Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences by Carol Smallwood
Published by Lamar University Press Books
Reviewed by April Salzano
Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences, by Carol Smallwood employs the four elements of nature, “the state-of-matter or simplest main parts of which anything exists,” to divide this collection into sections, with “the added fifth element” of “picket fences,” to examine the theme of change, just as the author promises in her introduction. Each section utilizes a specific element as its tool into memory and metaphor, capturing imagery relevant to that specific natural force. By delving into the real, physical world and its tiny component parts, such as the bubbles in a Styrofoam cup, the way water refracts in a glass, or the music of an MRI machine, the poet indeed creates work that is “as necessary as air.”
Dense with meaning and references to her favorite literary works, the poetry here utilizes a considerable amount of formal verse, relying primarily on various interlocking forms. Repetition is crucial to the message: if change takes place without our having noticed it, if we too missed “the moment/water became tea,” then once we begin to utilize retrospect as a tool, that message can be repeated and built upon, each time discovering something new. Just like the final line in one stanza becomes the opening line in the next, so life builds upon layers of itself. Like formal verse, the elements repeat: water gives way to water, air breathes and there is more fire, and all elements combine to form an intricately tangled earth. In the poem “Tea in a Plastic Cup,” we see that tea is more than leaves and liquid, the string of the bag is all “the kites/that did not fly, and those that did/the wild pull of the wind of spring before/ landing on ground that still had snow.” Just as “a closer look reveals the tea bag is/two parts,” a closer look at the past shows that change happens in increments so tiny, only the very careful infusion of poetry and memory can sufficiently capture them after the fact. A poem as intricately built as a pantoum or a villanelle serves as the perfect example of form following function.
Through the seemingly small symbols in the section “Earth,” we are offered the chance to further observe and contemplate meaning and change: the waffle pattern of an ice cream cone, lady bugs and town witches. Even spice bottles take on meaning “when looked at too long,” much like finding Prufrock in the folds of fast food napkins. Observation is gift and eavesdropping, necessary, lest we should miss a moment, like a field shorn in October without witness.
“Air” brings us the clouds and windy days we would expect, the stuff that swirls leaves and brings us to a place the speaker feels “more visitor/in a strange land.” In the poem “Seagulls,” the speaker, in a new city, wonders if seagulls migrate and why she didn’t do so sooner. Here, philosophy and physics are at once at odds and in harmony. With its own theory-of-everything logic, the collection as a whole shows how fundamental forces and forms of matter can lead to inquisition into the minds and hearts of seemingly random strangers, demonstrating that everything is cause for reflection and holds a kind of unique, interconnected beauty.
“Fire” rekindles the relationship between the speaker (in this section most specifically woman), and the “earth’s molten center—/the thin, thin layer we walk upon.” Perhaps the most personal of the traditional element sections, the speaker contemplates subjects such as chemo and divorce. It is in the presence of fire’s power to consume that “the smell of burning/leaves evokes visions,” where the sun blinds itself to stop them. In “Ashes,” we find again the full-circle aspect of the natural world: “my quest had ended where it’d begun:/the waiting house would wrap me,/a burnt offering of spring,” presumably the same house that told the young mother in the Prelude: ‘There are things you’ll never know,/never could even guess.” We get the sense that at times she did know, did guess, and at other moments, was as helpless as if facing fire. Perhaps the most poignant lesson of all is shared near the end of this section in the poem “I Heard That.” The speaker tells us she has “learned along the way,” that “falling is not a requirement for numbness.”
In the final section, “Behind Picket Fences,” women, like soldiers, suffer post-traumatic stress disorder of a different sort as “terror keeps on repeating,” and “good mothers” repress memories and lose their wings. In this added element, dreams prove vehicle into topics that we get the sense would not otherwise be discussed. Behind the fence, we learn that keeping socks and making sourdough bread do not prevent the inevitable, deadly sins are commonplace and Despair is “the mother of them all.”
Overall, Smallwood’s collection is a beautiful, well-crafted alternation between science and confession, form and free verse that ultimately tells us that both order and its antithesis should be used to fulfill a duty to honesty and observation. By the end of the collection, I was left humbled by the author’s craft, and in awe of her ability to express her relationship with the natural world. Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences can be purchased at Amazon.com.