On David Bottoms's Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch:
Haunted Houses of a Strange and Compelling Beauty
Asked about free verse Robert Frost liked to trot out his now-famous formulation about playing tennis with the net down. You can tell by the number of times he repeated it how pleased he was with its cleverness--not to mention how well he thought it summed up what was wrong with free verse. Of course, it also spoke to the nature of his defiance in the face of the modernist revolution. But at least once, perhaps in a weak moment, Frost said something more reflective, more considered, and ultimately more useful: he felt you couldn't create in a free verse poem "a lyric of strange and compelling beauty" the way you could in a poem with meter and rhyme.
I've always thought there were at least two major revelations here: first, that Frost is telling us directly and incisively what he thinks a poem ought to be going for--"a strange and compelling beauty"--and second, that there is something--a sort of mysterious inevitability?-- adhering to formalist poems and allowing the best of them to achieve what he saw as a poem's ultimate goal.
I confess to having mixed feelings about that. Not the first part: "a strange and compelling beauty"? Yes, absolutely. For myself at least, for my own poems, I would give up all else to achieve that at great depth. But the second part: I understand, I think, exactly what Frost is saying about meter and rhyme and believe he is too nearly onto something to dismiss him out of hand. But at the same time, is it not possible that a great free verse poem may achieve a similar sort of inevitability? Reading David Bottoms's most recent collection, Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch
, I come away convinced that it can.
A Panic of Bats
Near evening I carry a folding chair into the plush shade
of the secret place
and sit facing the house
and the bat-box hanging from the guest-room gable.
A quiet breeze in the leaf-shelter
as they rise from the box and flit like ashes out of a bonfire,
black, black, black, rising
and flitting like ashes. My gaze flies
with them across the fence
and over the side yard, the way I followed, years ago, the ashes
of a burning house, little black wings drifting
over the wavy panic
of children crowding an upstairs window,
drifting across the hillside, rising and rising, falling
and falling and falling
onto the backs of grazing horses,
into the tall grass of my grandfather's pasture.
David Bottoms's "A Panic of Bats" reminds me in such an obvious way of Emily Dickinson's own famous formulation--about nature being a haunted house, art a house that tries to be haunted--I risk more than just obviousness in bringing it up. But it does, I think--in the way I take Dickinson to mean on a more profound level: art tries to haunt us with a strange and compelling beauty similar to nature's, that is, both similar to nature's strange and compelling beauty and similar to its way of haunting us. What a poet is trying to do is to write some lines that get under our skin, to echo another Frostism. And "A Panic of Bats" has that precise effect on the reader. It first strikes us deeply, then sticks. It haunts. Somewhat like the way the children in the upstairs window haunt the poem's house. The reader feels as if with this poem David Bottoms has achieved the thing both Frost and Dickinson allude to. I don't know how someone who really loves poetry, someone who is both open to its "pure serene" and actively in search of it, can read "A Panic of Bats" and ever forget it.
What's more, I think the poem not only proves it may be possible in a free verse poem to achieve that strange and compelling beauty Frost talks about, I believe its being a free verse poem is one of the ways "A Panic of Bats" does so. Bottoms eschews heavy enjambment, lets his lines drift out to their natural conclusion, likes the shapeliness of stanzas but never lets consistency hobgoblin a poem's own organic way of organizing itself. There is a kind of mysterious inevitability adhering to David Bottoms's best poems that, in my mind, is partly a function of his method. Like many of the great poems of Elizabeth Bishop, David Bottoms's poems like "A Panic of Bats" make us feel as if the poem has arrived in its most natural form--nothing forced, elegant but relaxed.
Slow Nights in the Bass Boat
Some nights when the fishing slows,
when the stripers
and hybrids drift through the cove like elusive thoughts,
you crank in the jig, prop the rod in the 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.
Across the wide cove the lights of the bait shop
flicker like insects,
and, finally, a few stars struggle through the shredded clouds.
Silence, then, exceeds the darkness. Silence.
You grasp the gunnels and lean forward,
you catch a long breath.
That gnawing in your chest sharpens and spreads.
Your grip tightens.
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.
Night, trees, the moon, silence. It is a mark of David Bottoms's artistic integrity that he sticks to his themes and to his objective correlatives. He writes almost exclusively about faith, family, memory, and mortality. The fact that he is so obviously exempt from any discussion of topical relevance will be, for some, the very reason to read him--not as escape or even respite but as anodyne. And yet it would be shortsighted to view his work, early or late, as either ahistorical or out-of-touch.
I rub my eyes. The world is still green
a lime dust coating the porch tiles, rocking chairs, patio, yard,
delicate as a mourning veil.
A green finch dances between the bird feeders.
I can't breathe, my eyes water. My friend can't breathe either.
She's lost her son to an I.E.D. No details yet. Routine patrol
around a dusty village far away.
Tea waits on the table between us, and two blueberry scones.
Impossible, of course, to talk about loneliness
or vague aspirations. Rain today, then a cooling.
In a week or so, dogwoods flowering along the back fence,
after that, maple sap staining the hoods of our cars.
Bottoms's connection to the natural world is authentic and deep. But more than that his ability with language allows the reader a connection to the nature he describes and to both the physical and spiritual experiences of it. A line from the titular poem of his earlier collection Under the Vulture-Tree
has always served for me as a benchmark of how he can do it:
But I had never seen so many so close, hundreds,
every limb of the dead oak feathered black,
and I cut the engine, let the river grab the jon boat
and pull it toward the tree.
Those verbs, "grab" and "pull," simple in their immediacy, seem so well placed, so right-on-the-money, the reader is not only transported to the moment but radically involved in it. This, to me, is David Bottoms's poetic signature. It happens over and over in his poems, and every time it does it reminds me what I like best for poems to do: to grab me and pull me with their precise imagery, their focus on the material world in a way that restores me to it, body and soul.
Near nightfall, in summer, an owl would plague the scrub woods
beyond Cantrell's pond.
Or a mourning dove, hard to tell. (Question or lament,
question or lament?)
Branches slapped the roof and sides of the tree house.
in thin slices through the oak
and dimmed away in the shadows. The woods beyond the pond
dimmed away, then the pond,
then the yard.
Spiders took to their corners,
roaches to their corners. Traffic thinned slowly on the highway.
Then the screech owl would startle the scrub woods.
Soon someone else would call, someone from the house.
But I'd not answer. Not yet. I liked to hide.
I liked to sit alone in the dark.
No one knew where to find me. Still,
if I held my breath for a moment, if I stayed quiet, if I listened
and didn't breathe,
a wind might rise and garble my name.
In this first section of the three-part "Cathedrals," the speaker is alone, as in so many David Bottoms's poems. Reading this new collection, we often feel what it is to be alone with the poet, but also what it feels to be alone with ourselves as we did as children. "We look at the world once, / in childhood," Bottoms quotes Louise Glück as saying, in the epigraph to section 2 of the book, "The rest is memory." The poems often cast back to Bottoms's own childhood, usually in past tense, lending them a reflective, elegiac tone. And in his poems recounting adult experiences the effect is of a speaker who grew from that "nervous child" who "liked to hide"--who loved and admired his parents, looked at the world through the eyes of an innocent--into a man less innocent but not overly cynical. Irony is not David Bottoms's default mode, and that he has become worldly is not his message to the world. His speaker looks at creation with quiet wonder.
Little King Snake on the Prayer Porch
Wanting to live, it had wedged itself between a porch rail
and the screen and hung there
as Jack barked and backed up and lunged forward
and barked again.
An Eastern king snake, jelly-black
with buttery stripes. Beautiful, yes, but slightly common.
Harmless, basically, a constrictor
good for eating rats and other vermin, also an eater
of rattlesnakes and moccasins.
though it tried to bite when I raked it with a stick.
I steered it toward the door
and watched it sidle across the grass
and thought of a time I would have taken more joy
in its appearance, would have felt it
to be something miraculous,
a necklace, say, fallen from a witch's neck,
suddenly come alive
and slithering into the brush.
From his first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump
, selected by Robert Penn Warren as winner of the Walt Whitman award in 1979, right up to this most recent collection, Bottoms has stayed true to a central poetic vision: he writes free verse poems in a plainspoken but muscular, vigorous style. He eschews cleverness and irony in favor of sincerity. Having adopted the personal lyric as his primary mode, he has never been tempted by any other literary or poetic trends. Along the way a number of poems a consensus of readers will declare central to his canon have risen to popularity and inclusion in important anthologies of American poetry--poems like the title poem from Shooting Rats
, as well as its "Writing on Napkins at the Sunshine Club," "Crawling Out at Parties," and "The Catfish"; from later collections, "Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt," "In a U-Haul North of Damascus," "The Desk," the aforementioned "Under the Vulture-Tree," "Allatoona Evening," and "Under the Boathouse."
Poems like these establish what we may safely consider the essential David Bottoms. They are fierce in their struggle to make myth of the poet's own life, gentle in their acceptance that loss may be the central feature of human experience--a thesis perhaps best put forward in these lines from "In a U-Haul":
Jesus, could the irony be
that suffering forms a stronger bond than love?
But like all great poets, Bottoms convinces us that the consolation of poetry--its momentary stay against confusion--is in finding our suffering rendered so strangely, compellingly, and beautifully as art. Bottoms believes in transcendence, in fact, goes so far as to say that a belief in transcendence is necessary to being a great poet. "The greatest writers," he has said, "the writers who touch their readers at the deepest emotional and psychological levels, are most frequently those poets and story-tellers who are yearners after meaning." To be an atheist or a nihilist, he believes, makes the job nigh impossible. "Our culture is fairly secular," he said in an interview some years back, "and I don't much like that. I appreciate the mystery. And that's another thing I believe good poems should do, they should define the mystery for us. Not solve it, of course, which is impossible. But they should teach us the right questions to ask."
But Bottoms is not only a follower of the Baptist faith--though "a strange one," he says--he is also a follower of Carl Jung. And this, too, of course, connects to his haunting of houses with a strange and compelling beauty. He asserts that "a good poet can find ways of embedding triggers in the narrative surface to make the language leap into another level of meaning." He is addressing here the movement toward narrative in American poetry, of which he generally approves though with the caveat that it's not enough just to tell stories, the stories have to reach for what he jokingly calls the "HDM"--the "hidden deeper meaning." Too often, he feels, contemporary poets don't do that, a negative trend he connects to the general secularizing of the culture, loss of faith, lack of interest in the idea of transcendence. He makes reference to Jung's "the myth of the night journey" in noting that certain types of narratives can, in and of themselves, "operate figuratively," and this occurs, he says, "when the narrative pattern of the poem touches the mythic or archetypal."
I have been speaking here to the elements of craft and technique David Bottoms himself admits to as ways of imbuing poems with a strange and compelling beauty, the capacity to haunt. In other words, I have been trying to say how he does what is seemingly unexplainable. I'm not the first poet to examine Bottoms's work on just that basis. In the interview she and Bruce Gentry conducted with Bottoms after the publication of his selected poems, Armored Hearts,
Alice Friman confesses to her admiration of an earlier book, Under the Vulture-Tree
, and says that when she is "having difficulty with something technically in [her] own work, she looks to that book to teach [her]." She says she asks, "Bottoms, how did you do this?" Bottoms expresses what clearly seems genuine surprise at hearing that, but I am not at all surprised. Having been a reader and admirer of David Bottoms for going on thirty years, reading his newest collection, Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch
, I am inspired yet again to ask, "Bottoms, how did you do this?" then to reflect on my own poetic project and commit myself anew to trying to haunt that house with a strange and compelling beauty. Whatever else we may expect other poets to do for us, I'm convinced providing us that kind of inspiration--that kind of model--is one of them.
Nick Norwood's fourth collection of poems, Eagle & Phenix
, is just out from Snake Nation Press. He teaches at Columbus State University and directs the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians in Columbus, Georgia, and Nyack, New York.