Review: Divining the Prime Meridian by Carol Smallwood

Nancy Means Wright

Divining the Prime Meridian
Carol Smallwood
Word Poetry, 2015
Trade paper, 118 pages
Poet Carol Smallwood knows how to tell the truth slant, as Emily Dickinson advised, with double meanings, like the prime meridian in the title and resplendent cover art of her fourth collection: an ancient and arbitrary line of longitude that divides the earth into two hemispheres. “Words pin events,” the poem “Diaries” notes, “but you can/tell from spacing, slant,/omissions, allusions what/really happened.” The beauty in “The Beauty of Lace,” for instance, “lies in what is missing/as much as what is in there.” And the despair of abandonment is keenly felt in “Going to Sleep”: “Slipping in a/One pillow bed,/I shroud my face/With white linen,/A nun’s veil.”
The poet leaves the full interpretation to the reader, of course, and this is where the wonder begins in her wise, subtle—and again like Dickinson—mostly short, pithy, formal and free verse poems about ordinary life that end in surprise, a knowing smile, and often, as in “How to Make a Quilt,” a grimace of pain. The latter describes the cutting and alternating of plain and pattern pieces, then morphs into the trauma of divorce: “But when final rows are sewed/together, there’s no telling/where patterns will fall.” Pain and loneliness linger on “like desire” after the tooth is gone. In “Driving With a Pen,” “you keep two pens on the/passenger seat to forget/screams of last night’s dreams.”
In “Lily’s Choice,” Smallwood quotes Muriel Rukeyser who wrote “if a woman told the/truth about her life, the world would split open.” And Smallwood doesn’t hold back, although again, for her own peace of mind, she must tell it slant. There are hints of dark secrets and sexual abuse in “the Uncle Walt-in-the- basement dream which the/psychiatrist said, “summed up everything in/a nutshell.” The poet is fiercely skeptical. “The priest had said, “Accept things because it’s/God’s will. Pope’s famous essay also said,/”Whatever is, is right.” Here the reader shares the poet’s anger.
Lily, a kind of alter ego for the poet, is also the protagonist of the author’s semi-autobiographical novel, Lily’s Odyssey (All Things That Matter Press, 2010) in which Lily is a PTSD survivor of covert incest, a trauma that can forever alter the human mind. In the nine-part poem, “Dante’s Circles,” “Mary Shelley’s Matilda summed it/being “struck off from humanity.” While Aunt Hester’s mouth formed its bad taste/lines to say, “We always took you to church.” In Part VIII of the poem, the protagonist asks: “Could I’d done too good a job of hiding things?/Uncle Walt said, “You show as much emotion as a/stone.” The poem ends with the single frigid line: “Dante’s ninth circle is made of ice.” As the villanelle “Doublethink” reminds us in repeated lines: “post-traumatic stress thrives on dissociation,/making one block real feelings, fear explanation.”
But the collection is not without its measure of joy in small things like rain hitting a window, fairy shrimp in melted snow, or the moon seen during the day. As a cancer survivor, the poet offers hope of renewal in “chemo hair” that “could/become bird nests,” in a reminder that we’re “the stuff of stars,” and in the delightful, if loosely patterned “Aida Sestina” with its repetition of “home” and the momentary comfort of Mitchell’s “shoulder against mine. The opera’s scene of live burial fades as Mitchell’s warm “coat blew against/me,” and the speaker wistfully wonders “if he ever thought of me when curtains closed.”
At the close of the collection, the reader will surely want to read, reread and mull over in the mind these stunning, insightful poems – poems that will open up the heart to both perilous sides of the Great Divide.
Nancy Means Wright has published poems in numerous journals (Bellingham Review, Green Mountains Review, Carolina Quarterly); in anthologies (Beacon Press, Ashland Poetry Press & elsewhere); in  chapbooks (Pudding House, Finishing Line Press). Poet, novelist, and former Bread Loaf Scholar, she lives in Middlebury, Vermont.