Maggie Smith’s most recent poetry collection, Goldenrod, is a reassuring light that examines the ordinary and reminds us how nearly everything is extraordinary: a weed by the roadside, an off-the-cuff remark from a child, or a flag at half-staff. She digs into the grit of divorce, the struggles and glories of parenting, and the tribulations of life during a pandemic. She engages with difficult questions while speaking from a middle-class, white-American life in poems that consider privilege and culpability at a time in which immigration debates, racism in policing, and school shootings have continued to be everyday occurrences. Smith does not seek to single-handedly solve these problems, nor to offer some sort of prescriptive advice for one’s own divorce or childrearing, but rather to lead us through some of her own experience and understanding, or lack of, so that we might discover more within our own.
In “Tender Age,” Smith’s title is commenting on that of America as well as that of Smith’s own childhood and the stark difference faced by many children due to the way immigration has been handled on the southern border of the US. Smith begins by invoking the “Freedom Colony” and “Liberty Lane” of her childhood and then quickly separates herself from America by telling it, “You are not what I learned / in grade school.” This accusatory tone continues as she asks, “America, are their cribs / for the babies? Bars within bars?” Then, as the poem progresses, Smith goes on to accept more complicity:
America, this is us
America, we have taken children
from their mothers. We have separated
words from their meanings.
What an apt and painful comparison to draw between children and mothers and words and meanings. Smith’s noticing of childhood trauma and abuse at the hands of political systems is something that reappears in different ways throughout Goldenrod. In “Small Shoes,” she writes about the disappearance of stars as metaphor for lives lost seeking refuge. She writes that “It is difficult to document / a disappearance / a boat full of stars,” and later how “some of the stars washed up/ in small shoes.” This tragic poem immediately conjures memories of the viral photo of the Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach after his family’s boat capsized in the Mediterranean. Smith has the incredible power to use metaphor to accentuate the moods of her poems, and often her poems are not intended to comfort us but to shake us awake, and in that awakening to help us discover something about ourselves.
After the unjust deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other people of color, Smith looks at her own sleeping child in “Airplanes,” while pointing attention to racism in policing through recognizing some of the privilege that she and her son are granted by being white. The poem begins, “My son is safe in bed, the opposite / of gutshot.” The final image is that of Smith’s son sleeping in his airplane pajamas and how “the airplanes are smiling,” and so many poems in Goldenrod are derived from the deep observation of an image. In “Half Staff,” Maggie Smith enters her poem through the image of a flag at half-mast to explore the continuity of school shootings in America, the empty actions that follow, and the feelings of a parent who wants their child to be safe and happy in school. With punchy line breaks, she implores:
Why don’t we leave
the flags at half-staff
& save ourselves
The poem closes with the speaker dropping their daughter at school and contemplating how our bodies often don’t respond to the mind’s fear. In her final question of the body, Smith seems to point more to a freeze reaction than one of fight or flight, “Because / what could it say?” Here she invites the reader to consider how much effort it can take, and how impossible it sometimes is, to act in the face of fear. Here we feel less alone in the act of dropping our children off at school at the same time feeling a helplessness that unites us. Discussing this poem in an interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books, Smith says, “These are the things that we carry inside of us as people and as parents; it’s a lot to process, but it’s one of the things that poetry is built to hold.”
Smith’s children show up regularly in Goldenrod. Her daughter plays an especially strong role in a series of divorce poems where her innocent observations shine with metaphorical depth. Smith says in the aforementioned interview that the use of dialogue from her children “is a real thread from the last book of poems to this one. They are still the people I speak with the most.” In “At the End of My Marriage, I think of Something My Daughter Said About Trees,” Smith only mentions her marriage in the title, she then leans into the abstract and allows a simple image to say so much:
When a tree is cut down, the sky’s like
Finally, and rushes in.
Even when you trim a tree,
the sky fills in before the branch
hits the ground. It colors the space blue
because now it can.
Considering what her daughter says about trees opens a world of possibility for Smith. We’re shown space for change and individuality. The piece has some real Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” vibes (minus the tragic ending). This type of energy and focus on the ability to rebuild one’s world post-divorce are prevalent throughout the collection. We continue to see Smith tending to herself in “Bride”:
I do. I am my own bride
lifting the veil to see
my face. Darling, I say,
I have waited for you all my life.
She shows us that there is another side to the pain of separation, and she does so with polished symbolism, but the poems are not all open windows and spring birds twittering in the eves. In “Poem Beginning with a Line from Bashō,” Smith describes the burning barn of her marriage, “the rafters on the ground like a whale’s ribcage.” The message of loss is so painful in the poem, though returning to the first line delivers optimism for the future. Despite all the pain, “The moon is brighter since the barn burned.”
Examining the world around her, including everything from devastating social problems to her own children’s utterings, Maggie Smith offers the world hope in Goldenrod. She encourages us that we can find meaning in the everyday and that we are not alone in our struggles. She reminds us that we must look for something bright during our lowest and scariest times, because without hope what else is there? Let us all search for meaning in our own struggles and the struggles of those around us. Let us recognize and come to appreciate what those struggles take of us. Let us find beauty in the weeds. “Let us talk more of how dark the beginning of a day is.”
About the Reviewer
Josh Nicolaisen taught English for twelve years and is currently an MFA candidate at Randolph College. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife, Sara, and their daughters, Grace and Azalea. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose poems have recently appeared in So It Goes, Northern New England Review, The Bangalore Review, Backlash, and elsewhere. Find him at www.oldmangardening.com/poetry