Decades of David Bottoms' Poetry
THE ROLLING CIRCLE: DAVID BOTTOMS'
AND VAGRANT GRACE
The scenes depicted in
poems have always carried
a strong sense of
and credibility as they carefully
catalog even the most
items in everyday life, yet
present them in a lyrical
that lends an elegance
to everything that
those objects too often
overlooked because of
but that are nevertheless
Bottomsâ first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,
selected by Robert Penn Warren for the Academy of American Poetsâ
Whitman Award in 1979, readers have come to expect certain traits or
of action in his poetry: a clear and credible voice offering accurate
evocative description of nature, as well as the natural activities of
existence, often mixed with wit and irony, as he searches for
of the higher spiritual significance among the commonplace or ordinary
events of life. With his retrospective Armored Hearts:
and New Poems, published in 1995, these signature features were
more readily apparent in an accumulation of outstanding lyric
of his initial collection might indicate, during the earlier years of
poetry some of Bottomsâ most characteristic works offered
risky situations, outsiders and individuals barely on the ragged edge
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
to characters stealing ornamental ironwork and vandalizing gravestones
in a cemetery at night ("Wrestling Angels"), getting high on pot in a
("Smoking in an Open Grave"), hot wiring a friendâs car in the
the night so it later could be rolled into a river to claim insurance
the Black Camaro"), breaking into an old elementary school to cart off
a scarred desktop carved with names ("The Desk"), or raping a young
in a hayloft ("The Farmers").
presented portraits of the lost or lonely: "The Drunk Hunter" secretly
hopes "someone has heard his shot, / takes time to warn heâs
land"; "A Trucker Drives Through His Lost Youth," searches "again for
spirit / behind the eyes in his rear-view mirror"; "The Lame" boy
"he feels fish gnaw the swollen ankle, / carry off in their bellies
of his deformity."
in which the description and circumstances of the narrator most clearly
suggest identification with Bottoms ÷ and in which the speaker
to have undergone some sort of self-discovery, a moment of illumination
or imagination he may have been seeking ÷ an absence and a
others always seem emphasized. "In a Jon Boat During a Florida
Bottoms writes, "you feel an old surprise surfacing / in and around
If you could, / you would cut the outboard / and stop it all right
"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
/ from loss." "In a U-Haul North of Damascus," the narrator finds
"on the road from one state / to another, what is left behind nags
the distance." In "Paper Route, Northwest Montana," Bottoms
an early glimpse of "a stunned white wolf" drifting down the river on
ice floe, and he concludes, "sometimes in loneliness, I claim it / a
And alone on another river "Under the Vulture Tree," he imagines the
birds filling a dead oak as "transfiguring angels," figures "who pray
the leaf-graves of the anonymous lost·."
in Bottomsâ poems have always carried a strong sense of
credibility as they carefully catalog even the most ordinary items in
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
in "Appearances" Bottoms recounts once listening to a radio
narration of sheriffâs deputies searching a hay field in a curve
"I curl under my blanket, / watch the yellow dial on the radio, the
hanging / in the black panes of the window. This is
Indeed, the more "real" the images and events chronicled in
the more he seems obligated to choose musical phrases with convincing
or similes that persuade the reader of their significance, and the
the reader is for it.
to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary can be seen in one
work after another among the pages of these selected poems.
the Boathouse" is a remarkable example. In this lyric narrative
written in one extended stanza of nearly fifty lines, Bottomsâ
describes how he and his wife had arrived at a lake for a picnic, his
/ rattling keys, calling for help with the grill, / the groceries
into the trunk." Instead of assisting her, he ran to dive into
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
/ all air rising back to its element." He describes it:
between the bottom of the lake / and the bottom of the sky, I hung like
a buoy / on a short rope, an effigy·."
water between the mud beneath him and the sky brightening the surface
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.
of birches who climbs black branches toward heaven and then comes back
"to begin over," Bottomsâ narrator also comes back with a renewed
to begin again. In the final act of this metaphoric baptism and
death and resurrection, there is a welcoming by "a shadow like an
and a shower of "heavenly litter." The narrator describes the moment
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.
light and once more able to see the world, now "like the blind see,"
its "suffocating air" he had hurried to escape, the narrator is greeted
back by the wife whose plea for assistance heâd ignored ÷
falling herself as she leans over the lake toward him to offer help,
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
he is struggling to return, although he will carry a scar in his palm
souvenir of the experience, as well as a constant reminder of what he
symbolism ÷ images of angels, heaven, and even the wound in the
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
attacked by a swarm while mowing grass among monuments in a
As the worker is digging "into his pocket for the bottle" of "blue
for allergy," the poemâs narrator arrives as a witness
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.
Southern poets ÷ James Dickey, Robert Penn Warren, Dave Smith,
Wright ÷ most obviously influential in his poetry, Bottoms often
religious allusions. In fact, Bottoms' emphasis on the spiritual
and his reliance on religious allusions have only grown over the
Indeed, the allusion to Christâs stigmata in "Under the
more completely in "Last Supper in Montana," an important poem among
new works at the end of the Armored Hearts section, in which
speakerâs "father-in-law begins the feast / by reading a few
the Gospel of Matthew." He then "breaks the body into thumbnails
/ and passes the plate among us, pours the blood / into plastic
Using similar images, but in contrast with the tone of "Under the
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?
another metaphoric death at the conclusion of the poem as he reports
/ left me, and the wind knocked me down," and he lies sprawled on his
"across that grave." Indeed, it is as if Bottomsâ poetry
end of this collection reflects a transformation and signals a renewal
of spirit, a death followed by a rebirth of the self.
be seen in a contrast of two poems with similar titles: "A Home Buyer
the Moon," which was printed early among the poems of In a
North of Damascus in 1983, and "A Home Buyer," which appears near
end of Armored Hearts in 1995. In the early poem
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
end") symbolized by an inability to keep his house: "I / who can no
afford to live / in my two-story, have come out into the street / to
past the mailboxes at an abrupt dead end." The poem concludes
another series of superb images, typical of Bottomsâ lyrical and
poetry, that again speak of an angel and bring to mind the scene
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.
wandering at night dejectedly observing ominous images and the
use of similes suggesting loss or death in this early '80s poem already
are familiar to readers of Bottomsâ poetry. However,
years and three collections of poetry later, Bottoms now offers a
"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
through, a place to sprawl." And although this poem also begins
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
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
The onset of a new dayâs brightness causes him to recall another
"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.
"virtue" and "value" seems significant in these closing lines, as does
the speakerâs feeling of being content with becoming "settled,"
be applied in its many definitions: settling into the new house;
down to an end of restlessness; settling up a debt; as legally defined,
settling his property; perhaps even as a consequence of learning
settling for what he needs.
following poem in the collection, "Sleepless Nights," at first suggests
a return to the dejected wanderings as the narrator tells of visiting
old house at night while the woman he left "was out of town, or drunk
/ in a fast sleep." However, he reveals: "In middle age you
your bargain with shame, / and I leaned back against that tree, happy /
and hurt to be trespassing."
presents proof of the narratorâs transformation toward greater
new concerns, voiced not only in this poem, but seemingly emerging in
development of Bottomsâ poetry at the very end of Armored
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.
with his daughter Rachel, named in the poetry, and his focus on
and protecting her become central themes in his work. In "A
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
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
Bottoms' earlier poems. Instead, in this poem, Bottoms states, "I
lean to your blanket / and hold my breath." After all the
images of death and loss in Bottoms' poetry, of the self seeking
his life ÷ indeed, his every breath ÷ has now become
dependent upon the
safety and well-being of another, his daughter.
closing stanza of the poem switches to third person, creating an
of memory and distance, almost as if the narrator has now become a
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
with the following lines: "Dark ivy draws a wave across the yard, /
the shadows / are streaked with rain."
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.
1999, two decades after his first collection was selected for
by Robert Penn Warren, Vagrant Grace is David Bottomsâ
of poems and the first to follow publication of Armored Hearts:
and New Poems. Although many of the characteristics
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
appropriately displays many poems that represent a new movement forward
in content and in tone toward a direction first suggested by those
poems of Armored Hearts.
is organized symmetrically in five sections. The first and last
contain a trio of three-part poems each. Sections two and four
ten poems, each a short lyrical work and none separated into
The third section, literally the centerpiece, is one poem, "Country
and Moment of Grace," nearly twenty pages long and broken into
parts separated by horizontal lines. This center section also
the "drop line" popularized by Charles Wright, and clearly resembles in
style and content some of the longer poems found in Wright's recent
Therefore, it is not surprising to note that one of the epigraphs at
beginning of Vagrant Grace is from a poem by Charles Wright:
things aspire to weightlessness, / some place beyond the lip of
/ Some silence, some zone of grace...."
in the opening section continue the emphasis on father-daughter
that emerged in the closing poems of Armored Hearts. In
the first poem of the collection, "Bronchitis," carries similarities
"A Daughter's Fever." Once again, the narrator's concern is for
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
the Civil War, he acknowledges his worries: "all the loose
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
"only as a footnote in the abstract / strategies of war." He
the situation, "shell crater and spaniel, / powder stench, geyser of
settling / as her mother staggers." He reveals the one
he cannot avoid, and which now appears again and again in Bottoms'
a fear of any danger to his daughter.
Bottoms has intentionally taken his poetry full circle since his first
poems twenty years ago, the second poem in Vagrant Grace, "On
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
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.
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
a cemetery and he comments on further damaging monuments during their
"We break their arms and leave them wingless, / leaning over graves
old men lamenting their age." By the closing of "On Methodist
the scene has become one evoking sorrow from the narrator rather than
"this church / hollowed and crumbling on a hill of weeds / where a
climbs a vandalized angel / as her father begins, unaccountably, to
in the opening section, "A Family Parade," completes a trio of
involving the father and daughter. Filled with detailed
of townfolks and objects one might find in any small community's parade
"somewhere up Main Street," and rendered in the clear and lyrical
now expected from his poems, Bottoms' lines invite the reader to ride
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...
the action of "circling" a number of times in the poem, obviously
the circular patterns of nature's seasons in his description of the
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
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.
father reminds Bottoms of another circlular pattern ÷ of family,
own role now as father, as he turns "to catch Rachel's eyes."
book, other poems return to the father-daughter relationship, the
crafted lines of poetry as much lines full of caring poetically
The fear of harm coming to the daughter arises again in "My Daughter at
the Gymnastics Party," where Bottoms watches Rachel perform in "a
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:
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.
poem, "Night Strategies," demonstrates the father's fear for his
safety. While bathing his young child, the narrator is unable to escape
a radio report, even more disturbing than that in "Appearances," he'd
heard about warfare in Europe. Much like the girl killed by the
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
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.
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
in this new poem is reported secondhand through memory of an account
a radio ÷ by the intimacy of a first-person narrator, the
/ and apologetic," shaken by such a tale of violence to someone else's
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.
he is powerless in any desire to protect his child for her whole life
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
a loss to explain such actions to her ÷ perhaps, to himself as
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.
poem of Vagrant Grace, "Country Store and Moment of Grace,"
a welcome opportunity for Bottoms to be expansive, even more than in
terrific triptych poems from In a U-Haul North of Damascus and
present in this new collection. Like Charles Wright, whose longer
poems in the collections since The Southern Cross this one
Bottoms' ability over the years to compress so much descriptive detail
and dramatic tension into shorter lyrical poems has been admirable;
as in those lengthier poems by Wright, the longer form used for
Store and Moment of Grace" appears to allow greater complexity and more
gradual development. Indeed, the South of Bottoms' childhood is
drawn in the numerous scenes that follow one another in this
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,
of stacked tobacco, Chesterfield and King Edward,
Beechnut, Red Man, Bull of the Woods.
men who congregate
in the store, those men "brooding or tongue-tied / worn-out in their
boots and overalls shabby / with clay," are depicted with equal
With the luxury of expansion, the narration drifts across years, even
and back again, as Bottoms watches his daughter gather leaves for
"Rachel rakes a few into a pile the wind disperses, / and again I'm
parallels / to the memory...." It seems as if Bottoms is once
brought back by that "taunt of memory" that gives us "ghosts to lead
However, there is a larger issue behind all the pleasant memories he
and the lessons of love or the meaning of grief they offer, and a
lies just outside the door of his family's house despite the
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.
is displayed throughout the poem in images of racism and possible
some as subtle as the "black noose of fuchsia / dangling" from a
planter or the more threatening symbol of the noose "looped around the
rearview" and "hanging like a pair of dice"; other indications are as
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'
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
of her whole head frosting white, a shiver
against terrible weather.
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
"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.
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
those hardening glares, that victory / of nerve or heart," and it does
not seem to matter. What matters is the "passing into memory /
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
a K-Mart. Bottoms says "Amen to leaving behind of places / that
have been less lovely and often are," so that they merely exist in a
afterlife of memory."
the nature of memory and its vagaries throughout Vagrant Grace,
suggesting "there's always uncertain light in a memory like this" ("A
on Washington Avenue"), and "in middle age the memory circles" ("My
Sowing Beatitudes"). In fact, Bottoms acknowledges these
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.
poems of Vagrant
Grace are written with the achieved wisdom and maturity of middle
Readers who have enjoyed Bottoms' shorter lyrical works in the four
collections will not be disappointed by the twenty poems in the two
of this collection still filling that description. Moreover, the
two sections containing a half dozen triptychs and the centerpiece
of "Country Store and Moment of Grace" present a diversity of options
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
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
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
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
Selected and New Poems. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper
Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-55659-072-5 $14.00
Bottoms, David. Vagrant
Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1999. ISBN:
© by Edward Byrne