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Poetry Review    



Vagrant Grace
By David Bottoms
Copper Canyon Press, 1999
Paperback, $14.00 (95 pages)
ISBN:  1-55659-129-2

David Bottoms ability to strike the resonance between the concrete effects of everyday life and the spiritual affects with which they are endowed has always been one of the greatest qualities of his work.  In his sixth book of poetry, Vagrant Grace, Bottoms reaffirms yet again this power to deftly weave not only the pedestrian and sublime, but the past and present, a form that moves beyond the preconceived notions of poems and stories, and indeed all things that are termed “southern”.  Indeed it seems as though this book further explores the complexities that exist between these conditions, without losing the accessibility created through the poem’s grounding in the specific image and concrete details.  As the book’s title suggests, it is in this space in between that the poet and his experiences waver.    

In the book’s opening section there are three poems, each themselves broken into three sections.  The first poem “Bronchitis,” begins in the present, anchored by the sound of his daughter’s breathing from the next room, “Mouth open my daughter breathes the little noise of wheels / on dry axles…” But there is something else present in the room as well, “…something quieter / and more disquieting, / some muffled trudge / like soldiers crossing our soggy yard, / ghosting cannons east again toward Kennesaw.”  Here the poet invokes the power of the past in a truly exceptional way by grounding it with the verb “ghosting,” which succeeds in capturing both the physical and ethereal qualities that resound throughout Bottoms’ work.  In the closing stanza of the poem’s first section the poet brings us back to present while invoking the specificity which makes his work both personal but at the same time accessible: 

                    Cough and ragged wheeze, and outside
                    in the driveway
                    the wind rakes the lid of a garbage can.
                    All the loose uncertainties of fatherhood grate
                    in the joints of my chair. 

As the poem continues, moving physically into the past and the booming cannons at the Civil War siege of Kennesaw, where a little girl is the first casualty, Bottoms succeeds in creating a situation that becomes greater than history, and in fact greater than his own personal story:                    

                    Whose story then?  Whose history is shadowed
                    or foreshadowed, if not mine?
                    Or yours?

Never straying far from the imagery and concrete detail that is a hallmark of his work, he closes the poem, leaving this image in the reader’s mind: 

                    The book lies open on my lap.
                    The postcard is from a friend in Washington –
                    cherry blossoms on the White House lawn.
                    A blizzard, he writes,
                    is pounding the city, the homeless
                    have invaded the monuments and galleries. 

The remainder of the poems move with equal ease between the familiar and the unknown, from “Souvenir” with its gaudy clock in a horses belly and the faded ink of “Their Father’s Tattoo,” to the longer poem “Country Store and Moment of Grace,” which weaves the particular voices of past and present as it moves from section to section. 

David Bottoms latest book is indeed his most complete, showing the full maturity and awareness of a poet who has come into his own.  His ability to present the everyday in ways that instill awe in the reader while still maintaining the very connection which makes it everyday day is truly this poet’s greatest work to date.   


William Ashley Johnson
Southern Scribe Reviews

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