[Stephen F. Austin State University Press; 2020]
There are many “downs” in Erin Elizabeth Smith’s new poetry book. “Down” is the direction Alice falls after crawling through the rabbit hole. The American South, where the book is firmly situated, is “down” (at least if you’re a Yankee like me). There’s also the emotional “down” which accompanies the speaker’s divorce. Smith weaves all three of these “downs” together in skillful and surprising ways throughout the collection.
Down begins with falling snow in Knoxville, “the brainless daffodils open[ing] /their bright mouths to the wet,” and the speaker reflecting on her newish wedding ring:
Nine months married and I hate
and marvel at the weight of a ring
the way its absence — in sleep,
in work, in the hot of deep
bathtubs — is a type of fear.
Specters of loss and vulnerability loom large. The speaker’s unease is well-founded, as she and her husband break up four poems later, leaving her to “[drink] everything in the house — /the freezer of vodka, two warm beers /brandy I use for brown mushroom sauces.” Appropriately, the speaker’s drinking takes her down the rabbit hole (were any of those bottles labeled “Drink Me”?), leading into the first Alice poem.
“The Carroll Illustrations” reintroduces us to Alice by challenging our common, Disney-fied image of her. Rather than a honey blond moppet who disdains “nonsense,” this Alice, one who emerges from Lewis Carroll’s early drafts, is described as “a big-headed girl floundering /in a pencil-quick ocean.” The depressed speaker identifies with this Alice, recognizing in Carroll’s original drawings “a real girl, /who is reaching /from the salted water /as if drowning in it all.” The reclaimed Alice becomes an avatar for the speaker as she journeys through her own Wonderland of self-recovery.
Much of this journey takes place in the South. Recalling her childhood, the speaker fondly reflects on,
. . . the porch my grandmother built
to cover the concrete turned in on itself,
where my mother spun hotdogs on the grill,
smoking Virginia Slims, and I would waddle
in my blue bathing suit, young and fat
and certain the neighbors’ dogs would not bite.
Still, this Alice is no sentimentalist. There are also memories of “how cold and hard a man’s belt buckle /felt on the skin, the way a voice can discolor /old photographs.” Wryly, the speaker remarks, “In the South, sometimes heat /is the closest thing to love.” To move forward, beyond separation and heartache, the speaker needs to reckon with her past while also reimagining her trajectory.
She does just that in a long poem near the middle of the book. “If Alice Lived Here” takes Alice/the speaker on a trip through the American looking glass — from West Virginia to Illinois to Delaware to Rhode Island to Montana: “Maybe home is a made-up place — /like love, like Wonderland.” As she travels the country, Alice as the speaker’s avatar considers her options — she could “sell Christmas trees by the road,” “move to Memphis, /start a pumpkin farm,” and “raise sheep in Montana.”
The form of “If Alice Lived Here” is particularly striking. Throughout Down, Smith adopts a measured approach. Lines in stanzas tend to be roughly the same length. Many of her poems are in couplets, tercets, or quatrains. “If Alice Lived Here,” however, makes generous use of enjambed lines and varied stanza structures:
And if Alice lived in Delaware, she would
tell everyone she was from Spicetown
or Susanville. She would tell them
she was a baker for thirty years,
had family in Wheeling, and a man who loved her,
who fit her body into his when they slept.
She would tell them all the little things she knew
about the country. That Columbia is the trailer park
capital of the world. That the man
on the Rhode Island state house isn’t Roger Williams,
but the independent man,
the person who knows how
to plant a stake.
The first line ends on the conditional “would,” creating a moment of tension and unknowing. Something similar happens in the first line of the second stanza, “She would tell them”— tell them what? The answer is deferred to the next line: “she was a baker for thirty years.” In the second line of the third stanza, the enjambment creates a bit of humor — “That Columbia is the trailer park /capital of the world.” Most interestingly, the first stanza ends on Spicetown, while the second stanza begins with “Susanville.” The two locations are separated by a stanza break, which suggests movement across distances. This skillful shift to enjambment reflects both the poem’s wandering content and the fact that the speaker has reached a turning point.
Indeed, the long tumble of “If Alice Lived Here” is followed by a surge of tightly focused Alice poems: “Alice on OKCupid,” “Alice Gives Advice to Dorothy,” “Alice in Kentucky,” and “Alice to James Franco,” to name a few. Throughout these pieces, the speaker reckons with sexism and objectification: Lewis Carroll is a photographer “who turned other girls into wood /block carvings /. . . /more stone than child, more woman/cut apart through the legs than even the nude /girl stenciled on Victorian cards.” She commiserates with other women, like her friend Dorothy (of Wizard of Oz fame), who she advises: “Never get in a man’s hot-air balloon — /he’ll only ferry you to the family who opened you /to him before.” And she at last finds her footing in the topsy-turvy world of grief and betrayal she has been thrust into.
Smith’s clear focus and ability to weave together several threads to tell a woman’s story is one of the great strengths of this collection. Another is her potent use of domestic and rural images. “[I]n the movies there are flights //of splintered dishes but no one ever sees /the sweeping up, the shameful dustpan /that weighs in a hand like defeat,” Alice remarks while rewatching Garden State. “It’s always six o’clock now, /the grey hour when the pines /flicker in a black madness /of wind,” the speaker observes as Down moves to its conclusion.
The final poem brings us back to where we began — a cold month in Knoxville. Only this time, “there’s no more snow, /just the showy wind making everything /crackle.” The “brainless daffodils,” perhaps having learned their lessons, “invert.” Her journey as Alice completed, the self-possessed speaker has also learned what she needs to in order to process and grow from future hurt: “we must take what lives to the lips, /to see if maybe, /maybe it can heal us again.”
Michael McKeown Bondhus (formerly Charlie), a bigender (male/neutrois) Irish-American writer, is the author of Divining Bones (Sundress, 2018) and All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013), winner of the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His work has appeared in Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, The Missouri Review, Columbia Journal, and others. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers (UK).