A SMALL REMEMBRANCE by David Bottoms

. . . I have learned the impossibility of avoiding surrender.
— Andre Dubus

1

Beside a Coleman tent,
beside a lake, I light a small fire of damp sticks and twigs.

The flames struggle to catch in the kindling.
Smoke billows and blows away.

Across the lake a coyote wails (or a stray dog).
Then wind again in the trees.

A doctor I knew once
told me that every time he watched a patient die
he thought he could see something tangible

leaving the body. He didn’t say soul,
but I knew what he meant.

Surely the soul billows and blows away.

Tonight I light a small fire
of remembrance, a small fire by a still lake,
in a light drizzle. The month is November,
though the night isn’t cold.

Smoke billows and blows away.

Memory also, I fear,
the features of a face, the sound of a voice,
a typical phrase.

2

When I can’t reach my daughter, or my wife,
and the black flower
of anxiety blooms in my chest and chokes off my breath,

I try to think of my father, years ago, away at war
in the oily water of the Pacific,
the black jungles of Florida Island and Guadalcanal.

I try to imagine the darkness blooming
in the chest of his father,
his mother on her prayer bones at bedside,

their anxiety as they hover over their radio, twisting dials
for war news, the static of radio,

wind, and whispered plea,
which makes my worry small.

3

Some mornings on the prayer porch
with the brown eyes of Christ Pantocrater gazing at me
from Kelly’s icon,

I pray for the coyote den in the woods
beyond the cul-de-sac.

I pray to be like the coyote, wary and full of craft,
fully aware of the moment
and only the moment,

praying urgently to the moon and the trees
and the steel wind hacking through the scrub brush.

Who wouldn’t want to know what she knows?
That is, what she knows
and nothing more?

4

Landscapes plowed over, paved over, prayed over,
live only in memory.

My grandfather’s house and grocery, his field and barn,
our house of green shingles beside
the highway, the homemade infield
where my old man hit grounders and taught the subtleties
of the double play –

how many memories are left
for them to live in? If I stand in that Kmart parking lot, trying
to take bearings – the store must have sat here,

my grandfather’s house there,
the barn behind me (somewhere), our house

down the highway – no dice.
The pasture graded and paved, lined with paint for parking cars,

all’s a vague approximation.

5

Clouds roll and the rain picks up.
The lake is black.
I squint and gaze back years across the black water.

A spotlight beams out of the darkness and strikes
the superstructure of the ship.

Six gun turrets swivel to shoot it out.

Soon barrels flash all across the horizon –
thunder and fire –

the water itself on fire.

In the lifeboat someone asked
about the pain.
(Only his right hand
kept his intestines from spilling into the boat.)

A little sting, he said, from the salt water.

6

I remember my grandmother’s cedar chest,
the rich smell of the kept
and sacred –

crocheted bedspread folded in plastic, hand-stitched quilts,
the wooden box of battle ribbons, the purple cameo
shaped like a heart.

The profile out of history.

A small boy shouldn’t be trusted with such things.

7

Beside this cabin tent,
beside this lake, I light a small fire of damp sticks and twigs.

Clouds shred. Smokes billows slightly
and blows away. The coyote (or stray dog)
prays loudly to the moon.

The breath tries to catch in my chest.

Who survived two years
in a San Diego hospital came home to leave
many memories,
though the soul will finally billow and blow away.

And memory.

Smoke off a damp fire.

*
bottoms

We Almost Disappear (Copper Canyon, 2011), David Bottoms’s most recent book, takes a gentler path than his comparatively raucous previous volumes, and aptly so, as most of the book centers on his father’s aging and the inevitable and difficult instruction death compels upon us all.

While some of the same themes inhabit the new poem “A Small Remembrance” –the encroachment of death, the death of his father, and the abiding vitality of memory—the title of the piece belies the poem’s ambition and reaches beyond elegy: Bottoms’s poem encapsulates motifs of nature, history, anxiety, death, changed ecology, and, of course, memory.

However, the specialness of “A Small Remembrance” does not derive only from its thematic array. Though the poem is lengthy at ninety-four lines, the push-pull quality of the piece—the ebb and flow of the narrative—create a profundity far larger than the acknowledgement of a loved parent who’s passed away. Bottoms’s speaker in the first and last sections of the poem evoke a Hardyesque natural world in which memory, strong as it is, will eventually die its own death, not unlike the “smoke” and “soul [that] billows and blows away”; and here a sense of stasis shackles the speaker as he considers the ephemerality of the body, memory, and the notion of a soul.

The humanness of the poem intensifies as Bottoms explores how the self can quell anxiety through perspective as he imagines anxieties of blood-kin in situations almost inconceivably harrowing. After he envisages his father at war, his empathy expands to an earlier generation—the anxiety of his grandparents for their son:

I try to imagine the darkness blooming
in the chest of his father,
his mother on her prayer bones at bedside

While they listen to the radio’s “static,” indication that there are always obstacles to our communicability, our understanding of others’ plights, Bottoms’s next section empowers the poem with a strange, beautiful, different kind of empathy:

I pray to be like the coyote, wary and full of craft,
fully aware of the moment
and only the moment,

and thus the eradication of human memory and a longing for a primordial existence bereft of all but instinct when memory displaces us, gnaws at our hearts.

Such large vision has always been a quality that distinguishes Bottoms’s work from much contemporary poetry. “A Small Remembrance” conveys the largeness of this poet’s imagination and the limpidity with which he conveys the complexity of memory—not just recollection and subsequent contemplation, but the evocation of other times, contexts, and all-too-human thirsts to understand ourselves.


recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.