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Spending the Winter (Book Review)

November 16, 2022
By Betsy Howard

Editors note: the following book review appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Eikon.

Joseph Bottum. Spending the Winter. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2022.

Joseph Bottum’s poetry collection Spending the Winter (2022) offers a world of longing, of poetic echoes, and of laughter worked out in the lavishness of language. Bottum borrows the title of his collection from the fifth and final division of his book, as well as the final poem of the collection. If the titular repetition of “Spending the Winter” underscores winter’s sustained presence throughout, other poems — including the opening “Easter Morning” as well as “A London Frost Fair,” “Feast of the Annunciation,” and “Some Come to See the Lord: A Christmas Carol” — address winter directly, while “What Falls Was Green” and “Still Life” sustain the wintering theme from the vantage of aging and time’s ruthless passing. The sweeping meditation on transience in “What Falls Was Green,” for example, grieves over “waste” and the “loss” of everything from the organic matter to human intention while it simultaneously cultivates humility. Pedagogically, I found the poem a compelling companion to Percy Shelley’s ironic treatment of permanence in his “Ozymandias” (1818), and I paired the two poems to launch my Ancient Greek Literature course this fall. 

Bottum also places winter in conversation with the other seasons. The collection’s fourth section, “Occasionals,” opens with “Four Seasons,” subtitled “A Graduation Poem,” that picks up each season in turn. In “The Four Seasons,” Bottum is quick to turn references to early spring into repartees within the large English poetic canon; Bottum’s April rains invoke both modernist T.S. Eliot and medieval Geoffrey Chaucer. Spending the Winter also resonates with the seasonal theme recurrent across Bottum’s other works, including his 2001 poetry collection The Fall and Other Poems and The Second Spring (2011), a compilation of new, popular, and folk tunes alongside arrangements of poems set to music. 

While the collection is hardly circumscribed by winter — Bottum takes winter as a launching point rather than its boundary — his frame for the coldest, darkest season not only engages but also disciples contemporary America’s cultural fascination with metaphorical winter — or what we experience as extended seasons of scarcity, burn out, shut down, and seeming unproductivity. Katherine May’s New York Times best-selling memoir Wintering (2019) best captures our current preoccupation with ongoing lack by turning the noun winter into the gerund wintering. May’s essays pace with those who “toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,” as the old advent hymn describes. In winter’s severity and uncertainty, she celebrates its bizarre wonders like the liquid fat under the skin of hibernating dormice to ice bathing. But May is adamant in her conclusion that winter has no dénouement, often no narrative arc, and therefore no promise of resolution. Not so for Bottum. 

Spending the Winter opens with a resurrection poem in which Bottum resolves the bloodshed of Drudic rites and ritualized pagan longings in Easter, just as Easter, in the northern hemisphere, divides winter from spring. Bottum’s primary interlocutor in this first piece is René Girard, to whom the poem is dedicated. Girard’s anthropological study of the relationship between communal violence and ritual religion (Violence and the Sacred, 1972) frames the poem’s argument: Bottum’s young daughter running through the barely blooming dogwoods embodies resurrection hope against the backdrop of human suffering, experienced acutely in pagan rites of “grief / By grief, pain by vengeful pain,” but also echoed in the modern world of wars and ecological disasters where “innocence will come to grief.” This first poem, “Easter Morning,” ends with the promise of “All that was lost, rudely broken, / Crossed in love” coming “rising, rising. Resurrection is the first note Bottum establishes. So too his collection ends with embodied hope in “Spending the Winter,” where Bottum delights in winter’s habituated daily rhythms — “Each daily need, each daylight chore / keeps us in time, like a music score” — that keep our hearts tender by demanding a “But stop” to our indulging fears that all might be meaningless. In “Spending the Winter,” the lull of these routines also makes remembering possible and precious even as it encourages us to delight in the world’s subtle but persistent particularity. Bottum’s “This this” is his affirmation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s inscape, which Hopkins, in turn, borrowed from Duns Scotus’s haecceitas. In “Spending the Winter,” the particularity of reality is itself an argument against niggling nihilism.

Many of Bottum’s “Trifles” from the collection’s third section made me laugh out loud. “Reading by Osmosis” plays in the nineteenth-century nonsense tradition of Edward Lear with a significant nod to Dr. Seuss; it almost begs to be read aloud, if not sung. Its effusive celebration of ignorance pairs convictingly with the ironic Gnosticism of “Ascetic’s Prayer” from the book’s first section. The brilliance of “Going Steady” lies in its obstinately forsaking its titular theme until the last line, and the humor of “My Last Dutch Oven’s” relies principally on Bottum’s reinvigorating and trivializing Robert Browning’s dark, murderous dramatic monologue “My Last Dutchess” (1842). Sometimes the humor is cultivated in the pairing of the poems: “An Adulterer’s Introspection” evokes a wry, rueful smile on its own, but its pairing with “The Logician’s Lament” extends the play with deduction and fidelity across the page spread. 

Bottum’s “Imitations,” the collection’s second section offers, perhaps, the most generative poems of the book as each poem introduces the reader to new-old poet friends or revives our familiarity with a particular prosodic form. In Bottum’s “The Transit of Venus,” we not only come to know the planet Venus afresh, led on by the alliterative string of her “wantonly wasting / Wonders on strangers at dusk,” but we also meet the seventeenth-century astronomer Jeremiah Horracks and his own verse. In “Saro’s Love Song,” Bottum introduces us to a contemporary Kurdish journalist Sardasht Osman, his kidnapping and murder, and his edgy poetic political critiques. I had never heard of William Baker or Vincent Bourne, but Bottum’s imitations left me wanting to. This section’s generosity points the reader outside of Bottum’s collection towards others. At the same time, by providing only the sparsest context, Bottum risks leaving his reader feeling like a bewildered outsider. Any poem written in conversation with an earlier poem threatens to leave readers with the embarrassing sense that they have missed half the conversation. For example, Bottum’s original publication of “Saro’s Love Song” in First Things in 2010 is accompanied by a paragraph of context; in its inclusion in Spending the Winter, we are given less than a sentence to orient ourselves. Bottum’s “Imitations” left me pinned between a desire to hunt for the initial poems prompting Bottum and a simultaneous desire to own my own ignorance and simply enjoy his new echoic versions for their own sakes.

Spending the Winter takes seriously the joys and sorrows of human reality in light of both the incarnation and the resurrection. Its title positions winter as an economic resource to be spent, and if spent, to be stewarded. Not unlike his 2008 essay “How We Spend Our Evenings,” in which Bottum reviews a spontaneous “hootenanny” following a First Things board meeting, Bottum’s collection obliquely prods its readers, in the spirit of Annie Dillard, towards prudential introspection: how will we spend our winters, and in turn, our lives? If Bottum’s title moves us to reckon with a literal or metaphorical winter’s length and, in turn, learn to steward our time and attention through it, his collection itself is an answer: one could do far worse than give many cold, dark wintery nights to Bottum’s verse. In an age when, as Bottum has observed elsewhere, poetry is often unread or discussed only in closed-off literary circles, Bottum offers us poetry to take up in quiet or share out loud. The collection also inspires a range of activities for the reader to practice cultivating — whether the contemplation of our own mortality or the disciplined delight of imitation or wrangling a hootenanny into verse. Here in Minnesota, the increasingly sharp chill in the air confirms for me what Bottum offers and models: in winter, there is time; there will be time.

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