Sam McKinstry

Gigging on Allatoona

Light bleeding onto pines
and pine shadows craling across water turning orange
under boathouses floating under an orange sky,
we huddle on a ruined dock, file barbs sharp,
load buckets with ice and beer, wait
for the chorus of lake-edge croaking.

Darkness fallen, we shove off
onto the water, pull ourselves along the beams
our flashlights anchor to the bank
toward the bass-throb belching in the starless night,
the voice that dies as we drift toward a rustle
in the cove-grass, the cattails waving.
And when the light finds the bulging slime eyes,
we feel the thrust and jab, the tilt
and rock, the small twitch of legs
kicking air at the end of the gig, the wake
rolling away from the boat far out across the black water.

In this poem, Bottoms seems to be taking on the role of a storyteller. The poem sounds reflective, as Bottoms recollects on past times spent at Lake Allatoona. The poem begins in the end of a day, as the sun slowly disappears into the edge of the lake. Bottoms uses in depth imagery such as "light bleeding onto pines" and "wait for the chorus of lake-edge croaking." Bottoms, however, is not alone on the lake, for he uses the first person pronoun "we" to show that he is among a group of people, waiting for the day to begin. The group of friends load a bucket with beer, making it evident that they are only beginning their time together. As a reader, I felt a sense of anticipation as I read of the early morning and was looking forward as to what might come next in the day.

As darkness falls on the lake, the group moves out into the water on a quest for fish. Any fisherman knows that the best time to fish is during dark hours, when the bass come out to eat. Bottoms slowly describes their journey on the lake and makes it simple for the reader to image. As I read the second stanza, I imagined a small boat with a trawling motor slowly propelling it across the banks of a lake. A group of men stand atop the boat, slowly casting and reeling in hopes of landing "the big one." As the men continue in their fishing quest, they continue to repeat their cycle. Bottoms now transitions to what the men feel, rather than what they see. Bottoms asserts that he is also on the boat, for his description of what he feels is in depth and easy to understand. The poem ends with the image of the men continuing in their search for bass, enjoying time together as they contiune "rolling.... out across the black water."

Bottoms uses free verse in this poem, emphasizing different details and chracteristics that are important in the full and complete vision of his time spent on Lake Allatoona.

The Christmas Rifle

Over the spine of the ridge
oragne light scatters through pine and briar,
sifts into the gorge.
With the red glove of his right hand
my father points toward a branch near the top of a pine,
raises the sawed-off stock to my shoulder, lifts
the barrel and backs away.

The gray squirrel moves in front of the sun,
and light shoots down the barrel like a ricochet,
turns blued steel silver from bead to sight.
he points again
and I follow the dark green sleeve of his jacket
to his red outstretched finger
to the squirrel crouched in the fork where the branch
joins the trunk.

Don't jerk. Don't pull. And I watch that spot of air
where the gray squirrel jumps,
then drops from limb to limb in stiff gymnastics
until it strikes the ground at the foot of the pine.
I cradle the rifle and walk to the squirrel, prod
the soft belly with the barrel, study
the hole over the left shoulder, the fine gray hair,
white near the roots, puffed out around a circle of blood.
Just behind me, my father is walking on needles,
the weight of his hand comes down on my shoulder.

Bottoms begins The Christmas Rifle by describing the setting. It is a cold winter morning on a mountain. The Sun "scatters through pine and briar" as it slowly rises through the sky. Bottoms and his father are the only two people in sight. Bottoms then transitions into the main point of his poem. The father points toward a target "on a branch near the top of a pine." As Bottoms writes "raises the sawed-off stock to my shoulder," it is obvious to understand that the poem is about hunting. Bottoms ends the first stanza in a mood of anticipation, leaving the reader wondering what will come next as the father and son stand, waiting to shoot.

The second stanza begins with action, written in a sense of slow motion. As the target ( a squirrel) moves into sight, Bottoms (or the son) takes aim and moves his sight to match the movement of the squirrel. The father, once again, steps in to help the son by giving guidance on wear to aim. Bottoms describes minute details, such as the color of his father's glove and color, making it evident that this event actually happened in his lifetime. By writing reverently and carefully, the reader can understand that this event is very meaningful to Bottoms. The second stanza ends the same way as the first stanza, setting the mood of anticipation, although the reader can begin to understand what will come next.

A sense of silence is felt as the third stanza begins. Bottoms uses italics to show that his father is whispering these words to him. At this point, a shot is taken, although Bottoms fails to describe it. The squirrel is hit, as it "drops from limb to limb in stiff gymnastics." The squirrel hits the ground, as a reader I could hear the dull thud of contact. Again, a feeling of anticipation sweeps over the reader, as Bottoms walks to see his prized kill. Bottoms describes the squirrel with a vivid description. He pokes the squirrel with carefullness, studying where he shot it. Bottoms notes the characteristics of the squirrel such as its "fine gray hair." As the poem comes to its completion, Bottoms feels complete satisfaction as his father's hand comes down on his shoulder. Bottoms finally feels accepted by his father.

My Daughter at the Gymnastics Party

When I sat for a moment in the bleachers
of the lower-school gym
to watch, one by one, the girls of my daughter’s kindergarten
climb the fat rope hung over the Styrofoam pit,
I remembered my sweet exasperated mother
and those shifting faces of injury
that followed me like an odor to ball games and practices,
playgrounds of monkey bars
and trampolines, those wilted children sprouting daily
in that garden of trauma behind her eyes.

Then Rachel’s turn,
the smallest child in class, and up she went, legs twined
on the rope, ponytail swinging, fifteen, twenty,
twenty-five feet, the pink tendrils of her leotard
climbing without effort
until she’d cleared the lower rafters.
She looked down, then up, hanging in that balance
of pride and fear,
then glancing
toward the bleachers to see if I watched, let go
her left hand, unworried by that boy
with the waffled skull, stiff and turning blue
under the belly of a horse,
or the Christmas Eve skater on Cagle’s Lake,
her face a black plum
against the bottom of the ice.

Bottoms begins the poem by setting the point of view of the poem. This POV is from the perspective of a father who sits to the side as he watches his daughter at a gymnastics birthday party. Bottoms describes the setting vividly, accurately portraying a sight that the reader can vision with ease. The narrator reflects on his own childhood as he watches his daughter climb the rope. He feels the same nervousness that his mother felt when he was a young boy on his own adventures. It is clear that the narrator had an extremely active childhood and was fearless, like his daughter is as she climbs the rope. As the end of the first stanza approaches, it is not clear as to what will happen next in the poem, giving the reader a sense of anticipation as he/ she continues reading.

As the second stanza begins, the focus of the poem shifts from the father's memory to his daughter's actions, in the present tense. The narrator describes the daughter with strict attention to detail, emphasizing his deep care for her. As the daughter slowly progresses up the rope, the reader can feel the narrator's anticipation and fear for his daughter. While he has described himself as fearless as a youth through his past adventures, the fatherly instinct takes over as he worries for his daughter's safety. The daughter, however, possesses the same fearlessness that her father once had. Just as the daughter reaches the top of the rope, she looks around for a small amount of time before effortlessly removing her hand from the rope and falling off, down to the Styrofoam pit. As she falls, the father experiences traumatic flashbacks, remembering dead people of his past. As the reader finishes the poem, it is obvious to understand that the father’s past experiences have taken away his fearlessness, for he knows that this sense of fearlessness can potentially have drastic consequences. These consequences, which the narrator has seen first hand, have taken away the narrator’s childhood fearlessness.

Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump

Loaded on beer and whiskey, we ride
to the dump in carloads
to turn our headlights across the wasted field,
freeze the startled eyes of rats against mounds of rubbish.

Shot in the head, they jump only once, lie still
like dead beer cans.
Shot in the gut or rump, they writhe and try to burrow
into garbage, hide in old truck tires,
rusty oil drums, cardboard boxes scattered across the mounds,
or else drag themselves on forelegs across our beams of light
toward the darkness at the edge of the dump.

It's the light they believe kills.
We drink and load again, let them crawl
for all they're worth into the darkness we're headed for.

The first stanza begins with a “rumble” as the reader can almost hear the sound of the pickup trucks go by on the way to the county dump. Bottoms begins the poem by setting a “pack mentality” as he and his friends head in a convoy to the county dump. They are likely to be rowdy due to their aforementioned consumption of beer and whiskey. It is likely that this group is made up of primarily teenagers who get a “high” off shooting animals and being drunk with friends. This represents a teenager’s recklessness and carefree lifestyle. Instead of thinking about potential consequences, many teenagers only concern themselves with the present.

The narrator skips towards the action of the night as the rowdy crew begins shooting rats. The narrator describes how the rats react to being shot. It seems as if the narrator is very familiar with this game as he can easily describe how the rats react to different wounds. The game sounds brutal, yet the reader can fully agree that the characters shooting at the rats are enjoying themselves very much. The narrator describes the setting with vivid details, detailing small characteristics such as the “cardboard boxes scattered across the mounds.” It seems that the rats have been mutilated by the end of the night as they attempt to escape from the rowdy teenagers. There is a stark contrast between the teenagers, who are happy and enjoying their night, and the rats, who have been obliterated for no apparent reason other than to fuel another party’s enjoyment.

The final stanza brings in a more reflective tone from the narrator. This tone is one of realization and regret. As the narrator describes the group of teenager’s repetitive nature in the slaughter of the rats, he comes to the realization that they are no better than the rats, for they will all end up dead, whatever organism they may be. This catharsis is the turning point of the poem, for the narrator realizes that while he and his friends may have superiority in genetics over the rats, they will end up dead at the end of time.

This is a link to a video interpretation of the poem.
Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump