Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch
by David Bottoms
Copper Canyon, $16.00 paperback, 72 pp.
So many new books. So many new collections, poets and debuts. What an exhilarating or alternatively anxious and overwhelming time to be alive and reading American poetry. Where is it going? What’s next? How will it zig or zag with ten-thousand voices burbling into print? In looking all directions, my head might come unscrewed like a light bulb. But then a familiar name comes into the periphery like a familiar silhouette of a building that lets you know which way is south. Following up 2011’s We Almost Disappear, David Bottoms has a new collection of poems that meditate on the resonant and fleeting details of youthful memory as it reverberates against contemporary life. In these poems, there’s a delicate balance between a reverence for the past and present while also presenting a speaker who has been required to absorb and brace for future grief. A careful, observant, dutiful and obliged voice both leads and questions us through a restrained, but tuneful set of poems.
I find myself returning again and again to Bottoms’ work for his ability to illuminate and elucidate, but in some ways, also I appreciate that Bottoms is a bit of a throwback of poetic tastes. First of all, there aren’t too many wild discursions of subject matter or style in the broader oeuvre of the Bottoms’ canon. Put too simply, he writes about the south and family. Bottoms is a Georgia poet’s poet: Born in Canton, Georgia, over a decade spent as the state’s bard laureate and still living not too far away from that childhood home (which is quite clear in the poems themselves), now at his ninth collection of poetry (aside from Oglethorpe’s Dream and prose deliveries), this is familiar territory, but familiar in the sense of well-worked soil that has broken down into fertile, loose nutrients for some powerful poems.
In terms of what emerges from that earth, it’s a set of highly refined images. What impresses me so much about them, though, are not just individual moments of alacrity (“Beside this cabin tent, / beside this lake, I light a small fire of damp sticks and twigs. // Clouds shred. Smoke billows slightly /and blows away. The coyote (or stray dog) /prays loudly to the moon. // The breath tries to catch in my chest.”), but I’m even more taken back by the poet’s willingness to commit to such a specific cast of images and scenes. Consistently, this book produces the lupine figures of coyotes, foxes, or Jack (our companion dog) to break the night silences. We get more than a few trips to the pond for fishing, even though sometimes with “not even a pretense of a fish.” We spend quite a bit of time in the woods; we find serpents that are alarming, but always seem to appear in circumstances that include some type of mercy; there are poems and poems with beautiful black horses that are both wild and wise and remind the speaker of his past, the landscape’s changing, and even his own father. And this is before we look at the interior of our houses, the prayer porches and religious figures hung to look over us.
These recurrent images produce what is quite possibly the most meditative collection of poetry in Bottoms’ library. Not only do the substantive details of the world fill in a lot of our pages, but more than ever, David Bottoms seems intent in exploring what surrounds these figures, the white spaces of silence, absence, and memory that surround the concrete, familiar concerns of the speaker’s contemporary life as a son, father, and husband. The grounding element of the imagery systems actually allows Bottoms to achieve new levels of philosophical introspection within his poetry without entirely becoming abstract. For the sake of this book, silence may as well be a character who begins mysterious and looming, longing and stifled to cry out early in the collection. For instance, take these selections from “Slow Nights on the Bass Boat”:
Some nights the trees on the bank are black and soundless,
a fat wall of darkness,
and the silence on the water feels like the voice
of a great absence[…]
Silence, then, exceeds the darkness. Silence[…]
The rustle in your ear is something grand and awful
straining to announce itself.
Your jaw trembles. Out of your yearning
the silence shapes a name.
In “Summer 1968” Bottoms speaker shares that “The whole house strained in its silence. I was 1-A. // One night my old man threw an alarm clock across my room.” Here, silence is waiting for a break as a father badly wounded in WWII seethes at the possibility of his own son being drafted.
Yet by the middle of the collection, silence begins to be trusted and understood. Parentheticals even evoke the sense of whisper, of silent suggestion. “(Silence is the language of faith.)” is a brief aside that comes from the poem “Cathedrals” which builds on a tradition of faith beyond temples, of uncles who teach boys “Any rock[…]can be an altar.” In this same area of the collection, we also get the encouraging comfort of “(The silenced voice always tells the truth.)” in “Eye to Eye” and the assertion “(Silence doesn’t always mean absence.)” in “Close Call,” the poem that opens our final section and recalls the first poem of the collection: “Absence.” This is no accident, because as hard as it might be to define a major abstraction like “absence” or “silence” one time, it’s even more difficult to not only present this grand abstraction, but also transform it in a spiritual gesture. To recall the opening poem, “Absence” is paralleled, bookending the collection with its companion poem “A Scrawny Fox.” At even a casual glance, it’s clear that the poems share the opening “Near the end, only one thing matters” and the ending line “and nothing, not even the fox, moves as quietly.” Scholars pay attention and readers rejoice, this book has a story to tell, and it’s not just the smaller stories of the individual poems.
The careful theming and internal organization of this collection only reinforces this movement. Of David Bottoms’ last four collections, three have used a five-section layout with each section beginning with literary epigraphs. All three that have followed this formula (Vagrant Grace, We Almost Disappear, and now Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch) have employed it effectively for pacing and the excellent epigraphs are always wonderful additions, expanding the poetic and intellectual world of the collection. That said, this collection shows the 5-part structure having the largest impact on the arc of the collection. We set up with a short section that introduces a lot of the nagging questions of memory, truth, absence, and silence that will drive the inquiring philosophy and motivate our journey. The second-section, the largest, builds on the place of the first section, introduces the incidental narratives that give us the bulk of our key characters and context from our speaker’s past. Cue our “nervous boy” coming into his own as a character before the next sections focus more and more on his aging father and mother (respectively) before landing in an overture that more-heavily incorporates in the wife and daughter entering her twenties and entering into her own life. The progression of this collection is so well handled that after a few mentions, the (idol? Depends on who you ask.) Christ Pantocrator on the wall may well feel like yours rather than something the speaker’s wife has displayed in their own prayer porch.
Now, perhaps there are places where the repetition in the book caught my attention more than perhaps it needed. In the third section of the collection, in the space of three short poems, the speaker’s father twice has “jaundiced eyes,” the first time being “terribly jaundiced” and compared to those of a hawk, so that the second time it felt like an afterimage. I also noticed that a poem from the previous collection We Almost Disappear had made a reappearance in this collection’s fourth section in roughly the same location as before (pages 47 and 52 respectively, early in the fourth section). While that did distract me for a second (perhaps in the way it only affects the paranoid), the poem does fit even more clearly into the progression of this collection than the prior, and it’s been seven years. It’s a good poem. Ultimately, no harm by my accounts, but it did get me thinking about republishing poems.
To our author’s press, Copper Canyon: listen up. I’ve been thinking. David Bottoms’ new and selected collection Armored Hearts, the tremendous and wonderful book that it is, came out in 1995 as his fifth collection. Since then, he’s produced another four excellent collections; the most recent perhaps the most impressive of the lot. All of these are Copper Canyon releases (including Armored Hearts). I say, go for another new and selected. I say, make it huge. I say, make it a defining work for his and the next generation. Get this Georgia boy some big national play. Like your founders or the Chinese character they chose as your imprint, you’ve got a poet who would agree that poetry is another way to combine word and temple.