David Bottoms, formerly Georgia’s poet laureate who wrote muscular verse in a high-lonesome tenor about the South’s most rugged landscapes — and its least glamorous inhabitants — died March 10. He was 73.
“A lot of poets seem to think their work has to be set 50,000 miles from Earth, but David never did,” says poet David Kirby, who taught Bottoms at Florida State University. “You were right there with him: baiting the hook, watching the game, fixing a car with his dad. And great poems being what they are, it didn’t matter if you hated to fish or didn’t care about baseball or automotive repair, because the intensity of and engagement with his experiences — the ‘thereness’ of them — made you think about your own.”
A Canton native who looked the part of good ol’ boy in his ball cap, Bottoms did not traffic in flowery, high-toned metaphors. He became a literary sensation in 1979 with his debut collection Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, which won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. The judge was Robert Penn Warren, who called Bottoms “a strong poet, and much of his strength emerges from the fact that he is temperamentally a realist. In his vision the actual world is not transformed but illuminated.”
Amid all the accolades, Bottoms became a protégé of James Dickey, who said, “One cannot read him without being nerve-touched by his sardonic yet compassionate countryman’s voice, his hunter’s irony.”
Bottoms served as Georgia’s ninth poet laureate from 2000 to 2012. He wrote nine books of poetry, two novels, won Georgia Author of the Year five times, was named to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and was awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
His most recent book of poetry — Otherworld, Underworld, Prayer Porch — was published in 2018.
Bottoms found beauty in unexpected places, and often rendered the “ugly” sublime. Loggerhead turtles have “armored hearts,” and consider the carrion-eating birds in “Under the Vulture Tree,” as the jon boat passed under the tree, “. . . I saw for the first time / its soft countenance, the raw fleshy jowls / wrinkled and generous, like the faces of the very old / who have grown to empathize with everything.”
His work also was known for its haunting verisimilitude. One poem, written from the perspective of vandals who defile cemetery statuary in Macon, got him berated by a cotton-belt matron, as if he were the one who had chiseled off the angel’s wing.
“I assumed he was a lofty poetic type, then I got to know David in a conversation at Manuel’s Tavern,” says Decatur poetry impresario Kodac Harrison. “I found him to be a down-to-earth, man-of-the people poet. You can hear that in his poetry and especially when having a conversation in a working-class bar.”
He taught at Georgia State University, where he was a founder of Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Arts.
“David was at turns funny, cranky and philosophical,” Josh Russell, the director of creative writing at Georgia State University, wrote to staff to share the news. “That range is in his poetry, as is his amusement and bemusement and wonder with the world, and the owls, daughters, general stores, wives, houses and fathers it holds.”
Adds poet Barbara Hamby, “He was a great editor and made Five Points a star attraction in the literary world. He had a cantankerous spirit that I loved. You didn’t know what was going to come out of his mouth next, which is a great attribute for a poet.”
Students reputedly revered their irascible but humane teacher.
“I can’t think of a higher compliment for poetry than saying it showed one how to honor and love,” says James Davis May, who received his PhD from Georgia State in 2012, after studying with Bottoms for five years. “As a teacher, David kept us focused on poetry’s larger project: its search for significance. His seminars would have titles like ‘The Poet’s Soul.’ Poets can sometimes be self-conscious about their role in society, but David’s classes were a reminder that poetry is necessary, a way of showing us what we should value.”
His wife, Chelsea Rathburn, Georgia’s current poet laureate, says, “No one has taught me more than David about living in the service of poetry, but also about writing Georgia, about teaching, and even about parenthood. David’s poems so beautifully consider aging and mortality, yet I feel completely unprepared for his loss.”
Bottoms died of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurodegenerative disease that targets the brain stem, similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) that he had been fighting since 2018.
His old “running buddy” and muse, Steve Belew, a raffish Macon bluesman who inspired several poems, including “Steve Belew Plays the National Steel,” says he just had one of those feelings. “A few days before he died, I had a premonition he was going, so I got down his books and started reading them again. I had one of his books open on my table when I got the news.”
No sniffy ivory-tower mandarin, Bottoms was always down for a bare-knuckle adventure, Belew says.
“We’d just up and go, whether it was to Florida or to see Jim Dickey,” he says. “We’d practice archery with Dickey, who also had a blow gun. David decided we both really needed one of those, and that’s how I ended up with a five-foot blow gun that I used to kill roaches in my house.” (Small wonder Bottoms didn’t write a poem about that.)
The poet also played guitar and mandolin and frequently sat in on Belew’s gigs and other jam sessions. Novelist Charles McNair recalls a trip to Macon with Bottoms. “He took me by the house where the Allman Brothers lived and wrote a lot of their songs,” McNair says. “He showed me the two intersections where band members ate a peach on those cursed motorcycles. Best of all was the visit to Duane Allman’s grave, where David gave me a guitar pick to put on the headstone as an offering. In my heart of hearts, I believe that shared-pick kindness held some juju. My guitar playing immediately improved after that — even friends remarked on it. The poetry of that moment comes to mind every time I think of David.”
One of Bottoms’ former students, Wes Griffith, recently opened a literature-themed bar in Macon called Quill, where a menu item is “Shooting Rats” – it’s a shot of whisky and a PBR.
Judson Mitcham, Georgia’s poet laureate from 2012 to 2019, says, “What a fine sound (Bottoms) could make. I think of his elegy for Lester Flatt, and his lines about wanting ‘to praise your remarkable voice.’ That’s how I feel about David. I learned so much from observing the textures and images he could summon, and from dealing with the questions he could put to music. Some of David’s most evocative imagery moves us through a world of creatures and compels us, in startling ways, to see ourselves among them. In the final line of Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, the rats ‘crawl for all they’re worth into the darkness we’re headed for.’”
Bottoms’ family plans a public celebration of his life in the fall, with details to be announced.
Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in magazines such as Atlanta, Garden and Gun, Georgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.