Since 1996


Poetry Reviews

By Joan Gelfand




“Divining the Prime Meridian”
By: Carol Smallwood
Word Poetry Press
ISBN: 9781625491114
Price: $16.95

“The Universe in A Grain of Sand”
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
                      William Blake: “Auguries of Innocence”

In Carol Smallwood’s new collection, the universe is examined, spun on its axis prism-like and finally, released. Smallwood finds the universe
in a dragonfly, quilt-stitching, Clabber Girl baking soda and the bandana that she will wear after the chemotherapy treating her breast cancer.

Home-spun Midwestern themes prevail through all of the seven sections: Domestic Life, The Natural World, Health and Welfare, Geography, The Mental Realm, Cities and finally, Seasons.

Smallwood employs the metaphor of divining throughout the collection. The poet defines it: “The locating of water underground using a divining rod is an old practice; divining can also mean to discover by insight. The prime meridian, an arbitrary line of longitude…is the line from which eastern and western hemispheres are set.” Discovering, or divining that meridian also implies the discovery of that which is essential, prime, and core to the poet’s life.

From “A Matter of Location”

“that inner point is our/center they say -but not yet/not yet – the fear of finding/nothing’s still too strong.”

Maps too can be a wonderful metaphor for the writer and Smallwood uses them to the best possible poetic use. Locating herself physically, geographically and domestically, Smallwood considers world and poetic history, American history, personal history and the present state of her heart. Locating herself aids the poet to ‘divine’ and discover her inner truths.

The poems are often in form but Smallwood keeps the language accessible. In the deceptively simple “Envelopes,” Smallwood tells us that what looks like a bargain, a good deal! (‘greeting card envelopes a dollar a grocery bag full!) turns out to be a waste (of time and money) when same envelopes seal themselves shut, rendering the bargain useless at the first humid day. A life lesson to be sure.

In these first two sections Smallwood gains our trust as a Midwestern poet with deep roots and respect for her ancestor’s homeland. (Other notable poems in this section are “After the Ice Storm,” and “How to Make a Quilt.”)

With the poem “At the Fourth Chemo Visit,” we are struck by the gentle way this poet can approach a situation most would confront so fear stricken, perhaps even paralyzed with confusion and anger, that to see the poetry in a chemo visit would be unfathomable.

“I picked out a bandana, red

Evocative of barn dances, wide Wyoming


Detecting sandlewood, I saw a woman

Doing good works with her bobbin…”

To be able to step out of oneself, to see beyond the moment, to get the ‘long view,’ and most impressively to think of others at the time of personal crisis - this surely is the stuff of poetry.

In another deceptively simple piece, “Between Rocks,” Smallwood writes in form repeating the line “For weed control, call today” first presenting it with no context, then explaining that weeds are her metaphor for survival and finally, the absurdity of wanting to control a weed at all!

Further on in the collection the poem “Morning” wakes us up to what it feels like to inhabit a state in which our animal selves rule, to be held in a state of pure desire and wonder: “My nose quivers/to remember things.” The reader has the image of a small rabbit, sensing by smell – What is in the air today? What in my past is worthy of remembrance?

In his introduction, poet and Professor Emeritus of Eastern Illinois University, Dr. John Guzlowski writes: “If what Ezra Pound wrote is true - that the poet’s job is to tell the news that’s always the news, then Carol Smallwood is some poet. She tells us about the things that surround us that we may have forgotten, or perhaps never noticed… laundry drying in a freezing wind…what the color green looks like in early spring…how to love the shrubs in front of the local Post Office.”

In unsentimental prose, Smallwood reports on surviving falling in love as married woman raising children, and surviving her biggest challenge: breast cancer.

Other favorite poems in this collection include: “Dragonflies,” “A Matter of Seasons,” “Aida Sestina,” and “Grandmother Said.”

Smallwood is a poet, librarian and writer with impressive accomplishments: Editor of several anthologies including “Women On Poetry: Writing, Teaching, Revising and Editing,” published by MacFarland. Smallwood is listed in “Who’s Who in the World,” “Who’s Who of America,” and “Who’s Who of American Women.”


Joan Gelfand is a poet and writer living in San Francisco, CA. Her most recent poetry collection, “The Long Blue Room,” was published by Benicia Literary Arts and her forthcoming novel, “Fear to Shred,” set in a Silicon Valley startup is due out.





 Travelers With Not Ticket Home
By : Mary Mackey
(Marsh Hawk Press)
Available from Small Press Distribution, Amazon, and on Kindle
by Joan Gelfand

After over twenty-five years of annual expeditions to Brazil, Mary Mackey’s exploration of the

Amazon River ecosystem, indigenous cultures, environmental destruction, Afro-Brazilian

religious rites, samba, and the teaming streets of Rio remains fresh, insightful, edgy, and


In her new collection of poetry, Travelers With No Ticket Home, Mackey’s keen eyes scan an

inner and outer landscape that merges the rational with the mystical, deconstructing everything

from life in the favelas, drug wars, the destruction of the rain forest, the omniscient spirit of

nature—both healing and destructive—and her own feelings of displacement, all thrown into

stark relief against a throbbing tropical sun and the teeming streets of Rio.

Mackey is a stranger in a strange land that is the same time hauntingly familiar to her. In the

opening poem, “Jacob’s Ladder,” she addresses her Kentucky ancestors, musing on how her

travels have changed her way of seeing her place in the world:

“What would they have said/if I had spoken to them in Portuguese?

dearest aunts/sooner or later/

we all stand at the foot of a ladder that’s missing rungs/

speaking in tongues no one can understand.”

The use of internal rhyme in “Jacob’s Ladder” and Mackey’s other poems gives us a resonance

of the past with the present, and a hint that after all her years (and mind you, all her books—13

novels and 7 poetry collections), she still struggles to understand and be understood.

Mackey has often said that she sees herself coming from two poetic traditions: one that takes as

its subject the physical world, and one that is mystical and even at times hallucinatory. As a

result, her poetry is layered and complex, recording real moments from her own life, yet moving

beyond those moments to signs, rituals, and visions that unfold from line to line as she tries to

integrate personal meaning with glimpses of something more transcendent.

In “Inquisition,” for example, she speaks of her experience of being ill in the jungle:

“in this land god is a poisonous spider/

the size of a shoe a lash of fire ants/

a snake with hinged fangs/

do not ask me how I am/

do not ask me if we will survive/

there are so many ways to die here/

I’ve lost track/”

Mackey repeatedly uses metaphor as both a weapon to expose social injustice and a map to

explore undiscovered territory. Take, for example, ”The People of Brazil Discover the

Portuguese,” in which she imagines the first contact between indigenous Brazilians and the

Europeans who sailed into Rio’s Guayanbara Bay on April 1, 1500:

“what is it that comes out of the east/

like a tower of bones/

white with fluttering wings/

larger than the largest bird we have ever seen/

what new plague/

is the wind blowing toward us/”

In almost all the poems, there is a sense of unease: of great beauty and equally great danger; of

displacement and grief for the on-going destruction of the natural world that Mackey treasures

mixed with her joy that so much of it still survives. In “The Invisible Forests of Amapá,” she

combines a list animals that are threatened with extinction with a rapturous description of the

beauty of the rainforest:

“Crested Capuchin, Nectar Bat/

Red-handed Howling Monkey/

Blue-winged Macaw/

great rivers veiled in steam/

sixty billion trees/

reaching toward a sky so green/

it burns like copper/

As she did in her previous collection Sugar Zone (which won the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine

Miles Award), Mackey sometimes mixes Portuguese and English, giving these poems a musical

quality yet never going so far as to make them incomprehensible. Again she invokes Solange,

that ambiguous, mysterious female figure who first appeared in Sugar Zone and who, Mackey

has said, may be a muse, a shaman, a former lover, a guide, a spiritual teacher, her own alter-ego,

the unquenchable spirit of the rainforest, or all of these combined. The poems about Solange

provide some of Travelers With No Ticket Home’s finest and most poetic moments:

From “Onça Pintada/Painted Tiger:

“trees and vines are tattooed on her body/

when she moves they flow across her thighs/

like the Rio Solimões in flood/

Solange who stalks us by day/

Solange who is everything we have destroyed”

The poems in Travelers With No Ticket Home invoke a Brazil that Mackey knows intimately, yet

a land that is, in the end, as completely unknowable as the depths of a human soul. Mackey has

said she has no plans to stop her journeys, so I suspect we will be hearing more from her about

those unexplored lands which lie both south of the equator and within us.

Joan Gelfand is the author of the recently published “The Long Blue Room,” Benicia Literary Arts, 2014 and two other full length collections of poetry.