Five Willows Literary Review

Monday, October 13, 2014

Assistant Poetry Editor Jerry Austin reviews Bethany Reid's book of poems Sparrow

A Book Review Of Sparrow By Bethany Reid (Winner of the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize)

                                                                        Review by Jerry Austin

As a general rule--and this is shockingly pervasive--academics do not write good poetry. The most powerful exception I know of, at present, is Bethany Reid. I consider her one of the best poets in North America, and having read her Master's Thesis, "Calling A Daughter," more than thirty times, I do not say this lightly.

Her newest book is immensely readable, and... enjoyable. By a timely coincidence, I met with an old friend a few days ago. When I told her I would be writing a review of Sparrow, she said, "Yes!.. I read it yesterday, cover to cover. It was so good I couldn't put it down." I smiled because Dorianne Laux writes the same, nearly verbatim, in the book's forward.

It is best to understand Bethany's poetry in the context of all her poetry. She grew up in rural western Washington, and has long written about her childhood. Before earning her doctorate in American Literature from the University of Washington, Bethany wrote: 1) "The Sorrel Mare," an epic-length narrative poem of unusual emotive quality (it reduced to tears several readers I personally know); 2) The Coyotes And My Mom (poems published by Bellowing Ark Press); and 3) her Master's Thesis (mentioned above). It is my opinion that Bethany Reid's poetry should be collected in some form and published so as to be accessible to a larger audience.

Bethany's earlier poems tend toward greater inclusiveness of narrative detail, whereas her more recent poems tend, musically, toward the lyrical (though technically most remain narrative in that they move through time). 

Her poem, "The Horse" (from Sparrow), while in free verse, reminds me of Frost (in a good mood) and conveys some of the magic of Wordsworth's Prelude, though it differs very much in essence from the English poet. There is a haunting ambiguity about the identity of the horse, which I will leave for the reader to discover in the original. In any case, direct experience is the provenance here; this is written by someone who has owned and cared for farm animals, who has observed them with empathy and awe: (lines 14-20)

       She had a way of turning when happy,

       trotting down the path to the open field,
       her powerful legs suddenly loping, rolling her

       through the high brown grass. Her brown coat
       shone in the sun. In rain

       she stood beneath the orchard trees,
       her forelock hanging in her eyes.

There is more poetry in those lines than in most books I read. It may be analyzed, but is meant first and foremost to be experienced.

A major theme in the new book is bereavement, a theme which recurs frequently in Bethany's writing, hearkening back to loved ones and the death of the Sorrel Mare. We discover honesty and grief, as well as surprising and cogent triumphs. The title poem "Sparrow" from the new book exemplifies: (lines 1-11)

       What could the Bible mean
       when it says no sparrow falls
       without God's notice?
       They do fall.
       "The Bible": that's too impersonal.
       It was some writer of the New Testament,
       some Hebrew poet turned Christian
       who chose "sparrow," a metaphor
       for the least things, the small
       and innumerable mouths
       at the breast of the world.

The poet is standing with her daughter (one of three daughters) and preparing to bury a young sparrow that has died after falling from its nest and being cared for by the daughter. Referring back to the biblical poet, we are told: (lines 12-18):

       Maybe our poet had a daughter who carried to him
       in her cupped hands a baby sparrow.
       Maybe they tried to keep it alive
       on sugar water and cat food,
       and when they failed, he wept,
       not knowing how to teach a child
       that life is worth the trouble and the grief....

This is good stuff--albeit sometimes painful. It fascinates and inspires me, how her poems take on more and more meaning within the context of her work in its entirety. I've seen this when reading poets from the past; it's magic if sometimes haunting to witness it among an artist in our own time. I am hopeful that the full range of her poetry will become available to the public.


  1. Thank you for your sensitive review and I certainly don't think you are overstating her greatness as a contemporary poet.

  2. Not only am I very, very happy to see such a wonderful review of SPARROW, but I get to discover Five Willows and its remarkable editors, too. Thank you for this, Jerry.