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Little Wanderer

Brendan Galvin reviews Little Wanderer, a new volume of poetry by Jennifer Horne. 

Here’s a brand new volume, more than 60 poems called Little Wanderer, from a Southern poet, Jennifer Horne, who’s also a sometimes hilarious, sometimes somber short story writer (see Tell The World You’re A Wildflower, University of Alabama Press, 2014). As in her fiction, these poems have their light and dark sides. How many poets can you name who are so cautious in their work that they seem to be tiptoeing around in it? To be exact and yet take the necessary risks that texture requires is a rare thing these days, but in Horne’s work, a visit to the National Museum of Ireland ends this way:

Museum-goer, dreamer, watcher at windows,
daytripping in the famine fields,
stuffed with this morning’s full Irish,
I am woman pondering bog man, imagining his days,
how he woke one morning into history,
this long, strange repose.

Here is both history and this morning’s huge Irish breakfast, along with the irony of that second line, and the modern, well-fed American woman ponderous (that breakfast!) before the scrawny, preserved corpse exhumed from the bog.
Nor is humor ever stinted. In “Reasons Theseus Might Have Left Me Among Strangers,” Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, comes up with a list of 13 reasons, among them “He means to return soon and couldn’t bear to say goodbye,” “He’s dying and wishes to spare me the sight of it,” and “He’s gone off with his mates and didn’t wish to lose face.” Ariadne’s serious suppositions are played off against the poet’s sly intimations that the hero is a macho jerk.

At times the humor comes in the form of the poem’s musical language, as in “Talisman,” which describes a work by the sculptor Susan Perry this way:

Bone rope
skinny shimmy
white climb
long and strong
whittled, mickle
sharp, carpal,
fibia, tibia,
hanging strangler,
strange angel,
Shaker Quaker
simple gifter
hard bargain
quiet, light,
rounder pounder
borrowed sorrow
halcyon calcium
calcified pride
a joke on hope—
bone rope.

This poet has lived and traveled high and low in Greece, Central Europe, Italy, Ireland, Britain and in her Alabama home place. Her poems can constitute encounters with everyone from a former torturer at a dinner party (“Evil knows better than to pick his teeth in public./He owns a building/in the nice part of Bucharest./He’s never short of things to do ”) to an Irish shopkeeper in Sligo saying, “Any day you get up is a good day, isn’t it?”. Nothing touristy here, and one constant is her open mind, “a minor American” traveler’s sensitivity to new people, new places and histories unlike ours.

In one hour at the embassy
checking slick microfiche,
I made as much as one month’s work
teaching in the local school.
I spent the entire month’s check
on a bag of oranges.

Horne is adept at putting words in the mouths of others, too. Thus Anna Akhmatova ,”I said to the women in line at the prison,/I will tell your stories,/I will write the poem of where”/we all come from.” In Little Wanderer, strangers are met at the sites of concentration camps, on trains, at outdoor cafes, and a long sequence of classical characters speak, mostly women. Even the city of Athens gets to have its say.

No, cities don’t often speak—not in a single voice. The everpresent
noise drives my thoughts straight into the sea.
But I’ve watched them—my citizens—from infancy to dotage,
seen the beautiful young become the serene—or bickering—old,
and I know the secret of humans: to be beautiful and young
is to believe you are the first to walk with proud steps
over these stones, to think your laugh, your white teeth,
your bare throat, have never been seen, are not simply
one turn of the world’s head, in a thousand thousand turnings.
This is why
the young never visit museums—they fail to see themselves
cast in marble, white and cool to the touch,
as though in death, which they cannot imagine, which is
the kind of thing that happens to other people, somewhere else.

Everywhere in this collection are the questions provoked by living outside America, too, the ones an alert intelligence uncovers. “How many times in my life/have I lost faith,/faltered, halted,/just on the threshold of something new?” And “Is one’s life, ever, after all, what one desires?”

And then there’s an awareness of the lives of others, like this Galway taxi driver.

Smarty-pants tourists
in neutral tones,
gathering anecdotes
like avaricious bankers,

what would we do
if she shifted in her tired skin,
told us, on this wet street,
the truth of her life?

The formal variety, songs, villanelles, ballads, points of view and subjects in Little Wanderer are ample, as the selections above demonstrate, and some forms even appear to be the poet’s own discoveries. Little Wanderer is the product of an inventive mind, and to turn its pages is to experience a variety of surprises.

Brendan Galvin is the author of 18 collections of poems. Habitat: New and Selected Poems 1965-2005 (LSU Press) was a finalist for the National Book Award. Egg Island Almanac, a Crab Orchard Poetry Series winner, will appear from Southern Illinois University Press in fall, 2017. He lives in Truro, Massachusetts.

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