From the Archive: Rumpus Original Poetry: Four Poems by Maggie Smith


This was originally published at The Rumpus on September 21, 2017.




What do we do? We birth the new citizens
& answer their bodies with our bodies.

We rock the new citizens to sleep.
We clothe them with skin & stamp

their passports with milk. We teach
the new citizens to walk & speak.

We show them orchids & ask,
What do they look like? What would you ask

an orchid if you could ask it anything?
We show them wind and light in the trees

& ask, What does it sound like?
We hold their hands in our hands

& rub their palms together in small circles
& ask, Do you hear leaves touching

each other? We teach the new citizens
to question landscape. We teach them

to love by questioning, & they ask,
Where was I before this place, before

your body, before, before? We birth
the new citizens—interrogators of orchids,

interrogators of air—and bring them
as far as we can. We bring them

to a kind of border, signed & stamped.
The world is a letter we leave them

to steam open. We let them see
dappled shadow under the trees

& ask, How does light not lose its patience
between the sky & the ground?



For all its rushing, the river can’t listen.
And if I’m being honest, this river
is really a creek, only so high and fast
from the rain. It came halfway up
the backyard, stranding the swingset.
I am tired of the sound of my voice,
tired of waiting for a sign. It doesn’t matter
if this river, this big-boned creek,
hears me. I have lived with it all my life.
It’s touched me since I was a child.
It’s tongued my ankles and knees,
and knows them by touch and taste.
But what kind of memory
can a body have, a body of water,
when what flows by is always new?
The shipwreck at the bottom
of the backyard hill has a slide
and monkey bars where birds perch
above the flood. It doesn’t matter
if this river is listening. It’s not
from around here, and it’s not staying.



Anything the stone knows,
it knows from experience.
If the stone knows touch,
it has the rain’s cool lavishing
of attention to thank.
If it knows heat in my hand,
sun-warmed, dry and smooth
as a cheek, then light is where
it can direct its gratitude.
When I close my eyes,
the lids glow. They’re learning,
together, to be stones.
What does the stone know
today that it didn’t know
yesterday, or the day before?
Violence, too, is a teacher.
The rain drilling a pinhole,
a tiny mouth in the stone,
a tiny ear or eye, over years
is a lesson in patience
but not only patience.
The shoe scuffing it down
the pavement is a lesson.
The stone can be broken
against its brother,
over and over, until together
they dazzle with fire.



You’re the kind who looks at a painting
& wonders what’s happening beyond

the stretched canvas, where it wraps
around the wood frame—as if
it were a detail from a larger work

or, like a photograph, one small scene
inside a wider one, curated by the eye.

You wonder what’s beyond
the bowl of fruit, beyond the gray sea
with its meal of wrecked ships,

beyond the mother holding her burning,
red-cheeked child. You’re the kind

who thinks there must be more
than this, more than what you see.
The kitchen might be filling with bees,

drawn buzzing to the bowl of red
and yellow apples. And the waves,

the waves might be ruffling white
and folding over on themselves—
breaking, breaking like a fever.


Author photograph © Studio127.

Maggie Smith is the author of three prizewinning books: Lamp of the Body, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and Good Bones, the title poem from which was called the “Official Poem of 2016” by Public Radio International. Her poems and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, APR, The Believer, the Paris Review, the Washington Post, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry, and on the CBS primetime drama Madam Secretary. More from this author →