Spending the Winter
By Joseph Bottum.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2022.
Paperback, 80 pages, $13.
Reviewed by Robert Grant Price.
“Do I really want to read this?” “Is this a good way to spend my time?”
These are fair questions to ask yourself whenever thinking about buying a newly published book of poetry (assuming it isn’t a collection of Greatest Hits by the Old Masters). These are fair questions to ask because new poetry is so easy to come by. Supply outpaces demand, and what exists is hyped beyond reason. Every book is “prophetic,” “necessary,” “astonishing.” These compliments are heaped upon the books by other poets who’ve won awards nobody’s heard of for books that nobody has read that were published by presses with no history, no market, and no reach. (Disclaimer: This might be the case with this review.)
There is no point in getting cynical about it. No good comes from walking through a church bazaar and mocking the quality of the handmade crafts on the tables. Some of the creations on those tables, if we’re being honest, are pretty good, and if not good at least curiously pleasing. So it’s easy to forgive excited poets. There’s no money in the game, nobody really believes the hype, and nobody is going to achieve fame or immortality. It’s best to applaud the effort and hope that a few of the works are sturdy enough to last longer than a week.
Spending the Winter is a sturdy book. It’s a log cabin in a snowstorm. The poet, Joseph Bottum, director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University and author of Decline of the Novel, does what few poets can do, or want to do, and that’s to speak as plainly as a free verse poet while adhering to a complex rhyme scheme and meter. As an example, take the opening lines of the second poem in the collection, “What Falls Was Green,” a meditation on aging:
What falls was green. Now not.
Winter wastes what summer
Wrought—brought from root,
As root from seed, and seed
From flower, stem, and sprout.
All brightness leans to dark
And doubt […]
The mid-line rhymes syncopate the rhythm. Lush alliteration pairs with rich assonantal stresses and word repetition to reinforce a continuum across these short, tri-metered lines. The architecture is like a spiral staircase, and the poem descends before turning back around when it reaches the last two broken lines: “Now not. / Now not.”
A similar complexity of design appears in “Still Life,” a portrait of a fleeting future, and “The Hidden Life,” a five-stanza poem with a simple yet stunningly effective construction: the last line of each stanza carries into the next stanza. This interlocking scheme adds architectural complexity and force of meaning. In this poem, each line that stretches to a new stanza begins with “or,” a shift both jarring—the music breaks off-beat—and pleasing as the poem’s narrator offers readers an alternative to each vision he presents.
[…] In lines
Of black between the flames,
A fire writes against its light.
Dry hopes, forgotten fames,
The traceless works of childless men—
All printed there to read.
The cinders spell the deeper night,
Dark need inside dark need.
And you may follow where they lead,
Or you may look away.
Reading Bottum on the eve of the alleged take-over of the arts by artificial intelligence gives a reader hope. I’ve coaxed poetry from ChatGPT, but the limericks weren’t clever or dirty enough, and the pot roast recipe rendered as a Shakespearean soliloquy lacked gravy. I mean, gravity. (“Oh, hark! What savory scent doth waft this way? / A pot roast, rich and tender, forsooth!”)
Bottum’s poetry has the strange effervescence most of us still associate with humans and look for in a writer. Call it voice, a fingerprint, the feeling of a person standing near but out of sight, or the being standing behind the words. This fascination lurks in the poet’s diction, his style, and the choices he makes for his art: The writer lets us into his mind to study the image he holds there, and when we peer inside, we glimpse the mind that holds the image. Bottum’s voice is confident and idiosyncratic, playful and wise, plainspoken and deliberate, concerned with dramas large and dramas small. He recollects his youth in his poetry, marvels at the beauty of the world, concerns himself with students of his who soon will graduate and travel into the splendors and tragedies of life, and studies the seasons, the passing of time, and spent vitality. A real person appears in these pages, and I feel as if I know this person, at least a little. It’s not a feeling I get when I read AI poetry or the verse of some Instapoets.
It’d be a mistake to call Bottum a religious poet, but he is. Several poems in Spending the Winter express awe at the implausible fact and beauty of God’s being in Christ (“Some Come to See the Lord” and “Feast of the Annunciation”), mourn the end of the miracle that comes to us when we die in poems (“We Meet Our Griefs” and “Sepulcher”), and puzzle over and elate upon the resurrection of those who believe (“Easter Morning”). The piety in these poems—and potential for pious poems to reek of pretense—finds an antidote in Bottum’s lyrical invention and by the silliness found in other poems scattered throughout the book, notably “My Last Dutch Oven,” a eulogy to a forgotten cookware that updates Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” and “Reading by Osmosis,” a Seussian song about the pleasures of not reading:
Osmosis is the mostest.
Osmosis is the best.
Osmosis is the closest thing to reading without rest.
Spending the Winter is published by the reliable St. Augustine’s Press, a fact that makes Bottum’s book a low-risk venture for readers averse to contemporary MFA poetry. The fact that St. Augustine’s publishes little poetry improves the reader’s odds of picking up something worthy of rereading and not simply absorbing through osmosis. In a time of excess, selectivity is a sign of quality.
Bottum is a master technician. Strangely, and notwithstanding a four-part poem grandly and grossly titled “Choriambs and Trisyllabics: Four Englishings of Neo-Latin Hexameter,” Bottum doesn’t give off a show-offy vibe. The show-off artist, like the cocky basketballer, slams and jams and draws attention to himself and his incredible, never-to-be repeated, oh yeah baby eat it masterwork. Bottum doesn’t do this. Not really. First, who knew this book was even published? And second, there’s a command and control in Bottum’s technique—an understatement, a warmth, a sense of humour—that gives the impression that Bottum’s enormous technical skills are either second nature or else accidental, even comedic, like the wizardry of a magician who can’t keep all those doves from spiriting from his coat pockets or a master jeweler who drops pearls and rubies everywhere because his hands are full.
Or maybe I’m wrong and the entire thing is one extended flourish, one big oh yeah baby eat it to the Instagram poets who might pick up this book at a church bazaar by accident.
Robert Grant Price is a university teacher and communications consultant.
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