The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Hooked by Carolyn Smart

Reviewed by Adele Barclay

Carolyn Smart

Hooked. Brick Books 2009.

120 pp.

$19.00

Carolyn Smart, a confessional poet by trade, adjusts her biographical focus in Hooked to explore the poetic potential of history. In a series of dramatic monologues, Smart resurrects the spectres of seven infamous women. Writers Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Smart and Jane Bowles, socialites Unity Mitford and Zelda Fitzgerald, painter Dora Carrington, and serial killer Myra Hindley populate Smart’s collection of curious personae.  Deploying these lives as a poetic playground, Smart tests a multitude of voices and ruminates on the nature of obsession and creation. Her characters exhume family history, adolescent memories, and romantic infatuations to trace their dual trajectories— ascensions to notoriety and tragic descents.  

Smart astutely taps into the cultural craving to gain access to the lives behind art and celebrity, curbing this appetite with more art. She discloses the gritty details we desire: Zelda’s rape at the hands of a group of boys; the titles of the books Hindley and Ian Brady, her boyfriend and accomplice, read together; Bowles’s prescriptions for a host of medications (clinical drug nomenclature flows like classical Latin as Smart lists “phenobarbs,” “sepasil epanutin mellaril,” and “valium seconal” [99]). In “The Luckiest Girl in the World,” Smart describes how British socialite and Nazi supporter Mitford spilt her tea “the first time [she] saw [Hitler]” (29).  Through Smart’s microscopic vision, sensitive to minute gestures and barometric fluctuations of emotion, the fascist Mitford, “a big blonde girl / with a big blonde body” (35), becomes more relatable. While Smart zooms in on the petty and abject details of these women’s experiences, she maintains respect for her characters by rendering them more human than tabloid history would avow.

The taut control over singular voice Smart demonstrates in each monologue is at odds with her construction of her characters’ desire for dialogue.  The women perform their miseries and exaltations for an audience—most often men.  In “Rickety Rackety,” Smart’s Zelda demands reciprocity from the inaccessible and alcoholic Fitzgerald: “Mon Capitain, I will make you: / swear the same” [sic] (43), articulating in the imperative the impossible desire for mutuality within the dramatic monologue.  Smart ventriloquizes through Zelda the compulsion to create and the incessant aspiration to address and construct the “you” in poetry.  Just as Zelda conjures and questions her formulation of Fitzgerald (“my Goofoo, Do-do, who the hell were you / the man I loved” [54]), Smart expertly composes an array of determined and voracious personae in this collection that illuminate not merely the urges interpersonal relations inspire in the women, but also the obsession that develops between writer and subject. 

Indeed many of Smart’s women are artists, possessing a visceral relationship with creation. In the closing poem, “Ardent,” Carolyn Smart supplements Elizabeth Smart’s own autobiographical-inspired opus: “in the mornings I am ill with child at Pender Harbour, / I write my book, desire made flesh and rhetoric: / By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept / was birthed two weeks before Georgina” (108).  Carolyn Smart reminds us of the multi-faceted and wilful force that was Elizabeth Smart—her aptitude to simultaneously undertake artistic, domestic, and professional labours.  And like Elizabeth Smart, Carolyn Smart blends text and flesh in her poetic revisions.

Smart maintains a sharp, clipped tone—part diary entry, part newspaper clipping—throughout the monologues.  Through stylistic continuity, Smart manages to unite such disparate stories.  The ritualistic examination of each woman’s experiences, however, in combination with Smart’s ever-present eloquent brusqueness, almost flattens the stories into archetype.  The monologues begin to follow similar narrative arches along tragic thematic lines despite the commitment to specific detail and unique atmosphere in each poem.

The monologues from the point of view of Mitford and Hindley stand out because they work harder to conjure poetry from unsavoury circumstances and violence.  The first monologue, “Written on the Flesh,” is the most impressive—not because of the sensationalism provided by Hindley’s murder of children, but because Smart excavates poetry from both the mundane and dark features of the hated woman’s life.  In contrast, there is a natural lusciousness to be drawn from the likes of the artist subjects.  Zelda’s tale of legendary beauty and travesty lends itself easily to poetry and Smart begins the poem with lavish wistfulness: “moonlight // scent of January jasmine // my momma never spoke of the treachery of beauty” (43).  In the case of Hindley, Smart neither candies over nor indulges in the horror of Hindley’s crimes and, rather, recognizes the woman’s fraught humanity and femininity through terse passages that vary greatly in context and emotion: “mums liked me / I was a good babysitter” (14); “14 blows to the head / with the fireplace axe” (18); “they had no bloody idea what I could do” (20). 

Rather than exploiting the illustrious figures’ lives, Smart identifies the undercurrent of gossip that motivates any biography.  As Smart’s characters elucidate artistic and sexual obsessions, Smart’s project itself engages in a dedication to detail that hinges on devotion. Through the processes of retelling events and mining biographies, novels, and poetry for material, Smart constructs a range of characters, and establishes herself as a skilled and versatile poet.  Hooked casts new light on the seven women’s reputations, expertly intertwining the dramatic monologue and biographical-inspired writing, in an effort that revivifies the two genres. 

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At press time: Adele Barclay is poised between finishing her M.A. at McGill this spring and beginning a Ph.D. at University of Victoria this fall. Her SSHRC-funded M.A. Research Paper focuses on the ecopoetics of Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. Her research interests include twentieth-century poetry, poetic form, ecocriticism, and post-colonial theory especially as it pertains to settler nations. Sometimes she is asked to read poetry aloud.

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