Five Points, Vol. 22, No. 2Winter
Lauren K. Watel
Near the End: Getting to Know David Bottoms
Twenty years ago a series of tumultuous events upended my life, altering its course, as they say, and veering me off in directions I could never have anticipated. I fell in love with a poet, for one thing. A long marriage ended, an amicable divorce got less amicable, many friendships were strained, many egos, two children, one dog, and let’s not forget all the fireworks, dazzling emotional displays of the sort I fancied I’d outgrown but discovered I hadn’t. Among all these strange swerves, another turn, possibly the strangest: I started reading poetry.
Poetry, that far north of literature’s many landscapes, its white expanses and broken lines. Up to that point I wasn’t much interested in poetry, being a reader and writer of fiction. Nor was I interested in poets until, suddenly, I was. Thereafter, having no idea of where I was going, I set out on a long trek through a rolling terrain of poets and their poems—or poems and their poets, if you prefer. It was on this trek, amid its first beguiling windings, that I met David Bottoms.
The poet I fell in love with introduced me to David, who lived in the Atlanta area, where I live. We went to David’s house, a comfortable ranch with a screened-in porch and wooded yard, in a large suburb northwest of downtown, hilly and blanketed in trees. Inside, books everywhere, of course, and records and CDs and pottery and a beautiful grand piano, the latter belonging to David’s wife Kelly. We sat in the living room and drank iced tea together, their daughter Alice Rachel, at that time a teenager, wandering through the living room to say hi. The whole family welcomed me, a total stranger, into their home as if we’d known each other for years. Or as if they sensed we would know each other for years.
Which, as it turns out, we did. David and Kelly soon became friends, then good friends, regulars at my house for holidays. Through the door they would come, on the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Kelly hollering hello and proffering wine and some lovely gift, David muttering a gentle hey and toting a bottle or two of Dr. Pepper, his beverage of choice in those years. Most comically and movingly, the family—David with his Southern Baptist upbringing, Kelly with her traumatic childhood experiences in a Christian fundamentalist sect in California, and Alice Rachel, enrolled at an Episcopal school—became not only indispensable guests at our annual Seder dinner but our honorary-Jewish kin.
Soon after I met him, David sent me some of his books. I’d learned that poets do this when they take a liking to you and expect they’ll see you again. “I hope you’ll not be a stranger,” David said in the enclosed letter, “and that we’ll have many other good times together.” I wish I could say I dove right in and immersed myself in his books, but I did not. I was meeting so many poets and encountering what felt like vast unfamiliar territories of their work. Since I knew next to nothing about poetry, I felt ignorant, and my ignorance made me ashamed. I also lacked the discernment to know whom to read and whom merely to skim; as a result, I skimmed everyone, hoping to absorb just enough to fake my way through the whole poetry adventure without exposing myself as the bumbling pretender I was.
If you skim the poems of any poet, you come away with an idea of a body of work, as well as the poet who wrote it. From this idea you can confidently assert a few things and appear to know what you’re talking about. About David Bottoms you can, for example, say, “A narrative Southern poet.” You can say, “A disappearing rural landscape.” You can say, “Pickup trucks and guns and the Allman Brothers.” You can say, “Rats and gators and snakes.” You can say, “Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey.” Had you asked me about David and his work, these are just the sorts of things I might have said. To a certain extent, they’re true. After all, he titled his prize-winning first book Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. But they don’t tell the whole story, about David or his work, because skimming never gets you to the whole story, especially with regards to poetry, which requires concentration, commitment.
I resorted to skimming poetry out of desperation; however, I’m not normally a skimmer. From an early age I was a deep and eagerly-absorbed reader, probably to escape from intense pressures I felt in childhood. I adored novels and especially loved reading them more than once, getting to know them, as it were. I read people much the same way. Deeply, and with great interest. In this regard I hit it off with Kelly from the beginning. Smart, sharp, funny, with a loud infectious laugh, Kelly’s the sort of woman one can reasonably call a force. She’s passionate and outspoken, often edgy, a complicated mix of progressive principles and spiritual yearnings. Her sympathies always lie with the underdog, the vulnerable. Before writing her memoir, she practiced law for years, often representing underserved clients who faced employment discrimination, advocating for people who found it hard to advocate for themselves. It was easy to see why David found Kelly compelling, why he loved her. She was, in many ways, his perfect complement. Where she was boisterous, he was reserved. Where she was voluble, he was laconic. Where she was blunt, he was guarded. Where she was extreme, he was inhibited. These qualities made it easy for an intimacy to develop between Kelly and me, for me to know her. More difficult, however, was intimacy with David. David made it impossible to read him deeply.
Not that I didn’t try. Over the years we did have many other good times together, David, Kelly and I. More often than not, I made the long, traffic-choked drive up I-75 to their house for dinner, mainly because, of the three of us, David was by far the best cook. While David saw to the grill—the man was a grilling virtuoso—Kelly and I would catch up and drink. Wine for her, bourbon for me, David’s Dr. Pepper waiting on his placemat. Eventually David would carry in a steaming platter, toss the salad, grab the potatoes from the oven. By then Kelly and I would have settled into our familiar lively rhythms, gabbing about our kids and friends, laughing uproariously, exchanging opinions about writing, books, music. David would sit with a small groan, pour more wine, more bourbon, and tuck into his food while Kelly and I kept talking. All the questions I aimed in David’s direction he shot back with a word or two, maybe a sentence or two, delivered in his mellow Georgia twang. Or sometimes not even that, just a throaty grunt, before returning to his meal.
When the weather prevented David from grilling, we headed to a nearby Ted’s Montana Grill, since he was quite partial to their salt and pepper trout. I would often embark on these outings armed with a topic or series of questions, determined to make David an equal participant in the conversation. Before one of our nights at Ted’s I read the novel Deliverance; I knew James Dickey had been an important literary predecessor for David, as well as a loyal friend. My probing enquiries as to Dickey’s influence, tropes and style were met, alas, with the typical clipped responses, mutterings and grumblings. Like a man undergoing a root canal, David seemed to suffer through my grilling with the stoic patience of one who knows that the pain will eventually come to an end, if he just waits long enough.
Undeterred, I kept battering away at David Bottoms with all the ammunition at my disposal, lobbing volley after volley at the ramparts, stories high and layers thick, trying to gain access to the castle within. Once I even invited myself on an expedition to a shooting range with David and another local poet David was extremely fond of, Tom Lux. Yes, David owned guns—once, seated at my dining room table, he lifted his pant leg to reveal a pistol, strapped to his calf—as did Tom, both having grown up around guns in the country. We convened at GA Firing Line, a gun store and shooting range in a strip mall about ten miles northwest of David’s house. After lengthy safety lectures, delivered first by Tom, then by David, the three of us strapped on earmuffs and took turns firing away. “A good shot, but slow,” was David’s assessment of my form.
Afterwards, in accordance with their ritual, we repaired to El Rodeo, a Mexican restaurant in the same strip mall, where David and Tom ordered without consulting the menu. I was hoping that, in the company of Tom and in the heat of our firearms-discharging, bullets-flying camaraderie, David would relax enough to enjoy a leisurely lunch together, trade some poetry gossip and maybe even a personal story. On the contrary, he plowed through his usual combo plate with his usual terse remarks and hustled out of there as soon as we paid the check.
So many meals, so many attempts, but finally I surrendered. The query-bombs I launched at David were never going to penetrate his defenses. He remained, in some respects, a stranger, and skimming him was the best I was going to get. Left to read into his silences, I sometimes assumed that he found me irritating, that he might not even like me all that much, that he merely tolerated me because of his affection for the poet who had introduced us. Around him David seemed much more at ease and would converse, albeit tersely, about the poems and poets they both loved. I still sometimes pestered him with questions, but affectionately, teasingly, without real hope of gaining access.
By that time I knew, without him having to tell me, that he was a complicated person, deceptive. Sure, he had that Southern man-of-few-words thing going: shoots guns, drives a pickup, talks real slow, goes fishing, wears a baseball cap and jeans, watches football, loves meat and potatoes. Nonetheless, he also earned a Ph.D. in Literature. He taught poetry for nearly forty years at Georgia State University—many of his former students accomplished writers in their own right, including a couple who met in his class and became his good friends, then mine—and co-founded and edited Five Points, a prestigious literary magazine with an international reputation. He played guitar and mandolin and listened to an eclectic range of music, from bluegrass and gospel to classical orchestral and choral pieces. He was also a voracious reader, not only of poetry but also of fiction. He immersed himself in his beloved nineteenth-century Russian novels with a near-religious devotion and revered Iris Murdoch, as well as myriad writers from around the world. Like me he read deeply, returning to the same books again and again, as if he considered them cherished friends with whom he was determined to stay in close touch.
A few years before the pandemic David began to say even less at dinners and holidays. When he did speak, he often remarked that he was getting old. He started talking about retirement. In the past he was usually ready to hit the road well before his sociable wife, Kelly taking one last sip of wine as he nudged her toward the door, David grabbing an unfinished Dr. Pepper for the ride home. Now, though, he was looking longingly, anxiously at the door as soon as the meal was over. He seemed more and more withdrawn, possibly depressed. When anyone asked him how he was doing, “Fine” was all he would say. Whatever was plaguing him, whatever he was worried about or felt, he wasn’t going to admit.
Eventually he was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological disorder that impacts, among other things, balance and eye movement. This meant that at a certain point, David could no longer read, nor could he write. With his longtime friend Ernest Suarez he’d put together a new manuscript, a collection of recent poems and work from his previous volumes, but close proofreading had become a task he couldn’t manage. Since Kelly was taking on more and more of his care as his condition deteriorated, she and David asked me to serve as his stand-in. I was honored, if a little daunted. Such a solemn responsibility, to help shepherd David’s culminating book to publication, especially because he hoped he would live long enough to see it launched.
David gave me the manuscript, entitled A Scrap in the Blessings Jar, in a black three-ring binder, with the request that I look it over and give him my “review.” It was only then, after knowing David nearly twenty years, that I sat down with the best of his life’s work and gave it my full attention. I read deeply, slowly, deliberately. The snappy impressions I’d formed from skimming soon started to seem laughably simplistic, inadequate to articulate the complexities of David’s work, its depths and subtleties. Nor did they do justice to David himself.
As I made my way through the manuscript, a picture began to emerge, a story of sorts, of a poet powerfully shaped by the place where he grew up, the mid-twentieth-century rural South, as well as by the people around him, his father and grandfather, his uncle and cousins, the friends who gathered at his grandfather’s store, the stern local cop, the grizzled veteran, the brawny farmer in overalls. A world of men. These men first and foremost characterized by one crucial quality, their toughness. David writes about the toughness of a poor farmer, the father of five, coming into the store David’s grandfather owns, needing credit. Once he gets his modest list of groceries, “he ignores the hand truck leaning against the wall // and hefts onto his shoulder a hundred-pound bag of horse feed // . . . and parades, head high, to the bed of his pickup (“Hubert Blankenship,” 139).” Proud of his strength and tenacity, the farmer carries the heavy bag of feed himself, despite the holes cut in his boots to accommodate his bunions.
Throughout David’s childhood, male toughness like Hubert Blankenship’s, a toughness both physical and mental, was prized and admired above all else. In “Homage to Buck Cline” a hard-nosed cop describes David’s father as a high school football player: “and that word he edged toward, the way / he uttered it with such reverence over the church bells, / as if he’d tasted its weight / on his tongue for years, careful for the perfect usage, / that true word that said it all—‘Tough’ (86).” The most important man in his life, David’s father was wounded and thrown from the deck of the USS Atlanta during the Battle of Guadalcanal, his near-fatal injuries requiring years of hospitalization. “In the lifeboat someone asked / about the pain. / (Only his right hand / kept his intestines from spilling into the boat.) // A little sting, he said, from the salt water (“A Small Remembrance,” 146).” To survive death, as David’s father did, a man must downplay or ignore his suffering.
In keeping with the stoicism required to stay tough, the men that populated David’s childhood are also characterized by their silence. “In my grandfather’s store,” he writes, “silence was the mark of a real man. // . . . Speech simply wasn’t the currency (“Silence and Southern Men,” 9).” Often toughness and silence reinforce one another. Silence is a powerful sign of a man’s toughness, proof that he can endure and suffer without complaint. After recovering from his combat injuries, David’s father “stayed tough enough / even after the war / when the shrapnel gnawed into the small of his back / with every step he took / . . . that memory always alive and violent, though never spoken (“Homage to Buck Cline,” 86).” Silence also enables a man to stay tough, the repression or compartmentalizing of feelings—especially those considered weak, such as fear or tenderness—a necessary component of this particular form of toughness. “My Father’s Voice” recounts an incident when David was five and a length of fence wire pierced through his calf. After his father removes the wire with pliers, he buys his son a pair of walkie-talkies—“(a gift against my pain)”—and David recalls “the voice of my father breaking up / and trembling, breaking up / and still trembling / through that cheap tin speaker (8).” This description beautifully captures what his father does not and cannot express in words, his fear for his son, which the poem expresses in the voice’s breaking up and trembling, mediated through—note the skillful, subtle pun of the poem’s last word—the “speaker.”
Since the men in David’s poems rarely say much, I started to understand why David didn’t either, having been raised with this vision of how a man becomes a man. Any form of expression—thoughts, feelings, opinions—a real man kept to himself. When the men of his family gathered for special occasions, “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 (“Holidays and Sundays,” 106).” In his grandfather’s store the men would sit together, mostly in silence, around a potbelly stove. “All through my childhood / I hardly ever heard a story unfold around that stove . . . / . . . mostly grunts / or nothing at all (“Country Store and Moment of Grace” 57).”
Since these men repress their feelings, withdrawing into silence, speech and self-expression are replaced by practical action. In “My Old Man Loves My Truck” David describes his father as an old man, trembling on his walker, intent on studying his son’s truck, “as though every loss, every letdown, might be cleared up / by thumbing a scratch or kicking a tire (117).” Throughout his poems David characterizes silence as a kind of refusal, a refusal to engage with or talk back to the matters in life that are beyond understanding, matters frightening in their mystery. What they cannot know, what scares them, the men do not speak about; rather, they surrender to “that slow retreat into calculated silence, / . . . 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 (“Holidays and Sundays,” 106).”
The vision of manhood as a toughness reinforced by silence obviously played a foundational role in making David the man he became, a tough-seeming and silent man. This is how I’d always perceived him. However, when I read his work deeply, I discovered that as a child David found the weight of that masculine ideal difficult to bear. He portrays himself in many poems as a small boy, anxious, afraid of the world. “I was a nervous boy, small and nervous,” he says in a poem aptly entitled “A Nervous Boy” (141). In “After the Stroke” he writes, “I was a timid kid, easily spooked. And it seemed like touchy gods / were everywhere (103).” To protect himself he often went into hiding. “I liked to hide,” he says in “Cathedrals.” “I liked to sit alone in the dark (148).” He describes himself similarly in “A Nervous Boy.” “I liked to hide. // I sought out places of refuge— / close spaces where thick air was a balm for remorse (141).” For David, hiding was a way to flee the immense pressures masculine toughness inflicted on his childhood.
Often David hid by escaping to the barn or other remote places in nature; at other times, he escaped into a book or his own imagination. In “Pinch-Hitting in the Playoffs” David contrasts himself with the “real jocks” who “got the at bats, while I warmed the bench, knocking off / Russian novels (107).” (Notice how he cleverly enjambs the baseball-sounding “knocking off” with the literary turn of “Russian novels.”) When the poet unexpectedly finds himself at bat in a playoff game, the coach frantically sending him signs, his thoughts remain with the characters in War and Peace. “And all I could think / was Lev Nikolaevich, don’t let Prince Andrei die (107).” The burdens of his looming manhood led this nervous, imaginative boy to seek refuge in the fantastical world of literature, even as he donned the uniform and warmed the bench in the real world.
While participating in youthful initiating rites of manhood such as sports, David clearly felt conflicted, uneasy, alien, at odds with the kind of man he was expected to become. “A Nervous Boy” recounts an incident when, alone with his grandfather, he purposely missed a shot at a rabbit. “My grandfather sighed as though my failure / suggested the sort of man I’d be. / But I didn’t want to shoot that rabbit (142).” When his disappointed grandfather indicates that David should try again, he remembers that he “only wanted to hide. // I only wanted the dark, the solitude.” He doesn’t remember pulling the trigger, but after he sees his grandfather “lifting it by the ears // and flinging it into the dog lot,” he’s forced to conclude, in the poem’s devastating and rueful last line, “I must’ve shot that rabbit (143).” Here, again, emerges a portrait of a boy profoundly troubled by the masculine toughness he’s supposed to emulate. And because that model of manhood also values silence, it doesn’t occur to him to express his reservations about shooting the rabbit. Instead, he represses the painful memory.
Left to ponder the silent men in his childhood, the young poet-to-be found them somewhat impenetrable, just as I found David. However, women presented a different sort of mystery for that boy, one on an order of magnitude with “the sacred, or death (106).” Since David learned from the men around him to confront those ultimate mysteries with the denial of silence, I have to assume that women were not a subject he felt equipped to tackle. Poems about his childhood and early adulthood for the most part refer to women obliquely—“that inscrutable laughter from the kitchen”—or in passing, as in the “platinum blond” server of “Writing on Napkins at the Sunshine Club” or the “skinny girl in skintight jeans” at the jukebox of “Love at the Sunshine Club” (23, 113). David seemed to develop the willingness and the capacity to write about his mother only after both of them had aged. Poems such as “Rehab” and “The Moon My Mother Shot For” feature compassionate accounts of his frail mother’s agitation about her empty house gathering dust, as well as the poignancy of her unsuccessful class strivings.
After David married Kelly and Alice Rachel was born, women and girls began to appear a bit more often in David’s work. Tender and loving, his poems of domestic life are also shadowed by anxiety, which obviously accompanied David into adulthood. “When I can’t reach my daughter, or my wife,” he says in “A Small Remembrance,” “the black flower / of anxiety blooms in my chest and chokes off my breath (144).” “Little Night Owl” describes David walking around the neighborhood at night, trying to lull his infant to sleep, “terrified of this new joy // on my shoulder (14).” As a father he seems to feel powerless, fearful that he won’t be able to protect his daughter, fearful for her safety in a world of potentially violent men and boys. While giving her a bath, he listens with a growing sense of helplessness to a news story about a teenage girl raped in Sarajevo and concludes that “the only answer I have / is this nervous / exaggeration of tenderness (“Night Strategies,” 55).” In “My Daughter Works the Heavy Bag” David watches Alice Rachel practicing her karate moves, a lone girl surrounded by jeering boys, “alone, in herself, / to her own time, in her own rhythm, honing her blocks / and feints, her solitary dance, / having mastered already the first move of self-defense (108).”
In “Little Dream of Spilt Coffee” a series of simple actions enacts the emotional dynamic of a wife and husband. The poem begins with an anxious thought the husband/speaker doesn’t say aloud: “Yipes, I thought, don’t put that cup on the floor . . .” After Kelly accidentally knocks the cup over, David reports that his “heart, wobbly for days, tipped again.” Mercifully, the coffee inside doesn’t spill, “inexplicable as mysticism, or love, as though the laws of nature / had shifted to accommodate our mistakes.” Though David picks the cup off the floor, it is Kelly who “steadied it in both hands (110).” As the poem replays a trivial domestic incident, it also sums up the back and forth of an entire marriage, the wife’s steadying presence in the end counterbalancing her husband’s anxiety. In “Kelly Sleeping” David observes his slumbering wife. “I know she’s in another place,” he says, “a purer place, which perhaps doesn’t include me, // though certainly includes love, which may include the possibility of me.” Unsure of his role in his wife’s dream life, he notes that “her face against the sheet (or pillow) / achieves (almost) an otherworldly calm (do I dare say that?) / and it glows (almost) as it glowed years ago / just after our daughter’s head slipped through the birth canal (154).” The insertion of repeated parentheticals in this description indicates the poet’s hesitancy to make definitive statements about his wife at the moment she gave birth. Even the woman he loves best remains an enigma to him.
Caught between the unknowable mystery of women on the one hand and the unbearable toughness of men on the other, it’s no wonder that David developed a special sympathy for animals. Unlike many poets, who write about animals by romanticizing their nobility, David identifies with their baser instincts. He’s especially drawn to rodents, reptiles, insects. In creatures generally considered ignoble David finds qualities to admire. “I pray to be like the coyote, wary and full of craft,” he says in “A Small Remembrance,” “fully aware of the moment, / and only the moment (144).” In “Under the Vulture-Tree” he deems vultures “dwarfed transfiguring angels,” describing their faces as “like the faces of the very old / who have grown to empathize with everything,” and sees their scavenging consumption of carrion as a form of mercy (38). The boy who liked to hide alone reveals a strong sympathy toward snapping turtles “with their ugly armored hearts, who wallow / like turnips in the muck of the bottom, clinging / to their stony solitude / . . . hiding like lost / fears (“Armored Hearts,” 44).” “In a Kitchen, Late” finds the poet in a rocker at night, waiting for the cockroaches to come “out of the baseboards / and heater vents, faithful / as your ugliest desire (45).” In each case David finds meaning and grace in the creatures he encounters, no matter how pesky or despicable to humans.
So many of David’s poems feature such encounters, between a solitary speaker and an animal. He invariably depicts these moments as suspended in time and freighted with significance, as if he senses in the animal some truer way of being, one he imagines as untainted by human foibles, and longs to experience that way of being. While fishing, for example, David comes across a copperhead and finds himself wanting “more than once to drift into the shaded water, / and pull myself down a fallen branch toward the trunk / where he lay quiet and dangerous and unafraid / all spine and nerve (“The Copperhead,” 30).” Sometimes David dramatizes his profound identification with animals as a yearning for some sort of union. “In the Ice Pasture” recounts such a moment, when the poem’s narrator sees a horse fall through an ice-covered pond. Trying to guide the horse out of the frigid water, the narrator also falls through the ice. They both sink, the narrator “numb, bodiless” until “the body of the horse rose under me / and what we were lunged hard, broke / to the air, to the wind turning us scaly / with water.” Here the horse’s rising body merges with the bodiless, sinking man, creating out of their combined bodies a single entity, neither horse nor man but “what we were.” When this newly formed creature begins to struggle to free itself from the icy water, “the roar we made . . . / . . . broke by inches the black shell / of water, till the night / cracked . . . in the storm / of two beasts becoming one/ or one beast being born (36).” In this poem David’s longing for communion with an animal, or for communion with the animal inside himself, is literally enacted as an icy baptism, a rebirth.
Other poems feature enigmatic encounters, not with animals, but with the evidence of their presence. In “First Woods,” for example, David goes hunting with his father and uncle in a caravan of pickup trucks. After describing the scene in tangible detail—“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”—he ends the poem with his most distinct memory of the expedition, an unseen animal presence: “and off / in the black woods, / that thing I never saw, dragging / those frantic voices (101).” In “A Blessing, Late” the speaker catches a glimpse of an unidentifiable predator, which “skulked / through the tree line and subdivided shadows . . . / . . . following blood / and scent of meat.” He imagines meeting it “for a moment, eye to solid eye,” but he can distinguish “only that gray and long-legged blur / ghosting into the trees.” In his longing to make contact with this furtive animal presence, to see the creature he can sense is out there, he keeps staring through the window “into the dark between the trees, trying to bring back that glimpse / and trembling, that nervy blur (109).”
David grew up keenly attuned not only to animals but also to the landscapes of his childhood, the fields and forests, rivers and ponds. In the natural world, in the wildness of land uninhabited by humans, David often sensed the presence of something otherworldly. He describes these shadowy signs with an urgent sense of yearning, of straining toward something he senses is out there, just beyond his grasp, something hidden, something hovering behind or beyond the merely visible. In “Slow Nights in the Bass Boat” he writes that “the silence on the water feels like the voice / of a great absence. // . . . The rustle in your ear is something grand and awful / straining to announce itself (132).” At any one time David has one foot in our world and one foot in that other world, the world of the ineffable, where some essential mystery connected both to life and to death waits, if only one takes the time to notice. “Maybe you, too, believe the world is always intimating secrets, / both worlds,” he says in “Little Dream Under a Wizard’s Cap” (12). This constitutional noticing, this sensing of the unseen at the edges, this fascination with the spirits looming over, lurking beyond, is what makes this nervous boy a poet.
“Near the end, though, only one thing matters,” David says in the final lines of the final poem of his final book, “and nothing, not even the fox, moves as quietly (“A Scrawny Fox,” 166).” I only really got to know David Bottoms near the end, by reading his work with the attention it deserved. By that time, the disease progression had made it very difficult for him to speak. So when I came to his house with that black binder, pored over and marked up, I had to do the talking. I told him everything I had learned about him from reading his work deeply. I told him that I saw his poems not only as loving depictions of the tough, silent Southern men of his childhood, with their pickup trucks and guns, but also as a sustained, implicit critique of that culture of masculinity, a testament to the damage it can cause, as well as to the lifetime of fear it instilled in one small sensitive boy. That in an odd reversal of the traditional gender schema positing women as closer to nature and men as closer to culture, David’s work portrays men as more like animals, whereas women represent the civilized portion of the species. That his poems often dwell in the liminal, the transitional spaces, the places and moments between worlds: porches, windows, boats, trails, the woods, rivers and lakes, dawn, darkness, time suspended, time out of time, memory. That his was, at heart, a poetry concerned with ultimate things, which he was forever seeking, grasping at, trying to articulate, in poem after poem, with language startling in its wild and terrifying beauty, its elegant simplicity, its subtleties and sensitivities. And as I told him what I’d found in his work, David listened intently, with nods of satisfaction, the occasional approving grunt, multiple thumbs-up, and a pleased if pensive silence. I spoke for over an hour, and when I was done, he knew that I had gotten to know him.
David was right about me. I’m a good shot, but slow. Far too slow. If only I’d immersed myself in those books when he’d sent them, I would have discovered years ago that, despite his reserve, his silences and his withholdings, David had always been there, waiting to be known. He hadn’t made it impossible to read him; I’d just tried to read the wrong David. I kept coming back to the man at the grill, instead of going to the man in the poems. David was on those pages, in those poems, exposed, nervous and bewildered but also observant, curious and captivated. How fitting that the term for what one might call the-writer-in-the-poem, as opposed to the-writer-in-real-life, is the speaker. David didn’t speak much, but as “the speaker” in poems, he spoke. He spoke openly, tenderly, longingly, ruefully. Poetry offered David a form of resurrectional speaking, salvific not mainly in the Christian sense, as redemptive of sin, but in the most personal sense, as redemptive of self. Each poem, then, becomes a prayer, sent from the present self to the past self and the future self, a notation of self-revelation, another scrap to drop into the blessings jar.
All works quoted from David Bottoms, A Scrap in the Blessings Jar: New and Selected Poems (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2023).