Review by Lynn Levin

by Maggie Paul

Hummingbird Press
2299 Mattison Lane
Santa Cruz, CA 95062-1821
ISBN 13 978-0-9792567-6-9
2011, 72 pp., $15.00

I love many things about Borrowed World, California poet Maggie Paul’s first full-length collection, but what I love best is the gentleness and patience with which she addresses often very grim subject matter: a father’s alcoholism, parental domestic strife, the break-ups of couples. In this respect, her voice reminds me of Marie Howe’s. Both poets speak with generosity and tranquility even in the face of sorrow and hurt, and both are permeated with a spiritual awareness. As with Howe, Paul’s references are usually Catholic, though Paul’s spirituality often encompasses Buddhist or pantheistic ideas. And always she keeps faith with the natural world.

For me, Maggie Paul’s poems of a childhood tormented by a father’s alcoholism and absenteeism are among the most powerful in the collection. In “Arriving Home from the Dance,” Paul relates the harrowing experience of the speaker’s return after a social occasion to find the family home in flames: fire fighters throwing the sizzling mattress of the marriage bed out the window, the mother doing what she can to comfort the five children watching the scene and deliberating not blaming the young son who, in all likelihood, started the fire. What fills the mother with grief, says the speaker, is:

the absence of my father
whose whereabouts that time of night
could only be pinned down to one bar
or another, but which tonight and
how to get hold of him?

To deflect the rage one would legitimately feel toward the husband or the probable-culprit son, Paul focuses on the way the mother ascribes the fire instead to an electrical malfunction and reflects on her terror of losing those she loves. Anger and accusation are not the answer:

Blame never changed anything.
I mean, who can blame a nine-year-old
for wanting his father to come home?

The poet does not excuse the cruelty, coldness, or hurtfulness of others; it is that she forces her heart to look at it differently. Paul strives to relinquish, rather than carry, emotional burdens. Take, for example, the lovely poem “Stones from the Baskets of Others.” Here, Paul references no specific hurtful incident, but meditates on how to handle heavy legacies:

Today I talked with my mother
and she mentioned God.
I believed in the god in her
as I believe in the god in everyone
and my way appeared clear

until now,
when my own weight
is so great
it competes with my joy

so that I must let go,
god or no god,
of stones from the baskets of others.

But it is hard to let go from the stones of the baskets of others. Spiritual and emotional success is uncertain, but the poet’s desire for peace never lapses. Paul has a balletic way of thinking, an airborne point-of-view that allows her to turn continually toward the restorative powers of nature, motherhood, and spirit.

When I read a collection of poems, I put a dot next to my favorites in the table of contents. I have a dot by “Letter,” an epiphanic poem that speaks of memories evoked when two blue herons swoop over bulrushes. Another outstanding poem is “The Accountant,” which praises a father’s precision bookkeeping while also referencing the alcoholism that would later consume his life. I was also delighted by the witty instruction poem “Guidebook for the Woman Traveling Alone,” which counsels a female traveler to stay sexy and to:

Forget hooded sweatshirts and hiking boots
no matter how comfortable,
unless you want to look and feel
like a stuffed animal outside your natural habitat.

I found that very funny because that’s the dowdy fashion I have favored on my journeys. But then, the poem is essentially about loneliness, and ultimately observes:

Be prepared to befriend yourself.
Make offerings to the gods of human wishes.
Remember: we are all alone.

Although it breaks ranks with the tranquil and transcendent voice of most of the poems, I am particularly taken by Paul’s “Confession,” in which the poet’s voice turns ardent. Here is the poem in its entirety:

I am all about desire.
So my Buddhist friends say,
You are not free! I am a fountain of desire.
So Catholics send me to confession.
I am a wavelet of desire.
So dancers adore me.
I am a dream of desire
when my children wake me.
I am a forest of desire
Each time the birds sing.

Not only do I admire the spirit of this poem but also its inverted images: the speaker declares herself a dream of desire when awakened! She is in such sympathy with nature that birdsong wings her to a wild place. That same gift for inversion or transference, of seeing the unusual in the usual, allows Maggie Paul to capture, in the poem “Forgiveness” a painful good-bye between a man and woman, a moment so final it seems almost unbelievable. Here is how Paul allows nature to convey the incredulity:

Morning sun rains on the pond.
It does not expect this day
to be gone forever. Nor him.
But the birds know.
And the wind that led there.

Maggie Paul’s Borrowed World offers the reader much beauty and much gentle wisdom. Reading her poems, I imagine a soul swimming, not so much through, but above harsh currents with deftness, tranquility and grace.


Lynn Levin’s newest poetry collection Fair Creatures of an Hour was a 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry. A review of it appeared in Rattle.

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