Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms by Carol Smallwood
Anaphora Literary Press, 2011
Reviewed by Aline Soules
In our modern world and complex lives, we live in "compartments"–home, school, town, nature – the kind of compartments and realms Carol Smallwood explores, giving us what we know and questioning what we don't. "The Morning Warbler" may be seen "if one walks the bogs," she writes, "but does it sing in the morning?" What do we really know? Smallwood raises questions even as she leads us into a consideration of our own world with a direct, matter-of-fact approach. "Why Do Women Ask First about their children / when meeting other / women?" or "After a / hysterectomy did they package your remains in a / paper sack like the gizzard, heart, liver, neck, / inside a roasting chicken?
Everything is delightfully jumbled, but beautifully detailed. "The Sewing Box," just like Smallwood's compartments, is filled with its own sub-compartments – thread bag, needle assortment, tray, and others-each, in turn, filled with its own details, whether a "myriad of spools," "potholder loops," or "a ring of white crocheted pineapples." She ties these objects together in the poem and also from poem to poem. For example, she sews the ring of pineapples on a "new J. C. Penney's case"; later, in the "Town" section, she gives us a poem called "J. C. Penney litany" with its "Flannel, Poplin, Wool, Cotton, Chambray, Chamois, Corduroy, Micro-suede" shirts and its "Amber, Indigo, Basil, Blue Abyss, Oatmeal, Olive, Espresso, Mushroom" colors, all in the "men's section" with "not a man in sight."
The joy of these compartments is that they are all linked: the women's objects from "The Sewing Box" and the array in the men's section of the "J.C. Penney Litany"; the ants and spiders from the "Nature" section and the "Black Holes" from the "Science" section; and the questions that range through the book from "What'd happened to the Chinese damask / robe Nicolet had worn greeting the Winnebago's at Green Bay?" to all the answers the poet would "like to know"--"why snow's white" or "Why we know more of / the surface of the / Moon than ourselves."
Everything builds on her prologue-how we live between "the highest mountain / and the deepest ocean" and how we are all these compartments rolled into one. In this collection, the reader can experience a journey through our shared world, a journey beautifully guided by this skilled and generous poet.
Aline Soules, California State University, East Bay faculty member, has appeared in journals such as Kenyon Review, The Houston Literary Review.