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POETRY REVIEW: David Bottoms

Reviewed: We Almost Disappear

by David Bottoms

(Copper Canyon Press, 2011)

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We Almost Disappear, David Bottoms’s ninth poetry collection, continues the poet’s dedication to the natural world—a world of which his family has always been part, and a world that conjures stunning metaphorical backdrops for the poet’s reflections on memory, love, aging, and death. Aptly titled, We Almost Disappear is Southern and gothic in texture—celebratory of family, identity, and imagination, but just as insistent on the acknowledgment of how death encroaches to take these things away. Over the course of the book’s five sections—spanning from childhood to the present—Bottoms maneuvers through memory and the natural world to focus on his “old man”; ultimately, it is in the poet’s father that Bottoms recognizes an eerie beauty residing not only in the landscapes he knows and loves, but in the inevitability that, just as with memory, he and his loved ones will fade into that very earth. Perhaps the most evident distinction between We Almost Disappear and Bottoms’s previous collections is a more contemplative, tender quality, imbuing this work with radiance that might make this Bottoms’s most resonant collection yet.

In the opening poem, “First Woods,” the poet remembers riding in a truck with family over rough terrain during a raccoon hunt:

Bump and jostle, the road falling fast into rut, ditch, washout,
pines cuffing the windows, and me in the cab
a constant bounce between my old man and my uncle
as we bring up the tail
of a caravan of trucks tumbling like a rockslide
leveling into splash and creek-bog….

Bottoms’s facility with sound is immediately evident, even as the raucousness of the chase softens when the threesome open into a “clearing of cut hay, / the moonlight rusting a tractor, and off / into the black woods, that thing I never saw, dragging / those frantic voices.” There is love here, both for the journey into life and with family, but also the “the thing” the poet never sees, the object that ultimately lures him into recognition of his own existence.

“Violets,” a stunning poem about Bottoms’s grandmother, counterpoints “First Woods” with a radiant, gothic compassion. His grandmother, with a “little wallow of snuff pouching her lower lip. . . spits / into a marble flower box / and tilts a sprinkle in a rusted / watering can.” The narrator wonders whether the tobacco juice is “hex” or “nutrient” to the “little African violets speckling / the narrow porch boxes” that “gore up purple in the heavy light,” a fertile light that thrives even in his grandmother’s unconsciousness:

Her name was Lily, and she dreamed of flowers.
Little cousins of the dream flowers,
she called her violets. Other dreams she never shared.
 
She spat tobacco juice into her flower boxes
and wiped her mouth on her sleeve—
a small mouth, wrinkled,
blackened around the edges like a wilting leaf.

“Violets” reflects how Bottoms dignifies growth and decay, as well as how he renders clear, gorgeous lines that surprise both heart and mind.

As in “Violets,” nature and family meld throughout the entire collection: A grandfather’s hand is “puffed like a frog on a root” (“We Take My Grandpa Fishing”), and the poet’s daughter “leans forward, shoulders curled, and the shadows / streaking the patio blend girl / and cello into one clumsy bird—bent neck, hooked beak, one wing flapping” (“A Cello Bird”).  The poet’s elderly father, riveted by a hawk, shivers with “some old impulse / trembling down the nerves” (“Old Man and Neighborhood Hawk”).

Indeed, wilderness serves as the place in which the poet contemplates major changes in his own life, as in “Montana Wedding Day.” On the Thompson River, the poet catches “two cutthroats and a rainbow” and, after he “scraped their bright guts into the river” and built a fire, he partakes of “grilled trout savored all the way down / to the needles of their spines.” The poet’s primordial ritual gives way to self-reflection, when “a fish hawk fell from a dead tree and thrashed the river.” Bottoms then writes: “I thought, sure, / to have tumbled so far / and finally to have reached a beginning.” The poem is then whittled to a stark image, as the poet, sated, satisfied, sits “watching a fisheye glaze to a pearl.”    

“A Walk to Sope Creek” proves one of the finest poems of the collection, a confessional piece with a forceful, headlong momentum:

sometimes, when I’ve made the mistake
of cruelty, which always breeds grief,
 
I remember how, years ago, my uncle led me, a boy,
into a thicket of pines and taught me to kneel
 
beside a white stone, the way a man had taught him, a boy,
to pray behind a clapboard church.

“Sometimes,” when the poet’s “heart is dark as stone,” he can kneel anywhere in the wilderness to cleanse, even when wilderness deceives, threatens, as in another poem, “Striped Bangle on Sope Creek”:

I pushed back the branch
and it fell like a bracelet across my arm—
a scarlet king or coral, but panic like beauty
stunned me….

We Almost Disappear culminates with a touching focus on the poet’s father. The “old man,” always with a walker, perceives the world with a fragile, forced patience, a loneliness the poet perceives keenly. In one of the most moving poems of the book, “My Old Man Loves Fried Okra,” the poet recognizes how aging overwhelms his father’s simple pleasures:

He eats it at lunchtime, at dinner. Hot from the pan,
cold from the fridge. He eats it with his fingers, like popcorn.
 
But his eyelids droop again and his head drops slowly
until his elbow slips off the arm of his chair.
 
This is what frightens me. How can he be too tired for thanks,
too tired to lift his head for the one simple word
 
he’d want to say? How can he be too tired for okra?

Plangent and dynamic, diamond-clear and rich, We Almost Disappear is one of the rare collections I read in one sitting, awed by the consistently kinetic language, engrossed in how Bottoms celebrates family, identity, and the earth in ways that enrich and enliven, all the while facing the “nature of ashes,” the purity into which everything fades.


 

The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame interviews David Bottoms.


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