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
In the summer of 1968 a man walked into Dad’s saw shop gushing about a guy making beaucoups of money. College was out for the summer and I needed a job. The next thing I know, Dad and I were sitting in Augusta’s Bell Auditorium waiting for pitchman, Glenn Turner, whose company, Koscot Cosmetics, needed door-to-door salesmen, the gullible preferred. From the back of the auditorium a chant took rise ... “Money!” “Money!” “Money!” “Money!” “Money!” “Money!” and then men cut cartwheels down the aisles all the way to the stage. It was like the scene in the Blues Brothers where a rapturous Jake Elrod some Read on →
Back in 1937 when Gene Talmadge was finishing his second two-year term as governor of Georgia, he took a big step. For Miss Mitt (his wife), he built a new home on U.S. Highway 341, between McRae and Lumber City, in his home county of Telfair. In today's world, this residence looks much like a Southern 5-4-and-a-door, with two-story white columns, red brick, and set about 100 yards back from the highway in a grove of pine trees. But it wasn't built in today's world, but constructed 77 years ago when most people in Telfair County probably didn't have running water in Read on →
It was a relatively young (37 year old) senator from Augusta with modern ideas who brought Georgia out from under the influences of the Talmadge machine, when he became governor in 1963. Carl Sanders brought modern politics to the state, moved the state to new heights and set the tone for forwardness and moderation that, indeed, made Georgia the capitol of the New South. He ran against a key Talmadge protégé, and former governor, Marvin Griffin, a staunch segregationist. We remember it well. We were in our third week as publisher of the Wayne County Press in Jesup, when we endorsed h Read on →
A couple of weeks ago I cited some comments by Big Oil shill Anastasia Swearingen to the effect that, basically, there’s just no downside to drilling for oil. Whenever, wherever—it’s all good. She was excoriating the federal government for its stubborn unwillingness (so far) to grant drilling leases along the Atlantic Coast to the oil giants standing in line. What’s the hold-up, guys? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Just look at the Gulf, says Swearingen, where pessimists predicted an “uninhabitable wasteland.” But thanks to all the time and money BP has put into restoration, today the Gulf is faring “be Read on →