Book Review - Georgia's Poet Laureate finds a resting place for his essays and interviews

There's more than a whiff of darkness in Georgia Poet Laureate David Bottoms' new collection of essays and interviews. Crack the spine and the sensation might sting your eyes and nose with an acid odor, like you've been slicing up onions rather than reading a book. The Onion's Dark Core, as Bottoms explains it, is the undeniable fact of death, the human condition of mortality. That scent of death permeates these pages, often in strange and beautiful ways.

Borrowing a metaphor from Ernest Becker's Denial of Death, Bottoms says, "The onion represents the whole of your personality. You take it, put it down on the table and slice it in half. The core is your death — the fact at the center — and all the layers built up around it are the various layers of your personality, all of your interests, your ambitions, the things you involve yourself in — I'm going to be a great poet, I'm going to be a great pianist, I'm going to be a great painter — the stuff that makes you believe in a future. Well, these are only distractions, denials, lies. As life-affirming as they may be, they won't save us from one undeniable fact."

His point, though, extends from the onion metaphor. Those layers, the lies and distractions, are the stuff of art, "the raw material out of which we make poetry, drama, and fiction." In this way, he comes to the conclusion that mortality is not only at the center of the human condition, but also all of art. "Or to say it another way," he adds, "under every piece of literature is a grave."

That conclusion, in part, comes from reflection on his own body of work. Bottoms has been writing about graveyards, death, killing, and so forth since his debut collection of poems in 1979, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. As a way of better understanding "melancholy or morbid" Southern writers, like himself, that often get lumped into categories such as "Southern Gothic" or the "new graveyard school," Bottoms explores the "curious emotional bargain" that literature can strike with death. "Good things can be wrenched from despair. We may get in our slice of the bargain understanding, resignation, empathy, and I might even say beauty."

For the past decade, Bottoms has served as the Poet Laureate of Georgia, though earlier in his career he was given a more descriptive unofficial title, the "Laureate of the Rednecks." In Onion's essays, Bottoms doesn't begrudge that name entirely, though he does bristle at the memory of an early review in the AJC that cast him "into the pit of male chauvinism ... It was a mean spirited review all around and came complete with an illustration of a young man holding a whiskey bottle while leaning against the fin of a '57 Chevy — just in case the readers of the AJC didn't know what a redneck looked like."

More often, though, Bottoms looks back on his life and work in a relaxed tone, writing about getting his "Ph.D. in bass fishing" at Florida State University with the same comfort as he does parsing the lines of Robert Penn Warren. His interviews are often as articulate as his essays. In both, he's prone to setting scenes or recalling moments in vivid detail.

One essay describes the story behind that early poem, "Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump." As an undergrad at Mercer University, Bottoms and his fraternity brothers would load up on whiskey and booze and head toward the mounds of the local dump in a "little caravan of cars and trucks ... dodging as best they could the old tuck tires, broken furniture, whatever else lay in their path." It's a mesmerizing scene, beautiful despite the grisly circumstances, wafting with the scent of onions.

The Onion's Dark Core by David Bottoms. Press 53. $15.95. 194 pp.

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