The Parting Glass by Lisa J. Parker: Book Review

The five verses of the Scottish traditional folk song, The Parting Glass, are appropriately spaced throughout Lisa J. Parker’s gem of a book by the same title. A consistently voiced assemblage of poetic prose crafted from the vantage point of a transplanted Southerner in appreciation of her Appalachian roots, the introspective vignettes are widely universal and deeply personal, tinged with nuanced nostalgia for the ways and means of the land that raised her.

The 48 poems are poignant vignettes written from the vantage points of both near and far concerning the rural Southern experience. In the 18-lined, Ars Poetica: Northern Virginia, it is man against nature when a goose is struck dead on Route 66,“it’s brown feathers cockeyed on one wing, turned toward traffic as if waving.”

The concept of “downhome” is addressed with the ambiguity of regional pride and the knowledge of being culturally misunderstood. From You Can’t Leave It When You Go, “My mother’s practiced tongue never gave away the hollers … she learned ridicule quickly, tucked accent and dialect quietly behind teeth and tongue, made herself bookish.” In addressing the idea of downhome, Parker says, “Downhome was the constant background song we could hum but never bring to full voiced or lyric… all the meaning of the words broken and blessed and kin.” In The Preacher’s Daughter Studies Her Reflection, Parker depicts the exploration of a downhome, taboo subject. A thirteen-year-old girl stands before a full-length mirror and lifts her skirt to see “the place her mother covers with a washrag when she bathes her.”

A series of nine poems beginning with the title Hillbilly Transplant are set in New York City and illustrate the adage that you can take the girl out of the South but can’t take the South out of the girl. From the poem, Hillbilly Transplant: Working at the Metropolitan Opera, “No amount of staring out the floor to ceiling windows at the grand fountain or City Ballet in Lincoln Square can disenthrone those faces of voices, singing mountain ballads, hymns, and Stanley Brothers standards, sweaty hands clasped, voices perfectly imperfect, soul-savingly beautiful, my hearts familiar redemption.” In the poem’s final note, a declaration is made, “I know as sure as I’ve known anything here that I will leave this city and its grandeur, return South, settle in a tree-laden space with mountains around me.”

The disparity between past and present is observed in the poem, Hillbilly Transplant: In 72nd Street Subway Tunnel a Meditation on Home. It begins with the memory of a drive through rural Virginia that winds through “605 to rutted cattle guard spots where names meet rural routes, where horse farms give way to small plots of corn,” and ends with open eyes that, “Finds yourself still city-gone,” among “wool coats, shoulder satchels, unstoppable current of the mass.”
Other Poems dedicated to life in New York City concern the unsettling aftermath of 9-11. In Hillbilly Transplant: Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, the deathly silence three hours after the Twin Towers fell is depicted, when “no mimes play the sidewalk’s edge like tightrope… no sound but the elm leaves twisting against each other.” In Hillbilly Transplant: Upper West Side, October 10, 2001, “A woman carries a fresh baguette from the Hot N’ Crusty on 71st and Broadway, flinches slightly at the sound of a jet going over. She does not look up.”

A series of poems explore the presence of grief from different angles. In The Passing of Grief, memory takes hold visually with, “Your boots in the corner of the closet slump against hardwood where you left them by the door.” In What Becomes of Song, grief has a sound, “I’ve listened hard these months, sometimes for your off-key song, sometimes the snap of twigs behind me on our path beside the pond, so sure of it I extend my hand behind me, expecting.”

Lisa J. Parker’s second book of poetry reads like a personal diary written in controlled, soaring language that leaves an impact for all its emotional clear-sightedness. The Parting Glass is beautifully rendered with an overall mood of light upon life’s precious moments, crafted in a way accessible to all.

By Claire Fullerton

Lisa J. Parker is a native Virginian raised in the Shenandoah Valley in a large extended Appalachian family. She comes from loggers, miners, and musicians, and grew up surrounded by the music and stories of those Buchanan County hills her family called home for generations.

Parker is a poet, musician, and photographer. Her first book, This Gone Place, reissued in 2022, won the 2010 ASA Weatherford Award and her work is widely published in literary journals and anthologies. Her second poetry collection, The Parting Glass, won the 2021 Arthur Smith Poetry Prize and was published in November of 2022. Her photography has been on exhibit in NYC and published in several arts journals and anthologies. She has worked in the Department of Defense for nearly twenty years, was a first responder for fifteen, and continues to work as a volunteer disaster relief responder with Team Rubicon. 

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