Like The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, her collection steeped in Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Maggie Smith’s Good Bones is preoccupied with the perils and mysteries of the rites of passage a child must make on the way to adulthood. The collection infuses these rites with the magic and mystery of myth. Across the four sections, Smith wields a talismanic power in a sequence of poems focused on a girl and a hawk (whose wings grace the cover). The first is appropriately and simply titled “The Hawk” and begins:
The hawk has never seen a girl.
This new creature—smaller than a fawn,
a song unlike a bird’s—hushes the air
with her gold hair. The clearing seems
an invitation to light her, but the hawk
has no light, only shadow….
The assonance in “smaller,” “fawn,” and “song” entices the ear as does the repetition of “light,” an aural binding that replicates the hawk’s fascination with this girl whom he follows through time. Given the keen awareness of danger that catches and spreads in Good Bones, an awareness that is very much a mother’s, one fears something terrible will befall the girl. And perhaps therein lies the greatest surprise of the collection. The girl grows up, but the terrible does not destroy her, nor does she lose her wildness, which is marvelously guarded by the hawk, her vigilant protector:
When she runs, the hawk-kite
sails with her. When she stands still
in the fields, he hovers above her,
projecting his shape like an overlay
of feathers printed on her skin….
The hawk’s shadow, a recurring trope in this sequence, is not ominous. Rather, it enables the girl to hold onto her sense of self once “she is no longer a child.” In a strange, wonderful way, then, the hawk, whose shadow the girl wears, “feathers // like a fine-printed fabric on her skin,” resembles the domestic mother-speaker who leads the reader through the poems more concretely tethered to the landscapes of suburbs and small-town America, as in “The Hunters.”
I’m trying to love the world,
I am, but is it too much
to ask for two parts bees
vibrating their cups of pollen,
humming a perfect A note,
to one part sting?
Worry and console, worry
and console: it’s how I stay
in shape. See, I’m sweating….
(“Let’s Not Begin”)
This poem resonates with the landscape of Trump’s America, one of disillusionment and outrage. Smith adds her voice to the many other voices of artists who have no choice but to become political by virtue of the fact that basic human rights—the right to free speech, to control over one’s own body—are being challenged and denigrated. In making sense of Smith’s “I’m trying to love the world,” a phrase that echoes across the pages, I imagine the poet/speaker/mother/woman trying to convince herself as much as her reader as she struggles to answer her children’s questions—“Why is the sky so tall and over everything?” “What is the past?” It is the child’s sense of wonder—a perspective both grounded and surreal, whimsical and absolutely necessary—along with Smith’s sonic powers, that makes Good Bones particularly valuable for our time.