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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
Necessary Angels  
  Carolyn Maisel

ISBN 978-0-9762114-5-7     $18  /  $20 (Canada)     5.5 x 8.5       

80 pp      
PUB DATE: Spring 2006       Poetry


Necessary Angels, Carolyn Maisel’s second book of poetry, is actually two new books in a single volume—Pig Woman, written in the 1970s, and Light and Shadow, completed just before her death in 2006.

I first saw a manuscript of Pig Woman in the late 70s, shortly after I published Carolyn’s first book, Witnessing. Carolyn was fond of the title Pig Woman, provocative as it is, even ugly, and unmistakably the right title for her tough-minded, uncompromising, and demanding sequence of poems. Randall Jarrell once remarked that “it is the contradictions in works which make them able to represent us,” and through the archetypal adventures of Pig Woman, Maisel pursues our contradictions relentlessly. Pig Woman, with the “soul of a pig / intelligent and omnivorous,” and her sometime companion, Dog-Headed Man, are figures out of fable or myth, but thoroughly contemporary in their struggles, beginning with their “longing always / to be together longing always / to be free.” In poem after poem, Pig Woman struggles to make sense of mortality, “a killing joy,” her omnivorousness made manifest in the richness of her world, inhabited by saints, scientists; its present tense informed by historic, mythic and literary reference; its language drawing freely and equally on physics, astronomy, American colloquialisms, and the King James Bible.

Whatever language Maisel draws on, the poems are full of lovely surprises, such as this mingling of sex and the Beatitudes that opens “Falling to Grace”: “She has orgasms in her sleep, lilies that toil not / and bloom a day, and die.” Such moments are reminders as well as instances of the consolations the poems have to offer—consolations, such as they are, of beauty and of the body. Nothing is simple, as we are reminded in “Ceremony”: “on this day she saw heaven and hell / and refused them both.” Pig Woman is, after all, omnivorous, not about to refuse one and not refuse the other. As she says again in “Falling to Grace,” “Nothing is too obscene” to be accepted as part of the human.

The compelling tension of these poems comes from the relationship between the poet and Pig Woman. As the poet says to her in “Tenebrae,” “I love you as no skeptic should.” So the contradictions and ironies are sharply and lovingly rendered, the love refusing to relinquish anything that might be part of what is human in us. It is not surprising, then, that such consolation as is offered in the title poem of this volume echoes the words of another skeptic, Voltaire, in a work that shares with these poems the vision “of watching all this foolishness go on”:

She always comes back to the vegetable patch,
a bit of honest work. The most important question
is where to put in the beans.

If we can read Pig Woman as Maisel’s Book of Knowledge, Light and Shadow is her Book of Love. With the exception of the first poem, “Tarbaby in the Briar Patch,” in many ways a close cousin to the poems of Pig Woman, these poems move away from the knowing and defensive trope of irony, and into a space more open, both to the forces of annihilation so powerfully rendered in “A Woman is Missing” and “Aubade to Herself,” and to the mercy and tenderness that poems such as “What Woman” celebrate and enact. Compositionally, too, these poems are more variable than the poems in Pig Woman. As in the earlier collection we find fables and parables, but here we find as well narratives, lyrics of song and cry, small allegories, even poems made entirely of questions.

If anything, these poems are richer than the earlier ones in historical, mythical and literary references—which are handled in ways even more assured. In “The Composer Beset by his Admirers,” the unstated allusion to the Orpheus myth couldn’t seem more present or inevitable. “Why We Lived So Long in Winter,” a quiet rewriting of a moment in the legend of Persephone, subordinates the myth to its own narrative and scene with an authority that says, This is anyone’s story and my own.

Consolation also inhabits wider spaces in these poems than in the earlier collection. The presence of divinity or something like it is nearer, sometimes mediated by art and sometimes present in the love of one person for another. In the extraordinary poem, “What Woman,” Maisel creates an Everywoman who exists in every woman, a figure of wisdom and tenderness, a figure of such mercies as a broken world needs:

What woman turning in a room surprises,
holding most painfully the weight

of an unprepared-for tenderness,
has not looked on her lover asleep and seen

Patroclus lying in the field,
the young clover cut and trampled in the rains,

and said again, finally, again,
Love I will wait here a little longer.

But these poems don’t rest, never stop asking about our capacities for good and ill. The poems that render forces of annihilation are chilling. And even in the title poem, about the appearance of the head and shoulders of Christ on a tortilla in New Mexico in 1977, the divine image is connected with the atom bomb’s effects, casting “forever shadows of people and things / into the very pavement.” Would we know grace if we received it? How much of its light could we stand?

After publishing Witnessing, I lost touch with Carolyn. Pig Woman would wait for the present volume. But Carolyn contacted me about two years ago, having been away from her life in poetry for some time, saying she was ready to return to the manuscript. As we exchanged poems and emails, I came to know as I hadn’t earlier her generosity of spirit and of criticism, her love of life even to the end. It gave her great pleasure to know that this book would be published. My reading of these poems will happily and permanently be colored by our late-flowering friendship. But even were it not, I would find in this collection an extraordinary gift, and an intelligence and humanity whose fruits we have the fortune to share, and whose presence we will miss.

—Bob McNamara
December, 2006


Carolyn Maisel was born in Mississippi in 1942 and lived much of her life in Louisiana. She received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Iowa and taught briefly at the University of New Orleans. Her poems were widely published in journals and magazines, incuding The New Yorker and The North American Review; and, in 1978, L’Epervier Press published Witnessing, her only other full length collection of poems. During 1985 she was poet Laureate of Louisiana. Carolyn Maisel died in March, 2006, in Austin, Texas, after a brief battle with lung cancer.




Carolyn Maisel’s poems are spoken by a sort of gnostic angel whose impulse is always to describe the indescribable, to say what cannot be said. The remarkable blend of passion and concision such poems required, the discipline they embody mark Maisel as a masterful poet. How fortunate we are to have had her lustrously imaginative spirit among us, and to have, now, this beautiful book.

—Christopher Howell

Carolyn Maisel—admired by Marvin Bell, Yusef Komunyakaa, and many of America’s finest poets—has kept vigil on a fearsome landscape reminiscent of the Southern gothic vein in American fiction. An introvert, intimate in emotion, rather like Akhmatova, Maisel charts this eerie terrain with cool monastic grace, a cartographer of the known interlaced with astonishing half-glimpsed, unknown things. She loved “this green planet” intensely, but was curious about what might lie on the other side.

—Lynn Strongin


What pattern of bones, what arrangement
of time, love, money

what heaping of four arms and legs
curled together

what entwining of vines climbing up
what embraces of trees

what lights up at what

what forests slashed and burned
for what people

slashed and burned,
while lovers’ backs are turned to one another

and some absent owner’s dog
barks maniacally all night



At 6:20 the music goes off you must
you must get up you will be wide
awake and experience some anxiety until
you are up, up if necessary
you will remind yourself of pilots
lost on lonely missions, surfaces
your feet cannot grip. You will be cold,
only sleep could be so cold, the little death.
Think of the miles to spread between your knees, veined
concrete blandly announcing the horizon. You could
deduce curvature of the Earth, like a Greek
eyeing black ships honing in over the Aegean.
Think of the special theory of relativity. Think
how light is so slow, photon by photon staining the air.
Think that you must get gas, put in the oil, mother’s milk.
Can a dreamer do this?
Who dreams the dreams of the violently dead? There is
genocide in Lebanon
and you cannot get up?
The power of this master is so great sleep will slide
from your shoulders like gull wings, wings of light.
At 6:20 you will arise like a Kyrie
in the name of Mozart, you will awaken, beaux beaux,
pretty eyes, Mother of Consciousness, Our Lady
of the Retina commands small suns. Oh, get up,
get up, get up
and never deny the day.