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Maggie Smith

10-23-2012


 
Maggie Smith
 
Eliza


There are more stars in the sky than sounds
uttered by all people who have ever lived,

but Eliza, we may never see them again.
Down in the cellar with the preserves,

away from danger, you wipe clean the dusty
jars and hold them to whatever light

you can muster. Even here the fruit
glows like a fiery jewel, but neither color

nor sweetness can sustain us. Child, we can't
know what's left. Maybe we're alone

or maybe other cellars on this street
fill with whispers. Underground the air

is still. You're like a bottled ship, no wind
to fill your sails. I know you want to crack

the door, Eliza, to see if any stars
remain, threading their light through tiny holes

in nail-pierced tin. I want to show the moon
to you, busted hunk of concrete, seashell

pieces broken up inside it-fossils
left over from the world before us. Maybe

our bones will whiten it next, but for now
the moon is just a story I tell. Trust me,

child, the moon is not like this. It lives
high where the air is sweet to breathe. The moon

holds itself up to its own light. The moon
is up-the opposite of all you know.

 

Night of the Comet (1984)

           Hey, I'm sorry if the end of the world makes me a little nervous!


Nothing good can come of a comet vaporizing
everyone on Earth except two Valley girls, a trucker,
and scientists holed up in some underground think tank
in the desert. In the empty city, nothing but dust inside
piles of bomber jackets, legwarmers, dresses with wide,
patent-leather belts. As if everyone laid out their clothes
for the next day, then disappeared. But even when a girl
picks up a Reebok and pours out the powdered remains
of a foot, she doesn't cry. She's already begun to forget
their faces, to ignore all the things that don't make sense-
mirrored skyscrapers still reflecting off Wilshire, traffic
lights that still work, the Top 40 station still broadcasting
New Wave, heavy on the keyboards. The girls just want
to have fun. They feather their hair and loot the mall
for designer jeans and sunglasses. The end isn't so bad
after all. Now they can have the whole world for free.

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click here to read an early draft of Eliza

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Watch Maggie Smith read her work

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Poems - First Drafts -Reading - Bio - Mini-Review - Interview

Maggie Smith is the author of three prizewinning collections of poems, Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press), Nesting Dolls (Pudding House), and The List of Dangers (Kent State University Press). She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the Academy of American Poets, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Smith's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, The Iowa Review, and many other journals. You can find her online at www.maggiesmithpoet.com.

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A “Mini-Review” of Maggie Smith's poems by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz

Are they “star-crossed,” or is it a coincidence that both of the poems by Maggie Smith that we feature this week—“Eliza” and “Night of the Comet (1984)”—deal with the celestial? I prefer to assume it’s a coincidence, and not a thinly-veiled attempt by our esteemed editor to invite a plethora of bad space puns into this week’s review. Don’t worry: this is an impulse I will valiantly resist, except to say this: these poems are out of this world. Though quite different from one another in form and tone, these two poems are united by their examination of the kind of loneliness that only comes as the end of the world. 

            “Night of the Comet (1984),” is inspired by a 1980’s sci-fi comedy film in which, well…there’s a comet.  The film’s premise is explored and described in the opening lines: the comet vaporizes everyone on earth except to girls, a trucker, and (naturally) a bunker full of government scientists.  Though the movie is a parody or comedy, the poem describes how everyone else has turned to dust in a way that is haunting and poetic:

In the empty city, nothing but dust inside

piles of bomber jackets, legwarmers, dresses with wide,

patent-leather belts. As if everyone laid out their cloths

for the next day, then disappeared.

The poem goes on to address its world in a way that evokes some eerie possibilities for the randomness of what human inventions might still work in a post-apocalyptic world, and owes those musings at least in part to the film’s depiction. For example, there are some “traffic / lights that still work, the Top 40 station still broadcasting.”  These details layer a sense of strangeness into the world of the poem: it’s recognizably our own world, but where have all the people gone? The lights changing and the music playing and the clothes as described in the above excerpt conspire to suggest that while it is empty now, the world we see was, just a mere moment ago, bustling with life and activity.  And where did the people go? Much like the movie, the poem fails to answer this question, but it is not an important question.  What’s important here is the uneasy feeling the reader gets in the pit of their stomachs while imagining this world that Smith so vividly describes.   

            The sixteen-line, single-stanza poem looks, at first glance, fairly straightforward formally, and in some senses, it is: there is no particular meter at work here, no exactness of the number or stress patterns of syllables in each line.  The lines are long, generally at least a dozen syllables, ­and are generally broken by syntactical unit.  But the line breaks and punctuation (many sentences end in the middle of a line) sometimes serve to highlight rhymes—such as “cry,” as the last word of a sentence in the ninth line being echoed in the first syllable of “skyscrapers,” two lines later. Sometimes, the line breaks overlap sentences in a way that layers each line’s meaning. Consider for example lines that, while including multiple sentences, stand nicely on their own as liner units of meaning: “to have fun. They feather their hair and loot the mall.” Perhaps my favorite is the way the penultimate and final sentences overlap on the last line and a half: “The end isn’t so bad / after all. Now they can have the whole world for free.”  It isn’t so bad after all, and after all, after everything, after it’s over, the whole world can be theirs for free.  This interplay of sentence and line makes for some highly enjoyable lines with multiple possible meanings. 

            “Eliza” stands somewhat in contrast to “Night of the Comet (1984).”  While “Eliza,” also makes use of the interplay between syntax and line break, the tone is much different.  Whereas “Night of the Comet,” makes use of the camp of a Hollywood film and tends toward making that camp poetic in select moments, “Eliza,” is deeply serious and philosophical from the start.  Consider the opening lines: “There are more stars in the sky than sounds / uttered by all people who have ever lived, // but Eliza, we may never see them again.” Whereas a comet is clearly what has led to the absence of people in “Night of the Comet,” in “Eliza,” we are in a dark post-apocalypse world, where the cause and consequences of disaster are as yet unknown. The speaker and Eliza are “down in the cellar…//…away from danger,” but they “can’t / know what’s left. Maybe we’re alone // or maybe other cellars on this street / fill with whispers.”  The eerie, unsettling notion of being trapped in your own basement, unable to see or know anything about the outside world, even whether anyone else has survived, is chillingly rendered in this poem in a way that will almost certainly haunt my oft-apocalyptic dreams.

            Though there are many poetic features to admire about “Eliza,” it isn’t the deftly-broken lines or the concise, powerful couplets and precisely-rendered imagery that hold the most significance.  Instead, it is the strong sense of the speaker’s voice that dominates the poem and creates much of its meaning.  While the images described are certainly ominous, a mere description of the world wouldn’t be enough to haunt the reader.  No, what grips us in this poem is the speaker’s voice.  The speaker’s voice, and the way it directly addresses Eliza (who seems to be the younger of the two, perhaps the speaker’s sibling or child) make the reality of the post-apocalyptic world in the poem seem startlingly real.  With lines like, “Child, we can’t / know what’s left. Maybe we’re alone…” and “Trust me, / child, the moon is not like this,” make it very clear that the speaker, though an adult, and calm, and seemingly clear-headed, knows that whatever is outside is unsafe, and that even peeking outside could bring disaster.  It’s possible— since it seems as though perhaps this child has never seen the moon—that the speaker and Eliza have been down in their basement for a very long time.  At the very least, it’s been so long that Eliza cannot remember what the moon looks like.  And in fact, the final sentence suggests that they’ve been trapped in their basement world for most of Eliza’s life: “The moon / is up—the opposite of all you know.”

            Whether it’s the lighthearted, almost funny depiction of the world of a Hollywood horror film, or the chillingly real world of the basement where Eliza is trapped indefinitely, both of Maggie Smith’s depictions of the end of our world show us that world in the context of other heavenly bodies: comets, stars, and the moon.  In doing so, she amplifies an important, if sometimes unsettling truth: as infinitesimally small and ultimately alone as we are in the universe, there is a day coming when we will be even more alone, a day when chaos will replace humanity’s hubris with the kind of insecurity that comes from not knowing how long you’ll live, or who else is still alive.  Hopefully, when that day comes, we’ll have a few Maggie Smith poems stashed away in our basements, and some starlight to read them by. 

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An Interview with Maggie Smith by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I first came across these poems in my search for apocalyptic poetry for an anthology I'm editing, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days (to be published on Dec 21, 2012 (please forgive the moment of shameless self-promotion!)). I came up with this idea for an anthology because I'd noticed that a lot of contemporary poetry and fiction centers on our last days. Of course, TR Hummer contends that apocalyptic literature has been alive and well since the beginning, but I think it's fair to say that it's rather popular in academic and less-academic circles these days. What is it, do you think, that so fascinates readers with our end? What is it about the end of the world that draws so many writers to the page?

Maggie Smith: I started working on the film-based poems several years ago, just out of my own preoccupation with the subject of the end of the world. lt seems that every couple of years there's a new theory about how and when it will happen, and there are always those who take every drought or hurricane as a sign of the end times. It can verge on comical at times, but the subject fascinates to me-for its largesse, its mystery, its inability to be fathomed. Some wonderful poets, from Beckian Fritz Goldberg to Traci Brimhall, whom I've just recently discovered, are writing on this subject and doing it in such gorgeous, terrifying, and unexpected ways.

AMK: "Eliza" addresses a character of the same name, but I wouldn't technically call this an apostrophe, a poem that addresses an inanimate object or a person who is deceased or isn't present and, thus, is not able to answer. At least it sounds that way. I suppose it could be addressing an absent Eliza, which would be all the more creepy. Either way, this is a poem that describes the speaker's situation more than anything else. How/why is the address the form you chose for this poem?

MS: This poem began as an imagined scene of a mother (the speaker) and daughter in a cellar, riding out some unnamed doomsday scenario. I was thinking of what the mother might try to tell or teach the girl about the world, since the place they would eventually emerge into would probably bear little resemblance to the place the mother grew up in. How could the mother use language, in essence, to "preserve" that lost world for her child?

AMK: Speaking of details, I think that's what I like most about this poem, how its details (the cellar, the preserves, the dusty jars, the fact you can't know what's left, this Eliza who has never seen the moon, etc, etc...) emerge so slyly rather than directly. I teach Creative Writing and often have to work hard with my fiction writers who present details in a very unnatural, forced way rather than by revealing them in the natural flow of the story. Is this something you had in mind when putting this poem together?

MS: Imagery tends to unfold fairly intuitively for me, but I could imagine that the mother/speaker in this poem would have nothing but time to notice and meditate on every square inch of that space. All she had were the details-or, the details and her memories of the life she had before.

AMK: I love this sequence of metaphors: "busted hunk of concrete, seashell / pieces broken up inside it-fossils / left over from the world before us," but I can imagine other readers saying it is a bit much, that three metaphors for a single image are a bit much. What would your response to such a criticism be? Is the reader's response something you think about when writing and revising your work?

MS: I think some of the phrasing and rephrasing of the same image in this particular poem is a function of the speaker trying to communicate with her daughter. She desperately wants to "show" the girl the world she knew, the world that is likely unrecoverable, and she desperately wants to hold on to it herself-and so some of what we get here is a sort of groping toward the definitive image, the image that will click both for the girl and for herself.

AMK: "Maybe we're alone / or maybe other cellars on this street / fill with whispers...": these lines are a wonderful example of finding a creative way to state something that, without some imagination, without some poetic ingenuity, would be rather mundane: "We don't know how many other people are out there living in cellars." It's also a great example of using word choices ("whispers" rather than living, for example) to create a sense of mood that, otherwise, wouldn't be there. Is this a line that "just happened" or did you spend a lot of time asking yourself "How can I say that more poetically? How can I say that in a way that's pushing the language?"

MS: I think it's safe to say that most lines "just happen"-but this "just happening" may happen wrong many times before it happens right. What I mean is that I don't find myself planning much in a poem or asking myself how to communicate certain details-at least not consciously-but I do find that I often have to revise, revise, and revise again before the right words present themselves. Sometimes I wish the right words were a little less coy; if only they'd just come right out and make themselves known in the first draft!

AMK: "Night of the Comet" (as well as most of your poems in Apocalypse Now) finds its genesis in a film of the same title. "Eliza," however, stands alone. Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to have a piece of art/media off of which to base your poems versus having nothing but your imagination?

MS: Most of the film-based poems were written before "Eliza" and the other poems that are not based on doomsday films. The process of writing poems based on films was very different from inventing poems from scratch, so to speak. I think the film-based poems are perhaps the most narrative of anything I've ever written, certainly because there was an established narrative for me to build on. But I also had to work hard within that narrative framework to make the poems my own, to come up with my own spin and my own details. Otherwise the poems may have fallen flat as mere synopses. I didn't want that to happen.

AMK: How did you come up with this idea? There are lots of poems based off visual arts (ekphrasis is known as poetry about painting, sculpture, etc...), but there aren't a lot of poems based off film.

MS: The project began as one film-based poem and just took off into a series, probably because A) It was a really fun exercise to get away from the autobiographical poems I'd been writing and to do something totally different, and with such a dark sense of humor, and B) I love doomsday films, so the series of poems gave me an excuse to watch the world end-or almost end-in countless ways for several months. It was enjoyable, but also emotionally draining.

AMK: I just love how "Night..." opens with, essentially, a summary of the film:

Nothing good can come of a comet vaporizing
everyone on Earth except two Valley girls, a trucker,
and scientists holed up in some underground think tank
in the desert...

This has the effect of, one, situating the reader in the narrative of the poem and, two, of actually engaging the reader in the first place with that "nothing good can come..." Are you a poet who concerns herself with clarity? By that I mean, do you write poems with an eye for being clear or is that something that comes by itself or something that you've concerned yourself in these poems in particular?

MS: The balance of mystery and clarity in a poem is always tricky. I don't like to spell things out for a reader, and in doing so inside her intelligence, but on the other hand I don't want the poem to be a Rorschach inkblot that could be interpreted 101 ways. In the film-based poems, the balance was especially important to me. On one hand, I needed to provide just enough narrative to situate the reader, and I knew I couldn't assume that every reader would be familiar with the films. On the other hand, as I said before, I didn't want the poems to be retellings or synopses. I really wanted each one to have its own point of view-to say something about the experience of the characters, or to make a judgment about the situation.

AMK: Neither of these poems are in the first person; rather, one is an address from an unnamed speaker while the other is in third person. Talk to us a bit about point-of-view. How does it affect how you approach writing a poem? When do you determine what point-of-view is most appropriate or engaging to you as a writer?

MS: Point-of-view tends to come to me with the first lines or the idea for the poem-but that isn't to say that I don't sometimes make a shift when revising. There have certainly been times when I've written a poem in first-person and then realized later that it's more elegant or more restrained when shifted into third. I sometimes think of it in terms of temperature. The first-person POV seems much hotter to me, and the third-person seems cooler. Form feels the same way to me-the more formal the poem, the cooler (or more restrained) it feels to me. If want to heat up a poem, I loosen up the lines and test out first-person POV. If it's very personal or autobiographical subject matter, sometimes I choose to cool it down-or create some distance-by shifting into third person and/or imposing structure.

 Poems - First Drafts -Reading - Bio - Mini-Review - Interview




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