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(Feeling) at Home in America with Maggie Smith by Camille Dungy

This is part of a series of posts in which Camille Dungy explores, through close readings of five poems, “what home might and might not mean.”

Good Bones
by Maggie Smith

 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. 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.

From Good Bones
Tupelo Press, 2017

In this poem, Maggie Smith establishes what I’m going to call “homing strategies.” There’s comfort in a consistent returning to a known place, though each time we return it’s like she’s moved the furniture, so we must pay attention.

The poem is set in one solid stanza block. All the lines are relatively the same length. With a few exceptions—one being the second line—each are about ten to twelve syllables long. The lines contain about four beats, sometimes five. They aren’t metrical, they aren’t syllabics, but there is a set of good bones inside the poem.

In the first two lines, she sets up a pattern of repetition and variation. “Life is short,” begins line one. “Life is short,” she says again in line two. In the first line, she completes the sentence.

She’ll only complete the sentence within the line one other time in the poem. And that other time, too, the one-line sentence will contain two clauses that are linked but also somewhat independent thoughts.

Remember when I said it’s like the furniture in this house is familiar, though it gets moved just slightly? In the third and fourth lines, she shifts “delicious” to “deliciously.” She shifts from a comma to no comma before “ill-advised ways.” Comma to no comma after “ill-advised ways.” She delays the redelivery of the phrase “I’ll keep from my children” over the course of a second sentence that lasts four lines.

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children.

She only delivers three phrases in five lines, but she delivers them a whole lot of ways.

The third sentence of the poem is the first with a completely new idea, though it ends with a familiar repetition. One sentence stretches tautly over two and a half lines. “The world is at least / fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative / estimate, though I keep this from my children.” The next sentence is our other full sentence line. “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” This will be the only line in the poem that does not have some sort of punctuation to break it open. Though there is an implied dependent and independent clause, there is no comma in this eighth line. This line stands without an allowance for hesitation. It’s a heartbreaking line that’s going to be followed by another heartbreaker. And in neither of these heartbreaking complete sentences will we encounter one of our repeated phrases. Let what I’m saying sink in for a moment, the poem seems to say. Then in the tenth line the poem gives us something like a life preserver in the guise of one of its repeated phrases: “Life is short and the world…” Even if we’re reassured by repetition, things remain complicated.

The poem progresses through a series of line breaks that make us pay more astute attention to each word. The next line, “is at least half terrible, and for every kind…” allows the connotations of “kind” to multiply—generous and caring and helpful and type are all possibilities—before things turn singularly troubling again: “stranger, there is one who would break you…” The line breaks in this poem bring me great pleasure—even though they’re highlighting the horrible.

I’m trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones.

I need us to think about the way Maggie Smith helps bring the poem home here. She’s referenced the title. Even as we’re about to walk into what could in some lights be the most emotionally dangerous portion of the poem, by referencing the title, because we recognize something via its repetition, we get the sense that we’re someplace comfortable, safe, secure. We’re at home.

This place could be beautiful,
right?

This is the only question mark in the poem. And it needs to be there (Gertrude Stein and her opinions about question marks be damned). The one question throws everything that come after it into question. Just as the reference to the title so near the end of the poem—in its penultimate line—throws everything that has gone before under the shelter of its conceit. A conceit that is taking place, now, not just in the wider world, or in the larger scope of what we call “life”–which we’ve learned, “repeatingly” as Berryman would say, is short. We’re now not in the big picture place that is the world that is at least half terrible, and not life which is short, but in a house that’s worth hoping about. A dumpy house, but a domestic space. Close and full of the potential of the familiar sort of place that “any realtor” might help you enter.

And it continues thus. Reading “Good Bones” all the way to the end makes me rethink what it means to make a home someplace. What I must give up, and what I must accept.

 

Posted In: Close Readings