Spending the Winter
By Joseph Bottum.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2022.
Paperback, 80 pages, $13.
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 summerWrought—brought from root,As root from seed, and seedFrom flower, stem, and sprout.All brightness leans to darkAnd 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 linesOf 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.