We are non-commercial, all volunteer and supported by our readers. Please help sustain the Dew by making a donation.
Walt Whitman, the sublime and the Bibb County Dump
All things seen are real, said Walt Whitman, and in that spirit three decades ago, the Academy of American Poets presented the annual Walt Whitman Award to the writer of a book-length collection of poems, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.
Today, the author of that collection and its improbable title poem – David Bottoms of Canton – is Georgia’s Poet Laureate, professor of creative writing and poetry at Georgia State University, and author of other highly regarded volumes, including Vagrant Grace, Armored Hearts, Easter Weekend and Under the Vulture-Tree. He is also founding coeditor of the literary publication Five Points.
The jolting image of shooting rats is proof enough that art’s golden thread winds its way through the most banal of human activities — even the back-roads rambling of young men carrying whisky and guns. Certainly that was the belief of Robert Penn Warren, the Academy’s judge that year, who picked Bottoms’ work from nearly 1,400 anonymous manuscripts submitted for the 1979 Walt Whitman Award.
The 2009 Walt Whitman winner, announced by the Academy on May 5, is J. Michael Hernandez of Colorado for his book-length collection of poems Heredities. The poems are based on the accounts of Hernán Cortés, the explorer whose credits include the fall of the Aztec empire. The judge, the poet Juan Felipe Herrera, describes Martinez’ manuscript as “lit by metaphysical investigations” and a tour-de-force that “gives voice to a dismembered continental body buried long ago.”
By contrast, David Bottoms liberates the sublime from the familiar, from moments fixed explicitly in times and places that readers themselves experience, i.e. the mundane is suddenly epiphanic. For example:
From a traffic jam on St. Simons bridge
I watched a fisherman break down his rod,
take bait-bucket in hand, and throw
to the pavement a catfish too small to keep.
As he walked to his car at the end of the bridge,
the fish jumped like a crippled frog, stopped
and sucked hard, straining to gill air.
Mud gathered on the belly. Sun dried the scaleless back.
I took a beach towel from the back seat
and opened the car door, walked to the curb
where the catfish swimming on the sidewalk
lay like a document on evolution.
I picked it up in the towel
and watched the quiver of its pre-crawling,
felt whiskers groping in the darkness of the alien light,
then threw it high above the concrete railing
back to the current of our breathable past.
The Walt Whitman Award is a transformative honor that includes publication and distribution of the book though the Academy, $5,000 in cash and a one-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Louisiana State University Press will publish the 2009 winner, Heredities, in 2010.
After Bottoms’ 1979 award, William Morrow & Company, Inc. published Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. In the photo on the book jacket, Bottoms looks like a bluegrass guitar and banjo picker, which he was and we can assume, still is. If you go to the GSU English Department web site, you’ll see a strikingly similar photo – though the beard is not so dark and the cool hat is missing.
Bottoms graduated from Mercer University, then went on to teach and earn his doctorate at Florida State. In 2000, then-Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him Georgia Poet Laureate.
Here, at last, reader – if you’ve not already had the pleasure – is that title poem:
Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump
Loaded on beer and whiskey, we ride
to the dump in carloads
to turn our headlights across the wasted field,
freeze the startled eyes of rats against mounds of rubbish.
Shot in the head, they jump only once, lie still
like dead beer cans.
Shot in the gut or rump, they writhe and try to burrow
into garbage, hide in old truck tires,
rusty oil drums, cardboard boxes scattered across the mounds,
or else drag themselves on forelegs across our beams of light
toward the darkness at the edge of the dump.
It’s the light they believe kills.
We drink and load again, let them crawl
for all they’re worth into the darkness we’re headed for.
From: Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump: Poems by David Bottoms. William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York. 1980 Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump: Poems” by David Bottoms. William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York. 1980.
Worthy of Comment
Also on the Dew
Ironically - let us begin with a Joke. Man walking along a road in the countryside comes across a shepherd and a huge flock of sheep. Tells the shepherd, "I will bet you $100 against one of your sheep that I can tell you the exact number in this flock." The shepherd thinks it over; it's a big flock so he takes the bet. "973," says the man. The shepherd is astonished, because that is exactly right. Says "OK, I'm a man of my word, take an animal." Man picks one up and begins to walk away. "Wait," cries the shepherd, "Let Read on →
"Nothing is precious except that part of you which is in other people, and that part of others which is in you. Up there, on high, everything is one." -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin At the root of the culture wars lies a fundamental dichotomy in worldviews. Which is more essential to humanity: the individual or the collective? The philosophy of Ayn Rand, as articulated in her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), undergirds one extreme of the cultural divide. Rand, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the U.S. in 1926, espoused a libertarian philosophy that leaves the individual unencumbered Read on →
The tragic vehicular pile-up on Interstate 16 near Savannah where five Georgia Southern University nursing students were killed has shocked our state, and has caused concern on the national stage. It may even lead to new legislation regulating heavy transport rigs to push safer highways. The nursing students were driving from college in Statesboro to Savannah (roughly 55 miles) to continue their clinical “rotational” training in order to become nurses. Georgia Southern in the last few years has developed an accredited nursing program, which now counts 185 students, 76 in the RN-BSN program, and 78 graduate students. Each semester, another 50 stu Read on →
New York City was cold and uninviting when the Greyhound bus arrived late in the afternoon. It was two days before Easter and light snow had fallen leaving the streets wet and slippery. On Sunday, the Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue attracted a huge crowd and at night Times Square was alive with flashing neon signs and people celebrating. It was my first visit to the “Island of Many Hills” (Manhattan) and I had a lot to see. I rode the Circle Island cruise boat, took the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, climbed the stairs into the Read on →