Review: Madrigals by Caroline Goodwin

Reviewed by Peter Mladinic

Poems are written by human beings “alone in a room” with language. They come out of lived lives. The poems in Madrigals come out of Caroline Goodwin’s lived life—things she has touched and ground she has stood on, alone and with others. Sometimes, that ground is a floor in a room, other times a forest floor, a meadow, a shoreline. Where she is, is very much a part of who she is. The speaker is a participant and uniquely herself with poems that convey the idea that nature is mostly innocent, society often corrupt, and the human race continuously complex.

When Goodwin brings nature into her poems, she knows what she’s talking about. Goodwin was raised in Alaska, and her poems are replete with wildlife (birds, an elk, a moose, a fox, a wolf), foliage, lakes, rivers, glaciers. That said, her natural world is not limited to Alaska. In Goodwin, nature is spacious, mysterious, wild, and redemptive, a place where silence is as significant as the sounds of wind, birds, elk, and human voices. In the second half of “Such as a Vagabond Flock of Tundra Swans,” she says:

Hydrangea, the pigment. At the corner
of my eye. In the sense of connection, that which
turned out to be a certain howling sound or
snuffling bear. Up the long trunk and, again,
back down. The patches of sunlight on dry leaves
are one form of light. The spikes poking through
that hole in the ground are another. Fish hawk
in the bare fir calling out over the water.
Your name and mine.

Note the silence after the fish hawk’s calling. Note the use of first person at the beginning—“my eye”—and its contrast in the line “Your name and mine.” It’s an inclusive first person. The word “connection” signifies that these entities—“certain howling,” “snuffling bear,” “dry leaves,” “spikes,” “fish hawk,” “fir”—are parts of an emotional landscape. Together, they convey a feeling, a mood, not of fear but freedom, not of desolation but intimacy. The texture—the dry leaves, the bare fir, and the “calling out over”—evokes spaciousness. “Here” is replenishing, and calm, non-threatening. That bear’s not about to charge toward us.

Meanwhile, in “Rules Written After,” society is a place of “floor-to-ceiling windows and bookshelves” for those who can afford to be near such environs, but it is also a place of desperation and angst where pedestrians come:

to the boy who stood at the rail

for a while before jumping

His last moments, his “for a while” are punctuated by the white space after “rail,” that human-made thing which, ironically, exists to guard, to protect. White space brings about the transition from the abstract to the concrete (to the human); it lends vividness to the spare image of the boy at the rail, and helps the speaker turn from him toward the reader-witnesses when adding, “Please, tell me exactly when my voice became / so pained, my heartbeat a particular problem.” The white space draws us in. A bit further down, the speaker says, “A real rain will come.” The future, with its promise of rain, doesn’t negate the fact of the boy at the rail, about to jump; the promise of rain doesn’t negate “the California condor purged of lead by veterinarians” in “Bergamot” or the active shooter in “Arum.” In the city, silence is the lack of communication, the distance between two strangers, a barrier between them.

There are several prose poems, among them “House Finch.” It begins—“See there: the constrictor, coiled. Striking hand in your other hand, as if. Don’t make me do that again.” And it ends—
“My daughter the woman on the sidewalk with two black eyes, holding hands with him. My daughter at the end of the pier. If she turns to me, let the light of heaven encircle her. If her voice lands at the edge of my waking dream, with its beak wide, let me hear.”

After the conditional “if she turns to me,” the speaker turns to the reader, to society, the one of which the striking hand is a part. “If her voice lands,” let us hear and act against the evil of this striking hand and too many others.

The speaker is a mother, a daughter, a participant in the flux, the goings-on of the human race, a person sometimes alone, other times with people. The city is not always a place of hostility, and the country not always a place of peace, but the speaker seems most at home in the outdoors, among natural things, seems more intimate with herself and others in the quietude of trees, shores, and meadows.

The poems in Madrigals are always lucid, but the experiences are mysterious and complex. Because of this, sometimes the “not understanding” mentioned in “Rules Written After” is what we live with. The speaker does, and the poems come from where she has been, what she has seen and felt. She sounds like herself, only. To read these poems is to be rewarded.

Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table, is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico. Find him at