Featured Poet

Jeff Daniel Marion

( Tennessee )


Returnable Bottles
To my father

They’re a vanishing species, everything disposable now,
the neat convenience of toss-away cans—
but I remember bottlecaps you brought home
to me, my treasure of colorful coins, checkers
for countless games, prize messages hidden beneath 
the cork lining. And cast on the bottles’ glass
bottoms their place of origin, an exotic geography— 
Marion, Alabama, the ones I searched for,
the plant and town I imagined named
for and owned by a distant cousin who someday 
would share his many riches. Coke and Cherokee 
Grape, Strawberry and Lemonade only a sampling 
of what you stocked in the machines, an extra
duty assumed at the printing plant where you mixed
inks and matched colors for those thousands of labels, 
every grocery shelf lined with your handiwork.
It was those drinks that put you through college
I learned, recalling the rounds we made on weekends
to gather empties scattered willy-nilly about the plant: 
Why them boys can’t put bottles back in the racks
beats me, you frowned, face red as a Campbell’s
soup label when cigarette butts floated in a pool
of last dregs. Weekdays you made the rounds alone,
up three floors and back down, refilling machines, 
gathering the empties on your breaks while I sat
faraway allowing words to sweep me into worlds
beyond Marion, Alabama, into kingdoms of imagination 
made possible by a man gathering bottles, his daily
journeys the worn paths of love trod over
and over, believing in my future he could not see, 
but never receiving my message sent too late, 
cast in this returnable Marion bottle.

The Gift
To my father, J. D. Marion, 1915-1990

December, 1962, and you came to visit, 
downtown Gay Street swept by snowy
winds as we walked toward my favorite
shop of used books on the corner of Summit.
No exchange of names, but the storekeeper
knew me well, had seen me savor
the smell and texture of ancient pages,
history of previous owners’ musings
scribbled in margins, bold names scrawled
across colored endpapers. That day he offered
a bargain, A Report on the Recent Revolution
in the Colonies, Dublin, 1782. I thumbed 
the brittle and foxed sheets, lingered
over the ligatures joining s and t,
the fs like a smooth swirl of S.
You stared at the storekeeper,
“How much?” and I studied you
weighing the ten dollars “today’s price” 
like a full bag of groceries, two weeks
worth of gasoline, or better yet a shiny
new pair of Florsheim wing-tips.
I passed the book to you, plunged
my hands in empty pockets.
“Would you like to have it?”
I heard you whisper and read
those raised brows, lines of your face
always puzzled by my years of using
half a week’s allotment for food
to buy books. You lifted a crisp
new bill to pay, cradled the book in my hands
like an offering laid on the altar of misspent
youth. Only days before Christmas I pocketed
this early present, mumbled thanks.
What strings bound this gift—
the glittering eye of a shrewd salesman?
Years of unease between father and son?
A wish to make amends?
Something darker from your past?
After New Year’s I returned
to the shop, the owner index-finger-pecking
on a battered Royal typewriter, his passion 
to write novels the likes of Zane Grey,
Riders of the Purple Sage the model he quoted,
eyes distant and searching some faraway
dream. The keys went silent for a moment
and I heard him say what I never told, 
“December was a hard month—say thanks
to your father from my wife and me.
That ten dollars put Christmas dinner on the table.”


The Gold Rush in East Tennessee
To H. H. “Pete” and Margie Kesterson

Neither of us ever thanked you for those treasures 
not laid up but cast off—so we could gather them,
your son Jim and I. “There’s one about everyday,” 
Jim said, as we eyed the gold foil, round as a silver
dollar, waiting in the five-gallon ice cream
container used as a trash can. Your bedroom was the first 
place we looked each morning after you left for work
and we were free to roam, prospectors come to the town 
saloon, cap pistol six-shooters strapped to our sides, 
hankering for a game of cards, expecting some new gold 
coins to lay down for firewater Pepsi, straight-up 
in shot glasses slipped out of the cabinet, desperate
for some low-down crosseyed sidewinder to draw 
from the bottom of the deck. Noon and the bottle
empty, card game folded, we scooped up the stack
of coins, stepped over the dead bodies of all those
black-hearted cheaters, and made our way out
onto the range of backyard, slender hickory ponies
hitched to the porch rail and waiting. “Get on up here
for lunch. Haven’t you heard me?” my mother demanded 
in the voice of a trail boss. I tied my pony outside
the door and swaggered in, a few gold coins still tucked
in my pockets. Finishing off my tuna-fish sandwich
in four gulps, I rose and said, “Thank ye, mam, here’s
 a little something for your trouble,” and lay down
a gold coin. “Hold on there,” I heard as I reached
the door. “Where’d you get this?” “Found it prospectin’”
I answered. More questions until she scowled and stared
through me worse than any quick-draw kid.
“And just where did you prospectors dig up this gold?” 
Then followed a scene of howling worse than a passel 
of bandits out of the hills swooping down to slay
everyone and anything in their path. I heard the line 
“Don’t you know you can catch awful diseases?”
A vision came then from all the stories I’d read in school
about gold rush fever. But I’d never read of anyone
dying of it. And hadn’t I read on the gold coin itself
Sold for the Prevention of Disease Only? So what was she
worried about—we were the good prospectors, the good gamblers, 
the saviors of the home range. “Son, I don’t want you
digging in anybody’s trash cans anymore—and if I hear
or see another of these gold coins, I’m telling your daddy. 
And you know what that means.” So—dear Pete and Margie,
I know you’ve wondered all these years why
I could not enter your house, could not benefit from the gold 
you spent almost nightly, or know the joys of your being 
such spendthrifts, gold tossed in abandon to heaven’s 
delight, so many times I wonder at the fevers
you must have known from all that gold.


Jeff Daniel Marion grew up in Rogersville, Tennessee, and retired in 2002 after thirty-five years of teaching at Carson Newman College. He lives in Knoxville, Tennsessee, but maintains a writing retreat overlooking the Holston River. As poet, teacher, editor, printer, and lecturer, Marion has helped to create and support the literature of the southern Appalachian region over the last three decades. His poems have appeared in more than 60 journals and anthologies. He is the author of numerous collections including Tight Lines, The Chinese Poet Awakens, and Ebbing & Flowing Springs: New and Selected Poems and Prose, 1976-2001. His fiction has appeared in The Journal of Kentucky Studies, Now & Then and Appalachian Heritage.

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