The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, by Maggie Smith. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, April 2015. 80 pages. $16.95, paper.
The Japanese fairy tales I remember from childhood involve infertility. Often there was a kind old woman and an equally kind old man, both bowed in prayer, both wishing for a child. Miraculously, a child would appear—in a giant peach floating down the river, in a shoot of bamboo. After I moved to the United States, the fairy tales changed. No longer were the children cherished. In the tales I read then, a man and woman were present, but instead of praying for children, they abandoned them to the woods, the witch, the wolf.
The real world is rarely so clear-cut, parenting and childhood even less so. We are not divided neatly between love or neglect, protect or poison. We dwell between Garp (from John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp), a vigilant parent, and Walter White (from the hit series Breaking Bad), a father who warns the viewer, “I am the danger.”
Maggie Smith’s Dorset Prize-winning collection, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, skillfully maneuvers between parent and predator, child and prey. She finds the fantastical within suburbia and threads the domestic into fairy tales. Imaginative and playful, Smith’s book nevertheless offers page after page of danger, wonder, and transformation.
If you give a child a cardboard box, they build a robot or a race car. If you give a child a tissue, they raise a flag or put on a bandit’s mask. Everything is nebulous in the most delightful way. In other words, they are born poets with a gift for metaphor. In similar fashion, if you offer Smith sunshine, the light then “plays xylophone / on the lawn.” Give her sparrows, and you have “tiny machines” printing messages on the air. The world around conforms to her limitless imagination.
Judging by her creativity, one might guess Smith is approximately six years old. This is one of the best compliments I could give a poet, as not many adults still have access to that dreamy, magical logic of youth. It allows one to write things like “you so love / the trees, you must have some bird in you.” Every single page rewards the reader with at least one line so original and surprising you wonder how in the world (how in any world) she came up with it. I envy the ear that can listen to the inside of a shell where “the sea plays backwards and sounds / more like the sky.”
Smith possesses the fresh senses of a child (all the better to experience the world), but her writing is tempered by a sage’s wisdom. She understands “many things we tell / our children are kind but not true.” Whether in a poem like “Ohio,” where the “landscape sings in you like a dial tone,” or in the fairy-tale landscape of “The List of Dangers,” where “the wolf ate / chalk to soften his voice,” Smith is fully aware of the perils lurking nearby. She knows the sad truth that “children, despite their commonness, / are a delicacy.” Even the sun is a “saw blade, // a yellow circle with teeth.” This image exemplifies what Smith does so well. With one concise metaphor, she melds three separate worlds: a child’s world, the sun drawn with jagged points of light; an adult’s world represented by the sharp tool; and the world of the predator, the saw’s yellow teeth hinting at fangs.
Irving’s son astutely noted that The World According to Garp is about the fear of death, specifically that of children. In many ways, this holds true with The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison. In the poem “Village Smart,” she asks, “What will you tell your son / about this world? That children can be unzipped / from the bellies of beasts?” She continues, “No one is out of danger.”
At times, there is almost a sense of resignation in Smith’s poems, but the tone is buoyed by the beauty and lyricism throughout her work. There is “grass so tall, / a child could wade in and never come out.” There is a “tow-headed, / rosy-cheeked girl” who’s been fattened on “happiness, mother’s milk, / mother love,” a girl who would make a great “treat” for some witch. Smith writes from a briar rose-colored lens, a lens which includes thorns, but it is one worth looking through over and over again.
The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison balances fantasy and reality, wisdom and innocence. It is a carefully organized book with linked images and themes placed like breadcrumbs in each poem, and I can’t imagine any reader who wouldn’t gobble every crumb. Ultimately, it is a book filled with the things we want to express to children and adults alike.
“What world / do you think this is?” Smith asks. “Who is it you think you see?” Walter White asks. There are wrens here, “pinned like brooches / to the trees, singing.” There are “monsters that pass / for men.” Look all around, and you’ll see children too, playing. Smith’s book joins them and warns them in turn.
“The trees went dark and took me with them,” Smith writes. Read this book, and let yourself be taken as well.
Michael Schmeltzer is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Elegy/Elk River. He earned his MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop, and his honors include the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry, and the Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. He helps edit A River & Sound Review and has been published in PANK, Rattle, The Journal, and Mid-American Review, among others.