Review of Sparrow by Bethany Reid
Winner of the Kenneth and Geraldine Gell Poetry Prize 2012, Selected and with a Forward by Dorianne Laux
Big Pencil Press, Writers & Books, 2012
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor
Bethany Reid’s Sparrow is full of horses and orchards, quarters and ashes, memory, temptation, and dream. The book’s title and opening epigraph are biblical: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will….” This is a familiar quotation from Matthew, but “Sparrow,” the title poem, calls it into question:
What could the Bible mean
when it says no sparrow falls
without God’s notice?
They do fall.
And then comes a parade of human tenderness for small, significant losses in the natural world. The whole book might be seen as such, a parade of tenderness and grief, joy and longing, dreams stubbed out like cigarettes in ashtrays at a diner counter, hopes held like quarter tips in a waitress’s apron pocket on her long walk home.
I’ve been reading and rereading these poems since I received the book this past fall, and in my most recent winter reading I stayed longest with the poems of spring. “The Apple Orchard” begins, “Spring mornings / it was a regular whorehouse,” a marvelous image of “trees
frowsy and bedraggled
in their nightgowns and slippers,
hair tangled, lipstick askew,
straps slipping from their shoulders.
Oh, that hot mess warmed me up right away! The very next poem, “That Long Spring,” pursues another nature-to-human metaphor that is also one of those small but significant losses:
That long spring of her fifteenth year,
she told herself, “I am too old to be a horse.”
So she stopped tossing her head
in that peculiar way her mother hated—
as if her mane caught the sunlight. After chores,
she walked to the barn from the house
without once breaking into a gallop.
In “Prodigal,” a biblical resonance returns, as do orchard and horses. In the center of this poem, the girl recalls the horses of her childhood and “a foal
whose death broke her heart
into two halves, a dropped pottery bowl.
And wasn’t that what the Bible taught,
that life changes “in the twinkling of an eye”?
So she left the farm. So she took a job
waiting tables in town. And if each year
has found her further downstream,
the smallest of things still beckons,
an apple tree blooming white
as a wedding dress, the scent of soil
turned over for planting, the patter of rain
The sensory images are precise and gorgeous here, and the whore’s dishabille has been transformed into the bride’s wedding dress.
Sparrow guides us with its three-part structure: Three Horses, Death Must Be a Waitress, and What Tongue But My Own. Childhood, the growing pains of coming of age, the wisdom of acceptance. “Death Must Be a Waitress” is a perfect conceit I’ll let you discover on your own when you get this book. “The Apocalypse of Horses” resurrects the horses of childhood in a pounding dream that undoes the biblical four horseman of the apocalypse, “giving the earth entirely over to horses.” And, as it’s late March, and we are in need of tulips, I’ll give you that poem in its entirety:
Late March and the earth has turned us
toward the sun. Tulips wreck
dark order of beds. For a week,
this month I turn fifty, I think I’m pregnant,
either that, or it’s finally menopause.
I’m in awe of beginnings.
My twelve-year-old daughter
wants clothes that will make her popular.
She wants to meet her favorite
TV stars. She wants a boyfriend.
I want for her the same things,
to love, to be loved. Outside
my bedroom window an apple tree
bends under its burden of white flowers.
It’s only an ornamental,
not that it knows or cares. It steps
through its days bravely as any bride.
That ignorant. That fragrant.