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Monday, November 20, 2017

Literary Journal Shares Carol Smallwood Poetry Review

By Carol Smallwood
Shanti Arts Publishing, Brunswick, ME.
ISBN 978-1-941830-46-8 
paperback, $16.95, 162 pages.

Reviewed by Kathrine C Aydelott, MLIS, PhD., Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire originally for Big Muddy: A journal of the Mississippi River, Fall, 2017

As Lynn Z Bloom writes in “Living to Tell the Tale: The Complicated Ethics of Creative Nonfiction,” “Because writers of creative nonfiction are dealing with versions of the truth, they—perhaps more consistently than writers in fictive genres—have a perennial ethical obligation to question authority, to look deep beneath the surface, and an aesthetic obligation to render their versions of reality with sufficient power to compel readers’ belief” (278). Carol Smallwood brings us into her world, shares her perspective, and we believe her.

Smallwood, well known in library circles for her volumes on libraries and librarianship, including ALA published titles Library Management Tips that Work (2011), and Bringing the Arts into the Library (2014), is also widely acclaimed for her poetry, in titles such as Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (2016), which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and for the well received In Hubble’s Shadow (2017).

She is as adept at creative nonfiction, as demonstrated by her recent volume, Interweavings (2017), a series of forty-three short essays, separated into seven categories: Visits, The Feminine Side, A Sense of Place, A Backward Look, Things Literary, Strands, and Observations. Conversational and sometimes intimate in tone, the book reads easily, like letters from a friend. The essays are often very short, almost to the point of being sketches, and like musical refrains, elements brought up in one story circle back again later in the collection, tying the whole together.

Libraries, texts, and learning are prominent in these essays and it’s clear that Smallwood has a deep love for words, for education, for science, and for books. But for me, the motif of time passing predominated my readings. In retirement, Smallwood has moved to a small college town from a larger city, and her private thoughts and public encounters center around moments of connection and disconnection, of nostalgic looking backwards and of the necessary moving forward. Smallwood is on the cusp of the rest of her life, and many of the familiar elements of society are taking new shapes in the face of war, technology, aging, and of transition generally. Like Sarah Orne Jewett’s nineteenth-century short stories of Maine, or Virginia Woolf’s twentieth-century musings in Mrs. Dalloway, in Smallwood’s work we see a familiar world coming to an end and a fragile new era about to begin.

For example, in the first essay, “The Library Visit,” Smallwood, writing this time in the third-person, is struck, Alice-like, by a college campus’s renovation of a traditional institution. The building’s newness makes her feel foreign in a familiar place. The library itself is in a period of transition. If the books “didn’t have the answers, they’d done their best,” and the reference area is “deserted” (16).  The “psychedelic” carpet evoked the seventies, while the technology of the expanding bookshelves “encouraged a wariness of being smashed when you walked between them” (20). In Woolfian stream-of-consciousness, asking herself questions discursively, she muses on the architecture inside and the environment outside, all while the library’s new atrium windows evoke a beautiful panopticon, where all of nature is staring back at her, beckoning the author in spite of the rain, to return to an arena that is familiar and unchanging.

Thinking in snippets of lyric language, Smallwood both locates the reader in the present and simultaneously makes clear that there is a discomfiture of time and place. A feminine zeitgeist predominates. In the essay “Women and Time,” Smallwood remarks that “Perhaps their monthly cycles give women an accurate sense (call it intuition) that everything is in flux as they revolve on a planet that’s still forming” (40). As such, Smallwood’s details depict everything as new, and we enter the author’s mind that is observant in all of the senses.

Although her tone is often gentle and wistful, the author travels lightly along in the current of change. In “Karen’s Visit,” she thinks her friend’s voice “had such sadness in it that I wanted to show her it was possible to have dreams” (33). In “Women and Time” Smallwood even admits that “Time is an illusive, slippery, chimerical companion, exasperating to understand especially as one gets older and no closer to finding wisdom long thought to accompany age” (40-41).

Some of the essays are ultimately too short and read more like blog entries than finished pieces. I would have been happy if many of these had been longer, as it is a pleasure to spend time with the author as she considers her life’s triumphs, her reading, and her memories. The strongest essays are in the beginning, I feel, in Visits, where the writing shines and the words are most compelling. But don’t overlook the final essay, “They Will Come,” which masterfully closes the volume. This essay speaks of spring, and renewal, and here Smallwood acknowledges what she does not know, and is confident in the ambiguity. She states, “Yes, I will capture spring this year. Or, like aging, will it be too gradual and immense to grasp?” (159). Interweavings is an attempt to understand what it means to age, in all of its gradations and immensity. 

Philip Gerard, in Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre as “stories that carry both literal truthfulness and a larger Truth, told in a clear voice, with grace, and out of a passionate curiosity about the world” (208). Carol Smallwood’s writing epitomizes this definition.

1.     Bloom, Lynn Z. “Living to Tell the Tale: The Complicated Ethics of Creative Nonfiction.” College English, vol. 65, no. 3, 2003, pp. 276–289. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3594258.

2.     Gerard, Philip. Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. Cincinnati: Story, 1996.

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