Reading Thread, Form, and Other Enclosures, the most recent collection of poems by Carol Smallwood, is like opening the door to a time machine. The collection swims with poetic forms including pantoum, triolet, villanelle, rondeau, as well as free verse poems, to share her thoughts and stories with her reader. While these forms have not been overly popular in mainstream poetry since the 1930s, the rhyme and repetition provide a kind of comfort that has become even more precious in the past year.
I found myself enjoying the predictable pattern and simple rhymes, like fear and year, or feet and retreat that Smallwood chose to employ in poems like “Sewing By Day” and “Subterranean.” These gentle poems are just what many of us need, whether we know it or not, during these difficult times. With her quilts, sewing, lace, a spider web, dolls, clothes on a clothesline, Smallwood creates an insulated world for anyone wishing to inhabit it. Even the poems about undergoing chemotherapy are gentle in their delivery: “A strand / of hair fell from my bandana.” This care with word choice and delivery is something I appreciated much more than I was expecting to.
Form can help poets say the unsayable or it can help them conceal their innermost thoughts. Often what happens in this collection is the latter but there are moments of clarity and connection. In “Wallpaper Triolet,” she references a “woman trapped” and the recurring question, “so you thought you’d get away?” A narrative emerges of a woman in an unhappy, most likely abusive, marriage who battles cancer and ponders the large and small things that fill her days.
Despite Smallwood’s obvious love of forms, she really shines when she throws off the chains of form and speaks from her heart. In “A Reflection” she writes, “a hysterectomy’s nothing big – / there’s time enough for love.” This is an example of the quirky, real stuff that readers will connect with. “A Reflection” continues: “Then I was in a bedroom alone that echoed,” which makes me feel like I’m getting to know the author much more than when I was reading the line, “thread colors are especially a joy to explore,” from the poem “Spools of Thread,” in part because of her use of the first person. In “I Divine,” Smallwood’s line, “my fingers forked sticks,” is an exceptionally artful turn I would love to see more of, but her chosen forms don’t often allow for such leaps, so much concentration being poured into the demands of placement and rhyme. Similarly, in “As I Stood,” another free verse poem, I’m moved by the lines: “I saw the surface / of the high white marble altar / of my childhood church melt.” There is assonance, or a repetition of sounds, happening here that is so much more compelling to me than the often predictable rhyme found in formal poetry.
Smallwood’s best formal poems are musings about topics like the earth’s crust and outer space, philosophy, and ancient continents. These topics give her the room she needs in the confines of the intricate forms she has chosen. Additionally, with these poems, Smallwood reinforces the idea that there is more to women’s lives than motherhood. The idea that you can be a mother and still want to be, see, and understand other things is alive in this collection. If you think women should not have to be defined by motherhood, this collection is for you.
In one of the few poems that explicitly reference motherhood, “Why Do Women Ask,” a free verse poem in the offhand style of Rupi Kaur, Smallwood writes:
Why do women ask
about each other’s children
first when meeting?
Is it to affirm silent
While sometimes it’s enough for a poem to pose a question, here the wondering falls flat. On the other hand, there is an invitation for the reader to come up with their own answers. Other poems, “Sewing By Day,” “The House Wrapped Around,” and “Car Wash,” reference children and kids, but the speaker’s relationship to them feels distant. Though “womb” appears in more than one poem, as well as “placenta” and “embryo,” it is in a detached way, that makes the reader wonder if the author is herself a mother. Regardless of her own experience, these poems help answer the questions many women might have: What is there outside of motherhood? What is there after motherhood? And judging from Smallwood’s poems, the answer is: a lot.
When Smallwood states in the preface that “women traditionally have had a stronger relationship with enclosures,” I was left to wonder if she was referencing bra straps, marriage or motherhood. After reading the more than 70 poems in her collection, I think she may be referencing all of these things. By commenting on the smallest items, she is writing about universal experiences. In “A Handwork of Legacy,” she describes her grandmother’s dresser scarf as “a heritage lifeline.” Looking up at the stars in “The Swan Nebula,” she sees “violent red birth.” This is a person who thinks and feels things deeply. The variety of topics and tone relay an important message: Smallwood is a woman who is intelligent and curious and also, perhaps, trapped in an abusive relationship. That those things can and do exist for many women at the same time is often overlooked.
Though the book title implies confinement, the central theme of this collection is comfort. Whether asking for it or providing it through pastoral and old-world imagery, comfort weaves its way through this book. The poem that closes the collection, “A Brief Look,” reminds the reader that “beauty comes at ordinary moments” In the end, I would say that Smallwood serves form rather than the other way around. By choosing to write in form Smallwood gives up control; it becomes just another master. But there is comfort to be found in the repetition, rhyme, and subject matter here. What is evident in these poems is the author’s enjoyment of writing. Her excitement over patterns and rhymes is infectious and, for right now, that’s enough.