Leigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durrant, eds. Small Batch. Two of Cups Press.
Growing up in Georgia, I tasted whiskey about the time I entered college. The most popular two consumed were Jim Beam and Jack Daniels. It wasn’t until I made my home in Louisville, KY, for a few weeks each year, that I was introduced to whiskey that, well, I found to be a bit more to my taste. In fact, there is a bottle of Bulleit under my Christmas tree right now….And, as I read the preface to the anthology Small Batch that is dedicated to bourbon, I learned that the production of bourbon is not unlike the production of poetry. There are rules, but even so, we end up with a myriad of offerings.
Leigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durrant edited Small Batch, a collection that includes a few poets with whom I was familiar yet introduced me to many more. What I admire the most about the collection is that it mirrors the wide gamut of emotions we associate with bourbon: silliness, contemplation, depression, escape, pleasure. In five sections, ranging from “drawing confessions” to “this want travels,” the poems are arranged thematically, each with a flavor of its own, making the reader want more — not only of poetry, but also of that dark amber liquid.
Some of the best advice comes from Frank X. Walker’s “Don’t Marry Before You Liquor,” which addresses not only the larger theme of race, but also the need to sow one’s oats before settling down, as the father tells his son, “…but when you ready to settle down / you marry a good bourbon — from Kentucky.” This advice is only after the persona has been bailed out of jail after spending a night of dancing “with moonshine from eastern kentucky.”
Often, when spending too much time with bourbon, we can get rather silly. This leads me to the poem that made me laugh out loud — Briana Gervat’s “Bourbon Style Green Eggs and Ham.” The title alone lets you know the parody that occurs in this dialogue of a poem. It opens, “Do you like Maker’s Mark? / Would you drink it in the dark?” The allusions and word play are delightful, and the pessimistic speaker finally comes around at the end, “I can taste the vanilla, the nutmeg and the cinnamon. / Oh bourbon, bourbon, where have you been?!?”
While there’s plenty of light-hearted poems in the collection, there’s also the more serious. Melissa Stein’s “Want Me” is a highly imagistic poem that is lovely in its language and images, such as “…Panther’s broad tongue / soothing hunt-bruised paws. Eyelids of ribbonsnakes. / Taut skin of a lavender creme brûlée.” Stein’s poem draws me back again and again, as each image is full of sensory details that make me dizzy. In a similar imagistic vein is Richard Newman’s “Wild Turkey in January.” As opposed to the drink itself, a picture is painted of that ugly bird, with such surprising descriptions as “snood draped over your beak like a spent condom, you fly from hate to fear to lust at a rustle / of feathers, leaves, your head a porn-king’s cock…”
When we overindulge in our love of that amber liquid, we end up with a hangover, and Gary Leising’s “A Hangover the Size of Andrew Hudgins” is a prose poem that’s a paean to Andrew Hudgins and the South, “a little bit of you from deeper below the Bible belt that bounced around the world…”, where the speaker considers “taking a match to your Hudgins hangover, hoping the pain and throb of your ache will burst…”
Like Leising’s poem, I’m often partial to poems with a narrative, and Marianne Worthington’s “Fatigue” has such with the story of a man who “fights off poodles and Chihuahuas / with sharp teeth, snotty kids, cranky housewives whose laundry / has piled up like haystacks.” The reader leaves this poem knowing both the drudgery and hard work of a man who battles the effects of a stroke while repairing “broken dryers and washers.” What’s left at the end of the day for relief? a “B.C Powder with a shot / of Old Crow,” allowing him to take a much needed rest after a rote day.
Finally, in a collection full of poems that revolve around place (a LOT of bourbon is made in Kentucky), I cannot help but mention “Ode to Bourbon: A Writer’s Distillery” with the epigraph “for Spalding” by Parneshia Jones. I don’t know Parneshia, but I share her experience of driving from one part of the South to another to study the craft of poetry at Spalding, while finding community with a little bourbon thrown in, all of which is summed up well in her final lines, “pen and pulse writing circles around me, / distilling a third eye and aged soul.”
Thanks goes to Hornfeldt and Durrant, who’ve put together a lovely collection of poems dedicated to something it’s easy to enjoy: bourbon. Reading this while sipping Bulleit is a great way to enjoy the holiday!