Under the Broom Tree
by Natalie Homer
57 poems, 76 pages
Publisher: Autumn House Press.
To order: https://www.autumnhouse.org/books/
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Poet Natalie Homer, who holds a BA in English Language and Literature / Letters from Idaho University and an MFA from West Virginia University, works as an Episcopal Church Parish Administrator. Originally from Idaho, she now lives with her husband in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania and is the author of a previous chapbook ‘Attic of the Skull’ (Dancing Girl Press, 2018).
The title of this full-length debut collection takes its cue from 1 Kings Chapter 19 where the prophet Elijah, after fleeing into the wilderness from Jezebel, seeks refuge under a broom tree where he prays in a state of exhaustion for his own death. In his sleep, he is touched by an angel who sustains and revives him through divine intervention involving the provision of food and water. In this moment, the broom tree becomes a symbol for shelter and a portent of hope and renewal.
Flight from an unsettled past, together with the need to revisit it if only to try and understand it, is the common thread that runs through this collection. For Homer ‘going home always felt like defeat’. The past is only hinted at in brushstrokes, we are never given the full picture. It still holds power though because ‘the things you never want to see again keep replaying’ but its mystery, the silence of what is never told, is what makes this book such a compelling read.
Homer’s poetry is fast-paced, full of startling, memorable lines and neat phrases. She springs surprises at every turn keeping the reader attentive and expectant of what the next line will bring. All of these accomplishments are evident from the opening lines of the first poem in the book:
I’m the right candidate because I know
how some things stand in for others.
Cotton batting for snow. A small mirror for a frozen pond.
There is a light bulb inside the church
that makes its plastic windows glow.
All I’m saying is it must be nice
to arrange the world on a mantel,
then plug the lights in.
In this collection lightning strikes through a window and hits a sewing machine, sheets hang out on a washing line in a thunderstorm, water striders skate on the edges of a lake, mud wasps buzz through walls, and there are valleys and deserts that sound as if they have come right out of Elijah’s wilderness. At one point there is a description of an annual pilgrimage to Ohio and at another we learn that Homer’s favourite mountain is called Rain-in-the-Face on the eastern edge of the Centennials.
In ‘GOOD VIBRATIONS’ a description of trashline orbweavers (a genus of orbweaver spiders) is beautifully executed:
Midsummer, webs stretch over the porch chairs and peonies.
These small tenants of the world – Cyclosa –
dress in their own detritus:
corsets of exoskeleton and silk.
There’s something comforting about camouflage –
seeing without being seen.
The recurrent mention of spiders and, to a lesser extent, butterflies become metaphors for our own fragility and the fleeting nature of our lives. The topography of Idaho and other areas of north western America is mapped out against the different regions of the body and their relation to self and our sense of self-worth. A shrubby aromatic plant of the daisy family, the sagebrush, which occurs in these semi-arid regions, puts in a frequent appearance. When I looked it up I discovered that the plant is often used as a Native American ceremonial smudge to spiritually cleanse or purify a person from negative energies or influences.
Running with the idea of divine providence, Homer finds light and truth in unexpected places which, like the broom tree, offer shade and rest amidst the landscape of the American West and the Rust Belt.
In APERTURE, one such breakthrough into the light, Homer writes:
An impossible series of birds flocks to the trellis,
disappearing one at a time into the grape leaves.
When I pull back the vines,
I expect to see a gown made of plumage,
each hollow little bird hovering
to form its share of hem or sleeve.
In another observation from the same poem:
Webs stretch from surface to surface all over the porch.
They are made of sunlight.
If only they were sturdier
they could be bridal veils
or doilies under cakes.
Descriptions of tired towns, of places desecrated by the tidal wave of industry, are well executed. In one such place, Homer says ‘The town was one part nuclear accident, one part prayer. / I haven’t forgiven it…..Everything in me ached / for a different place, a different life.’ Memorising beauty is one way of survival: a row of cottonwoods, an incessant blue sky or miles and miles of sunflowers lining an expressway: ‘their small faces look so cheerful / bouncing in the slipstream of traffic - / I will believe anything they say.’ Homer is a survivor and we, too, are all the stronger for having read and rejoiced in this book.