March 5, 2016

A Personalized Americana: A Review of Bethany Reid’s Sparrow by Mindy Kronenberg

Cover Credit: Writers & Books
Sparrow by Bethany Reid
Big Pencil Press (2012)

Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg

Bethany Reid’s poems come off the page like a mix of polite gossip and prayer. She writes with the quiet eloquence of Mary Oliver, the raw honesty of Sharon Olds, and shares details of her heartland childhood and coming of age as with Ted Kooser’s sacraments of the everyday. She begins the book with “My Country,” a detailed recounting of life events that, in youth, combine with faith to become a cautionary yet celebratory tale:
Life and death held hands and said grace
over my childhood, every cat that got into rat poison,
every dog hit by a logging truck on our creek road,
every calf with scours….

… Never a way to embrace
All that suffering arm and arm with all that joy,
That astonishing joy I knew as a child in my country.
These are often subtle but substantial poems, a tour of the rural and emotional landscape by a woman who takes nothing for granted and is unabashed in sharing her discoveries. Broken into three sections (Three Horses, Death Must be a Waitress, and What Tongue but My Own), Sparrow takes the reader through a litany of reveries and moments of ripening, rites-of-passage and emotional metamorphosis, and finally a sensually rendered meditation on mortality.

There is an earnest curiosity and humored cynicism where religion, a considerable force, is concerned, as in “What Broke Loose:”
What broke loose when all hell went?
I didn’t have that kind of childhood.
We kept buttoned up. We minded.

Somehow I learned
to experiment with possibility—
the earth crackling like a too-hot stove,
bones budding like exotic flowers.
The same goes for “Rapture,” where the poet remembers savoring the word as a girl, undaunted at the prospect (“A fervent child, I never feared I’d be left…) but wondering how life would be for those on earth, even the mild sinners (“My history teacher who had once / inserted a casual ‘goddamn’ into a lecture…”). Once the faithful were plucked from their everyday lives on the planet, the poet wonders about “…what chaos / we’d leave behind us, my dear, drunk uncles / with no one to fix their suppers, / our cows finding no one at the barn / to throw down their hay.” She also puzzles over the world continuing, unrepentant and unaffected by the absence of the righteous:
What if the world didn’t miss us,
but remained steady on its course,
one ear cocked to the susurrus
of a Pentecostal wind?
In “Prodigal,” we meet the girl-poet in the midst of her early rural life, awakened by birds in the garden, and where she “…chopped wood, / made beds, folded clothes / fresh from the line... picked strawberries, read books, dreamed.” A line that could be a slogan for Sparrow’s underlying sentiment is when the poet admits, after growing up and away from experiences that become cherished in adult memory, “…the smallest of things still beckons.” From the intimate ritual of a waitress undressing and unwrapping her inner selves (“Matyrouska”) to the mother shaking a thermometer like a wand to relieve a fevered daughter (“Pond Girl”), the private scenes in Sparrow echo with heartache, persistence, and joy in dream-like spurts— the totality of a lifetime pieced together in wondrous, ephemeral episodes.

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