V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Two Decades of David Bottoms' Poetry




The scenes depicted in Bottomsâ poems have always carried
a strong sense of authenticity and credibility as they carefully
catalog even the most ordinary items in everyday life, yet
present them in a lyrical language that lends an elegance
to everything that matters, especially those objects too often
overlooked because of their commonplace appearances,
but that are nevertheless essential.

Ever since David Bottomsâ first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, was selected by Robert Penn Warren for the Academy of American Poetsâ Walt Whitman Award in 1979, readers have come to expect certain traits or patterns of action in his poetry: a clear and credible voice offering accurate and evocative description of nature, as well as the natural activities of everyday existence, often mixed with wit and irony, as he searches for understanding of the higher spiritual significance among the commonplace or ordinary events of life.  With his retrospective Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems, published in 1995, these signature features were even more readily apparent in an accumulation of outstanding lyric narratives.
    As the title of his initial collection might indicate, during the earlier years of his poetry some of Bottomsâ most characteristic works offered narrators in risky situations, outsiders and individuals barely on the ragged edge of society somehow engaged in activities that were rebellious or defiant, perhaps even illegal and repellent.  From those earliest poems and through some others that followed in subsequent volumes, we have been introduced to characters stealing ornamental ironwork and vandalizing gravestones in a cemetery at night ("Wrestling Angels"), getting high on pot in a crypt ("Smoking in an Open Grave"), hot wiring a friendâs car in the middle of the night so it later could be rolled into a river to claim insurance ("In the Black Camaro"), breaking into an old elementary school to cart off a scarred desktop carved with names ("The Desk"), or raping a young woman in a hayloft ("The Farmers").
    Many poems have presented portraits of the lost or lonely: "The Drunk Hunter" secretly hopes "someone has heard his shot, / takes time to warn heâs hunting posted land"; "A Trucker Drives Through His Lost Youth," searches "again for the spirit / behind the eyes in his rear-view mirror"; "The Lame" boy dreams "he feels fish gnaw the swollen ankle, / carry off in their bellies chunks of his deformity."
    Even those poems in which the description and circumstances of the narrator most clearly suggest identification with Bottoms ÷ and in which the speaker appears to have undergone some sort of self-discovery, a moment of illumination or imagination he may have been seeking ÷ an absence and a separation from others always seem emphasized.  "In a Jon Boat During a Florida Dawn," Bottoms writes, "you feel an old surprise surfacing / in and around you.  If you could, / you would cut the outboard / and stop it all right here·."  "In a Pasture Under a Cradled Moon," the speaker concludes by "studying the way the light drops into the trees, / the way so much love can be learned / from loss." "In a U-Haul North of Damascus," the narrator finds himself "on the road from one state / to another, what is left behind nags through the distance."  In "Paper Route, Northwest Montana," Bottoms recalls an early glimpse of "a stunned white wolf" drifting down the river on an ice floe, and he concludes, "sometimes in loneliness, I claim it / a blessing·."  And alone on another river "Under the Vulture Tree," he imagines the black birds filling a dead oak as "transfiguring angels," figures "who pray over the leaf-graves of the anonymous lost·."
    The scenes depicted in Bottomsâ poems have always carried a strong sense of authenticity and credibility as they carefully catalog even the most ordinary items in everyday life, yet present them in a lyrical language that lends an elegance to everything that matters, especially those objects too often overlooked because of their commonplace appearances, but that are nevertheless essential.
    Appropriately, in "Appearances" Bottoms recounts once listening to a radio reporterâs narration of sheriffâs deputies searching a hay field in a curve of headlights: "I curl under my blanket, / watch the yellow dial on the radio, the stars hanging / in the black panes of the window.  This is real·."   Indeed, the more "real" the images and events chronicled in Bottomsâ poems, the more he seems obligated to choose musical phrases with convincing metaphors or similes that persuade the reader of their significance, and the richer the reader is for it.
    Bottomsâ ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary can be seen in one wonderful work after another among the pages of these selected poems.  "Under the Boathouse" is a remarkable example.  In this lyric narrative effectively written in one extended stanza of nearly fifty lines, Bottomsâ narrator describes how he and his wife had arrived at a lake for a picnic, his "wife / rattling keys, calling for help with the grill, / the groceries wedged into the trunk."  Instead of assisting her, he ran to dive into the lake, but as he "cut through water" into the "junked depth," his "right hand dug into silt and mud" and his "left clawed around a pain."  "Caught by the unknown," his "lungs collapsed in a confusion of bubbles, / all air rising back to its element."  He describes it:  "Halfway between the bottom of the lake / and the bottom of the sky, I hung like a buoy / on a short rope, an effigy·."
    Suspended in water between the mud beneath him and the sky brightening the surface above him, he finds himself out of his element, "a curiosity among fishes, a bait hanging up / instead of down."  His world has literally been turned upside down.

        In the lung-ache,
        in the loud pulsing of temples, what gave first
        was something in my head, a burst
        of colors like the blind see, and I saw
        against the surface, a shadow like an angel
        quivering in a dead-manâs float,
        then a shower of plastic knives and forks
        spilling past me in the lightened water, a can
        of barbequed beans, a bottle of A.1, napkins
        drifting down like white leaves,
        heavenly litter from the world I struggled toward.

    Like Frostâs swinger of birches who climbs black branches toward heaven and then comes back "to begin over," Bottomsâ narrator also comes back with a renewed vision to begin again.  In the final act of this metaphoric baptism and rebirth, death and resurrection, there is a welcoming by "a shadow like an angel" and a shower of "heavenly litter." The narrator describes the moment when he discovered himself returning to the elements of his world:

        Into the splintered light under the boathouse,
        the loved, suffocating air hovering over the lake,
        the cry of my wife leaning dangerously
        over the dock, empty grocery bags at her feet,
        I bobbed with a hook through the palm of my hand.

    Rising into the light and once more able to see the world, now "like the blind see," with its "suffocating air" he had hurried to escape, the narrator is greeted back by the wife whose plea for assistance heâd ignored ÷ even risking falling herself as she leans over the lake toward him to offer help, her silhouette against the bright sky above taking the shape of an angel on the waterâs surface ÷ and those groceries, the everyday items that suddenly matter so much more, have become "heavenly litter from the world" to which he is struggling to return, although he will carry a scar in his palm as a souvenir of the experience, as well as a constant reminder of what he ought to value.
    The use of religious symbolism ÷ images of angels, heaven, and even the wound in the palm of the narratorâs hand ÷ and references to spiritual redemption or renewal are not isolated to "Under the Boathouse" and "Wrestling Angels."  In another example, "Cemetery Wings," a worker allergic to bee stings is attacked by a swarm while mowing grass among monuments in a cemetery.  As the worker is digging "into his pocket for the bottle" of "blue pills for allergy,"  the poemâs narrator arrives as a witness wishing to assist:

        If he knew me.  I couldnât tell.  He only stared
        over the terrace at the thin cloud lifting
        around the faces of angels, his eyes
        wrinkled toward a question,
        as though puzzled
        at being carried away by such small wings.

    Like those other Southern poets ÷ James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, Dave Smith, and Charles Wright ÷ most obviously influential in his poetry, Bottoms often uses such religious allusions.  In fact, Bottoms' emphasis on the spiritual and his reliance on religious allusions have only grown over the years.  Indeed, the allusion to Christâs stigmata in "Under the Boathouse" appears more completely in "Last Supper in Montana," an important poem among the new works at the end of the Armored Hearts section, in which the speakerâs "father-in-law begins the feast / by reading a few verses from the Gospel of Matthew."  He then "breaks the body into thumbnails / and passes the plate among us, pours the blood / into plastic cups."  Using similar images, but in contrast with the tone of "Under the Boathouse," Bottoms writes:

        I swallow, and glance at my palm, the tangle of veins
        in my wrist.  A minute drips into an empty pan,
        then a guinea screeches from the barn.
        Prayer breaks out on the sofa,
        and finally I see how a wound could bleed
        for centuries, could trickle enough
        to fill this cup.
                                Years ago, after my divorce,
        I looked for my own way of renouncing
        the world.  I sat down in my kitchen and scratched
        a list on a grocery bag,
        every desire linked
        in red, then carried a shovel into a grove,
        wadded the bag and buried it.

        But that was Florida, smothering heat,
        bouts of booze and fever,
        so what can I say for sure about surrender
        or that lightness of heart?

    The narrator recounts another metaphoric death at the conclusion of the poem as he reports "something / left me, and the wind knocked me down," and he lies sprawled on his back "across that grave."  Indeed, it is as if Bottomsâ poetry near the end of this collection reflects a transformation and signals a renewal of spirit, a death followed by a rebirth of the self.
    This can easily be seen in a contrast of two poems with similar titles: "A Home Buyer Watches the Moon," which was printed early among the poems of  In a U-Haul North of Damascus in 1983, and "A Home Buyer," which appears near the end of Armored Hearts in 1995.   In the early poem the narrator reflects upon the feeling of total loss (perhaps even of life itself as suggested by the line break after "live" and the image of a "dead end") symbolized by an inability to keep his house: "I / who can no longer afford to live / in my two-story, have come out into the street / to stare past the mailboxes at an abrupt dead end."  The poem concludes with another series of superb images, typical of Bottomsâ lyrical and evocative poetry, that again speak of an angel and bring to mind the scene depicted in "Cemetery Wings":

        Quietly now the bats jerk
        in and out of the streetlight, their shadows
        zipping across the grass like black snakes.
        And the moon lies balanced on the roof of my house
        like a new gold coin, or the simple face
        of an angel in a Colonial cemetery.

    The lone figure wandering at night dejectedly observing ominous images and the speakerâs use of similes suggesting loss or death in this early '80s poem already are familiar to readers of Bottomsâ poetry.  However,  a dozen years and three collections of poetry later, Bottoms now offers a different view.
    Bottoms begins "A Home Buyer" with a couple lines of happiness and renewal: "I was so glad to be living in my own house again, / glad for a few rooms to wander through, a place to sprawl."  And although this poem also begins with the figure of the speaker wandering at night ("I walked all night from room to room, / onto the deck, into the yard, exploring / my pond of ivy, shadows of maple and dogwood."), the mood has been reversed.  The narrator now feels content: "settled, finally, in the striped chair of the study / as a blue daybreak leaked like bar light / through the curtains."  The onset of a new dayâs brightness causes him to recall another time of "happiness, confidence, like a saint" ÷ or perhaps, like the kind of persona who often was seen in Bottomsâ previous poems:

        ·some cowboy off the ranch in Rygate
        whoâs driven into town for a Legion Hall dance,
        some slicked-up kid with scuffs on his boots,
        smart enough and handsome, a hard worker,
        who believes in virtue,
        and knows the value of a dependable truck.

    The pairing of "virtue" and "value" seems significant in these closing lines, as does the speakerâs feeling of being content with becoming "settled," which could be applied in its many definitions: settling into the new house; settling down to an end of restlessness; settling up a debt; as legally defined, settling his property; perhaps even as a consequence of learning compromise, settling for what he needs.
    Certainly, the following poem in the collection, "Sleepless Nights," at first suggests a return to the dejected wanderings as the narrator tells of visiting his old house at night while the woman he left "was out of town, or drunk herself / in a fast sleep."  However, he reveals: "In middle age you strike your bargain with shame, / and I leaned back against that tree, happy / and hurt to be trespassing."
    The poemâs conclusion presents proof of the narratorâs transformation toward greater wisdom and new concerns, voiced not only in this poem, but seemingly emerging in the development of Bottomsâ poetry at the very end of Armored Hearts and soon to be realized further in future work.  He confesses:

        ·Iâd look back at myself
        out of another night, pacing another darkness
        ringed with geese and black sheep
        and swans, singing again,
        laughing, shouldering the complaints
        of a newborn daughter.

    Bottoms' relationship with his daughter Rachel, named in the poetry, and his focus on comforting and protecting her become central themes in his work.  In "A Daughter's Fever" Bottoms addresses Rachel, but his comments reflect a new vision and a new attitude toward the world and his position in it.  After reading books aloud and trying other distractions to ease his daughter's discomfort during an illness, Bottoms states:

        Rachel, about the little girl
        who started home late
        across the darkening woods...
        Someday I'll give you the words I used all night
        to guide her home.  So many ways
        to enter the forest and never return.
        But happily that's another ending.

    Perhaps a darker ending would have been the kind of conclusion readers would have seen in Bottoms' earlier poems.  Instead, in this poem, Bottoms states, "I lean to your blanket / and hold my breath."  After all the previous images of death and loss in Bottoms' poetry, of the self seeking independence, his life ÷ indeed, his every breath ÷ has now become dependent upon the safety and well-being of another, his daughter.
    Although the closing stanza of the poem switches to third person, creating an ambiguity of memory and distance, almost as if the narrator has now become a character in one of those tales told to the daughter, he concludes with an image that contrasts with the darkness of the poem's opening stanza which begins with the following lines: "Dark ivy draws a wave across the yard, / even the shadows / are streaked with rain."
    In this wonderful ending, once more his breath is dependent upon his daughter's, and even with a small curled finger, her hold on him continues:

        Her father watches
        new light clothe the trees.
        In his orchard
        the crows out-cackle the squirrels.
        He holds his breath to hear
        her breathe, around his finger
        small fingers curl.

Published in 1999, two decades after his first collection was selected for recognition by Robert Penn Warren, Vagrant Grace is David Bottomsâ fifth book of poems and the first to follow publication of Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems.  Although many of the characteristics identified with Bottoms' fine poetry over the past twenty years still remain, this new collection possesses an identity of its own.  In fact, coming after the 1995 retrospective volume of selected poetry, Vagrant Grace appropriately displays many poems that represent a new movement forward in content and in tone toward a direction first suggested by those closing poems of Armored Hearts.
    Vagrant Grace is organized symmetrically in five sections.  The first and last sections contain a trio of three-part poems each.  Sections two and four have ten poems, each a short lyrical work and none separated into parts.  The third section, literally the centerpiece, is one poem, "Country Store and Moment of Grace," nearly twenty pages long and broken into unnumbered parts separated by horizontal lines.  This center section also uses the "drop line" popularized by Charles Wright, and clearly resembles in style and content some of the longer poems found in Wright's recent collections.  Therefore, it is not surprising to note that one of the epigraphs at the beginning of Vagrant Grace is from a poem by Charles Wright: "All things aspire to weightlessness, / some place beyond the lip of language, / Some silence, some zone of grace...."
    All three poems in the opening section continue the emphasis on father-daughter relationship that emerged in the closing poems of Armored Hearts.  In fact, the first poem of the collection, "Bronchitis," carries similarities with "A Daughter's Fever."  Once again, the narrator's concern is for the safety and well-being of the young girl who "breathes the little noise of wheels / on dry axles."  As he sits nearby and reads a book about the Civil War, he acknowledges his worries: "all the loose uncertainties of fatherhood grate / in the joints of my chair."  He is absorbed by the story of another young child, a three-year-old girl killed with her dog by shell fire during one of the Civil War battles, though mentioned "only as a footnote in the abstract / strategies of war."  He imagines the situation, "shell crater and spaniel, / powder stench, geyser of dust settling / as her mother staggers."  He reveals the one vulnerability he cannot avoid, and which now appears again and again in Bottoms' poetry, a fear of any danger to his daughter.
    Almost as if Bottoms has intentionally taken his poetry full circle since his first poems twenty years ago, the second poem in Vagrant Grace, "On Methodist Hill," displays a viewpoint in direct opposition to "Wrestling Angels," the opening poem in Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems.  On this occasion, father and daughter visit a boarded-up church and a cemetery that have been vandalized and allowed to fall into ruin:

        Shab of a plundred tomb, crust and leaf-stain,
        litter of wet newspaper, sandwich wrapper, pizza box, stench
        of sardine and wine÷
        in the wind it hisses slightly,
        or sighs like a choir before the first note sung,
        then nothing much as I walk my daughter up the marble steps.

    The tone of regret in this new poem should be heard in contrast with the defiant voice at the end of "Wrestling Angels," where the speaker and his friends have vandalized a cemetery and he comments on further damaging monuments during their departure: "We break their arms and leave them wingless, / leaning over graves like old men lamenting their age."  By the closing of "On Methodist Hill," the scene has become one evoking sorrow from the narrator rather than defiance, "this church / hollowed and crumbling on a hill of weeds / where a four-year-old climbs a vandalized angel / as her father begins, unaccountably, to weep."
    The final poem in the opening section, "A Family Parade," completes a trio of triptychs involving the father and daughter.  Filled with detailed description of townfolks and objects one might find in any small community's parade "somewhere up Main Street," and rendered in the clear and lyrical language now expected from his poems, Bottoms' lines invite the reader to ride along with him, his wife, and daughter Rachel as they weave on their bicycles through people along the parade route. 

        Rachel banks on a training wheel, veers
        toward her mother, then cuts away,
                                                                flag of the fifty states
        ruffling from her basket, a bouquet of balloons
        off her fender...

        A rolling quack
        and rattle, bulb horn, mouth harp, tambourine,
        Sousa-blasting boom box bungeed
        to my carrier,
                            I circle them down the streets of the suburb...

    Bottoms repeats the action of "circling" a number of times in the poem, obviously suggesting the circular patterns of nature's seasons in his description of the weather or flowering trees, the repeated rituals like this holiday parade, the renewal as evidenced by "the antebellum library waiting / to be reborn in brick and glass," and the circular pattern of life itself.  As he watches the motorcycle corps, he thinks back to a memory of his father:

        Finally, yes, I know this is about eternity,
        this circling, this following,
        and, of course, that irredeemable taunt of memory,
        without which we'd have no ghosts to lead us...
        the way my father leads his pack into the Snake Slither,
        the Rolling Circle, the figure 8.

    Remembering his father reminds Bottoms of another circlular pattern ÷ of family, of his own role now as father, as he turns "to catch Rachel's eyes."
    Throughout the book, other poems return to the father-daughter relationship, the carefully crafted lines of poetry as much lines full of caring poetically crafted.  The fear of harm coming to the daughter arises again in "My Daughter at the Gymnastics Party," where Bottoms watches Rachel perform in "a lower-school gym" by climbing a rope "until she'd cleared the lower rafters."  This time, she is the one "glancing toward the bleachers to see" if he is watching.  However, Bottoms is unable to observe without fear, without thinking of other scenes:

                                        ...that boy
        with the waffled skull, stiff and turning blue
        under the belly of a horse,
        or the Christmas Eve skater on Cagle's Lake,
        her face a black plum
        against the bottom of the ice.

    Another moving poem, "Night Strategies," demonstrates the father's fear for his daughter's safety. While bathing his young child, the narrator is unable to escape a radio report, even more disturbing than that in "Appearances," he'd recently heard about warfare in Europe.  Much like the girl killed by the shell fire of a Civil War skirmish who haunts the father in "Bronchitis," the father in "Night Strategies" is haunted by the image of another girl caught in the midst of battle.

        I kept brushing the cloth over the pouch of her stomach,
        the cherubic and slightly chafed
        folds of her hips,
        remembering the voice rising off my radio,
        a girl in Sarajevo, sixteen,
        quivering between a translator and the thuds
        of local shelling.

    The girl had been attacked by soldiers.  She describes a rape that resembles a scene in Bottoms' early poem, "The Farmers." However, if one compares the two poems, the second-person narration and the distance created by the tone of the poem in "The Farmers" has now been replaced ÷ even though the rape in this new poem is reported secondhand through memory of an account from a radio ÷ by the intimacy of a first-person narrator, the father, "clumsy / and apologetic," shaken by such a tale of violence to someone else's daughter:

        They left her naked on a bloody cot.
        She wept, she said, but not inconsolably
        like her mother, who clawed all night at the tiles
        of their mosque.

    The father realizes he is powerless in any desire to protect his child for her whole life from such a vicious world as this.  (As he says in "A Walk to Carter's Lake": "Small wonder the angels are said to despise us.")  He is at a loss to explain such actions to her ÷ perhaps, to himself as well.  For the moment, he can only continue to bathe his young daughter:

        I lathered the cloth with our wafer of soap
        knowing the only answer I have
        is this nervous
        exaggeration of tenderness.

    The centerpiece poem of Vagrant Grace, "Country Store and Moment of Grace," offers a welcome opportunity for Bottoms to be expansive, even more than in the terrific triptych poems from In a U-Haul North of Damascus and again present in this new collection.  Like Charles Wright, whose longer poems in the collections since The Southern Cross this one resembles, Bottoms' ability over the years to compress so much descriptive detail and dramatic tension into shorter lyrical poems has been admirable; however, as in those lengthier poems by Wright, the longer form used for "Country Store and Moment of Grace" appears to allow greater complexity and more gradual development.  Indeed, the South of Bottoms' childhood is precisely drawn in the numerous scenes that follow one another in this nineteen-page poem that turns on the actions in his grandfather's store:

                                Pot gut stove and wood sizzle,
        and the raw smell of bologna and cheese, rack
        of Slim Jim and jerky, Tom's snacks,
        peppermint, drift of kerosene from a paint can,
        and from where he sits,
                                            glassed sweetness
        of stacked tobacco, Chesterfield and King Edward,
        Beechnut, Red Man, Bull of the Woods.

    The men who congregate in the store, those men "brooding or tongue-tied / worn-out in their walked-down boots and overalls shabby / with clay," are depicted with equal precision.  With the luxury of expansion, the narration drifts across years, even generations, and back again, as Bottoms watches his daughter gather leaves for burning: "Rachel rakes a few into a pile the wind disperses, / and again I'm drawing parallels / to the memory...."  It seems as if Bottoms is once more brought back by that "taunt of memory" that gives us "ghosts to lead us."  However, there is a larger issue behind all the pleasant memories he recalls and the lessons of love or the meaning of grief they offer, and a darkness lies just outside the door of his family's house despite the appearances of security or comfort at home:

        ...ours is the scrawny house of green shingles, rusted screens
        on the side porch,
        rock arch around the door.

        Television in the living room, Arthur Godfrey
        or Ed Sullivan, and a juggler spins plates on tall sticks
        as my father and I watch from the couch...
        Sweet smell of corn
        and barbequed chicken,
                                            which means it's Sunday...

        Horns blare from the highway, south from the Trading Post,
        loud and louder,
        then right outside our door
                                                    a legion of noise.

    The larger issue is displayed throughout the poem in images of racism and possible violence, some as subtle as the "black noose of fuchsia / dangling" from a bedroom planter or the more threatening symbol of the noose "looped around the rearview" and "hanging like a pair of dice"; other indications are as overt as the racist statements by the country store regulars or "the two cars burned / on the curb in front of the Canton Theater."  A parallel is developed between the grief his grandmother felt when Bottoms' father was reported missing ("Whenever I think I know about grief, / I imagine an only son lost / in the Pacific"), presumed dead for fifteen months, and the loss felt by a black mother who prepares holiday decorations as she waits for her son late from school because he is off cutting a tree for Christmas; instead, she sees:

        the road behind her house
        the dull yellow star on the door of a Chevy
        and feels down her nerves
                                                the ice
        of her whole head frosting white, a shiver
        against terrible weather.

    The whole theme of racism, threats of violence, and resistance to integration lead to a single incident of great significance witnessed by Bottoms, though not part of "the noise of headline and newscast," but "the real thing" as it "plays out quietly somewhere else."  It is December of 1960.  A black woman enters the country store amid the threatening expressions of all the regulars, and the grandfather gets up out of his chair:

                    not gauging their faces,
        not glancing at me watching, stunned, from the feed room
        as the woman fingered coins
        and lifted from the drink box of Coca-Cola,
        so that suddenly at the scripted moment
        the script fell away,
                                        his hand simply opening,
        his head nodding slowly
        as she dropped the two nickels and faded
        in the drizzle, in the shiver and groan of muffler,
        the crunch of tires on gravel.

    That simple act by his grandfather signals an end as well as a beginning.  Bottoms doesn't decide whether the act was "failure of nerve / or heart, or among those hardening glares, that victory / of nerve or heart," and it does not seem to matter.  What matters is the "passing into memory / and Amen to its passing again out of memory."  That old South he once knew has been replaced, even the grocery store torn down to make room for a K-Mart.  Bottoms says "Amen to leaving behind of places / that might have been less lovely and often are," so that they merely exist in a "fractured afterlife of memory."
    Bottoms considers the nature of memory and its vagaries throughout Vagrant Grace, suggesting "there's always uncertain light in a memory like this" ("A Room on Washington Avenue"), and "in middle age the memory circles" ("My Uncle Sowing Beatitudes").   In fact, Bottoms acknowledges these are poems of middle age in "A Morning from the Gospel of John":

        This morning in my bathroom mirror, I glimpsed the slope
        of my shoulders, my chest thinning to a hint of ribs,
        the hair of my pouching belly
        black and beaded with water,
        and pondering myself limp and priestly,
        laced with blue veins, I judged nothing threatening.

    The poems of Vagrant Grace are written with the achieved wisdom and maturity of middle age.  Readers who have enjoyed Bottoms' shorter lyrical works in the four previous collections will not be disappointed by the twenty poems in the two sections of this collection still filling that description.  Moreover, the two sections containing a half dozen triptychs and the centerpiece section of "Country Store and Moment of Grace" present a diversity of options for Bottoms to explore more complex issues or situations and his emotional responses to them with greater depth.  In many ways, over the past two decades Bottoms' poetry has turned full circle; however, like the Rolling Circle pattern his father maneuvers on a motorcycle in Bottoms' memory, with the circular motion there has been a correlative movement forward.
    In a poem "At the Grave of Martha Ellis," where a statue of the twelve-year-old (made famous in the song "Little Martha" by Duane Allman) looks down over her grave, Botttoms decides "in middle age rebirth isn't such easy work."  However, as mentioned earlier, rebirth and renewal appear to be primary themes in Bottoms' recent poetry, and although it may not be such easy work, these new works of poetry created by Bottoms exhibit a renewal of spirit and are easily among his best.

Bottoms, David. Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems.  Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1995.  ISBN: 1-55659-072-5  $14.00

Bottoms, David. Vagrant Grace.  Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1999.  ISBN: 1-55659-129-2  $14.00

© by Edward Byrne


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