How does a poet who perceives the depth of trouble humans have sunk themselves and other living species in convey the confusion and range—the tumultuous feeling—of this trouble? The long poem by Betsy Andrews titled The Bottom swims right into these waters with a voice that jumps from clear-eyed anger to imaginative wonder as it catalogues and presses close to “the sea’s delicious mess.” This is a relentless swimming, tense with music, urgent in its journey toward a sense of safety and home. How does a poet who perceives the depth of trouble humans have sunk themselves and other living species in convey the confusion and range—the tumultuous feeling—of this trouble? The long poem by Betsy Andrews titled The Bottom swims right into these waters with a voice that jumps from clear-eyed anger to imaginative wonder as it catalogues and presses close to “the sea’s delicious mess.” This is a relentless swimming, tense with music, urgent in its journey toward a sense of safety and home.
Each page of this 48-page poem reads as an individual piece with aspects of style and theme that reoccur throughout. The Bottom begins with a haunting invocation that sets the pace for the rest of the book with its rhythmic sea-shanty quality. It opens with a ghostly world that suggests the mirage-like quality of the current moment by envisioning it as a “water-ghost” at the bottom of someone’s future sea: “the long-gone ghost of the beaver meadow, Las Vegas, they called it, skinned / ghost wagers streaming in.” There is a blending of past and possible future in this line that names as ghostly two creatures that are extinct and two that are currently threatened: “the narwhal the sea cow the sea mink the monk seal a mouthful of ghost word, extinct.” Without even mentioning the phrase, Andrews succinctly brings the rising seas of climate change into focus—“ghost of the barnacled schoolroom, lesson a nibbling ghost”—by turning locations of learning into intertidal zones. This first page also contains the quick movement from a wide-scale, political observation to a more personal one for the poet, an element that is one of the strengths The Bottom displays:
The king counts his ghostlands,
his wrecks and his flotsam, his jetsam, his water-strays, his fishes.
My wish is: We are on the shore, we are looking out at the water.
You are lying beside me, curled.
The sun is coming up. I am turning you over
I am going to see your face . . .
There is a breathless quality as the descriptive imagery is amplified by the anxious hope in the narrator’s “wish” for herself and her companion. The language and imagery is compact throughout this poem as it blends elements drawn from both the real world and a more dreamlike one.
There is a mythical quality to the world Betsy Andrews brings to life in The Bottom. She often uses long lines with an almost nursery rhyme quality to their internal rhymes that plays against the tone and adult nature of the topics. For example, this is how she describes the excitement of those making money from oil: “. . . stockholders half-seas over, / black teeth awash, screwed to the eyeballs, pissed and sloshed and sozzled on the stuff / that falls in vaults and catacombs. . . .” Amidst this unbalanced world, with jellyfish drifting on pieces of trash as managers speak in corporate tongues, Andrews playfully inserts representatives of a past where imaginative creatures were key to cultural dreams about ‘the sea.’ At one point, the March Hare from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland makes an appearance mid-page and petitions the author, “I’m getting tired of this. I vote the young lady tells us a story.” One story that appears several times is that of the mermaids and how they are confused by the modern world’s interaction with their domain. Andrews’s mermaids “raise their hands” at a corporate press conference, trying to learn more, but are given “the deafening roar of ‘No comment.’”
Central to this long poem is its use of a variety of means to bring to life the “blood-dimmed gulf between ethics and murk” that has led to our species having “better relations with Mars” than this planet’s waters. In addition to long lines and lists, Andrews frequently uses semicolons and commas to link a stream of images on a page. Rather than the traditional use of enjambment, where there is a continuous thread between lines to create effects, here there are some poems where the imagery switches gears so fast and furiously that it is like the images themselves enjamb against each other. In a few places, this felt a little whiplash-y but I realized that this technique of being constantly led from one thing to the next created a kind of reenactment of the blur of excesses in the consumerist culture these poems are critiquing. In other places, there is a focus on a specific story within an individual poem, such as the dream-world Atlantic City once was for vacationers or the industrial overfishing of the filter-feeding menhaden from the Chesapeake.
There are two threads in The Bottom that involve linking the narrator’s personal connections and the threatened natural world. In one, there are several places that either feature or mention the loss of “sorrow-dog”—one reference makes him sound like a “blind Ganges dolphin”; in another, this animal “landlocked, sits on the rug.” This creature appears at least five times—once in a bluesy litany that describes an underwater burial after the narrator has lamented, “sorrow dog died, oh love of mine, sorrow dog died and is gone.” I really liked how the repetition of memories of “sorrow-dog” seemed like an almost mythical embodiment of an owner-pet eulogy, a reminder that the personal loss is the one that returns the most grief. The other thread that places the narrator within the poem in an intimate way is the reoccurrence of the ‘we’ from the first page. At times, the narrator speaks directly to “my love” with a lyrical urgency and the imagery is often of her and her love dreaming themselves into a healthy underwater ecosystem. Really, the quest is fully human: how to arrive somewhere with a sense of wholeness in this fragmented world? On the second to last page, Andrews writes:
I will cling to you like a mussel, love, will you cling to me like a mussel?
We’ll abide astride this dumb rock together, scarred and thin-shelledand
sometimes blue, but nevertheless hanging on;
mermaids, oh, sing your disavowed songs. . . .
spill the winds all over this trammel-mouth world, spill the seas up onto its beaches
I want the sun to come out, I want to sail us home, the mermaids sing,
I want the sun to come out, I want to sail us home
It was refreshing to see a poet engage with these topics from so many angles. This second full-length work from Betsy Andrews pays attention to the immensity of stories affecting life in Earth’s waters (and therefore, all of life).