Review: Jennifer Horne – Little Wanderer

Little Wanderer, Salmon Poetry, pp113, ISBN: 978-1910669334

‘Little Wanderer’ is Horne’s second full-length collection, following 2010’s ‘Bottle Tree’. Self-described as “a collection of road and travel poems” and “poem as lyric travelogue”, these tidy summaries sell the collection far short of what it actually achieves.

A concurrent theme is the barriers to travel, whether of physical borders, cultural differences, lack of opportunity, or prejudices. In Idealism, a stranger encounter somewhere in southwest England is given with an older woman.

+++“You! You Americans –
+++you’ve killed John Lennon,
+++you and your guns!”

It’s an absurd accusation, one borne out of ignorance and a casual xenophobia, the poem dealing with the problem of how exactly to respond. The traveller, much like the immigrant, is an imagined threat. The uneasy label of being American is raised elsewhere. Bad Connection tells of an anonymous prank caller, his laughter felt as a judgement against the traveller’s inadequacies. Yet there is a reminder not to “be flattered by his velvety, irregular attentions. | He calls all the Americans.” The use of “velvety” hints that at least his calls are a fixity in a strange land.

‘Evil Eye’, which comes early on in the collection, is a sequence of thirteen thirteen-line poems which expand far beyond travelogue to become an all-embracing lesson in Ancient Greece. While technically sound, they are difficult to penetrate without referring to the notes at the back if you don’t possess a knowledge of Greek mythology and history. Alluding to tenth centuries monastic communities, the oracle at Delphi, Theseus, Peloponnese and Ionian islands, fourth century taxing practises and more, it’s rather heavy-handed. With Horne listing no less that eight historical and reference works as sources (The Greek Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Greek Lands is one example), it’s a daunting task for the reader to relate to the work here.

Far preferable is when Horne herself is at the centre of the poems. After the enforced history lesson, a poem like Greece, I Love You, But You’re Making Me Crazy is a refreshing change of pace, a list of small grievances, admiration and discord, that, despite the difficulties encounters, remains a love letter to the nation. Extending on this, Horne futher speaks of the dissonance between expectation and reality, something that arises often for the frequent traveller.

+++Traveling, I’ve learned, is all too seldom
+++what you pictured. The local roads
+++are nowhere on the map, and the sights,
+++once found, are too big or small to fit
+++the place you readied for a sight.
+++(Thoughts Overheard in an Outdoor Cafe)

The problem is brilliantly captured in Disillusion of a Dream, with a child mistaking a modern museum for an island temple, a bust mocking the child as a “fool” for her mistake. Free (another strong first-person poem) recalls being pickpocketed and the subsequent derision from an Embassy official. Such mishaps are accepted as part of the adventure.

One of the jobs of the poet is to open up new worlds and insights to the reader, whether “big or small”, whether from Ireland, Alabama, Prague or modern day Greece. The Bucharest poems perhaps rely on the reader to know a little about the Romanian Revolution and the civil unrest there, although Horne captures the sense of upheaval and fear rather well. In Night Watch: Bucharest, Revisited, a character asked a direct question regarding the use of torture and the justification for fighting to protect one’s children. Such challenges stir the reader’s empathy, adding a resonance that goes beyond mere reportage. The last section of the poem, ‘Full Circle’, reimagines CIA interrogations (read: torture techniques) as a “grieving dance” committed with a burlap sack over the head, with enforced poses like “the stylized women of Greek statuary”, ending with the disturbing line , “At the time, it will not seem strange.”

Elsewhere, a couplet of poems on Dante sees firstly Horne consider the writer’s exile, and then have Dante answer for himself. It’s an effective technique, a kind of call and response across two poems, whereas others may have been tempted to heap all the ideas together into one. The world of officialdom is also probed, whether it be embassy consultants, potential spies, tutors or SS men. Throughout, an uneasy malaise rests over the travels, at times sinister, sometimes brushed off. A dead immigrant turning up in a hotel with a suicide note reading ‘God bless America’ is a bold and stark image, leaving the official in the poem Foreign Service to consider their folly: “Who was I, he thinks, to decide | who could survive in my strange country”?

With the poems divided into four sections, travelling around the compass points, the collection ends with ‘West/Home’. After poems of discovery, threat, joy and warning (“Fear will click you shut”), it is suggested that despite connections made elswhere, real peace and serenity is only offered by home, whether that be Arknasas or Ireland in Horne’s case. These poems deal with seemingly small matters – bumping into people in shops, the beauty of birds, sandwiches on the porch, wisteria and honeysuckle. Within such things, worlds and lives are found, although Horne does allow two dream poems to enter into this section, declaring “A dream is a stab in the dark at truth”. Travel can be seen to be a similar activity, and Horne has swept the dark away from many truths here, giving us a considered and considerate collection.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *