Trying to Love the World: Maggie Smith’s Good Bones

I, and others I know, have been searching for poetry collections about motherhood—not with clichés or Pollyanna sentiments, but with intelligent, fresh poems that speak to the nuances of what it means to mother.

Maggie Smith does this with Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017). She walks the thin line between darkness and light. Maybe you’ve read her titular poem that went viral in 2016 featured on Poetry Foundation.

She’s not afraid to name the darkness: darkness in the form of miscarriages; of an absent father; of a child’s picture book that reminds her of a friend’s suicide; of pedophiles luring children into panel vans, of a mother who jumps from a high-rise building with a baby strapped to her chest; of a world that is “at least fifty percent terrible.”

Lest she be overwhelmed by all this darkness, she reminds herself in “Let’s Not Begin” to make a list of “everything I love / about the world” for the sake of her daughter. “I’m trying to love the world,” she writes with an honesty that guts me. This collection reads as her aspiration to love the world.

Let’s begin
with bees, and the hum,
and the honey singing

on my tongue, and the child 
sleeping at last, and, and and—

If I had to put a theme to this book, I would say it’s about a mother trying to reconcile bringing children into a broken world. I wish I didn’t like these poems; I wish they didn’t ring true. I’ve written some poems that similarly ask: How much do I keep from my child? How much do I share with her? How much can any mother protect her child? As Smith says in “Rough Air:” “’Motherhood / never kept anyone safe.”

The book invites the question: Where does darkness come from? It seems that some people are more burdened by it—they have a greater sensitivity to suffering. Smith reveals to her daughter that she is one of these people in “At your age I wore a darkness:”

several sizes too big. It hung on me
like a mother’s dress. Even now,

as we speak, I am stitching
a darkness you’ll need to unravel,

unraveling another you’ll need
to restitch.

Do future generations inherit darkness? Later, in her poem “What I Carried,” she writes:

I carried my fear of the world
to my children, but they refused it.

These lines give me hope. Every mother I know worries about passing something awful down to her child—anxiety, depression, fear, anger, resentment, impatience, you name it. But children don’t necessarily accept our “gifts.” Thank God.

As much as darkness hovers like the hawk that flies over the girl in many of the poems, Smith’s attention to ordinary things—to language and colour— is an act of beauty in itself, of paying attention and naming what is, of being present.

She takes her daughter’s questions (what is the past? what is the future? how do leaves fall off the trees? does the sky stop?) and engages with them via poems. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on intimate, tender conversations between a mother and child. The daughter’s golden baby curls become bedding for the hawk’s nest; in another poem, the mother knows the curls “will darken” “like honey left too long in the jar.” (“Lullaby”)

This change of colour—from blonde to black—found throughout the book charts the movement from innocence to experience, wilderness to city, childhood to adulthood. I can’t help but think of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The girl and her mom live on a mountain (the man is away for long periods of time) and the hawk’s presence is akin to that of a pet on a leash: “They are tethered, an invisible / string between them.” (“The Hawk”) And yet of course a hawk is nothing like a dog. 

In one of the last poems, “Mountain Child”, Smith writes:

When the girl leaves the mountain
she is no longer a child

but she has not outgrown the hawk.
She wears its shadow on her shoulder,

an epaulet. It bears the weight
of allegory.

What began as a mother’s journey becomes threaded with her daughter’s journey towards knowing and loving the world. If the hawk represents the wild, untamed, and dark side of life, it doesn’t go away with age. Perhaps it’s a weight you get used to, or at least counteract. It doesn’t have to be an albatross. 

Smith concludes her collection with a poem that poignantly gathers all these ideas. I find it incredibly fitting that it’s called “Rain, New Year’s Eve” because it reads like a resolution, something hopeful to carry into a new year.

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