In times of distress, many of us tend to search for a universal truth. Knowing that there's a way out, a way through can help us make sense of the world when it seems completely out of our control. And for more than a year now, the distress of social distancing, lockdown, and a rapidly mutating virus has overshadowed our public lives. In her new collection Goldenrod, Pushcart-Prize winning poet Maggie Smith responds to this destabilization by turning inward and asking — is the universal truth what we think it is?
One of the book's first poems, "In the Grand Scheme of Things," simply considers what we can see — or what we think we can see. When a window rattles, is it the rose bush rustling against the glass? We dig up the rose bush, but every year it grows back "thick and wild". When an airplane flies past the window, where does it go? From here, it appears to only travel from one tree to another. The things out of our control stay out of our control, and the world shows us only what it wants us to see. The poem ends:
We say in the grand scheme of things
as if there were one. We say that's not how
the world works, as if the world works.
Instead of trying to figure out "how the world works" Smith's poems ask that we turn to smaller objects instead. Look at a stone, for instance. "Anything the stone knows, / it knows from experience," the poet writes. The stone knows touch through the "rain's cool lavishing / of attention" and also knows violence through the same rain "drilling a pinhole" through it over the years. The stone that gets "broken / against its brother" can also make fire together with its broken half. What we seek to learn of the universal truth lives right under our feet.
And there are many such lessons to be found; both good and bad. In one poem, the spiking graph of coronavirus case loads is a "jagged mountain" that we must "press into a meadow." So when her daughter cries out of loneliness during lockdown, Smith tells her the "steep peak" of the graph makes an honor out of the loneliness — that flattening the curve is the reward for our pain. Alone in the bathroom, Smith cries into a hand towel herself. Here, the same lesson that teaches hope also ignites a certain hopelessness.
In fact, some lessons need to be unlearned. In "What Else," Smith considers the smallest urn, the smallest graves she has ever seen. The poet has "forgotten how" to close her eyes; she sees everything. She has "forgotten how" to "unclench [her] jaw" or "lower [her] shoulders" because the world's distress is palpable. It's important for her to look to pain for lessons, but it takes her sleep. At this instance, these poems are as much for Smith as they are for us, reminding us all to just be present in the current moment.
Smith considers pivotal moments in her life, like her divorce, through everyday details. In "At the End of Our Marriage, in the Backyard," the speaker considers the act of letting a lawn go wild. Violets, dandelions, crabgrass, clovers — all grow tall throughout the summer, inviting a swarm of honeybees, making it dangerous for her children to run around barefoot.
We do nothing and call it something — as if
this wilding were intentional. If there is honey,
I tell myself, we are to thank.
By considering the act of letting go, the poet reminds us that we can't always have the answers. Sometimes, the lesson is simply to keep going. "Maybe no one will be stung," she writes. Letting go of a marriage, like the backyard, invites a literal swarm of bees. But later, when they sit "ankle-deep // in weeds and flowers" there is a recognition of both weeds and flowers.
In this way, the book is filled with the poet's unrelenting willingness to learn, to dream of a better world. In "Slipper," she is on the beach with her kids, pregnant with her son. She is looking at the grand sea and "its relentless / newness, the constant turning over—" while at the same time her daughter finds a shell: a common slipper. Smith thinks about what once lived inside it:
... Imagine if I could
wear my home and call it my body,
wear my body and call it home.
It's this profundity Smith finds within the simple things that gives her poems their charm. She begins with a small detail, then leads us through a revelation, bringing us closer to that universal truth we're looking for. In motherhood and divorce, in love and pain, Smith shows us how to find meaning in that space between the good and bad. Like this verse from one of the last poems in the book, where Smith reconsiders how we look at distress:
We talk so much of light, please
let me speak on behalf
of the good dark. Let us
talk more of how dark
the beginning of a day is.
So maybe there isn't a universal truth. Just lessons to be learned and unlearned; our vision continually altered by the small details around us.
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