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Bottle Tree

By: Jennifer Horne
Reviewed by: Kathleen Thompson
WordTech Editions, 2010
$18, Paper

Jennifer Horne’s first full-length poetry book is as stimulating and breath-catching as its initial promise. The cover art, the title, and its epigraphs are all rife with folk art, superstition, and history. Eudora Welty’s words alone conjure up the image of Cash McCord slinging rocks into a bottle tree as Livvie’s old Solomon lies inside dying—another titillating tale told on a porch aptly framed with southern yard art. And the framework for this book? Oh, no—it has thirteen parts.

Take a breath. The framework of this book is too intentional to be ignored. The first twelve sections include fifty free verse poems formatted into rather brief, mostly orderly, stanzas—distichs, tercets, quatrains, and an occasional fourteen-liner. The thirteenth and final section consists of one twelve-page poem.

In sharp contrast to the opening fireworks, the tone of the first poem is as calming as a still life painting: “The symmetry: / three old trees, three old women, / providing for each other.” That this simple ten-line juxtaposition of Chinese women and pecan trees constitutes the whole First Bottle suggests its importance, although not fully revealed at this point.

Horne’s fresh imagery shimmers throughout: “spring… / farce verging on disaster” (from “Tornadic”); “Safety has wandered out / and gotten lost…” (from “Noon on Wednesday,” regarding the day President Kennedy was shot); and “a tear-drop earring in the rug, / death’s one receipt” (from “A Chill,” which marks a mother’s death).

Themes of personal loss (both father and mother) and survival pepper the first fifty poems. The reader will be doubly enriched if phrases such as ars longa and ubi sunt easily roll off his tongue. The tone throughout these poems remains even, steady, quiet—almost a tentative voice, experimenting with line and meter.

In “Summer Evening, On the Way Home,” repetition has the cyclic nature of a pantoum: “Old man rocking… / Old man riding….” The final poignant tercet of this poem foreshadows the thirteenth piece, both in its chant-like rhythm and its wisdom: 

        We are all going somewhere but we don’t know where. 
        We have all been the same place but later we forget. 
        Rocking is the truest motion a body knows.

The framework of the book is one of its greatest strengths; yet, it may also be its greatest weakness. Was the Twelfth Bottle included solely so that there could be a thirteenth section? The paradox/irony, perhaps the oxymoron, of pairing Pat Conroy and Bill Traylor is not lost on me. I fully understand in context, but, in light of what is to come, I still find myself saying about the two tiny verses, “So?” It is at this point that the framework overwhelms the content for me. I recall clearly that the first section has only one poem, probably to balance with the singular poem of this final section, even though there is great imbalance of content.

“WPA” is the Thirteenth Bottle. The title is an acronym for Franklin Roosevelt’s program, Works Progress Administration, designed to assist the poorest segments of society by the creation of jobs. The poet is ambivalent at first in holding up a mirror to the South of her “father’s boyhood.” She “loves the south, loves the south, not.” She fights “against being polemical” and attempts a balanced view of the post-depression years in the South. She is so fair-minded that she includes both Margaret Mitchell and Margaret Walker on her partial reading list.

The opening is understated and brilliant. If the reader has known poverty and oppression firsthand, the mere mention of James Agee and Walker Evans together may disembowel memories and emotions one might choose to forget.

Recently, as I was reading Horne’s manuscript while visiting a college friend from Cullman, I was so moved I began singing out loud, “In the evenin’…” and before I could sing the first “ladidoodah,” my friend chimed in, and we sang in unison, “by the moonlight, ladidoodah…” and continued through the whole song, word for word—lyrics that neither of us had heard, or thought of, in over fifty years. Such is the evocative strength of this section.

In fiction this stunning final section might be termed a flashback. The tone is no longer tentative. Yes, the poet abhors the nastiness of the South’s history, but she will not destroy herself as other artists have done. Instead, she is quietly assertive: She creates a book with thirteen parts in which the only function of a bottle tree will be art: “Here, in this open book of sea and sand / I can imagine a change of heart—” Indeed, this piece illumines the poetry in the previous sections, and like the ending of an Alice Munro short story, clinches its essence. This section could easily stand alone as a lyric essay. Its stanzas, often single lines, are as skillfully and inconspicuously strung together with metaphorical leaps as the knots separating fine pearls on a string. April 2010

Kathleen Thompson, born an Alabama ’cropper, is author of The Nights, The Days and The Shortest Distance.

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