Book Review: Good Bones by Maggie Smith
Friday, April 06, 2018
Sometimes I write poems about my children, but not so often as I did when they were little. When they were little and everything was miraculous and painfully good, when their precociousness was a sign, when I didn't know yet how, despite my intentions, I would make mistake after mistake. When I didn't think I would make mistakes: that was when I could write poems about my children.
The last one I wrote, or at least tried to write but never finished, I wrote in the car as we drove home from California. Not a car—a minivan, the first one we owned, the white one with the door that sometimes wouldn't open properly because someone spilled lemonade in the cup holder during our first family-of-six trip to California. This poem I wrote driving home after we'd stopped for the morning at Newport Beach, and I was trying to translate why the experience was painful by writing a poem about it, and it was so big—not just the beach and the ocean but the way my daughter walked across the beach toward the ocean like she was walking away from me.
Maybe you can only write poems about your children when they are young because when they are young the experiences are more universal; everyone's child is wise beyond her years or sometimes he says something so profound your adult brain is confused and shattered. Doesn't that happen to everyone? And when they are younger, writing poems about your children is the same thing as writing poems about being a mother. But when they get older, the experiences are more personal and entirely unique to the space between you and your child. And when they get older, what you understand about being a mother gets harder and harder to say. Even in poems. Or maybe especially in poems.
Or maybe I am not a good enough poet (as if I can even call myself a "poet") to write poems about my children.
I thought about those poems I wrote about my children while I read Maggie Smith's poetry book, Good Bones. I discovered her work via her poem "Good Bones," (and, please: click on that link and read the poem, even if you think you don't like poems, or especially if you think you don't) which grew popular in late 2016, what with all the shootings (Pulse nightclub, Jo Cox) and, you know, the United States electing an enormous, petulant, orange-faced toddler as the leader of the civilized world. Someone posted a snip of it somewhere, Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and eventually a few famous people noticed it, and then everyone had read it. (That article says that the most popular post-election poem was "September 1, 1939" but what I kept repeating to myself, over and over even though I didn't, at first, remember that I had memorized it, was "The Second Coming" by Yeats: "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?")
Not all of the poems in Good Bones are about her children, but many of them are. The poet Erin Belieu says that Smith's poems help her "discover with real surprise now frequently exhausted human touchstones." Writing about your children=a touchstone of poetry, but I agree with Belieu's assessment: the poems about children feel fresh, not exhausted. I read a library copy and before I returned it the book was bristling with post-its and bits of cardstock and a few torn-apart Bath & Bodyworks coupons that I'd used to mark poems I want to read again.
Basically I want to read the whole book again.
I'd like to trace the way the girl in the book interacts with the hawk and the hawk's shadow (which she wears "like an overlay of feathers printed on her skin"). I'd like to underline and comment.
I'll have to buy my own copy obviously. Some books are like that: they own you as you start to read them and then a library copy, a one-time experience, is never enough, and Good Bones is that kind of book for me.
I think my favorite poem in the book is "First Fall," which is about a woman walking through a park with her infant, who is experiencing fall for the first time. "Fall is when the only things you know/because I've named them begin to end." It made me think of how, when Kaleb was a baby, I would walk around everywhere—the house, the yard, our neighborhood, the mall, public parks—holding him and naming things, because he was my only fussy baby, the only baby who cried for no reason I ever figured out, but the holding and the walking and the language, the litany of nouns, helped him not to cry. Also this line: "I'm desperate for you/to love the world because I brought you here." True for all of my children, but especially Kaleb, who I worked the hardest to bring here.
Or maybe my favorite is "At Your Age I Wore a Darkness," but maybe that is too easy because I too wore a darkness, because I worried about giving my darkness to my children, and because now they are grown I know who I gave my darkness to. (I gave it but I still kept it.)
I loved so many of these poems. Maybe all of them. And while I love poetry, and I love reading poetry, I can't say that of all the poetry books I love. Many of them have poems I just don't understand, or don't like, or I think "Yes, OK, but I've read this before." I didn't have that reaction with these poems though.
I'm glad there are poets who can write good poems about children.
I did not realize Maggie Smith is an Ohioan. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio and I’ve been to Schiller Park, which she mentions in “First Fall,” many times. There is a stage in the park and during the summer a local theatre troupe performs Shakespeare plays there most evenings. They start performances at dusk and when I was a kid I remember hearing the plays and watching the fireflies. Thanks for the review and the unexpected memories.
Posted by: Mattathias | Friday, April 06, 2018 at 07:08 PM