A Scrap in the Blessings Jar: New and Selected Poems by David Bottoms


Review by David Starkey

Now that I’ve read A Scrap in the Blessings Jar, I’m not sure how the late David Bottoms flew under my radar for so long. Perhaps I filed him away as one of those Southern poets devoted to pastimes like fishing and church and country music, someone primarily attuned to the croaking of frogs and old stories passed down at the hearth from generation to generation. In short, something of a hick.

How misguided and shortsighted was that understanding of his work. It’s true that, as far as his subject matter goes, Bottoms, who taught for decades at Georgia State University and was the Poet Laureate of Georgia, was a Son of the South, though not in the demeaning and racist way that term is often used. Instead, he simply drew on the environment he was born and raised and happily remained in all his life.

Editor Ernest Suarez divides Bottoms’s work into “three relatively distinct phases”: his first three volumes “consist of compact, country narratives”; later, he focuses on “more straightforwardly autobiographical” and “longer, looser conversational poems,” in which Charles Wright is a clear influence; the final group of poems were “written under the duress of significant illness”—Bottoms died last March of progressive supranuclear palsy, described in the Georgia Bulletin as “a rare and terrible neurodegenerative disease like ALS, or Lou Gehrig Disease.” According to Suarez, these last, shorter poems “look backward for some consolation, for glimpses of truth.” The editor’s introduction is sympathetic, and accurate as far as it goes, but there is obviously nothing like immersing oneself in the actual poems.

The newish title poem, also the first poem in the book, finds the poet, presumably in real life suffering horribly from PSP, reflecting on how content he is at home, while his wife and daughter are off engaged in satisfying activities as his dog snoozes under the piano. His conclusion: “Suddenly, it seemed, I needed nothing.” The final act in the poem is the writing of the poem itself and dropping it into the “blessings jar.”

It’s a heart-stopping beginning, and one can’t help but read the 165 pages of poetry that follow in light of that simple act of devotion. Indeed, throughout the book, one encounters devotion to family and friends and tradition—and also to a kinder, gentler version of Christianity than that currently being practiced in much of the United States.

After the opening section of new poems, Suarez lists no book titles or dates, although, based on the Acknowledgements at the end, the work does seem to progress in a generally chronological order. Thus, we have the redneck reverie of “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” not surprisingly a favorite of James Dickey, where the third-person speaker notes how rats “Shot in the head…jump only once, lie still / like dead beer cans.” On the other hands, those “Shot in the gut or rump…writhe and try to burrow / into garbage, hide in old truck tires…” The poem is, as it were, a shot across the bow to squeamish urban readers, but the poems that follow in Section I offer a mostly innocuous take on small town life: “beer guts going purple and yellow and orange / around the Big Red Man pinball machine”; “Quietly now the bats jerk / in and out of the streetlight, their shadows / zipping across the grass like black snakes”; “I could homer / in the garden beyond the bank, into the left-field lot of Carmichael Motors.”

The longer poems in section II are usually broken into small parts, and these sequences read much like the earlier poems, although, as Suarez notes in the Introduction, they represent “an attempt to find a convincing foundation and platform for his transcendental yearnings.” Luckily, the poet’s evangelism is subtle or altogether disguised. In “Vigilance,” Bottoms asks: “How to stitch together those loose connections? / So much stress on the needle-bone of faith.” And what is the answer to “these centuries of slowly accruing misery?” For Bottoms, it’ is “Vigilance and virtue, or what we can muster.”

I was most taken by the poems in section III, which demonstrate a fuller, wiser understanding of the material covered in the first section. Here, Bottoms’s unmatched eye for detail and pitch-perfect ear are on full display. Consider the opening lines of “Violets”: Little wallow of snuff pouching her lower lip, my grandmother spits / into a marble flower box / and tilts a wide sprinkle from a rusted watering can.” It’s a treat just to follow the movement of the vowel “i,” from its short sounds in the title and “lip” and “spits” before it shifts slightly in “tilts” and goes long in “wide” in the final line. And the catalog of precise yet evocative images in this group of poems is truly marvelous. There’s the drunk  with “a glinting swipe of his nickel hook / warning off the one car passing”; the description of a high school baseball game: “the chatter, / the haze, the heat, the dust / like cannon smoke drifting off the infield”; and the pathos of his father’s old age: “Every night my old man inches his walker across the kitchen floor—to the cabinet for a glass, the sink for water.”

Overall, this is a quietly spectacular collection of poems, one I know I will return to again and again.