Under the Vulture-Tree (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
Under the Vulture-Tree is a collection of thirty poems by a man desperate, as he says, “for something to praise,” specifically “something small and changing"—a white maggot in its cradle, the tadpole’s tiny feet, the horn-worm and the phoenix moth. David Bottoms’ poems are full of change, and they are full of praise. The last three poems in the collection are in praise of the poet’s father, or, to be more accurate, they are about the changes the father underwent and the additional changes underway as the poet comes to “own” his father’s name. The word “homage” occurs in the titles of three poems, and many other poems express homage. Despite their close and particular observation of physical reality, or possibly because of that concrete observation, the poems express reverence in the face of mystery. Under Bottoms’ scrutiny, even such unlikely subjects as rats and vultures prove beautiful, both in their being and in their function. In Under the Vulture-Tree, Bottoms takes stock of his world, and what he finds there is good. The poems reveal that kind of vision which the late Flannery O’Connor said the writer would have to cultivate if he wanted to say anything of importance: the anagogical, a kind of writing in which physical things bespeak Deity in action. Another word for such writing might be sacramental.
Perhaps Bottoms is merely doing what every genuine artist seeks to do—to render, as Joseph Conrad expressed it in his preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), “the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.” The visible universe Bottoms treats is mostly Georgian, sometimes suburban, sometimes rural, sometimes urban: far from locking the reader into a region, however, the poems move from particulars to emotional and spiritual states unbounded, uncharted. Nor do the poems impose a particular theology or system of belief. They participate in a realm of mystery in which grace moves freely.
The poems in Bottoms’ book are both personal and particular, but their dramatic situations demand that the reader participate as fully as the poet. Hence, one does not have the impression that Bottoms has merely affirmed beauty, or imposed beauty; instead, beauty unfolds from the details of the situation within which the poet has placed the reader. With few exceptions, the poems are clear and easy to understand. Moreover, the poet begins his book with images of violence and struggle in which the all-important change is either difficult to see or appears negative. So austere and so pure are those struggles that the reader knows he is grounded in reality. The austerity of cold and ice proves to be a metaphor, a spiritual condition of imprisonment from which both poet and reader must move in order to make of life the whole it is. The metaphor does not, however, yield easily, for it is not a mere literary device; it is part of the whole of life, a necessary stage to be experienced fully.
The wholeness of Under the Vulture-Tree opens out, organically as the seasons, from the nine poems in section 1 of the book. Bottoms has divided his book into five sections, withholding the title poem until almost the end of the third section. The ordering of the poems is as carefully conceived as the poems themselves. Section 1, with nine poems, sets the themes and methods of the book and establishes the personality of the poet/narrator. It grounds the reader in the setting, giving him a world to which to respond.
Section 1 begins with ice and the threat of death and then moves slowly toward a triumph over cold and toward a desire for wisdom. The section ends, appropriately, with a promise of life in “The Resurrection.” Then, retrospectively, one recognizes that life has been implicit in all the poems. Embedded in these poems is the hint of a love story as the poet moves from struggle against the cold to acceptance of life within death.
Few contemporary poets combine the narrative and the lyric as effectively as does Bottoms. Perhaps Bottoms achieves the lyric quality precisely because he refuses to strain for it. Neither does he hesitate to use such abstract words as “beauty” when the context requires them. “In the Ice Pasture” begins with something crying in the field; after binoculars prove useless, the poet discovers that “deep prints/ tracking...
(The entire section is 1825 words.)
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