by Helen Losse
The Zen Baptist
Amy Tipton Cortner
Highland Creek Press, 2011
The Zen Baptist by Amy Tipton Cortner is a book of Appalachian writing divided into three parts. “The Zen Baptist” and “The Hillbilly Vampire,” the first and last sections, are poetry—mostly religious poems as diverse and unconventional as the title indicates—and the middle section, “Eminent Domain,” is an essay. My only negative comment about this book concerns this order. The poet placed her newer work at the beginning, but I would have liked the essay first, then her older work, and finally her newer poems. That way the book would begin as self-exploration and grow to become pure art. Why not present it in the way it happened, so the reader knows the background? The poems in the first section seem more universal—more mature—than those in the final one. That said, I give this book five stars.
“The Zen Baptist” is a group of 25 poems, most of which were previously unpublished before appearing in The Zen Baptist. In these poems, Cortner makes words (and often seemingly opposing concepts) dance and whirl across the page in ways that probe the Christian mind. The Baptist is both Christian and Buddhist; the Baptist is Zen—more enlightened than many Baptists I know. The Zen Baptist is fervent.
Every Wednesday during Lent
he drives through the ash black morning…
the eye of the great amen
fills the world….
(“Doughnuts and Devotions,” p. 6)
And on Easter morning, the Zen Baptist brings towels to dry the chairs, so no one will be upset.
…old bodies poured into new clothes
need to be kept dry,
lest their discomfort…
the aural mystery.
(“Sunrise Service,” p. 7)
Cortner also writes poems that question.
…did each of them have a moment
of provenance unrecorded…
when they, too
could have flowered
(“The Provenance of Judas,” pp. 8-9)
Other poems tell of life on Roan Mountain—poems of family life, of giving birth without a doctor or midwife, a new child—a boy who was “deaf in one ear.”
The question at the heart remains
was he born with voices
or did they come
when he was still too young to know…
he heard what others did not.
(“All Saints,” p.10)
In one of her most beautiful and universal poems, Cortner speaks of a loss of intimacy and friendship that the speaker of the poem had denied.
In the silhouette of angels
I have come to stand….
yet always with you.
… the rose and the brier
on separate vines.
(“A Ballad,” p. 23)
“Eminent Domain” is a personal essay about self-discovery based on geographic location. It concerns living on Roan Mountain, a part of the southern Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.
Like most young people, Cortner was not in love with her roots since childhood, but she grew to love her home.
When Cortner was young, she saw her life as typically American—“like the people she saw on t.v” (p. 27), and yet her mother taught her the concept of “around here,” (p. 27) which, of course, meant Roan Mountain specifically, where she and her extended family lived. For a time, she hated “anything mountain” (p.32), but that was before she “got out of here” (p.32) to attend and graduate from college. A few years later at a fiddler’s convention in Galax, VA, ‘it [resolution with who she was based on locale] sneaked up on [her],” (p.33) and she discovered she loved mountain music and then other things associated with being from “around here.” Knowing she came from a place that was “two places at once”(p.34) freed Cortner to become the artist she is.
“The Hillbilly Vampire” is a group of poems that were first published as a 40 page chapbook (with the same title but by Amy Tipton Gray) in 1989 by Rowan Mountain Press in Roanoke, Virginia. The original chapbook, still in print, contains additional poems. For The Zen Baptist, Cortner changed some of the people’s names from the aliases she used in the chapbook to the actual names of her mountain relatives, because the time was right for “this old wine to be decanted.” (p.35)
The poem “The Hillbilly Vampire” begins with the declaration: “Many people / are confused about hillbilly vampires.” It ends with an explanation: “this / …outside industry / come[s] down to the hills in the dark / for raw material.” (“The Hillbilly Vampire,” p.37) That gleaning for “raw material” allowed Cortner use anything she observed as her poetic image and combine it with the vampires, who had immigrated to the mountains. The Hillbilly Vampire was not your usual vampire, and he—yes, he—”had many degrees / and many publications….” (“The Vampire Ethnographer. p. 38). Hillbilly vampires were known for their boldness.
[One might].. jump right off the pinnacle.
Pale of face but packed of pocket
they cry apostate to the cautious.
(“Vampire Acolytes,” p. 40-41)
Cortner’s teachers and relatives appear in various poems, where they give specificity to aspects of mountain life. Corner herself is pictured here:
in a cabin of sawn lumber
There was plenty of room
they told her
if she wanted to stay.
(“On Eminent Domain,” pp. 52-53)
Appalachian art became richer when Amy Tipton Cortner wrote The Zen Baptist . Lyrical and altogether lovely, the language is so fresh and unique that it becomes universal; words mean more than they actually mean, due to the depth of Cortner’s images. She has written poems other poets would die for; their simplicity so complex, her sense of play so amazing. In the free verse poems, she uses rhyme wherever she chooses and gets away with it in places where others could not. Cortner says that people from “around here” say “what they have a mind to” (“Eminent Domain,” p.34). In the final analysis, The Zen Baptist is worth reading more than once.