Learning to Grow Where Planted: Maggie Smith’s Good Bones

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I want to see all of it here, all of it
through these eyes, in this animal body, while I am still
discernibly myself, while my shadow falls
on this sad sack of a town, this dear life

– Maggie Smith, “Poem with a Line from Bluets”

“Good Bones” is the name of a poem you remember reading in the summer of 2016. When I say “you,” I don’t mean “me” in that swizzle-stick twist of the second person—though I, too, remember reading the poem that summer, like the sweetest piece of fruit in an orchard. It fell into my lap, ready to be savored. I know I will never forget the way it tasted.

Here, though, when I say “you,” I mean the plural “you.” If you’re reading this review in 2018, I’ve got a hunch you were reading “Good Bones” fewer than two years ago, in a time we can only now describe as prelapsarian. Perhaps you read the poem where it first appeared—in Waxwing online. Perhaps it came to you by Facebook meme or email chain or as a text from a friend who wrote “This made me think of you,” and that friend meant you, the one and only you, that singular person.

How does one poem speak to so many people at once? I wonder. I’m tempted to call Maggie Smith a soothsayer, someone who heard the future’s sad, exasperated call a few months early so she wrote: “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird. / For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, / sunk in a lake.” We think we know that stone better now, from our new vantage outside the orchard. We think we know that lake better, too, but the truth is, they’ve always been here, these stones and lakes. If anything, perhaps we see them clearer now. Perhaps we’re more aware than ever before of their multivalence, the many ways that elemental things like stones and lakes can mean.

“Good Bones” becomes, post-election night, post-inauguration day, a magnifying lens more than a crystal ball. Look closer seems to be this poet’s credo—a directive which is not about looking forward or back, not about distance traveled so much as attention paid, committed. Smith wields nothing if not a mighty and committed gaze. For all we know, she might have written “Good Bones” long ago—as the housing bubble burst in 2008, say: “Any decent realtor, / walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful, / right?” (Or this realtor could be a swindler, right? Have you been swindled? Have you been swindling? Both? Pluraled?) How can we find the “right” to reply, then or now or ever?

Good Bones is the name of a book I hope you remember reading when it was published in the autumn of 2017 by Tupelo Press. (If not then, when? If not yet, soon?) At that time, my beloved had gone to Ohio for a library conference, and I relished the thought of her journey—as if she were going there to confer with all the books, to look more closely at what was stored between the flaps, behind the spines. Then, I flew to the “Heart of It All” and joined her for a kind of old-home week, back to the place where we once lived just before the housing bubble burst. I brought many books of my own to confer with on that trip, and one of these was the fresh-off-the-press Good Bones.

Maggie Smith is from Ohio, I mused, and she lives in Ohio now, and here I am reading her book in Ohio, where I seldom am anymore. I liked the serendipitous feeling of that confluence—people, places, and things so purposefully aligned—and I felt it again upon reading the poem “Home-Free,” which begins, “There’s no rhyme for how high the corn should be / in September, but I can see it, and I’m telling you // it’s up to my chest.” I know that corn, I thought, and look, there it is! (Memory merging with experience, as it does so often in Maggie Smith poems, the past and present delivered at once, twinned, both equally alive.) “Not Ohio, not round on the ends, / not high in the middle.” I know that joke, I thought. My students at the Barnesville boarding school used to tell it to me to make me laugh in class. My love and I had rent-free housing on that property, a rare luxury that only cost us our privacy. “I always thought I would leave, / home-free, and go anywhere,” Smith explains. I have done that leaving. Ohio is one of the places I went to be gone, perhaps to be lost. “I didn’t/ see myself dying in my hometown, not a few // miles from where I was born. // […] They’ll say I entered and left/ through the same door. They’ll say I was always here.” I finish the poem and sketch Growing where planted? in my margins.

I think if the book called Good Bones has a moral, it’s about learning to grow where planted. It’s also about learning how to look danger in the eye, how to acknowledge the thing that wants to stop us—uproot us, undo us—and then refusing to let it. “Nothing predates danger,” Smith writes, not even the orchard with its smooth, skippable stones, its tranquil lakes, not even November 7, 2016. “There is no such thing as safety,” she writes in a subsequent poem, “only survival and the absence / of survival.” And just when I’m about to ask how we survive—leaving or staying?—how both can be right while both test the limits of right?—I spot the next poem in the bread-crumb trail this poet has left behind. It’s called “If Anyone Can Survive,” with a comma that’s part of the title: another toothsome crumb I soon commit to my mouth.

Here Smith writes, “If anyone can survive, // it’s the motherless children in my daughter’s books, / orphaned or abandoned or garden-variety alone.” In one way, this is a poem about resourcefulness in the face of calamity—“They’ve learned/ to sew their own clothes from rags”—a lesson as much for citizens of our cultural moment as for children of any Once Upon a Time. In this poem, the stone is repurposed as the orphans “strike rocks / into fire.” In this poem, the lake transmutes into a waterfall behind which orphans store milk “so it doesn’t sour.”

In another way, this poem is about allowing oneself not to be the hero—not to presume you always have the answers, the quick fix or even the slow, measured solution. Our poet-speaker told us early on, “I’m your guide here,” in which we as readers are allied with the “you” but are not exactly the “you” either. This “you” is the poet-speaker’s child. “I’m desperate for you / to love the world because I brought you here,” she says. We hear a mother speaking, the same mother who will later contemplate her child’s storybooks and conclude: “what matters / is the mothers, who must be dead for any rising / action to happen. Nothing is as freeing as grief. / Motherless children—what do they have to lose?”

I’m struck by the honesty and humility of such a question. What does it mean for a mother-as-caregiver, a mother-as-guide, to reckon with the limits of her power? In the absence of a leader, perhaps we are more likely to make our own maps. In the absence of a savior, perhaps we are more likely to save ourselves. Part of looking closer is seeing what is hard to face, and part of having courage is addressing what seems futile. In an earlier poem, Smith had noted, “Consider the baby I can’t hold any closer / to make him grow.” In another, she lamented with palpable sorrow, “This world is harrowing, harrowing, / all harrow, as if harrow were what / the world is made of.” What is she going to do now? What are we going to do now? How are any of us going to find the right way, or the right-of-way, to continue?

This collection is arranged into four sections, which I can’t help but regard as chambers of the heart. The poem “Good Bones” appears late in the volume—the first poem of the final section. The poem that precedes it is called “What I Carried,” and this is the poem that allows us to pivot toward the possibility of making something beautiful. It’s the elegant, summative poem that reminds us how fiercely our poet-speaker has reckoned—with danger, with futility, with all that harrows:

I carried my fear of the world
and my love of the world.
I carried my terrible awe.

I carried my fear of the world
without knowing how to set it down.

The lines become a post-lapsarian prayer. They reveal Smith to be, not a soothsayer after all, but a truthsayer. Nobody likes to admit fear, yet notice how this speaker is carrying fear, moving with it. She refuses to be paralyzed, the way fear so often freezes its bearer. In the end, Smith writes:

I carried my fear of the world
to my children and laid it down
at their feet, a kill, a gift.

Reading “What I Carried,” I find myself thinking about “leave-taking,” and because I have been immersed in Maggie Smith’s work, I am looking more closely than ever at the thresholds and door frames and windows inside every word. I see how “leave-taking” might imply a correlation between going and stealing. When we leave, we rob ourselves, likely others too, of something—one particular version of a here and now. There should probably be an equivalent phrase, something like “stay-giving,” which is the possibility that growing where planted—or where you plant yourself anew—or even where you return to grow again—can bear ample fruit of all kinds. What the stayer gives, for the self and likely others too, is the profound and necessary possibility of replenishment.

Turn the page, past the last section break, and we arrive at “Good Bones,” our touchstone, and in fact a poem that ratifies what the book has set out to do, has been doing all along. “This place could be beautiful, right?” That’s the question echoing down the hallway since before most of us ever opened the door to this book. It’s the metaphorical realtor asking the real poet an honest question that is decidedly non-rhetorical. And the real poet who has taught the real readers how to look closer, who has shown us unflinching portraits of fear and futility but who has also “modeled marveling” for us, just as she models it for her children, isn’t simply reiterating what the metaphorical realtor says: “You could make this place beautiful.”

When I read the poem on its own, I thought this repetition was for emphasis, a salesperson trying to convince the prospective buyer to take up the mantle of beauty. But it was actually our poet-speaker, Smith in thin disguise, turning out of the poem, breaking the fourth wall to address her listeners directly. “You could make this place beautiful, right?” the realtor asks. I hear it now, the subtle shift where Smith, in her glorious staying power (there’s the phrase after all!), hands over the deed to the house of the world, co-signs for it: “You could make this place beautiful.” You could—by which she means the you that is me, the you that is her, the you that is all of us. We could.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →