Small Batch: an anthology of bourbon poetry
Edited by Leigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durant
Two of Cups Press
While the well-known reference “small batch” may not have an actual clear, grounded definition in the world of spirits (as bourbon journalist and blogger Carla Carlton notes in the forward to this collection), it has still “become a shorthand way of expressing quality, something very fine that is suitable for the connoisseur”.
That’s a neat set-up, both for such a well-distilled anthology and for a review of same. The poems, curated by editors Leigh Anne Hornfeldt and Teneice Durant, have no standard mode. There are lyrics, sonnets, nursery rhymes, sprawling tracts of free verse, and imagist brevities. Some are specifically about bourbon, others merely make touchstone mention. But all, presumably, meet the fine taste requirements for which the editors were sampling.
There are immediate dangers wih trying to pull together a collection of booze-based literature: the temptation to rely on Charles Bukowski bar parables on the populist hand; or conceits that leverage the ingredients or distilling process of the drink for bald didacticism on the textbook other. Hornfeldt and Durant, though, do a curatorial job that makes the collection unroll on the (conceit alert!) literary palate like a smooth, 12 year-old Kentucky mash.
In many poems, the bourbon is incidental, making a cameo appearance (see “Secrets of Successful Gardening” by Nathan Stabenfeldt where a quick mention of the drink sticks out like a wasp sting). But it’s not references that win a poet a page or two in this collection. Rather, when successful, the whole experience within these poems should enrich the pathos and melancholy that the drink symbolizes, not just in the life of artists but of the human condition generally.
The most immediate works in Small Batch, regardless of strategy, include, “A tobacco poultice leeches an abscess from a horse’s hoof” by Elizabeth Wade, which catches fire from the opening simile (“A tobacco poultice leeches an abscess from a horse’s hoof/the way bourbon draws confessions from reticent men”) and uses spare references to stoke the flame in a mini-epic of passion and betrayal. Also striking is Juliana Gray’s “The Housesitter’s Note”, which barely sips from the drink at all (“I took the car, your good Kentucky bourbon/and drove out to the lake”) as the haunting lyric of family absence bleeds all the spirits from the bottle. Or Katerina Stoykova-Klemer’s short, blunt, self-explanatory, “On a Nearby Table, Two Men”, in which eight quick lines are pounded down like a series of shots on the bar in a fury of spondees and trochees.
Some poems, like “Spirits” by Tara Betts, are a bit too obvious, using process and ritual in honest but shopworn phrasing; straight shots that burn but also linger with a bit of that didactic aftertaste.
On the other hand, Cinthia Ritchie’s “Cheap Hotel Outside of Holbrook”, while threatening a typical bacchanal (via Jim Beam), ends with a lighter coda as the narrator and her lover “brush our teeth in zinfandel,/floss all the way back to our molars”. Such a wind-down sweetens the poem with an innocence not usually heard from back-alley bards.
Where Small Batch does trend generic is in the number of poems and images that show nostalgic hues: old Kentucky homesteads; long family lines of interesting if questionable character; bootlegger legends, etc. But this thematic trend is, of course, well-suited to the subject matter of a regionally-situated and well-mythologized drink whose wonders unfold gradually, sometimes sweetly, sometimes fiery. And are best sipped on slowly.
Measure some out for yourself here.