Why do we write? Why do we read literature?
Over the last eighteen months, I’ve been editing a book of poem by David Bottoms. David and I have been close friends and worked together on various projects for nearly thirty years. He asked me to edit the book—his ninth—because Parkinson’s Disease has sapped him physically and confined him to a wheelchair, though his mind remains sharp. The book, A Scrap in the Blessings Jar, will be published later this year and features new and previously published poems. A native and longtime resident of Georgia, his work is rooted in the South and draws on family dynamics, the woods, animals, fishing, and music in an effort to “reveal something about the hidden things of the world, the vague or shadowy relationships or connections that exist just below the surface of our daily lives.” His poems often enter into the familiarity of dialogue with his reader, at times evoking what in “Night Strategies” he calls “this nervous / exaggeration of tenderness.”
David is a Christian, part of Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted South,” though not conventionally or unquestioningly. At times he stares into “the darkness we’re all headed for” (“Shooting Rats in the Bibb County Dump”) and at other times discovers “mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings” (“Under the Vulture Tree”). His remarks to students—he was a university professor for over forty years—suggest his larger aim:
. . . the first thing I say to people who come into my introductory class . . . is something like this: “It’s nice if you know what a dactyl is, or an anapest, or if you know what a sonnet is. That’s nice, but that’s not the most important thing. Not by a long shot. If you only learn one thing in this class, I want you to learn how to use language to get at what’s important to you in your life.” That’s what I’m about. Learn how to use language to get at what’s important to you in your life.
David words provide an essential reason to why we write and read literature: to discover more about the nature of existence, including our own existence. Poetry serves as David’s vehicle to conduct spiritual travel. For him, poetry can provide understanding, a sense of discovery, of spiritual possibilities and meaning. “A Scrawny Fox”—the final poem in the book—is evocative and telling:
Near the end, only one thing matters.
Yes, it has something to do with the moon and the way
the moon balances so nervously
on the rooftops of neighborhood houses. You remember the landscape
of your childhood, your house and yard,
the yards and houses of your friends. Near the end, though,
only one thing matters.
Maybe there was a wood where you played,
and that wood is gone now, paved over for parking cars.
At night, before sleep, it comes to you again—
your longing for the wilderness, the fox you saw last week
at the end of your cul-de-sac. Maybe you put out dog chow
and wait, at night, on your back porch.
Maybe you tire and close your eyes. Things happen
when you close your eyes—an owl leaves a branch trembling,
the dog food disappears. You’d love to see that fox again.
Near the end, though, only one thing matters,
and nothing, not even the fox, moves as quietly.
All my very best,
David M. O'Connell Professor of English
Executive Director, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers
Chair, Department of English