David Bottoms grew up in Canton, Georgia, the only child of David H. Bottoms, a funeral director, and Louise Ashe Bottoms, a registered nurse. Their home had only two books: a King James Bible and a book by preacher Billy Graham. It was his grandmother who was the “dreamer” in the family, Bottoms explains in an interview with the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She had ten novels on a little shelf in her living room, and two of the books were Gone with the Wind, a hardback and a paperback.
It wasn’t until his time at Mercer College that Bottoms turned his attention from sports to writing. “The poem is a way of searching for a sense of consequence,” Bottoms says. Robert Penn Warren called himself “a seeker”—“a yearner after meaning.” This description also fits Bottoms. Like Warren, Bottoms believes that “the world is always trying to tell the poet something.” It’s the poet’s role to uncover “the metaphorical possibilities of every day life,” Bottoms argues.
This is the key idea Bottoms has tried to convey to his students at Georgia State University, where he has taught for over twenty years: “use language to get at what’s important to you in your life.”
Bottoms’ most recent book, We Almost Disappear, uses the imagery of nature, history, and the South to explore the themes of family, memory, and aging. The narrator’s father is a continual presence in the book, and there is a deep poignancy as we observe this man as a young father, but also as an old man facing death. Bottoms constructs a moving poem out of the simple act of his father inching his walker to the kitchen, “back through the den, around the sofa, down the hall” and to the bedroom to get “a glass of tepid water”:
Finally, on the night table a glass of tepid water. A hell of a fuss,
he says, for what only makes him piss.
In the morning on the night table
an empty glass. And beside it a ring in the dust.
A central theme running through these works is masculinity. What does it mean to be male in the modern South? And what was it like for the fathers and grandfathers who came before? Bottoms beautifully captures the hidden emotional lives of these men, who rely on hunting, alcohol, and shooting bull to get them through. There is a code of silence between male family members that Bottoms knows all too well. So much remains unsaid. By the time I read the poem “A Beginning,” which appears later in the collection, it was impossible not to draw a connection between this male code of silence and the writer’s struggle to face the blank page.
Bottoms references horror flicks and B movies in the poem, but “Walking a Battlefield: A Love Story” also recalls the urban flaneur, characters like T. S. Eliot‘s Prufrock wandering city streets in a yellow haze. But the “dips” and “wallows” of Bottoms’ landscape are not the result of city living or special effects. They’re the remains of a Civil War battlefield where 4,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died under the command of Sherman and Johnston.
There is mystery lurking in both the Southern landscapes and familial relationships Bottoms explores so poignantly in these poems. (The Sally Mann photograph on the cover of We Almost Disappear is the perfect choice for exactly this reason.)
The “notion of God being hidden somewhere ‘behind the silence of infinite spaces’…still applies to a great many folks like me who call themselves seekers after meaning, seekers after consequence, yet find that meaning elusive,” Bottoms explained in an interview with Gregory Fraser in the Birmingham Poetry Review:
“We feel that the world and our lives in it mean something grand and indefinable, and we search and search for some compelling evidence of that. The problem is simply that the world is coy and refuses to give up its secrets easily. No, it’s very stingy with such evidence, and so the search becomes terribly frustrating. But we keep at it because the yearning for meaning constantly nags at us. If we are writers, of course, we use language as our instrument of investigation. ‘After all,’ Yeats wrote in a letter to Pound, ‘one’s art is not the chief end of life but an accident in one’s search for reality or rather perhaps one’s method of search.’ As Heaney says, we use the poem to ‘dig.’ We focus it outward on the world, sure, but we also turn it inward and use it to dig up whatever hidden clues we can.”
As Edward Hirsch writes, We Almost Disappear is “a radiant book.” David Bottoms’ most recent collection “rescues memories from oblivion and holds them up to the light—transformed, transfigured.”
Here are six poems from the collection to kick off your Sunday.
Bump and jostle, the road falling fast into rut, ditch, washout,
pines cuffing the windows, and me in the cab
a constant bounce between my old man and my uncle
as we bring up the tail
of a caravan of trucks tumbling like a rockslide
leveling into splash and creek-bog,
then back-end swerve and up, and rear tires throwing mud
as my old man crunches gears in a field of orange light
where the sun falls in layers
through the splayed tops of pines…
and here we are on my uncle’s place,
tailgates dropping, cages
swinging open, the meadow of brown grass crazy with scent,
until one bark rises, circles and leads,
and the whole pack swarms the woods.
Buzzards over the field, and crows, then a circus of bats,
but mostly I’ve kept the jar and pitch, a clearing of cut hay,
the moonlight rusting a tractor, and off
in the black woods, that thing I never saw, dragging
those frantic voices.
A Swipe of Slick’s Hook
Eyes blackened, lip bleeding, he crossed the highway
in front of my grandfather’s store,
a glinting swipe of his nickel hook
warning off the one car passing. A blistering afternoon,
two-minute summer downpour, then the sun steaming the blacktop like a river,
and the way he staggered—one-stepping, flapping wings, dragging
his foot like a Holiness shuffle—it might have been the Jordan
and him some soul desperate for salvation,
or sympathy, or worse still, credit.
Easy enough to see he was plastered.
His wife had left again, or had simply left, I can’t remember.
I was only fourteen,
and the heat alone would’ve made you dizzy.
Skinned eyes and cracked babble,
that VA hook flailing the air—of all the ragged pictures
of grief, I don’t know why he’d shadow me,
though something, sure, about the feel of this house, this empty dark,
as though you were holding everything you loved
in a hand that had vanished.
Holidays and Sundays
They’d settle in our living room, cross their legs—three or four uncles,
my old man. They’d stare at each other
and pull at their ears, while the women cleared the dishes.
Okay, maybe somebody would mention rain
and draw a nod from across the room, or a ball game
that had gone into extra innings,
but mostly there was silence, as though they’d all agreed
the world was beyond comment.
I grew up thinking this was how men behaved, holding
their thoughts close to their chests. A compliment, sure, at dinner—
the beans, the potatoes—but that was it.
Nobody fired off a joke, nobody lobbed a war story
over anybody’s bow. Not the tiniest pinch
of philosophy, politics, theology.
Only that slow retreat into calculated silence,
which wasn’t exactly boredom,
but more the silence you got at church or funerals,
which was the way you faced the sacred, or death,
or that inscrutable laughter from the kitchen.
In a green-shingled house off Highway 5
just south of Canton, Georgia, a boy sits on a throw rug in the corner
of his room. He’s writing a tall tale, an assignment
for school. Frustrated and dull, he’s panicked by the blank page,
until an older cousin, who’ll
die soon in a war, conjures up a rodeo,
a bronc, and a cowboy bucked over the moon.
The cowboy circles a couple
of planets, then slides back to Earth on the Milky Way,
and the boy, who’s jealous of his cousin, ponders
the imagination, a thing
that makes the pencil tremble in his hand.
Who, though, could’ve imagined that story would live so long—
the house torn down
and paved over, that cousin dreamless under a pink stone—
or that one swatch of stars on a clear night
would still look pale and slick
as cow’s milk, and a blank page, even now, make me panic?
My Father’s Garbage Can
My old man rings me on my cell. The garbage can is beside the road
and needs to be rolled back into the carport.
I scratch my head at the urgency in his voice.
The garbage can is sitting empty beside the road—
it needs to be rolled back into the carport.
How to say, how to say to my father, I can’t drive fifty miles
to wheel his garbage can down the driveway?
But I know this isn’t my old man asking. His voice, sure,
his gargle and rasp, but not my old man asking.
He knows the miles and the afternoon traffic,
how the big trucks clot the interstate.
His gargle, yes, his rasp and stutter, but not my father.
He knows the miles, he knows the traffic.
This is loneliness, the loose tongue of loneliness
nagging by the window
where he’s sat all day with his elbow on his walker, staring
at the oak shade staining the yard
and the garbage can, empty, on the shoulder of the road.
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.
About David Bottoms
Among his other awards are the Frederick Bock Prize and the Levinson Prize, both from Poetry magazine, an Ingram Merrill Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has given readings at over 250 colleges and universities across the country, as well as the Guggenheim Museum, the Library of Congress, and the American Academy in Rome.
Bottoms has served as the Richard Hugo Poet-in-Residence at the University of Montana, the Ferrol Sams Distinguished Writer at Mercer University, and the Chaffee Visiting Poet-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins University. He lives with his wife and daughter in Atlanta, where he holds the Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at Georgia State University. He was founding coeditor, along with Pam Durban, of the literary magazine Five Points.
A book of essays on his work, David Bottoms: Critical Essays and Interviews edited by William Walsh, was published in 2010. He is the recipient of a 2011 Governor’s Award in the Humanities, sponsored by the Georgia Humanities Council, and he served for twelve years as Poet Laureate of Georgia.
“David Bottoms is brilliant in the clarity and richness of his language, profoundly humane in the breadth and compassion of his vision,” says poet Jane Hirshfield. “His poems address our human lives from the center, and unfailingly startle, move, awaken, and expand the heart-mind’s comprehension to something broadened, deepened, and new. He is, quite simply, one of the best poets writing today.”
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All poems © David Bottoms. All Rights Reserved. “A Swipe of Slick’s Hook,” “First Woods,” “Holidays and Sundays,” “A Beginning,” “A Chat with My Father,” and “My Father’s Garbage Can” by David Bottoms were originally published in We Almost Disappear (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), and are used by permission of Copper Canyon Press and David Bottoms.