By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published April 3, 2023
We don’t often think of poets as having “fans,” but for people like me, great poets are on the same level as ballplayers, movie stars, and rock bands. Growing up in Georgia, I was a great fan of two wonderful Georgia poets: James Dickey and David Bottoms. They meant as much to me as the Atlanta Falcons and R.E.M., my other local heroes.
I met James Dickey when I was 15; my father used to take me to his annual readings at the Atlanta History Center. Dickey influenced an entire generation of Southern narrative poets, who would in turn influence their own successors. I was lucky enough to call one of Dickey’s greatest proteges—David Bottoms—my teacher.
David Bottoms was born and raised in Canton. He served for many years as Poet Laureate of Georgia, and he will be remembered as one of the greatest American narrative poets of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Bottoms died, aged 73, on March 10 of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare and terrible neurodegenerative disease like ALS, or Lou Gehrig Disease.
David Bottoms was not only my teacher; he was also one of my great formative mentors, a title I only grant to a few other men. As a graduate student, I spent many hours in his bookcase-lined home office, learning the art and craft of poetry from one of its finest writers. At that time his beloved daughter was a newborn baby, and he was living out in west Cobb County, not far from Kennesaw Mountain, which had inspired several of his early poems. We were working on the collection that became my master’s thesis, and I recall that my committee member, Dr. Bill Sessions, referred to Bottoms and me as “Fair Davids of the Cobb-Lands.”
I met David Bottoms when I was 19 years old at a summer writers’ workshop in 1987 at what was then known only as Kennesaw College. I showed him some of my early poems, and he was impressed—impressed enough to invite me to study with him at Georgia State University, where he was a founding faculty member of what became an impressive creative writing program.
Delighted, I went home and told my parents that I was leaving my other school and going downtown to work with the finest writer in the state of Georgia since James Dickey.
I transferred, signed up for classes, waited for the epiphany I knew would come under David Bottoms’ tutelage. And then David Bottoms went to Montana on a fellowship, and I wouldn’t study with him for about three more years.
It was worth the wait. After I finished college at the University of Georgia, I immediately started the MA program in English and creative writing at Georgia State. David Bottoms would at last teach me—At 8 a.m. On a Saturday morning. In downtown Atlanta. Young graduate students do not typically perform well at such a time and place, but so be it.
Thus I went to my first David Bottoms’ class, sleepy but excited, and I sat right at the front of the seminar table, next to him. So it was that when he crossed his legs for comfort from the institutional chair, I saw—curling up from under his sock, ankle to calf—a tattoo of a dragon.
St. Cyril instructed his catechumens that indeed, the dragon waits at the side of the road waiting to devour those who pass. “We are going to the father of souls,” writes St. Cyril, “but first we must pass by the dragon.”
David Bottoms was no dragon. He was a kind and gentle man, a model for the professor I have tried to be. He was a talented and caring teacher who would many years later blurb a book I co-wrote with my own gifted student. He was a model of “Tradere”—tradition—literally handing one another along. What he gave to me, I passed on to my own students. Someday they will do the same for students of their own. The man with the dragon tattoo accomplished his purpose; as R.E.M. put it, he “rearranged the scales.”
More than a poet
You might not have heard of David Bottoms. Sadly, that’s no surprise. Again, we don’t typically celebrate poets in America. But David Bottoms was more than a poet. He was one of the last great Southern artists who truly understood the relationship between the natural world and universal spirituality, the physical place and the memory, the imagination and faith.
David Bottoms grew up in a house, now paved over for a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, in which the only books were a King James Bible and a Billy Graham devotional. Yet in his poetry, he charts the story of a soul.
From his first full-length book, “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump”—which won the prestigious Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets in 1979—until his last great works such as “Vagrant Grace” and “We Almost Disappear,” David Bottoms moves from a state of growing awareness, through a more mature mysticism, into purgation and at last into salvation. His poetry constantly references religion, spirituality, and ritual. Whether writing about a child’s Christmas pageant, a faith healer, the Gospels, or the redemptive suffering of his aging father, Bottoms’ poetry is always grappling with the mystery and meaning inherent in the ordinary. As one of his poems puts it, he literally wrestles with angels.
It may be because of the time he spent in Montana, but when I think of David Bottoms, I also remember the great teacher and Montana writer Norman Maclean, whose masterful memoir “A River Runs Through It” is similar in many ways to Bottoms’ own work. Maclean’s father was a Presbyterian minister, a man Maclean describes as “very sure about matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
That line captures so much of both Bottoms’ avocation and vocation. He loved the outdoors, especially fishing—which is a frequent motif in his poetry—and he also recognized the combination of hard work and inspiration that create great poems. Unlike many poets, Bottoms didn’t write every day or follow a set routine. He could go months without writing, and then, like Faulkner, get “the hots” and turn out wonderful poems that seem almost effortless.
Bottoms saw the inspiration to write much like he understood the gift of Grace: “it swirls where it wants to swirl./If it touches us,/it touches us.” Those lines are from his poem “Free Grace at Rose Hill,” which refers to historic Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, another favorite locale in his work because of its symbolic link to burial and resurrection, suffering and redemption.
Of all the familiar patterns in his body of work, water is perhaps most prevalent. A gorilla calls across water at a safari park, seeking to commune with the human. A tree by a river is flocked with vultures, “dwarfed transfiguring angels … with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings.” Rivers and ponds are places of both danger and deliverance. A dying catfish is restored to life, “thrown back to the current of our breathable past.”
“What I love about water is mystery,” Bottoms writes in “Sounding Harvey Creek.” Here again, the connection with Maclean is striking: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the beginning of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
I offer that beautiful passage as a kind of prayer for David Bottoms. I don’t mean it as an epitaph, for Bottoms, like all great artists, can never really be gone from us. His work endures.
I’ll let the work speak for me. In his poem “My Perfect Night,” Bottoms conjures imagery of baptism and entrance into eternity: “In my perfect night I follow a trail by the river,/and my shadow on the water/looks deep and alive.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.