Still Loving the World: Kathleen Flenniken on Maggie Smith
January 15, 2021
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, January 22, Maggie Smith will read and discuss her work at 7:30 pm PST. Subscriptions and tickets to future events in the Poetry Series can be purchased at lectures.org.
By Kathleen Flenniken
A few more scales fall from my eyes with every news cycle. Social movements like Black Lives Matter, and especially, powerful poets writing about identity, have revealed the lie in the “universal” American experience and the “everyman” speaker. There is no universal “I” in America in 2021. Behind every first person speaker there is a shadow “we,” a group defined by affinity, which includes some readers and excludes others.
I believe one great gift of poetry is the invitation to listen. To read poems is to vicariously, but intimately, enter a life of other passions, histories, and proclivities. The word “empathy” traces its etymology to German philosophy; it was coined to describe the human response to art. Though some poets of color question, or even disdain, the value of empathy (Natalie Diaz calls it “one of the most useless things possible—there’s no action that accompanies it”), I know that reading poets of other experience and identity, like Diaz, has shifted the sand where I turn to look back at myself. I can see now the shadow “we” behind me and implied in everything I read.
Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” lit up the internet not once but multiple times in response to tragedies in the news. It was originally published in an online magazine in 2016 where a reader discovered it in the wake of the Orlando massacre, found solace in it, tweeted it, and the poem went viral. You probably know “Good Bones.” It doesn’t address a particular tragedy, nor does it attempt to explain tragedy or point to redemption; instead, it demonstrates one mother’s coping strategy in the face of evil—a self-aware commitment to avoidance. The poem uses two arguments. First:
The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
There is a glass-half-empty spirit to these lines. “Though I keep this from my children” is repeated four times in the poem, which registers as a mother making decisions daily, even moment by moment, to protect her children from the world’s devastations. The second argument follows,
I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
How does a mother justify a terrible world full of senseless tragedies to her children? The real estate metaphor, with its strange brew of cynicism and resolve, ends the poem, as though to beat back the question.
The poem was embraced, reprinted, shared, hearted. But a friend described a backlash of sorts in a workshop. It concerned the poem’s first argument: only a mother whose situation is secure and whose children fit the dominant mold—white, cis-gendered, able-bodied—can afford to keep her children in blissful ignorance. Mothers of Black boys, for example, must teach them about danger from their earliest age. Claudia Rankine relates the words and experience of such a friend: “‘I am so afraid, every day.’ Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be — has to be — so much more careful.”
When I read “Good Bones,” I didn’t immediately recognize the privilege—it had to be pointed out to me. And then I couldn’t unsee it. The shift in my viewpoint did not change the poem or make those readers wrong who saw themselves in it. The effect was to pull the curtain back on the “we” behind the “I.” I could see all the mothers who felt represented by the poem, and I could see the mothers who were missing and hear the poem as they might, with an added dissonant note of unintentionality—as though the poem meant to speak for all mothers without recognizing the privilege inherent in its own logic.
But is it true that “Good Bones” was intended to speak for all mothers? It’s not the poem’s fault that it was floating around Twitter and Facebook with a suddenly enormous audience. Speaking for and speaking to are different aims—I think it’s useful to distinguish the two. Just because there was a rush of readers who shared the poem, identified with it and felt spoken for, it does not follow that all readers would or could. The voice of this mother is particular. She is obeying her need to speak to (I speculate) anyone who will listen. She has the impulse and the wherewithal to protect her children from terrible news—for now. She thinks that “for every bird there’s a stone thrown at a bird.” She is the kind of person who uses real estate as a metaphor for our “shithole” world. Shithole or not, she loves it and wants her children to love it too. Now there: isn’t that the true heart of the poem? That we can love the world and think it’s terrible. That we can think it’s no place for children and have them anyway. I don’t see myself in this mother, but I do feel opened up by any poem that contains and commits itself to two opposite and universal truths.