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Making the Place Beautiful

By: A.M. Juster
December 7, 2017

he Internet diminishes or exalts most things it touches. It can turn the banalities of Rupi Kaur's “Instagram poetry” into a best-selling book—but it also creates similarly-sized audiences for extraordinary poems.

The first poem to “go viral” was Clare Cavanagh’s translation of Adam Zagajewski’s extraordinary “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” published in The New Yorker thirteen days after 9/11. In that fearful time Zagajewski’s grimly expressed, yet resolutely hopeful, message resonated with millions of people worldwide.

 Maggie Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,” has a similar pedigree. As anxieties surrounding the 2016 election rose, it appeared in a well-respected but obscure journal called Waxwing. The poem quickly overran the Internet; CBS eventually featured it in an episode of Madam Secretary. The Washington Post observed that interest in the poem spiked after the Pulse nightclub massacre, the murder of British MP Jo Cox, and the election of Donald Trump.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World’ and “Good Bones” are similar in message and tone, but Maggie Smith's distinctive voice makes her poem a very different experience. Zagajewski’s tone is magisterial, lending authority to his exhortation to find ways to appreciate the world despite its evils. “Good Bones” is more conversational—like a tired parent unloading to a friend over a glass of wine.

The title poem opens with:

                        Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
                        Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
                        in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
                        a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
                        I’ll keep from my children.

Smith packs an enormous amount of information and emotion into these seemingly simple five lines that rely on invigorating the shopworn phrases “life is short” and “I keep it from my children.” Though not writing in a received poetic form, Smith uses dense repetition with slight variation to infuse the poem with a sense of urgency and frustration.   

Smith's use of the cliché "I keep it from the children" as a refrain flags the moral dimension of her meditation. “Good Bones” is not a sentimental or predictable piece about a mother's worries but a complex poem about responsibility and the ethics of honesty when candor could worsen a situation. Premature honesty about the world’s ills might frighten a child into forever missing the joys scattered throughout what Zagajewski calls the “mutilated world.” Smith's opening lines also transmit the speaker’s sense that she lacks authority to teach ethical lessons. Her repeated confession of youthful transgressions adamantly stops short of regret and savors “delicious” pleasures left (probably wisely) to our imaginations.  

The poem discloses more explicitly what is kept from the speaker’s children:

                                                The world is at least
                        fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
                        estimate, though I keep this from my children.
                        For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
                        For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
                        sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
                        is at least half terrible, and for every kind
                        stranger, there is one who would break you,
                        though I keep this from my children.

In the search for consolations, the poem shifts from rehabilitating tired language to citing seemingly proverbial wisdom that starts “For every bird…”, but there is no consolation in this proverbial declaration, only the immediate undercutting of “there is a stone thrown at a bird.” Smith then repeats the “For every…” formula and careens into the poem’s most brutal line with “…loved child, a child broken, bagged,/sunk in a lake.” Unlike most contemporary poets, who would pile on after such a lacerating phrase, Smith skillfully eases back in the manner of casual conversation. Importantly, by now the poem feels like a real conversation, not an aloof artistic exercise.

Smith avoids the faults of most contemporary poetry. She neither substitutes layers of metaphor for the precise use of language, nor litters her poem with the trendy vocabulary and clunky rhythms of postmodern poetry. As the poem intensifies, she adopts with a flawless ear the unfamiliar anapestic rhythms of excited speech.  

What makes the poem special, however, is its use of a familiar experience one never sees described in poetry: the real estate agent walking through “a real shithole” of a house and telling the client that it has “good bones” (a pitch that asserts not only that the house can be redeemed, but that the client can be the agent of its redemption):

                                                          I am trying
                                  to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
                                  walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
                                  about good bones: this place could be beautiful,
                                  right? You could make this place beautiful.

Smith’s conclusion leaves us in essentially the same place as Zagajewski’s great poem, although he ends defiant and she hesitant.

Given Smith’s use of repetition, it is unsurprising that her entire collection shares many of the themes and images of the title poem. Key phrases resurface:

                                    Night was a secret
                                    we kept from the children. (“Illustration”)

A blonde daughter appears frequently, and almost as frequently a hawk appears near that daughter:

                                    The hawk has never seen a girl.
                                    This new creature—smaller than a fawn,

                                    song unlike a bird’s—hushes the air
                                    with her gold hair.  (“The Hawk”)
 

                                                             The girl wears
                                    the shadow of a hawk, feathers

                                    like a fine-printed fabric on her skin.
                                    The men don’t know what to make

                                    of the bird, how it hovers above her
                                    like a kite held up by an undercurrent.  (“The Hunters”)

(I initially read these hawk sightings as symbols of a threatening world, but Smith has stated in an interview that she views hawks as talismans of good luck.)

Admonitions to embrace the “mutilated world” recur throughout the book. Sometimes they pull Smith from her usual jaunty rhythms into a more classically iambic meter: 

                                    I’m desperate for you
                                    to love the world because I brought you here.
                                                                                                (“First Fall”)

At other times she returns to this topic, but retains more conversational rhythms:  

                                    I’m trying to love the world,
                                    I am, but is it too much

                                    to ask for two parts bees
                                    vibrating their cups of pollen,

                                    humming a perfect A note,
                                    to one part string?    (“Let’s Not Begin”)

This conflicted reaction to a world difficult to love colors other poems, such as “Rough Air” and “Orientation.”

Smith displays considerable range. She has a fondness for playful poems (such as “Weep Up”) that start with a child’s linguistic slip or first observation of an object or event. At their best, these poems gain insights from a perspective of the world freed from conditioned expectations. The lighter poems, such as “You Could Never Take a Car to Greenland,” provide a reader with whimsy more artful and enjoyable than comparable efforts in Billy Collins’s better poems.

The book includes several poems that do not start with Smith’s implicit or explicit address, but a masterful description instead. I was particularly impressed by these beginnings:

                                    The plane tree peels
                                    to yellowed newsprint,

                                    littering the yard
                                    with stiff sleeves of bark

                                    collaged ivory and dove.
                                    A gray squirrel stands

                                    on its hind legs, gently
                                    combing clover

                                    with its paws, as if
                                    it were fur on the back

                                    of some animal it loves
                                    and tends to.   (“London Plane”)


                                    I must have just missed a parade—
                                    horse droppings and hard candy
                                    in the road, miniature American
                                    flags staked into the grass, plastic
                                    chairs lining the curb down this

                                    two-lane highway, 36 in the open
                                    country, briefly Main Street in town.
                                   When I was small, I sat on a curb
                                    only a dozen miles from here, my feet
                                    in the ashtray-dirty gutter, and watched

                  stars-and-stripes girls wheeling
                  their batons, slicing the sun-dumb
                  air into streamers. I can still hear
                  the click of cellophane candies
                  on pavement.   (“Accidental Pastoral”)

It would be easy, immersed in these lines, to overlook the ways in which Maggie Smith’s poetry represents a break from the worn-out generic free verse of our literary mainstream. Her clear and precise imagery is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop and, shockingly, she tries to communicate important ideas to readers—including nonacademic readers. She exchanges postmodern snark for sincerity and wry wit, and even strives for transcendent moments in ways that went out of fashion decades ago.  

Smith’s jaunty but self-questioning tone does slip occasionally, as with the facile “I become my mother” in “Weep Up,” but such lapses are outnumbered by numerous examples of exuberantly inventive wordplay. I particularly admired the “MacGyvered with twine and chewing gum” in “Rain, New Year’s Eve.”

In recent decades we have produced almost no “public poets”—poets of the genius of Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, poets whose work displays both the depth to interest academics and the accessibility to interest the general public. With her refreshing love of language and ideas, Maggie Smith is one of our best bets to fill that void.