Yes, Poetry

Review: Compartments—Poems on Nature, Feminity, and Other Realms

Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms by Carol Smallwood


(Paper, $15, ISBN: 978-1-937-53600-8, LCCN: 2011912611, 146 pp, 6x9, August 2011, Anaphora Literary Press Anaphora Literary Press, 163 Lucas Rd., # I-2, Cochran, GA 31014)


Carol Smallwood’s poetry exposes the active inner life of a curious observer.  In her collection, “Compartments,” she reveals the mind and heart of a poet who knows how to unravel mysteries with sensory details and probing questions.  Structured forms, like the villanelle and the triolet, frame fluid topics.  Smallwood invites visitors to share her vision of her thoughts.  Elements of time and place ground the reader to a particular setting that allows access to the poems.  This poet likes to grasp at ordinary things, turning them around in her mind and then translating her ideas into strict lines that reveal truths about unknowable things.  This poet desires to know all, and to share her intimate vision with her readers.

For example, in the poem, “By the Barb Wire Fence,” Smallwood takes on the villanelle to corral the passing of time.  Lily, the protagonist, seeks refuge among the birds and bees, but not in some silly romantic sense.  On the contrary, she hides her tears, weakened by some weight of memory and regret, perhaps a gripping need for something permanent, but the recognition that nature doesn’t hold still.  One dominant image in the poem, a stone foundation, reveals a mystery.  The poet writes:

Lily went where bees made blossoms fall,

near a stone foundation too old to recall.


Even the stone foundation shifts from an assumed place of permanence to a place unknown, an inner mystery, the awareness that nothing is fixed, not even our desires or intentions.  No one knows what the foundation once held up.   Yet, this place of decay holds life:   “bees make blossoms fall,” and “birds built nests without trepidation,” shifting scenes that allow the narrator to turn inward, to seek further refuge, near “the barbed wire fence.”

     The triplets within the villanelle create a context from which to describe the natural world, while the reframe and conclusion in the closing quatrain leave the reader in a setting of peace.  The center line in each triplet begins to reveal a conflict:  the narrator’s need to break from “obligation” and seek out an old tree in a quiet spot to “linger as the sun sank.”

     The rhythm of the poem echoes the rhythm of life, always moving but seeking pause.  “The Barbed Wire Fence” opens up a Pandora’s Box, a bundle of different meanings, each dependent on the reader’s own associations.  This reader sees a narrator, who appears trapped, yet the fence is down, she can run if she chooses, a breach in the enclosure allows her to leave, but she stays, and settles for a pause.  Why?  “Family obligations” that make her wonder how it all turned out this way?  Did she ever really have a choice? 

The poet writes:

Lily wiped her tears as the kids still small

returned from a game of interrogation


Explicit tears for implicit reasons, except for her close reference to “kids” as they come back from a game of questions that must seem difficult to answer.  Lily’s mission, “to see the oldest tree of all,” opens and closes the poem, as she resonates with her surroundings:

            Lily went where bees made blossoms fall

            and birds built nests without trepidation

            near a stone foundation too old to recall.


     Another concrete scene, this time “A Vision Triolet,” contains a doctor, a stain, a reality check, and a photo.  Again, the impermanence of life, the passing of time, aging.  More lines of tight rhyme, eight lines per stanza, the repetition of entire lines, like the villanelle.  The length of lines matter, tetrameter, ABaAab, as in “quick, case, photographic; quick, Geographic, space,” followed by AB, “quick, case.”

A Vision Triolet

A digital fundus photo is quick,

recommended for anyone just in case—

each eye must stare till photographic;

a digital fundus photo is quick,

the results rival a National Geographic

glossy spectacular of outer space.

The digital fundus photo is quick

recommended for anyone just in case.


The optometrist pointed to murky stains

“Due to common aging,” he explained

fed by vessels deep in my brain.

The optometrist pointed to murky stains

foreign as a NASA Mars terrain—

the exposure, dull red, self-contained.

The optometrist pointed to murky stains

“due to common aging,” he explained.


Just in case of what?  Those questionable “murky stains” may “be due to common aging” but what does that say about life ahead … a red stain, a void, a “dull red, self-contained.”  The poet found the whole scene strange, although the image seemed quite familiar to the optometrist.  The poet’s confused.  Isn’t the poet’s job to make the strange … familiar? 

     This tricky triolet, a quirky form meant to grasp what is slipping away, the poet’s most valuable tool, sight. The repetition of “stains” in the second stanza work well to drive home the point of over exposure, in this case, to time, “the dull red” left behind.  A moment of vision, indeed, of the mystical kind, and the repetition of the line:  “the digital fundus photo is quick” liking the sound of these words and the image of National Geographic, the “result rivala lyrical quality with tight rhyme—“glossy spectacular.”  The artist works here, in and among these forms, such as the villanelle and the triolet, to craft common themes, like aging and regret, in mirroring reframes.

     Many poems, like the earliest triolets in English, were written as prayers.  This collection of Compartments could hold the same intention, like chants of extreme repetition, limited rhyme, limited lines that allow the structure to disappear, even though it dominates.  These qualities of form, combined with the simplicity of content, convey a shared understanding, to make Compartments a good read.  The personal becomes universal through images and sounds, and meaning moves closer, with each carefully constructed line.


Carol Hawkins holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire. She has taught writing and directed writing programs for over twenty years, in public and private colleges and universities, both nationally and abroad. Her writing appears in the National Women’s Studies Journal and Praxis: A Writing Center Journal; Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012). Currently she is working on a memoir that explores the intersections of gender, economic class, and literacy.  She lives and writes from her home in Downeast Maine.

Review: Women on Poetry, Writing, Revising, Publishing, and Teaching

Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching edited by Carol Smallwood, Colleen S. Harris and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent (foreword by Molly Peacock) McFarland & Company, 2012, $45 softcover, index, (6 x 9),  267 pp.,  ISBN 978-0-7864-6392-3



       This book is a writer-friendly, comprehensive guide to the practical matters facing poets and teachers of poetry. Written by women for women – but not exclusively for women – these savvy contributors know whereof they speak. Each subject is covered in clear, concise, sympatico language that anyone can peruse and use straight from the carton. The co-editors have done a seamless job of compiling the info without wearying the beginning poet or teacher looking for a little light on subjects often left in shadow, obscured by rhetoric, or ignored completely.

       There are chapters (59!) for everything, from where to find inspiration and time to write to how to present at a conference; when, where, why and how to publish a chapbook; writing on taboo subjects such as childhood sexual abuse; how to teach grammar, meter, 19th century women poets, and myriad other helpful perspectives. Sequenced in four sections: writing, teaching, publishing and essential wisdom, the table of contents gives simple yet precise direction to a reader’s area of interest and who is giving the advice.

       Looking for pointers in creating a happy classroom? Read Ellen Bass’s Top 14 Tips for a Positive Learning Environment.  Finding your voice? Ona Marae has some words, poets and role models for you to consider. Want the skinny on successful online blogging, video poems, contests, self-promotion, presence, e-chapbook publishing? Covered. And, of course, there’s the bottom line. Show Me the Money: A Very Brief Guide to Securing Funding for Your Writing by Christina Lovin and Secrets of a Successful Woman Writer by Arlene L. Mandell address that elusive poet thing: getting paid.

       I was impressed by the cohesive positive energy of the compilation, the generosity with which each author shares her considerable expertise and experience, personal and professional, toward the goal of giving the reader what she needs to do her own writing, teaching, publishing and presenting with panache. Each writer confers the message that the labor of love that is the poet’s life is – with practice, skill, dedication and fearlessness – imminently doable. It’s an empowering book for any poet or teacher looking for a little practical magic from a community of women writers who know their spells.


Susan Lynch studied literature and creative writing at Oxford and Reed College, and is in the MFA program of Goddard College. Her work has appeared in ASH (Oxford University Poetry Society’s quarterly magazine) and Enizagam 2011 among other creative reviews.

Review: Use Your Words, A Writing Guide for Mothers

Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, Kate Hopper, May 2012, ISBN: 978-1-936740-12-3, (softcover) $16.95, Viva Editions

i-xvi; 229 pp. (5 ½ x 6 ¼)


     Motherhood for adoptive and birth mothers is a life-changing experience. Writing helps the confusion that new mothers flounder through as they fight post-partum depression, exhaustion, and finding new coping skills. This experience, as Kate Hopper’s Introduction  notes, “… was the stuff of which real literature was made.”

     The 14 chapters on creative nonfiction cover such topics as voice, character development, using concrete details, and publishing. The exercises in each chapter will help writers block and launch new creative threads.

     In her foreword, Hope Edelman, the author of The Possibility of Everything, observes: “Turning personal experience into readable prose is a daunting process for anyone, and carving out the time to do so isn’t easy with a house full of short people in need of constant attention.” I can personally relate to this and also agree with her comment that “…we mothers are pros at multitasking.”

    Women writers do have an uphill battle to get published as well researched on the Vida: Women in Literary Arts website, The percentage of women getting into print compared with men is indeed an eye opener.

     The eighteen contributor bio’s, reading questions, list of resources, acknowledgments, writing prompts, index, author picture and bio, finding an agent tips and resources, and other aids, are in the back of the book. Fulbright Scholarship recipient, Kate Hopper puts her expertise as a writer with a MFA in creative writing, Literary Mama editor, blogger, Loft Literary Center instructor, and mother to good use in a guide meant to be underlined, highlighted, reread, bookmarked, carried around, shared, by countless mothers.


—-Reviewer Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012); Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, (Key Publishing House, 2012).