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Compassionate Countryman

Art can still arrive wrapped in a Southern accent

Published 08/03/05 by Creative Loafing

Shot in the head, they jump only once, lie still/like dead beer cans.

-- "Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump"

I drove from my place in Little Five Points to Poncey-Highland a few weeks ago and picked up a couple of guys for a boy's night out. We got really wild: We went to a poetry reading.

One of the guys was Charles McNair, the Alabama-born author of the dystopian 1994 novel Land O'Goshen. The other was Georgia's poet laureate, David Bottoms.

I've known about Bottoms for years. Who could forget a guy whose first book of poetry was titled Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump? Along the way, I'd read a few of his poems, which reminded me of the work of the late James Dickey.

Dickey, best known for the novel Deliverance, wrote a poem -- Looking for the Buckhead Boys -- that has haunted me for years because it so accurately reflected the neighborhood we both grew up in, two decades apart. I've never found a more specific example of how a work of the imagination can capture truth far better than mere reportage.

Over the years, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dickey a couple of times about the berserk growth that was erasing the Buckhead of his boyhood. He always poured a large dose of truth in his boisterous, aristocratic Southern accent.

As I drove down Moreland Avenue the other night, I was delighted to learn that Bottoms not only holds Dickey's work in high regard, but actually was his friend and drinking buddy.

I had never heard Bottoms read until he stood in front of a gathering of a small literary club I've promised not to identify.

Bottoms is from Canton, up in Cherokee County. And he still sounds like it. He speaks with a Southern accent that he never lost as he earned a Ph.D. in American poetry and creative writing from Florida State University. Dickey once described Bottoms as having a "compassionate countryman's voice."

The first poem Bottoms read was about breaking into a Canton school to steal a desktop in which his war-hero father had carved his name many years before.

Behind a flashlight's/cane of light, I climbed a staircase almost a ladder/and found a door. On the second nudge of my shoulder,/it broke into a hallway dark as history/at whose end lay the classroom I had studied/over and over in the deep obsession of memory.

-- "The Desk"

His readings stayed with me for days. I found myself thinking back to them again and again. And then I realized how much it had meant to me to hear something so beautiful, so evocative, so violent, so absolutely true to my own life delivered in a Southern accent.

I realized that in today's media, when people talk in a Southern accent, they come across as buffoons. We celebrate the stereotype with the Blue Collar Comedy Tour and Jeff Foxworthy's redneck jokes.

I thought about what we've lost.

I grew up in Atlanta at a time when the most distinguished people I knew had deep Southern accents. It seemed as if giants roamed the streets and proudly talked in slow musical cadences.

Of course, there were ignorant people with Southern drawls, but you also heard erudite and courageous people who spoke in soft, lilting accents.

I thought back to teachers who lovingly read Shakespeare and Melville with Southern accents. I remember hearing the Bible read by a Sunday School teacher named Charles Weltner -- the same Charles Weltner who refused to seek re-election to Congress rather than appear on the same Democratic Party ticket as the segregationist Lester Maddox. It was as if Atticus Finch came to life on Peachtree Street.

Today, when a movie portrays a Southerner, the producers bring in British or Australian actors to mock the real accent with preening phoniness. In just the last couple of weeks, I've heard Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor butchering Southern accents in movies. They must think real Southerners are too grotesque for the rest of society to bear. Some Southerners have even taken courses to eradicate their accents.

I called Bottoms the other day to talk about how our society has turned Southern accents into a joke.

"Isn't that sad?" he said. "The whole culture has tried to kill it out."

Three miles from home and a quarter-mile lead, and I floored it, barking/off some Firestone for the Burger Chief crowd,/forty-five, fifty-five,/and Buck growing smaller in my rearview,/eighty no sweat, and who-knows-what at the top of the hill,/nothing on me but darkness/and the curve past the rock barn,/the straightaway sloping toward the South Canton Bridge,/ nothing but the darkness my headlights butchered,/then tiny in my mirror/those blue lights throbbing ...

-- "Homage to Buck Cline"

Bottoms can make art out of getting stopped for speeding in Canton 40 years ago. He's the best kind of Southerner -- smart, observant, deep, funny and reverential. He describes his own accent as "sort of a North Georgia redneck accent."

"The only time I've been self-conscious about it was when I lived in Montana. My wife made fun of it," he says. "All her friends made fun of me and thought I was a thing from the 19th century."

Today, the Southern accent has come to be associated with racism, ignorance and other dark parts of the past.

"I think we started to associate it with all the bad things of our historical past," Bottoms says. "It's unfortunate in many, many ways."

There certainly is some basis for today's prejudice. Southern public schools are astonishingly bad. Toyota recently said it would put a RAV4 factory in Canada instead of the South because Southern workers are so ignorant they can't even read directions -- they have to look at cartoons. Alas, that fact-based caricature of the ignorant Southerner has overpowered and obliterated our memory of the Atticus Finch prototype.

Despite the stereotypes and the jokes, the accent is worth keeping.

"We speak at a pace that sort of lends itself to thought, to meditation," Bottoms says. "We don't speak at 90 miles per hour like those Yankees do. There is some thoughtfulness in the rhythms."

Bottoms is proof that there are still those among us who speak in Southern accents who have deep thoughts and good motives. He vouches for others, as well.

"I hear very intelligent people speaking with Southern accents," Bottoms says. "Look at the literary tradition we have in the South. Reynolds Price [the North Carolina novelist] has a wonderful accent and is one of the brightest men I've ever met in my entire life."

Bottoms happens to be a great example of a Southern kid whose life was turned around when he was exposed to great literature by great teachers. For him, it happened at Mercer University. The same thing happened to my son -- in the English Department at Georgia State University, where Bottoms is a star. I thanked Bottoms for his department's inspiration for my son, who starts law school in New York next week.

I hope to God he doesn't lose his accent.