“The Devil’s Fools” by Mary Gilliland

Award-winning poet Mary Gilliland has led writing retreats and found inspiration in sites in Greece and Scotland, and as we will see, in the most pedestrian of venues—her bowls on kitchen shelves, the farmer’s field, her mother’s weary body as it climbs into bed. Mary Gilliland’s bows to the smallest of creatures, the most ancient of edifices, and the ever-wrenching sensations of the human soul are here in The Devil’s Fools (Codhill Press, 2022) on full display.

For the average poetry reader, the one who likes the roll of a nicely placed rhyme, the person who could spend an afternoon with couplets musing about a sunset or trees’ glow in autumn, Mary Gilliland’s newest collection, The Devil’s Fools, may not quite be for you. Oh, there is awe as she gazes at Nature, all right, and love is mused about, including how the sea touches a woman’s abdomen. Even the magic in a harvestfly’s hatch is described as if the bug were a fashion model adorned in a designer’s red shoes.

But as liquid, as brilliantly stylish as is the language, whether it touches on things beautiful or things that tear us apart and leave us repenting, Gilliland’s work is not easy. Yet it is magnificent.

Written as the poet observes exotic locales in Greece or touches the stones of ancient Scottish castles, Gilliland doesn’t shirk from words unencountered. Yes, you may find yourself turning to your dictionary or Wikipedia from time to time, but—get over it—you’ll learn something with each hunt! And oh, her language. “A cross stitch for a column  / ribbed like a fall of frozen water, / an artery of ironed hair.” This is how Gilliland describes an ancient ruin’s stone pillar in her “Rosslyn Chapel’s Artisans.” “Rain astigmatizes  / sight.” In three words you know the distortion of raindrops, elegantly told.


In “Motherwort,” she writes:

As forest green leaves reverse in wind

dusty silver undersides’ veins bulge.


Embryonic rings of spurred seeds

halt hand’s slide at intervals

along the tall four-sided stalk.


And in “Wake Me,” Gilliland’s lines capture a visual with rich language:


In Eleusinian bus exhaust

rain beads like wax

drops along a candle

toward the smashed ruins

These are poems that must be read once, then again, and then a third time—at least. There is the initial pleasure of the words falling into your mind’s mouth, hearing them in your head, their juxtapositions, their metaphors and similes sparkling on the page. A second time an underlying meaning may begin to surface, and you hear not just the words, but perhaps Gilliland’s inner thoughts and impetus. A third time, it seems you have learned a once foreign tongue. You can read a poem as a fluid thought, perhaps even answering with your own.

Along the nearly sixty-five pages of poetry, we learn of Gilliland’s Catholic upbringing, of the stumblings of young love, its danger and sometimes recklessness. We see that a poet can admit to drinking too much at times, that she has loved and lost, and in an eight-page cascading download of what may be years of events, she carries us in a stream of consciousness torrent that leaves us breathless.  And then, as if to give respite, she sends us to look at the sweet simplicity of a frog upended by a garden shovel in her “Winter in the Garden”:

A webbed foot rests on clods of grubs

and buried eggs whose hatch will wake her.


With the half-mew of a cat moved from an easy chair

the toad rebukes me in her dreaming.

Yes, some of Mary Gilliland’s poems may be hard to follow at first, their syntax or punctuation occasionally suggesting a typo. Other times she is “experimental,” seeming to write two poems at the same time, their lines blending. But step over those small pebbles and try again tomorrow. The beauty of her words, the bravery of her subjects, this poetry in the hands of a master is worth going back to again and again.

Mary Gilliland

Mary Gilliland is also the authorof an earlier award-winning poetry collection, The Ruined Walled Castle Garden. The Devil’s Fools is the winner of the Codhill Press Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry Award. She is a past recipient of the Stanley Kunitz Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Council for the Arts Faculty Grant from Cornell University. She has also taught and performed at the Al Jazeera International Film Festival, the Chautauqua Institute, and Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies. Her Southern connections are by and large the human ones, among them her first published poem appeared in Greensboro Review when she was living in North Carolina, and she enjoyed many stays in Florida. Both settings contributed to the origins of some of the poems in TheDevil’s Fools. She created and taught seminars such as “Ecosystems & Ego Systems” and “America Dreaming” while at Cornell.



The Bargain

(from The Devil’s Fools  by Mary Gilliland and used with permission)


I forgive the young doe for eating the blackeyed susans,

for hosta tops bitten just as the flowerheads formed.

So intelligent—she waited for the sweetest mouthfuls.


She’s the first deer to stand, to let me sing to her.

A few brief chews, then she lifts her head like a bird,

walks off calmly into the woods after swallowing fallen pears.


This is a good house. We let out a milksnake curled in the basement

and moved in. Five years ago a stag browsed six-foot burdock.

Above their spikes antlers rose before he bolted.


The animals go before us, prints marking woods edge and trail

and the fair trade of the forest: lettuce and green beans.

Fence wire bends where cleft hooves sank, darkening moist loam.


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