by Maggie Smith
65 pages—Tupelo Press, April 2015
Review by Allison Donohue
Maggie Smith’s most recent collection of poems, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, centers on the Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Additionally, the “Apologues” series draws largely from the Hispanic folktale collection, Tales Our Abuelitas Told.[i] These tales are familiar: mystical, magical, enchanting; but they’re cautionary, too. The landscapes of Smith’s poems are tangled and fraught with danger, places one would never truly want to walk into, let alone watch a child walk into. And yet this is exactly what happens. In the first line of “Vanishing Point,” Smith’s speaker observes a child, a girl, wandering aimlessly from the trail: “When she leaves the path, the forest opens for her.” The poem clarifies that “the girl is lost, not hunted.” Danger skirts nearly every poem as the child continues to walk, accompanied by a speaker who speaks through various voices: the voice of a well, of a cautioning mother, and through the voice of a distant narrator. At the heart of Smith’s collection is the lost child and the universal human vulnerability she represents. Even though the child may not be hunted, she may, like all of us, still be harmed.
Smith’s setting is the forest—a multi-faceted and layered labyrinth both nourishing and menacing. The forest gives, it grows, it provides one with sustenance and protection against diseases through foliage and herbs. The forest also holds the potential—through mirroring trees and same-barked woods—to suddenly become an unknown space. It is a world in which once can easily become disoriented. Smith’s collection continually presses upon this point, not the life and beauty of the forest—though those are represented, too—but the perilousness of it. The concluding lines of “Vanishing Point” are alive with threat:
Swallowed whole by trees, eaten alive in a manner
of speaking, she walks toward a point none of us can see.
It is blacker there than in the gut. From far off, her life
rings like a thrown voice. Let it not be a fable for others.
In beginning with “Vanishing Point,” the collection introduces a speaker who is both distant and warning, a detached yet omniscient narrator suggestive of the voice of classic fairy tales. More so, the dispassion of this voice illustrates the speaker’s inability to act. It is the child who moves throughout the poems; the speaker who cautions, and ultimately, merely observes.
However, much like the forest, Smith’s speaker continues to shift. In the eight poem series, the “Apologues,” for example, the speaker’s tone is much more urgent and even intimate. Take “Apologue (2),” for instance: “I cannot lie. I wasn’t there, but those who saw it say / you crossed the fields, holding a feather like a torch / to light your way. Little Night Bloomer, it was late.” In other Apologue poems, the speaker refers to the lost child as “Little Torn Shoe,” “Little Wall I Hit My Head Upon,” and, among others, “Little Song Best Understood by Children and Animals.” These names are both endearing and telling. They tell the reader that the child is alone and in danger for the names often characterize the child. The child continues into the forest despite the speaker’s cautions: “…don’t marry. / How would anyone keep you? Love is a disease not easily cured” or “Forget the wolves, the monsters that pass / for men” or “bad things happen no matter / how good you are.” The speaker’s concern is brought to the forefront as she warns the child, calls to her, and describes what might happen to her.
Smith contrasts the saga of the lost child in the wood with glimpses of the world that exists on the other side of the trees, intermingling her fantastical, cautionary poems with poems that employ a more realist imagery. “Freedom Colony,” a poem toward the start of the collection, relays a childhood summer. The poem entertains the lore of the woods, but is grounded in a modern backdrop: there are neighborhood streets, cul-de-sacs, children playing.
The moon was a parade float,
the crickets played a bad cover of a song,
and the neighborhood streets were named
for the American Revolution: Lexington,
Valley Forge, Bunker Hill. But the kids
named the cul-de-sacs: Summer Darkness,
The Bicycles, Our Hands Held Before Us.
Or take another example from a poem a few pages later, titled “Notes on Camp:”
The boys’ cabins are named for Indian Tribes,
ours for suffragettes. On the rifle range, we lie
in sniper position and shoot watermelons.
Every year it’s the same. Archery, canoeing,
model rocketry, and one Cheyenne who claims
he’s frenched an Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Both “Freedom Colony” and “Notes on Camp” explore a childhood on the cusp of the forest, on the cusp of danger. Although these children may not be aware of it, they are very near something that could harm them. Compared to the child walking through the “Apologues,” these summer children appear to have trivial problems. In “Apologue (8)” the child, whether she is aware of it or not, is touched on all sides by danger: “[Stars] fall, blazing, like golden apples. / Little Cheek Flushed / with Fever, fill your apron with them. Some are snarled / in your black hair, some hiss into the sea.” The children of “Freedom Colony” and “Notes on Camp” are “homesick girls” doing exactly what children should do: they’re naming things, they’re exploring their world in a safe sphere. Smith establishes a clear dichotomy, playing these two sets of poems against one another until they become two wholly separate worlds. And yet the barrier between the two worlds is not impenetrable. At the end of “Freedom Colony,” the poem turns dramatically. The speaker notes how the children play in the cul-de-sacs, the harmonica’s summer notes, even the lovely detail of “Mailboxes stuffed with [her] babysitting flyers.” Then, in the final lines, these mundane and pleasant observations shift suddenly toward the ominous: “One father took me home late. We sat / idling in the drive, his hand on my thigh.” Even in the world of mailboxes and cul-de-sacs, danger still exists.
Additionally, Smith intersperses other characters throughout the collection particularly in the poems grounded in fairy tale. We encounter Hansel and Gretel, the three daughters in “List of Dangers,” the speaker’s own daughter, and a recurring second person the speaker directly addresses. An example of this recurring second person occurs in “Suspension,” where the tone reads largely as consolatory: “Once you cross, as you must, / you cannot go back. There is nothing / to retrieve: when the bridge catches fire, / leave it all.” The second person reads as an extension of the speaker; familiar with the feeling of fear, the speaker offers advice: “To be light / enough to cross, you must be less / of yourself. Remove everything / down to your wristwatch.” More so, the highly enjambed lines of “Suspension” illustrate Smith’s control of language. Through enjambment, the “you” in the poem is held briefly in the air between each line. By suspending the subject from one line to another, Smith emphasizes the perilous situation of this bridge on fire and what the “you” must do to survive. “Don’t look back,” the speaker says, “It is already turning to smoke. / Soon it will not hold you.”
The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison is a complicated, moving collection. At its core is the truth and strangeness of the dangerous world—what all of us must face everyday we enter it. Smith’s gravitation to the fairy tale is fitting, for the fairy tales do exactly what Smith’s speaker tries to do: illustrate the potential pitfalls and caution against the threats that exist. Yes, these are merely stories; but by writing this collection largely through the lens of the fairy tale perspective, Smith states, “I, too, have entered, and I know what exists.” That alone is a comfort. “If I Forget to Tell You,” a poem addressed to the speaker’s daughter, supports this when the speaker states: “Daughter, don’t believe / there is always a place for you—an empty cottage…Daughter, I believed it.” The child must walk into the forest, but first Smith tries to give her the keys to not make the same mistakes. Yes, we all must walk into the forest, she reminds us, and, “Yes, there [is] always danger.”
Allison Donohue, born in Washington DC, grew up in Centreville, VA. She holds an MA in Poetry from Texas Tech University. Currently she is pursuing her MFA at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio, The Cortland Review, and Whiskey Island. Her book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Rumpus, and The Collagist.
 Ada, Alma Flor, and F. Isabel Campoy. Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.