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.

The Art of Losing Part 3

Rebecca Solnit makes getting lost something to aspire to. In her collection of autobiographical essays proving there is no subject out of her reach, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she maps out various ways to be lost. Lost in place, time, music, conversation, identity, family, society, and so on. She frames getting lost as invitation to discover new things, not least about yourself.

She explains her terms early on:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in an onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss. 

p.22-23

Solnit’s imagery of the rear-facing view on the train immediately grabbed me. (Given current COVID times, I also could not help but add “masks” to the list of quotidian things I would see stream past my window).

But her description also horrified me. She moved from household objects to people in the same breath. You don’t lose a friend in the same way you lose a key or a bracelet. And what about the loss of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, spouses? Perhaps reading this book in a pandemic has heightened my sensitivity to these human losses that are far from romantic. Would people who have said goodbye to a loved one, or multiple loved ones, describe themselves as “rich in loss?”

Given her topic and her mention of “keys”, I thought Solnit would reference Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “One Art” that also talks about loss. In fact, I frequently title this poem “The Art of Losing” in my head since this line is repeated so often in the villanelle. (I’ve actually written on this poem before in Part 1 and Part 2). Bishop similarly moves from talking about insignificant objects like keys to weightier losses like places and houses until she reaches the subject of her poem, the loss of a loved one. It’s like she’s working herself up to be able to talk about the latter, as if by practicing losing keys or “the hour badly spent” will prepare you for losing someone you love. And though she keeps repeating that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” it becomes apparent through the poem that losing IS hard to master. The villanelle form requires Bishop to repeat that line but the reader gets the sense the speaker is only trying to convince herself. In the last stanza, she falters and concedes that “the art of losing isn’t too hard to master” (emphasis mine). In other words, yes, it is hard.

Whereas Solnit’s description of loss is rather flippant and viewed through rose-coloured glasses, Bishop’s poem doesn’t sentimentalize loss. Considering how erudite Solnit is and how eclectic her references, I thought it a real miss that she didn’t mention Bishop.

I came across this reading of “One Art” by Canadian high school student Sophia Wilcott and had to share it here. She captures the struggle of the poem so well.

That critique aside, there were countless passages in A Field Guide to Getting Lost that I flagged for copying into my journal. Take this section, for example:

Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practise as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis. 

p.80

Even though she puts people into two generic categories, is it not fairly accurate? (It reminded me of my niece when she was young who would go around saying: “There are two kinds of people in the world” followed by whatever she observed that day: “those who close the door and those who open the door” or “those who talk and those who don’t” and she would come up with all sorts of contrasts that were actually very illuminating). Even though it’s obvious that Solnit puts herself in the travel-far-from-home-to-find-yourself camp, I feel she is kind and even a bit in awe of those who grow up with an “unquestioned sense of self.” There is something to admire about both paths as long as they don’t lead to self-righteousness and closed-mindedness.

Those are just a few thoughts I wanted to pull out from this meandering but delightful book. (When you’ve flagged so many passages in a library book, it feels necessary to just buy it). Here’s an actual review of the book by Josh Lacey in The Guardian for those of you whose appetite may be whet and want to know a bit more about it.

Desire Path

My dad loves to remind me that I once described Langley, where I grew up and where my parents still live, as “the place where romance goes to die.” Needless to say, I am not a fan of the suburbs. As a poet, I love writing about place, but these places are always cities. I have one poem about my hometown and it reads more like an instruction manual: “leave suburb / make new home.”

So I came to Taryn Hubbard’s debut poetry book Desire Path published by Talonbooks in 2020 with curiosity, aware that it’s about growing up in Surrey, BC, and I was impressed. A whole book devoted to the suburbs—that’s commitment. I couldn’t do that for Langley. I kept looking for the speaker’s attitude towards the suburbs, towards this awkward adolescent place rapidly changing from rural to urban, and it wasn’t obvious. Sometimes she felt critical, other times accepting, and in this evocative description from “In the Afternoon,” mournful:

Commuter hearts
start like the engines of diesel
trucks when field across
station, free for all-day parking
gets dug up.

Hubbard pays attention to Surrey. Even the gas stations, parking lots, and fast-food joints—things that don’t often make it into my poetry. I once had a writing teacher say that “parking lot” isn’t a very poetic phrase to put in a poem so Hubbard’s book feels like a middle finger to that teacher. Yes, she can write “parking lot” in a poem and do it well. She can write an introductory poem (“Heirloom”) that begins, “I was born across from the first / McDonald’s in Canada” and hook me immediately. Hubbard can use a ubiquitous landmark to anchor her self and her work.

Over the past couple decades, attention has shifted from major metropolises like Vancouver and turned towards outlying cities growing up in their shadows like a younger sibling. After Hubbard’s debut, there can be no talk of a body of literature about Surrey (from a growing coterie that includes Leona Gom, Kevin Spenst, Veeno Dewan, Phinder Dulai, Fauzia Rafique, Heidi Greco, Renée Sarojini Saklikar) without mentioning Desire Path.

Construction near City Centre Library, Surrey, in 2011. Photo by Charlene Kwiatkowski

Hubbard summarizes the plight of the suburb in her poem “Wayfinding”:

it’s hard to find
the idea of here
and there
from a form
that grew only
with the idea of
car & home

For this reason, the “here” of Surrey could be the “there” of Oshawa, for the nature of suburbs is wash, rinse, repeat, something echoed in the structure of Hubbard’s collection that has four repeating poems aptly named “Repeat (I) (II) (III) (IV).” The poet has a hard task cut out for herself then in writing a whole poetry book about the suburbs and maintaining the reader’s interest. In “Markers,” she writes:

“The streets are empty, the houses are far apart including the empty lots saved for a rainy day when it will be more advantageous to redevelop them into something with suburban density, which is code for a strip of three-story townhouses cut apart like pieces of bread.”

Fortunately, Hubbard largely avoids the suburban cookie cutter (or shall I say bread cutter?) fate by varying her poetic forms. She scatters prose poems between free verse poems while also including a fifteen-page poem of fragments called “Attempts” near the end, about being pregnant during wildfire season. The poems that are most successful in standing out from the rest are ones where the speaker removes her distance glasses and gives us more personal details linking her to this no-where/every-where. For this reason, “Heirloom,” “Weighted Keys,” “Dear 203B,” “Shadeless,” “Boarded-Up Strip Mall Church,” and “Little Holubtsi” are my favourites. 

Overall, Desire Path is a tight collection that boldly asserts a place like Surrey is worth paying attention to, not in spite of, but because of its contradictions; its tension between past and future, rural and urban; its identity crisis; its complicated role in shaping a speaker from here to there, then to now, child to mother.

There is something to be said for really knowing a place, for taking the time to pay attention to it. It’s a form of love. This love is perhaps most evident in “Flagpole” where Hubbard begins: “One summer I walk the same path each day with the idea of creating a folded corner on a very specific patch of grass.”

I dog-eared a few poems in this book, folding back the corners of the pages like she folded the grassy path that led us here.

An Uneasy Family Tree

Yaw, one of the many characters in Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, begins his history class with the words: “History is Storytelling.”

Gyasi—who was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama—gives us a book of stories in this epic debut. Each of the sixteen chapters is named after a different character who all trace their lineage to a woman named Maame, an Asante slave in a Fante household in West Africa. The book moves chronologically through eight generations from the 18th century to the present day, alternating between two bloodlines. Maame has two daughters by different men: Effia (who lives in Asanteland in the interior of what we now call Ghana) and Esi who lives in Fanteland along the coast. They know nothing of each other. Effia is married off to an English official involved in the Atlantic slave trade at Cape Coast Castle. Underneath its whitewashed exterior and palatial rooms lay separate female and male dungeons that African slaves were packed into for weeks before boarding boats to America to work on cotton plantations. This is the fate of young Esi who is captured in a raid on her village.

Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The half sisters and their descendants live very different lives. The strand from Effia stays in Ghana; the strand from Esi unfolds in America. And yet no character has it easy. Gyasi shows how each character and bloodline is implicated in the devastating legacy of slavery. A character reflects: “The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.”

With Homegoing, I felt like a student in Yaw’s class. Not a boring class but a riveting, I-want-to-know-more kind of class that often happens when I’m reading fiction and realize I’m also reading history. With each chapter/character, the author takes on multiple Black histories: the African-American slave trade, Britain’s colonization of West Africa and the arrival of Christian missionaries, the Anglo-Asante wars, slavery in the American South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also known as the “Bloodhound Law”, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration of Blacks from the Southern US to the North between 1916 and 1970, the Civil Rights Movement, the heroin and jazz scene in Harlem in the 1960s, the “war on drugs”, and the racism that underlies it all and still exists today. This incredible scope of time, subjects, places, and characters make Homegoing a contemporary classic and a must-read, especially now in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting racial protests.

With each character, I (probably foolishly) hoped, Surely this person will have a better life than their parents. What’s a better life though? Each story had sad parts. Each choice (when there was a choice) had repercussions. Some stories brimmed with sadness. As Gyasi took us through the uneasy family tree, I noticed the racism grew slightly less overt but no less damaging. 

When I was at a North American arts marketing conference in Seattle a couple years ago, I had dinner with a small group of attendees. One woman was Black and had studied Psychology. She told our group she thought all Black people should go to counselling by nature of being Black—to process what their people have been through. I didn’t fully understand her comment at the time but after reading this book, I have a clearer picture.

Yaw goes on to tell his history class:

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

The last two stories in the book, Marjorie and Marcus, provide the most hope. After just reading through how these modern-day characters came to be, the reader has a deep appreciation that the closing scene ends with laughter—play, even.

In keeping with the theme of split families (“A Tale of Two Sisters” is a moniker that comes to mind), Gyasi pairs each bloodline with a recurring natural symbol: fire on the Fante side, water on the Asante side. The novel begins:

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.

From there, the author continues to play with fire and water. How these symbols develop and culminate through her prose is as layered as the family’s storyline. I began to see fire and water imagery everywhere, even in a line like “a wave of missing hit her, separate and sad.” It’s as if Gysai reminds us that the memory of slavery is always present, breaking through the surface, breaking into speech.

While Homegoing‘s subject matter was far from enjoyable, Gyasi’s use of language certainly was. I would read this book a second time to pay more attention to how she connects characters through word choice. In the following examples, the emphasis is mine. 

Yaw’s daughter Marjorie has an Asante name, Abronoma, which means “little dove.” The author writes:

She had always hated it when her father called her Dove. It was her special name, the nickname born with her because of her Asante name, but it had always made Marjorie feel small somehow, young and fragile. She was not small. She was not young, either. 

Later in the book, Gyasi transforms Marjorie’s African name from noun to verb when another character describes Marjorie:

He had learned not to be surprised by how forthcoming she was. How she never gave in to small talk, just dove right into deep waters.

To layer the connection even more, Gyasi has Marjorie enact this metaphor in the closing scene of the book. She dives into the ocean.

Another example of linked language:

Marjorie muses about her parents who are watching a movie:

Maybe her mother was sleeping too, her own head leaning toward Yaw’s, her long box braids a curtain, hiding their faces.

When a character later meets Marjorie at a party, Gyasi writes:

At the mention of her name, Marjorie lifted her head, the curtain of wild hair parting to reveal a lovely face and a beautiful necklace.

Gyasi scatters family clues like Hansel and Gretal, and this reader loved picking them up. Another purpose these language connections have is unifying a book that could be criticized as resembling a collection of short stories more than a novel. I experienced this primarily in the first part of the book, but in part two, more preceding characters are present in various ways, strengthening the book’s cohesiveness. That being said, each character was so richly drawn, I wanted to follow them longer. To achieve this effect sixteen times is no small feat. Gyasi could write sixteen separate books for each character. Yet she provided just enough material to grasp each person’s essence. The choices they made, the choices made for them. Who they love, who they hurt. How they love, how they fight. Their small acts of defiance and compliance. The contradictions of the human heart. Split identities. 

I had the sense Gyasi could have kept writing this story forever. When do you stop a family lineage? When does that better life materialize? It’s what every parent wishes for their child. It’s why there are Black Lives Matter protests. If Gyasi were to continue with this family tree, what would the stories of future descendants say?

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Some voices you can’t get out of your head. After recently reading John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s unforgettable voice is ringing in my ears.

YOUR MOTHER HAS THE BEST BREASTS OF ALL THE MOTHERS.

GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.

FAITH TAKES PRACTICE.

John Irving said he chose to write all of Owen’s speech in capital letters because he had to have some visual way of setting apart his unique voice on the page. Owen’s Adam’s apple didn’t move when he spoke, and so his voice was stuck as in a “permanent scream.” Owen’s best friend and the narrator of the story, Johnny Wheelwright, opens the story this way:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Owen often wonders why his voice doesn’t change. We don’t find out till the end of the story, but there is a very good reason for Owen’s voice sounding the way it is—a reason he attributes to God’ s plan. Owen’s voice is just one of the many mysteries the reader is confronted with in the early stages of the novel that Irving expertly and unexpectedly ties together in the end.

In writing classes I’ve taken over the years, teachers have said to look out for physical traits of characters, such as a scar or birthmark, that the author draws our attention to as we’re reading. It’s for a reason. Owen’s short stature (everyone loves lifting him up all the time) and his voice set Owen apart right away.

Irving continues this theme inwardly too. Owen stands out for his unwavering faith in God from such a young age. How many 11-year-olds talk about being God’s instrument? That their life is part of God’s bigger plan?

It’s hard not to like Owen Meany but it’s hard to like him too. Irving summarizes this tension in his Afterword:

Owen’s voice is irritating, not only because of how it sounds but because of how right he is. People who are always right, and are given to reminding us of it, are irritating; prophets are irritating, and Owen Meany is decidedly a prophet.

When I was reading the novel, I didn’t think of Owen exactly as a prophet, but now I see that Irving was dropping hints of this along the way. Owen foresaw the future, including his death; he had visions that reality would imitate; he wasn’t afraid of telling the truth. His unique voice would become “institutionalized,” when he and Johnny attended Gravesend Academy for boys and Owen wrote a regular column for the school newspapers under the pen name THE VOICE. His words were always in capital letters, of course. Johnny reflects, “The Voice expressed what we were unable to say.” I think Owen’s voice functions as a conscience too.

What made this novel a delight to read, and why I would read it again, is because Irving connects everything so well, though of course you don’t realize it until you’re finished.

Owen playing the part of the Christ child in the Christmas pageant makes for a very comedic scene early in the novel and emphasizes how small he is—i.e. he can fit in the manger. Not until the end of the novel, though, do you realize how symbolic this role is in light of what his parents reveal to Johnny.

There are many symbols in A Prayer for Owen Meany and none of them are thrown in half-heartedly. A dressmaker’s dummy, a stuffed toy armadillo, and Watahantowet’s totem become powerful, armless images of suffering and submission.

Even the ridiculous slam-dunk that Owen and Johnny practice countless times to do in under 4, then under 3 seconds has a very serious purpose.

“I may use you in a game, Owen,” the coach said, joking with him.

IT’S NOT FOR A GAME, said Owen Meany, who had his own reasons for everything.

Indeed, John Irving had his reasons for everything too. The story is long (about 600 pages), but it is well crafted and held my interest. The highest praise I could give an author is making me feel their character was real, that I actually knew this person from spending so much time on the page with them. Owen is whom the story is named after, but Johnny was just as real to me. His loss felt like my loss. His gut-wrenching prayer that closes the story felt like my prayer.

Outspoken to Unspoken: Searching for Anne’s Voice after She Marries

Like many Canadian girls, I grew up on Anne of Green Gables. My sister and I watched the movies so often we’d recite scenes in our bedroom at night. The “fishing for lake trout” episode was our go-to favorite. When an elementary school friend visited Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, she brought me a porcelain figurine of Anne I still have on my shelf. A few years ago, I made my own pilgrimage to the Island that inspired L.M. Montgomery’s beloved series.

GreenGables

Photo from my visit to Green Gables

Despite this history, I’d never actually read the books, much to my husband’s bewilderment. “How in the world can you call yourself a fan?” he wanted to know. “Isn’t reading the books the whole point?” The question bothered me enough that I read all six this summer.

Anne books

Read the rest of my article over at The Curator.