David Bottoms’s “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump”: Forty Years Later

David Bottoms

Essay by Steven Croft

After forty years, David Bottoms remains a poet of Georgia who, like other great Southern writers of place, e.g., Faulkner, O’Connor, McCullers, is able to make the markedly regional universal. Author of nine full-length books of poetry, Bottoms increasingly asks through the arc of these books, to quote Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning,” “What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?”  If the search for an answer is a major quest, there are other quests in his poetry that all began with his first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.

Shooting Rats, which appeared in 1980, was chosen by Robert Penn Warren to receive the Walt Whitman Award, an extremely auspicious beginning for a young Georgia poet. Warren’s origins as a Southern writer surely helped Bottoms’s fortune here because the milieu of the poems is the rural Georgia beyond the commercial fairy ring of Interstate 285, laid down in the 1960s to encircle Atlanta’s comparative wealth and “New South” cultural aspirations. This “other Georgia” is a place of small towns and the stretches of farm and woodland between them where both a lot and not much happens.

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This is an obviously formative book for what would soon become a nationally recognized poet. It begins with some “rough South” poems. In the first, a third-person account of “The Drunk Hunter,” it is uncertain whether the hunter is so drunk he is wilderness-lost or if his pride, like Hemingway’s Santiago’s (though he lacks Santiago’s meticulous nobility), won’t let him return to civilization without an impressive kill; at any rate, the second stanza suggests he will stay out in the woods until he meets a grim demise. In the second, a first-person plural account of vandalizing a cemetery, “Wrestling Angels,” the vandals break the arms off angels who have “grown too weak to stop us.” The third, which gives the book its title, is an active bloodsport poem, also in the first-person plural. In it, some drunk, young, aspiring good old boys pick off rats at the dump by driving up and turning their headlights on them at night. In the last two lines of this poem, Bottoms’ greatness emerges: as poet-narrator he seems to realize—more present as observer than enthusiastic participant, probably—the pointlessness of proving their manhood against these helpless creatures: “We drink and load again, let them crawl / for all they’re worth into the darkness we’re headed for.” In a couple of places in this first section of Shooting Rats, the first-person singular appears, and its immediacy is welcome and makes the most powerful stanzas. In “Below Freezing on Pinelog Mountain,” the speaker says, “But when you pass me the bottle, / cough for the whiskey burning / cold in your throat, that same breath fogs the windshield” and again in the first stanza of “Coasting Towards Midnight at the Southeastern Fair”: “Stomach in my throat / I dive on rails and rise like an astronaut.” T.S. Eliot began his famous career with first-person poems, including “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot started the twentieth century trend toward using this viewpoint, though his first-person became increasingly complex, as in “The Wasteland,” striving to impress us, or some might say confound us, with abstraction informed by his impressive knowledge. In contrast, by the end of Shooting Rats, Bottoms will move into a sincere, straightforward first-person—where he will find his long-stride as a poet—and be more dedicated to conveying what he hopes to understand and know rather than what he already does.

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It is not surprising that David Bottoms, a son of Georgia, falls into a rhythm of first-person narration. Finding his way as a poet involves reexamining his own place in regional Georgia as well as another of his poetry’s major quests: memorializing family members and his relationships with them, starting with his childhood in Canton, Georgia. To do this, Bottoms will become, as poet, a storyteller—not so unlike men in overalls who would regale neighbors with hunting stories around a potbellied stove, in a country store like the one David Bottoms’ grandfather ran in Canton. In his introduction to Robert McDowell’s long narrative poem The Diviners (1995), Dana Gioia calls Diviners part of a “revival” of narrative poetry and says, “Modernism had so completely repudiated the narrative mode that by 1970 there was no available tradition.” If this is so, Bottoms’ three books of the 1980s—Shooting RatsIn a U-Haul North of Damascus, and Under the Vulture-Tree—were surely significant to this revival. Already in the second part of Shooting Rats, we have “the centering of the I” taking place. And so personal biography becomes important for interpretation. This takes us back to a time before the New Critics, who adapted their theories of criticism around poised, impersonal poets like Eliot, and in Cleanth Brooks’ words, “stressed the writing rather than the writer;” that is, critical separation should be maintained between the life of the poet and the poem. Already in section two of Shooting Rats, the life of the poet is the poem (a good start on knowing Bottoms’ biography can be found in the online New Georgia Encyclopedia). In “Jamming With the Band at the VFW,” Bottoms, an aspiring musician in his youth, writes:

I played old Country and Western
then sat alone at a table near the bandstand
smug in the purple light
that seemed like a bruised sun
going down over Roswell, Georgia.

Probably led to play there by the fact that his father was a Pacific War veteran, he contemplates a garish scene of “red beehives” and black string ties, people dancing drunkenly, “the woman with platinum hair / and rhinestone earrings, moving suddenly toward me.” This was the time after WWII and Korea when Georgia’s small-town VFWs boomed on weekend nights, when Herman Talmadge would show up and barnstorm the crowds with political diatribes against “liberal Atlanta” and ask for their votes (so I heard from my veteran relatives). Bottoms captures the tawdry weekend gaiety perfectly, carrying this mood and description through the next two poems, “Writing on Napkins at the Sunshine Club,” and “In Jimmy’s Grill.” The last three poems of section two begin what will become a dominant thread in Bottoms’ poetry: his books are seasoned with Biblical references, as one would expect from a twentieth-century Georgia poet. Flannery O’Connor wrote to Marion Montgomery, a Georgia poet twenty years Bottoms’ senior, “The Southern writer can outwrite anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history.” But already in Shooting Rats there is tension between Bottoms’ personal doubt and the evangelical Protestant tradition he has grown up in that considers faith and belief a moral necessity, its attitude often compulsory. In “All Systems Tower and Collapse,” he says, “This should be a night for beer and good talk / or Tennessee whiskey and motel girls, / but tonight I drink here alone.” Then he expresses doubt:

From the nightstand by the bed, Gideons
offer me the company of old words,
but their premise is all wrong…
Here’s the natural gospel of it all…
we babel in darkness.

In “The Lame” a faith healer stands in the river and calls a lame boy to enter. The boy then “watches the man in rolled shirt sleeves / raise and lower the water-logged Bible.” Among the crowd on the bank, his parents look on expectantly, “mama with her basket of fried chicken, daddy / with the family Bible…watching for the promise to emerge.” However, the last three-line stanza: “When the twisted foot breaks light, flops across sand / like a dying fish, mama closes the basket, daddy the book. / All the whole and newly healed leave the river lame.” In the next poem, “Faith Healer Come to Rabun County,” his tent-show has been hyped-up by the radio station, with “posters up for weeks / in barber shop windows, beauty parlors, convenience groceries. / Even now his boys are setting out extra folding chairs, / adjusting the P.A. for more volume.”

Obviously the preacher knows he is mostly showman, but still sincerely hopes what he does will be made real by divine presence and power:

And if all goes as he prays it will go
even the most feeble will quake down the sawdust aisle,
kneel or fall unconscious at his shocking touch
to rise strong, young, healed in the spirit.

As will be seen in his subsequent poetry books, David Bottoms also sincerely hopes to see divine presence and power made real.

Part three of Shooting Rats, titled “All the Animal Inside Us,” begins another major thread in the books of David Bottoms: a menagerie of animals will appear in his poems throughout the decades of his writing. The section starts with “Crawling Out at Parties,” where the speaker explores the animal unleashed by alcohol:

My old reptile loves the scotch,
the way it drugs the cells that keep him caged…

He likes crawling out at parties among tight-skirted girls.
He takes
the gold glitter of earrings
for small yellow birds wading in shallow water.

The passage evokes, for me, Kant’s idea of a constant antagonism between a man’s animal desire for total freedom and his need for sociability in order to live with other human beings. Kant would see the speaker’s hybrid, libertine persona as a regression—as does the poet. And I think the poem is part tongue-in-cheek. In most other poems in the section, this animal complex is gone and the speaker mere animal observer—though in “Catfish” he is also rescuer of the fish tossed absently aside on pavement as too small by a fisherman:

I picked it up in the towel
and watched the quiver of its pre-crawling,
felt whiskers groping in the darkness of the alien light,
and threw it high above the concrete railing
back to the current of our breathable past.

These “animal poems” sincerely emerge from his rural heritage and love of wildlife, but are also an homage to James Dickey, who at the time of Shooting Rats, overshadowed every poet writing in Georgia and many poets beyond the state. Soon after Bottoms published this book, he and Dickey would become lifelong—for the rest of Dickey’s life—friends. In Dickey’s poetry many speakers are attuned to observing animals, but the observation is more likely to build to a transcendent empathy with (his “Listening to Foxhounds”) or actual morphing with an animal (like “Springer Mountain,” where instead of shooting the deer the hunter casts off his clothes and runs down the mountain believing, “My brain dazed and pointed with trying/ to grow horns,” he has become a deer). In the course of books to come Bottoms will be deeply attentive to nature’s flora and fauna, but not “Dickey-deep.” It is interesting that in his second book, In a U-Haul North of Damascus, David Bottoms has a first-person plural poem, “Kinship,” dedicated “for James Dickey” about creeping into woods to shoot a cottonmouth with a blow-dart pipe. This might surely seem a redneck tall tale—unless you also read Dickey’s poem “Blowgun and Rattlesnake.” The speaker in “Kinship” suggests a kinship with the snake, but, like its dedication, the poem suggests, for that particular hunting trip, a kinship with Dickey. If usually a bit more understated and less absolute, Bottoms will adopt Dickey’s primitivism, animism, mysticism in responding to nature. A good example occurs in “Hunting On Sweetwater Creek” in section three:

The wind says something old in the brown leaves
like in those dreams
where I catch myself falling…

I listen and wait, afraid
there is something to be said for being lost
and finding again
creature that crawls in the gut,
arcs the spine, curls hands inward towards claws.

Section four, titled “How Death Isolates,” is a series of lugubrious poems as the title indicates. In “Learning to Let Water Heal,” the speaker visits a Brigadoon-like island where, “The coast falls away like an old skin,” where “Gullahs…know the healing power of water / from dreams their fathers had.” Here may be found relief from the angst and malaise of modern life that poems in the section suggest, from knowing as humans—as animals do not—that death is inevitable, “Somewhere on Cumberland / we must let the water turn an image back on us, / learn to look inside it and find what magic remains.” Interestingly, this seemingly mythical island is real; the wild horses grazing and running free the speaker describes are really there. Chimneys of slave houses the Gullahs lived in still stand in the forest. Bottoms’ poetry is experiential here, too. Moving to the next poem, “Rubbing the Faces of Angels,” I thought of one of Sancho Panza’s proverbs: “There’s a remedy for everything except death.” In “Angels,” the speaker is visiting Charleston with a friend. He begins by describing the city coming to life in the morning, people resuming routines, and then self-reflexively, suggests that he has

a few hours to gather [these] fresh images
while you labor across the street
in the graveyard of the Circular Congregational Church…
rubbing the faces of angels from stones.

Because this is a colonial cemetery, the oldest gravestones are carved with the “memento mori” skull and crossbones, inspired by the Puritan idea that only a select few could reach Heaven. At the end of the poem, they tape her (presumably “her”) etchings

to the wall of the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge
point to this one and that
and say we’d like the figure carved on our stone,
you a smiling angel, wings curled toward heaven,
me the reclining skeleton of Thomas Pool.

This is just one of what will be many “cemetery poems” in Bottoms’ poetry.

The beginning of section five, titled “No Ticket for the Body to Travel On,” recalls another of “Panza’s proverbs: “Sir, sorrow was not ordained for beasts but for men, yet if men do exceed in it they become beasts.” A certain toughness is expected in a rural Georgia male, and it is not just because the traditional physical labor of farm work is often grueling—it is a cultural expectation, and overcoming fear is part of that. With David Bottoms, we are dealing with a poet, a type often given to sensitivity and intelligence. He is more susceptible to “early-onset” philosophical sadness. As a young man, the poet already fears the loss of those close to him. In section five’s first poem, the speaker visits his grandmother in the hospital and, despite her successful surgery, knows she is on her deathbed. His grief is marked. The poem “The Orchid” is a remembrance of her: “The last time I saw you alive you had grown / white as the hospital sheet, a pale orchid under the oxygen tent.” In the next stanza, he asks if, when her spirit passed from her body, “Could you see me standing by your shoulder / flower like a crucifix in my hand?” The next poem is about the poet’s grandfather’s body dressed-out at his funeral:

I sat in the room of roses and carnations,
gray faces of relatives
and watched the body stay behind
like someone seeing a traveler off on a journey.

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These are the first of many poems in David Bottoms’ literary corpus that memorialize family members who have passed, or are still alive. This intense remembering is a way to ameliorate the philosophical sadness of present and future loss, and so deal more easily with what he anxiously, inevitably dwells upon. Jumping ahead many books to his latest, 2018’s Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch, the speaker addresses this anxiety in “A Small Remembrance” while on a camping trip:

Smoke billows and blows away.
Memory also, I fear,
the features of a face, the sound of a voice,
a typical phrase…

When I can’t reach my daughter, or my wife,
and the black flower
of anxiety blooms in my chest and chokes my breath,
I try to think of my father, years ago, away at war.

And he imagines his grandparents back then, “their anxiety as they hover over their radio, twisting dials, / desperate for war news.” He thinks of his home in Canton that is unrecognizable now, of his grandfather’s country store and homestead disappeared by the exurban wave of Atlanta’s mad growth psychology and remade into a Kmart (yes, there are national and international forces at work, too, but in Georgia we like to blame Atlanta for these things). Everything cherished, people, places, disappear, but the art of the poet, artifact of the poem, can provide some solace and stay.

In the volume’s last poem, “Speaking Into Darkness,” he addresses his dead grandfather, telling him of his wife’s (the speaker’s grandmother’s) suffering, and that of his of grieving daughter’s (the speaker’s mother’s) and his grandfather’s own final suffering, while remembering, “that night you came to this room with the New Testament / and held the book open all night in your hands.” And then: “Grandfather, I am holding no true book. /…Grandfather, I am holding nothing in my clenched hands. / Speaking into darkness is the closest I can come to prayer.” Bottoms’ greatest quest in Shooting Rats, and poems to come, is this grasp for what he cannot here hold.

His next book will be In a U-Haul North of Damascus. Themes from Shooting Rats will be replayed—with new figures and variations, yes, but, as Robert Penn Warren believed, Shooting Rats is more than a curtain-raiser by an unknown poet. Like with Hemingway’s In Our Time, the themes in Shooting Rats will be foundational to a significant, long-term contribution to American letters. Yearning for a sense of connection between this world and the spiritual world will inform his creative process from here on, but the quest is not heavy-handed. Yes, the poet would like to see Christ appear like he did for Paul, particularly in U-Haul’s tile poem (however, there is a town named Damascus in Georgia, so the title of the volume can be considered experiential and allusional). Here, the speaker details his suffering during a separation from his wife:

Lord, what are the sins…
The bad checks,
the workless days, the scotch bottles thrown across the fence
and into the woods, the cruelty of silence,
the cruelty of lies, the jealousy,
the indifference?

This is a state of mind and soul John Paul II called in his poetically titled encyclical, Salvifici Doloris, “the emptying of self.” However, Christ never answers. The poet despairs, but in this and other poems, continues to seek. I think of Simone Weil’s famous statement, “God is only present in creation in the form of absence.” It may be that in the poetry’s process of seeking spiritual proof and assurance, as David Bottoms’ speaker matures, he will realize he has received—and shown us—God’s small blessings, even if in absence. Sort of like the joke about the atheist lost in a frozen wood, who breaks down and prays to God, only to be relieved that God’s help is unnecessary when some hunters happen by and rescue him.

And if so, the search begins with Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, and may take forty years or more.

Works Cited

Bottoms, David. In a U-Haul North of Damascus. William Morrow & Co., 1983.

—. Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch. Copper Canyon Press, 2018.

—. Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. William Morrow & Co., 1980

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Penguin Classics, 2003.

Dickey, James. The Whole Motion: Collected Poems. Wesleyan University Press, 1992.

Kant, Immanuel. On History. Pearson, 1963.

McDowell, Robert. The Diviners. Story Line Press, 1995.

Paul, John. On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering: Salvifici Doloris. St. Paul Editions, 1984.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Routledge, 2002.

 

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