The Devil’s Fools/a poetry book by Mary Gilliland/review by Laurence Carr

Lightwood congratulates poet Mary Gilliland for her book, The Devil’s Fools, winner of the 2023 Codhill Press Pauline Uchmanowicz Poetry Award. Each year, Codhill Press chooses one poetry book from the hundreds that are submitted for this coveted award, named after nationally recognized poet, essayist, and educator, and Codhill author, Pauline Uchmanowicz, who died in 2019.

The cover and book design of The Devil’s Fool’s is by Jana Potashnik BAIRDesign, Inc.; 


I read this book and was transported with its language and range of content. Ms. Gilliland is a powerful poet and one of the few writers who can be called a mythmaker. She interlaces myths from the ancient past (“Proserpine” and “Dionysus”) with present images, both from our natural world and from the poet’s personal memory bank to create narratives of equal potency. Subject matter as commonplace as coffee and laundry are used as jumping off points that heighten into meditations, at first the poet’s more intimate thoughts but soon expand to draw us into universal understanding. Even in the more personal poems, and there are many, never get trapped in the older style confessional poem. These pieces are never predictable, and Ms. Gilliland keeps each poem on a moving literary train track that takes us to unexpected places. She is a courageous writer, not afraid to confront, God, Satan, and any greater questions that she may want to ponder. And not to give us answers, but to allow us to contemplate these greater questions along with her.


Nature poems thread through the volume, sometimes as direct observations and some as veiled eco-poems. They bring us an awareness of how all creatures, (humans included) are woven into our living, breathing earth, and how each holds an importance that cannot be overshadowed by another. Each must be given due respect, even as the poet may question how some fit into the grand scheme, such as “The Wild Celery”. 

“Now you fear joy—as thought a flattened hybrid/ could sate appetite, green that was its origin/ bleached nearly white./

Hot housed, plastic-bagged. Will that be/ the meal? or what grows in the marsh,/ its mud-flanged heart.”


The poem “Scottish Roots”, begins with a nature image then leads to thoughts of the writer’s ancestry.

“The Pictish carvings I’m/ looking for—signs/of my ancestors/ancestors—hidden now—/have found their way/to another place.”


There are far too many poems here to note and give examples of; each is a singular entity, with its own voice and point of view but when read as a whole, even out of sequence, the book creates its own mythology. Ms. Gilliland moves beyond poet to become anthropologist, naturalist and social commentator,

I admired the poets change in format, again offering the unexpected. Although most of the poems are presented the traditional flush-left boxed stanzas, there are surprises on the page, not just for the mind but for the eye. The poem “Larger than Life” is a riff on cinema, a welcome shift in look and content. I thought that the longer poem, “Among the Trees” (8 pages long) was a bold addition to the volume and allowed the writer to expand her ideas and stream thoughts and images along an unconfined route. The style never moved outside the poet’s voice, but the piece explores deeper ideas and takes a few more literary chances.

The Devil’s Fools is filled with personal and universal investigation. It brings cosmic humor and ambiguity along with direct insight to a full range of subjects. And the balance of intellectual and emotional perception makes for a well-rounded read, and a book that the reader will want to keep close by.


Other authors have added their voices of praise to this volume and its author and to them I will leave the last words to them:

“Mary Gilliland’s magisterial new collection, The Devil’s Fools, opens in myth and magic, but it’s vast reach is deeply rooted in her reverence for earth and all earthly creations…I am spellbound by the largesse of vision and the beauty of this wonderous collection.”— Cynthia Hogue, In June the Labyrinth

            “The Devil’s Fool is a great collection of burnished, mercurial poems. Here Mary Gilliland turns every small, disappearing moment into something magnanimous and lasting.”—  Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons

“This book is both journey and celebration, glowing and tender. In a poetry full of images from the physical world, nature around us and the body’s earthliness, Gilliland gives us her “dirty yes to life”. –Mary Crow, Poet Laureate of Colorado, author of I Have Tasted the Apple 

“To see through Mary Gilliland’s eyes is to experience afresh and anew the wonders of encounter with the liminal, the mysterious, and the all too ubiquitous but largely unseen. Enjoy the ride!” –  Heidi M. Ravven, author of The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative      History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will 


Mary Gilliland is the author of two poetry collections: Gathering Fire and The Ruined Walled Castle Garden. Her work has been anthologized in Nuclear Impact: Broken At-oms In Our Hands and in Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in Contemporary Poetry and Prose. She is the recipient of a featured reading at the Al Jazeera International Film Festival, the Stanley Kunitz Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Council for the Arts Faculty Grant from Cornell University. She lives in Ithaca, New York, where she and her husband have transformed a rocky acre of the Six Mile Creek watershed into a woodland garden. 

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