teaching poetry at Georgia State University, an urban working-class school in downtown Atlanta, but as a writer he stayed out of university city.  You can usually find him traipsing around in the swamps and slipping through the waters in a Jon boat.

In Bottoms’ poems, there are many brushes with animals one does not want to encounter in the wild—the copperhead laying there quietly, “dangerous and unafraid, / all spine and nerve,” and the gator lurking in the river, “the reptile that moves beneath you.”  He seems bemused by the idea that Warren and Dickey took all the noble animals (eagles, owls, and horses) and left him with creatures of a lower order.  He follows them with curiosity, the reptiles and amphibians, the wallowers in muck and slime, and woos the primitivities in us.  There are recuring nightmares of drowned bodies.  From the get-go, there were particularized locales with exotic names: Pinelog Mountain, Laughing Gull Point.  He hiked out in all weather and pinpointed natural scenes: “Fog on Kennesaw,” “In the Ice Pasture.”  The naturalism was real, but there was also an inescapable current of Christian longing and reach in his poems: “Recording the Spirit Voices,” “Sermon of the Fallen,” “Light of the Sacred Harp,” “The Resurrection.”  He was an outlier moving amongst his own people, a delicate sceptic, and yet you can’t help noticing that in his poems, which are mostly set in Baptist country, someone is usually putting up a tent beside the river and fantasizing about salvation.  Someone is lifting a waterlogged Bible, promising to heal the lame, handling snakes, or convulsing on the ground with the spirit of the Holy Ghost.

You can glean from Bottoms’ poetry that he has always loved to be out on the water, fishing for bass, or pretending to, conceding his ignorance of fishing.  He has an almost Bishopian gift for close description—he loves her poems “The Fish” and “At the Fishhouses”—but he is also highly alert to religious currents and metaphors, which regularly crop up in his work.  “What I love about water is mystery,” he writes in one poem, “the something unknowable / curling under roots, the thing lost / sinking with each current / deeper into sludge” (“Sounding Harvey Creek”).  “In my perfect night,” he concludes in another, “I follow a trail by the river, / and my shadow on the water, / looks deep and alive” (“My Perfect Night”).

David grew up with the old hymns, the Baptist church music of his childhood in Canton, Georgia, and the lessons stuck.  You don’t have to get too into his work before you start hearing the figurative language of “Shall we gather at the river” and “I’m gonna take a trip on that old gospel ship.”  He loves the clarity and longing of those old songs.  “There is so much water imagery in those hymns,” he once told William Walsh.  “It’s the whole beautiful notion of crossing over, of getting to the other side.  The imagery, of course, is ancient, and not uniquely Christian, but I suppose Sunday school largely accounts for my love of it, and the gospel music I listened to as a boy.”  Later, when he read Jung on the subject of archetypes, he also started treating lakes and rivers as metaphors for the psyche—those clear or muddy surfaces, those profundities secreted under the surface.

David plays a mean banjo, mandolin, and guitar—gospel music has always been the soundtrack to his work.  Listen to “An Old Hymn for Ian Jenkins” (“Southerners know / how a place can wrap you up in a dream”) and “Gospel Banjo: Homage to Little Roy Lewis” (“Little Roy, to come back to anything as clear and bright / as your banjo… / is to hear the dream flaunting the possibility of the dream, / which is the joy of waking on either side of the Jordan”).  Most telling is “Homage to Lester Flatt”: “Lester, singing whatever we want about the dead / is the easiest thing in the world. / Believing it the hardest.”  The speaker in Bottoms’ poems is often troubled by disbelief.  He sings the words—“Troublesome waters I’m fearing no more”—and realizes that the reassurance is not quite reassuring enough:

So this is where I stop, in this wet grass. This is the river we’re all troubled by, where the storm wash rattling the bank echoes the tenor of our lives.

Over time, there was a quiet sea change in Bottoms’ work as the supernal register became more and more prominent in his collections.  The outlook is more decidedly Christian.  You can track the change in the titles: Vagrant Grace (1999), which turns on the long middle poem “Country Store and Moment of Grace,” Waltzing Through the Endtime (2004), We Almost Disappear (2011), and, most recently, most explicitly, Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch (2018).  One could tell that he had been studying the deep country music of Charles Wright, who replaced James Dickey as his touchstone model, and Wright’s Poundian lineation became a steady feature of his poetry.  He shares Wright’s spiritual gleaning and deploys these emblematic lines as one of his epigraphs:

All things aspire to weightlessness, ……………….some place beyond the lip of language, Some silence, some zone of grace…

(“Poem Half in the Manner of Li Ho”)

R. S. Thomas also became an influence—that rough landscape and harsh Welsh music, that elemental longing to be saved.

Bottoms has always stayed rooted in the actual world, there are poems of family life and anxious fatherhood scattered through his books, but at the same time his poems started to loosen and stretch out, becoming more meditative, wooing the intangibilities.  “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump” transmogrified into “Shooting Rats in the Afterlife.”  Here, troubled by guilt, he defines a notion of what he terms “our own afterlives”:

Nothing, not a cracker, not a crumb.  Still a vague intimation shadows the memory of this place, and others, that somewhere down the pike these landscapes are waiting again, or are, perhaps, the only things we take with us— our psychic terrain— as though through memory we create our own afterlives— which can’t be the entire breadth of it all, …………………………………………………………………..but in some way a homeland, a landscape out of which we might ramble into the afterlives, yes, the memories, of one another…

Reading Bottoms’ later work, you feel him becoming increasingly fevered by the past, more and more desperate to recollect what would otherwise be forgotten, the regrets piling up, the loved ones lost, especially his parents.  You can see him thinking through the linkages: “Finally, yes, I know this is about eternity, / this circling, this following, / and, of course, the irredeemable taunt of memory, / without which we’d have no ghosts to lead us” (“A Family Parade”).  As an only child, David has been compelled to rely entirely on his own faulty recollections of childhood and adolescence.  Many of the memories seem quotidian, suddenly drudged up to the surface, but all the more precious because of that, all that remains:

Everything struggling, yes, toward severance, it’s odd what the memory smuggles into the afterlife— the squeak of my mother’s hospital shoes, or a baseball game from the fifties, my father’s wing tips kicking up a coaching box— ……………………………………………….pocket charms against oblivion…

(“Easter Shoes Epistle”)

We are not made to last, we are vanishing creatures, mortal beings, but it’s also appropriate to put some extra pressure on the middle word in Bottoms’ phrase, “We Almost Disappear.”  Sometimes when I think about his poems, those haunted dreams and salvage operations, pocket charms against oblivion, staves against the storm, I hear Ralph Stanley’s lonesome voice singing “O Death”: “O Death / Won’t you spare me ‘til another year.”

David Bottoms was an environmental poet before we had a name for it—and in his most characteristic poems, a speaker heads out into a landscape to see what he will find; it’s a project of inquiry and search, of close watch and radical discovery, of what one poem calls “Three-quarter Moon and Moment of Grace” (“Family asleep, I walk my worries into the shallow yard”).  He has sometimes got the dog to accompany him—in one poem, he calls him an “American Mystic”—but he’s otherwise alone.  There are no easy answers in his work—it is panicky and shadowed by doubt, weighted down by worry and woe, a nervous grief.  He gives you the texture of time passing and past.  But he also counters this disconsolate feeling with true moments of lucidity, grace notes, mystic breakthroughs.  He seeks the numinous and his landscapes become springboards to the absolute; the poems are levers of transcendence, prayers for the passage, hymns to the unknown.

We have not yet taken the measure of David Bottoms’ work.  He is a poet rooted in landscape, who treats poetry with the gravity it deserves as “the most natural vehicle of the spirit,” a quest for the divine.  I admired his work from the beginning, but I could not have guessed when I chanced upon it in a local bookstore forty ago that he would someday turn into a poet of such weighty late devotionals—psychical, otherworldly.  We are now nearing the end—“Clearly the door to old age has opened,” he writes (“Maybe a Little Music”)—but others are older, and perhaps there is still time to lodge something permanent.  “Whoa, O Death / someone would pray / Could you wait to call me another day.”  I feel lucky to have known him for so much of the journey.