Joseph Bathanti, as I knew from his previous collections, is a poet in love with naming the particulars and in so doing he’s unexcelled in illuminating the glories of the natural world. But this love of precision also extends to his staking a claim for justice, to bearing witness against injustice. In this volume many of the poems can be found bearing just such witness against the manifold injustices waged upon the people and places of Appalachia. Whether they’re the specific horrors surrounding the obscene practice of Mountain Top Removal mining or the more generic cumulative neglect that has led to poverty, drug abuse and environmental degradation, Bathanti is unrelenting as he looks and reveals. These testimonies, let me call them, concern the decades of catastrophicflooding in the southern mountains about which Bathanti looks closely and testifies withhis poet’s eye and heart to all that he can.
In the aftermath of the recent floods in central Appalachia the several flood poems in the book seem eerily prescient. Note in this regard poems like “Windows of Heaven,” “Runoff” and “Raney’s Trailer” where flood and its aftermath are central. What I find most uncanny and masterful is Bathanti’s ability in a poem like “Raney’s Trailer” to let a certain musicality lead forward his illustrations of the destruction. In the following images it’s his go-to device of alliteration which stands out: “ Swoony, tattered tin shakes, / red-gone-rust, splayed siding // shuddering in the wind . . .”
Other poems flesh out with a keen and celebratory veracity the persistence of traditional rural practices of husbandry. In “Agnus Dei” the sheering of a single sheep takes on an aura of epic proportions, giving to an animal my farmer father deemed incurably stupid—he preferred hogs—an animate dignity readers will not forget.
“Perhaps her name is Esther, Millicent: / high-born, elegant, / about to remark in Shetland lilt // on the unseasonable chill, / incessant mizzle…”
The title of this last poem reminds me that Bathanti’s poems often carry an undercurrent of religious faith that provides a further level of gravitas to his already finely textured and multifaceted poems. There’s hardly a one that does not ring with some echo of devotional praxis whether it’s his perfect homage to bird feeding in
“Evensong” or his humorous take on “Limbo” in the poem of the same name, or his brilliant use of the word “genuflect” in “Headwaters of the New” where this timeworn religious observance is given fresh life, here genuflecting not to a cross or a sacrament or a bishop but to a river!
This collection is such a gift for those of us here in Appalachia. To have Bathanti’s many skills deployed to bear witness to both beauty and justice with grace and accomplishment and, always somehow, with hope, call it spiritual or call it what you will, is a treasure to cherish. Perhaps, though, it’s enough to simply call it “light.” The title for the collection comes to seem doubly appropriate for there is light here and abundantly.
I’ll end this review with these words from his poem, “Blessed Thistle.” I like to think they reiterate the way “light” points a way forwards in these dark times.
Fireflies torch the night— / the thousand thousand thuribles of light.