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Maggie Smith

 01-26-2017

Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Reading

Maggie Smith

Vanishing Point

When she leaves the path, the forest opens for her
like a picture book minus the story in which
she has a deer for a brother and braids him a leash
out of flowers. It's no way to live. The girl does not know
wickedness when she sees it. What is she doing alone?
Gathering nosegays? Using her mother's disregard
to hack through the brambles? She measures her distance
in lines: a sonnet for every fourteen steps down
a long hall of yellow leaves. They smell bitter as aspirin.
In the nearly invisible rain, they twitch as if tugged
by clear wires. What a pity, she never arrives.
For all she knows, the woman still waits for wine
and cake, her gown gathering dust from the sands
of ancient Egypt, from stars burnt out a billion years ago.
The girl is lost, not hunted. Taken, but not into a hot,
dark mouth. Nothing lurks in the fir's blue pins.
Swallowed whole by trees, eaten alive in a manner
of speaking, she walks toward a point none of us can see.
It is blacker there than in the gut. From far off, her life
rings like a thrown voice. Let it not be a fable for others.


An Island in the Movies 

                     And though only children were meant
                      to believe this, I still believe this.

                            --Beckian Fritz Goldberg

I packed my sister's suitcase by putting an idea
in her head--that at the other end of the sewer pipe

waited the world we had before the child bride
disappeared from bed, before razorblades

in apples and boys no older than the ones
on our street dying far away, alone, and piled up

on the news. I wanted to believe that I sent her
like a scout, and she'd come back for the rest of us.

My sister crawled inside, and the darkness sort of
ate her. At least that's how I remember it--

like looking at a photograph and knowing someone
is just outside the edges. When she stopped

calling Polo, I ran home and said I hadn't seen her
since breakfast, that she was up a tree

or on the Albrights' trampoline. I wanted to believe
the fable I told myself--that the missing and dead

were together somewhere, like an island in the movies,
with no phones for telling us they're all right,

and no boats or planes to bring them home.
That she crawled toward a pinhole of pink-gold light

and waves like applause. That what I'd promised
was real: a place where everyone wears palm leaves,

and blue-and-yellow parrots eat right from your hand.


Lanterns

The stories say the banished dead are wild now,
crouching among scrawny trees, skinning rabbits
and raising them like lanterns. Who needs light
when you're disfigured, kept from even the idea
of heaven, with slit throats or bulging eyes or
bits of skull clinging like pieces of seashell.
The stories say they have no hearts. That they wear
the broken bodies they left in. They can't be
whole again, but at least they can stay in the woods,
under the creek bridge. At least they can lick dew
from leaves until their tongues rust. At least
if the creek runs, it will keep them from seeing
their reflections, their eyes too haunted to be the eyes
of deer. The stories say that you can hear them.
That they sing by the lanterns of skinned rabbits.
That the music is what coats the grass with frost.
 

                        -from The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, selected by Guest Editor Judy Jordan

 

PoW WRITING PROMPT:

Write a first-person, narrative poem in which you mythologize a story from your childhood with someone dear to you (a family member, a best friend, an imaginary friend, …), as in Maggie Smith’s “An Island in the Movies.” Compose in couplets with a monoset (a single-line stanza) at the end and keep the poem under a page. Then find an epigraph that speaks to the poem and, from the epigraph, craft the poem’s title. 

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Reading

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Weep Up (Tupelo Press, September 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015); and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). Smith is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems appear in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, Guernica, Plume, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. In 2016 her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. PRI (Public Radio International) called it “the official poem of 2016.”

Smith has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, among others. She lives in Bexley, Ohio, and is a freelance writer and editor.

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Reading

A Review of Maggie Smith's The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Diana Whitney, first published at The Rumpus

Maggie Smith’s second full-length collection is a both a warning and an enchantment. Drawn from the Brothers Grimm and Hispanic folktales, the ominous, magical poems in The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison inhabit the dark forests of fairytale as well as suburban neighborhoods where “The kids/named the cul-de-sacs.”

The book’s opening poem beckons us off the forest path, following a girl who “does not know/ wickedness when she sees it” into a dangerous, mythic landscape. Luckily, the poem’s speaker is far wiser than its heroine, aware of every old fable the girl may be reliving: “What is she doing alone?/ Gathering nosegays? Using her mother’s disregard/ to hack through the brambles?” With spare, haunting imagery, the speaker warns us how easily the self can disappear, can be consumed:

The girl is lost, not hunted. Taken, but not into a hot,
dark mouth. Nothing lurks in the fir’s blue pins.
Swallowed whole by trees, eaten alive in a manner
of speaking, she walks toward a point none of us can see.
It is blacker there than in the gut. From far off, her life
rings like a thrown voice. Let it not be a fable for others.
-“Vanishing Point”

And so the reader is warned—and captivated. Smith’s lyrical voice is precise, never pretentious, in its magical realism. She is what Clarissa Pinkola Estés PhD calls a “cantadora, a keeper of the old stories,” in the 1990s feminist book of myths, Women Who Run With the Wolves. Dr. Estés unfolds intercultural tales that restore women’s creative vitality by “dig[ging] into the ruins of the female underworld,” exploring the archetype of the Wild Woman, the instinctive psyche. Smith delves into this underworld as well, but in her gorgeous and terrible dreamscapes, the psyche is always in peril:

No one is out of danger.
Darkness threads a needle as fast as light. As the devil eats,
bones pile under the table. Bread cries out in the oven
for fear of burning. A heart nestles among red apples.
-“Village Smart”

These poems are studded with images we recognize from fairytales, offering iconic color in the forest gloom: wolves, foxes, deer, skinned rabbits, apples, hearts, white bones. Through Smith’s imaginative leaps, a kind of sorcery occurs, the lines shape-shifting quickly and musically: “Even a fox with blood on its muzzle/ can wish on red clover and be a girl again” (“Apologue (3)”).

Shape-shifting and transformation heighten in the eight “Apologues,” fantastical poems that originate, Smith tells us in a note, from Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection. Always spoken in the second person singular,” the Apologues create a strange intimacy with the reader:

Little Twig Snapping
Under the Devil’s Shoe, for every crow’s heart you swallow
whole, you are promised a gold piece under your tongue.
Now coins fall from your lips when you speak, chiming
around you, but they might as well be pebbles. The pearls
you weep might as well be tears.
-“Apologue (5)”

The Apologues are the most lush, wild, and lyrical poems in The Well Speaks of its Own Poison, balancing the stark horror of the other fairytale world, where humans are hunted without mercy:

Gaunt and salt-and-pepper as the birches, the wolves
are starving in these woods. From here the moon
is a crystal ball. I don’t need to look inside

to tell you that if you walk into the trees,
you won’t come out.
-“The Fortune Teller to the Woodsman”

This poem is saved from brutality by the sheer beauty of its violence, something stunning and redemptive in the hunger:

If the moon says
you’ll be picked clean, believe her. You’ll feed

whatever hunts you the heart hot from your body.

Many voices issue warnings in The Well Speaks of its Own Poison: not only the Fortune Teller to the Woodsman, but mother to child, sister to sister, even “the robotic voice of a school bus” depositing children on the sidewalk, and the stone well of the title, poisoned by envy, which cautions “Who drinks of me/ now will be a tiger, then a wolf, then a roebuck.” In a world where a girl’s hands may be severed, the ability to speak is of utmost importance, generating power and integrity. Women, especially, must tell their stories. So warns the vigilant mother in “If I Forget to Tell You”: “Daughter,/ where silence is permitted to grow, it grows.”

 The Well Speaks of its Own Poison renders a tapestry of stories, fables, and parables, and in the process explores the act of story-telling and revision. In “Unclassified Stars,” Smith’s incestuous re-telling of Hansel and Gretel, Grimm’s original version transforms into an experience of self-discovery and sensual awakening, a secret love story. Written in five sections, the prose poem keeps switching details, changing scenes, reinventing itself until the final stanza, narrated by Gretel:

Ultimately, all revisions of her life collapse into one: the sharpening sea, the candied eaves of the cottage, Hansel’s salty fingers in her mouth. At the end of the story, where the moral should be, there are only two nudes reclining, naked and flushed beneath a great oak. Babes in the wood. Who’s to say where one ends and the other begins? Where the body forgets its edges. Where the story drops off and calls itself memory, life. Who’s to say? They have been rolling so long in the leaves, their two skins smell exactly the same.
-“Unclassified Stars”

At the end of this collection, where the moral should be, we are left with impressions of great beauty and great danger, a passionate waking dream.

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               Click here to read a review of Smith's book at Connotation Press

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         Click here to read a review of Smith's book at Kenyon Review

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Reading

An Interview with Maggie Smith by Jessamyn Smith, first published at Tupelo Quarterly

JJS: This summer, stalking the Montague Book Mill for sustenance with my familiar at my side, I found an almost-complete set of the Andrew Lang Fairy Books and fell on it, slavering, dragging it by the throat to the cash register—where, by virtue of being a regular, I got a discount. I gloated all the way home, basking in the bloody glow coming from the heavy paper bag. The Lang books interest me particularly because they capture a threshold-moment in our inheritance of these stories: in these turn of the century versions, published between 1889-1910, we have clear trace of entirely unsanitized origins, and glimmers of the Disneyfication to come. Even as Lang himself objected to any domestication of the original tales, his framing of them as stories for Victorian children stuck: these iterations of “The Tinder Box,” “The Enchanted Deer,” “The Snow Queen” stand as culture-markers—and last examples, for some time to come, of mass acceptance of our visceral need for visceral stories that do not neatly resolve the hazards and grotesqueries of our lives.

Your manuscript “The Well Speaks of its Own Poison” uses the archetypes of fairy tales with the same kind of visceral power the original stories do, and does so with the same kind of cultural-moment-clarity we can see so clearly in Lang: the poems create a temporal and contextual fusion so that even as they are unfolding on a suburban cul de sac and a bike’s banana seat, they are also the glass mountain, the trackless wood, the gingerbread house.

In recent decades, genre writers have taken back the fairy tale (Angela Carter, most famously, turned that burning boat around), but it seems to me there is still sometimes discomfort with them in literary and poetic work: for all that all of us mine archetypes, we seem to like to pretend that we don’t, and accuse others of being heavy-handed or taking short cuts when they do so very directly.

Your poems are so unarguably strong in craft at the levels of language, line, image, that I don’t think even a Literary Arbiter of Very Tidy Spirit could accuse you of whatever the particular gripes of the moment are against use of fairy tale, myth, archetype – that’s a big part of why I’m so excited about your book. It does what catharsis must do: these poems make their own utility unarguable, even as they slide in past all defenses on a wave of beauty and skill.

But what’s up with that cultural unease with drawing directly from these symbols and structures? And what enabled you to go so very directly, effectively, and beautifully into the heart of these familiar woods, bringing the reader through the very same kind of catharsis the original stories provided, even as what you’re doing is entirely contemporary?

MS: I’m not sure it was bravery that allowed me to plunge headfirst into writing these poems and, ultimately, this book. I must admit, it never occurred to me that this material—fairy tale, myth, archetype—would be off limits. After all, if we all sat around thinking about what people would say before picking up a pen or paintbrush or whatever the tool may be, we might not make anything at all—and whatever we did end up making would be inherently timid. Thinking too much can make your work dangerously small, can’t it? (I starting typing “world” rather than “work” there, which would have been a typo, and yet I think there’s truth to it.)

I started writing The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison without knowing I was writing a book about fairy tales. It began when I was working as a copywriter, reading books for children and young adults and crafting catalog copy about each book. One of the books that came across my desk that year was Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection by Alma Flor Ada and F. Isabel Campoy, and I was really taken by the turns of phrase, the imagery, and the differences in plot, character, and narrative style as compared to the Eastern European tales I grew up reading (and the Disneyfied versions I grew up watching). So I wrote the first Apologue...and then another...and then another. Eventually I decided to revisit some of the tales from my childhood, so I dove into Grimm’s, and there was no going back. I spent the next couple of years immersed in that world.

One of the strangest shifts in the writing of this book was that I started out focusing on the girls of these tales—these lost girls, swallowed girls, abandoned girls, girls in unthinkable danger—and then I had a daughter of my own, and all of the love and the fierce protective instincts fed a fire I had already been tending through these poems. Finally I knew firsthand that feeling of being desperate—but ultimately unable—to protect your child, not only from the real danger in the world but also from the knowledge of danger. How can we possibly keep our children from the brutality of the world they live in—the world we brought them to–without keeping them from all the wonder and beauty in it, too? We can’t have it both ways. And these poems, I think, are full of that tension.

JJS: In the titular poem “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison,” you masterfully summon—through evocation of betrayal—the profound we, the private I, and the archetypal us

 

[...] to warn the water-witchers

 

against divining here, I taught myself to speak. You know

what they say about poisoning a well: Soon it seeps.

 

In the opening poem “Vanishing Point,” we meet a girl who

 

[...] measures her distance

in lines: a sonnet for every fourteen steps down

a long hall of yellow leaves. They smell as bitter as aspirin.

 

Later, she is

 

Swallowed whole by trees, eaten alive in a manner

of speaking, she walks toward a point none of us can see.

It is blacker there than in the gut. From far off, her life

rings like a thrown voice. Let it not be a fable for others.

 

In “Seven Disappointments (2),” the poem opens: “You are human again, but you remember/both lives.”

For me personally, as both reader and as writer, these kinds of visceral lines that move us seamlessly back and forth between the primal we/I/us and the animal/human worlds are the whole point of this art thing we do, this catharsis thing we need. Poems as psychopomps carrying us between the land of the living and the dead: poems as crossroads: poems as theriomorphic experience: poems as transformation of the daily into the archetypal: poems as lifeline and tenderness for those we wish we could protect: poems as refusal to lie about how easy it will be.

What enables this kind of shamanic presence and courage in your work?

MS: The human world and animal world collide with such mixed results in fables and fairy tales. There are beasts that eat children, children who become birds, creatures that aid children in escaping evil adults, predatory animals that dress as trusted adults, and the list goes on and on. It is never clear whom to trust—and, while portrayed more dramatically in fairy tales, this is the way the world works. So for me the daily and archetypal dovetailed pretty naturally. Also, though, I worried about the book becoming monotonous. I felt strongly that some of the poems should be set in the present to add a little more texture to the collection. And then there are poems like “The List of Dangers” and “Shapeshifter” that help to bridge the gap between the present-day, more semi-autobiographical poems and the more traditional fairy tale poems

JJS: People often talk about the music inherent in poetry. Your language is rich with it. What struck me in this manuscript, though, was your willingness to go so directly at the experience of being without it, or being with it when it is not beautiful; an existential realism as gritty as the oldest fairy tale.

 

In “The Shepherd’s Horn, we get these lines:

 

[...] Listen, Murderer.

No one said the music is beautiful.

[...]

What did you expect? The truth is not

melodic, not something to dance to.

 

In “Seven Disappointments (1),” these are the final lines:

 

[...] she cuts off

her finger and turns it inside the keyhole.

Not everything can be set to music.

 
 

In “Lanterns,” of the banished dead we learn: 

 

[...]

The stories say that you can hear them.

That they sing by the lanterns of skinned rabbits.

That the music is what coats the grass with frost.

What allows you to access this realism without flinching, and to stay out of your own way when there might be an impulse to soften or sanitize it?

MS: “Not everything can be set to music” was a really important idea to me in this book. Going back to those Disneyfied versions of fairy tales, there is always sweet music that swells and lets you know that everything is going to be all right. It’s not so different from the horror movie music (or terrifying silence) that clues you in to the slasher hiding right around the corner. But life doesn’t provide a tidy soundtrack to let us know what might happen next, or to let us know we’re safe. In fact, sometimes the cues it gives us are dead wrong.

For me, staying out of my own way often means resisting the urge to micromanage a poem. If I find myself over-revising—tying up every loose end, scrubbing out ambiguity—I need to have the sense to let go and trust the poem. You can revise the life right out of a poem if you’re not careful. In this book I made a conscious effort to loosen my grip on the poems, and I think the strangeness and darkness is a direct result.

JJS: The realism, the visceral truthfulness I’ve been ruminating on in these questions – this all sounds very heavy and dark. And while in some moments the work is (welcome to life), the overall experience of the book is for me quite the opposite: because it is truthful, it effects catharsis, it anneals, it gives relief and light. The final experience of it is deeply kind as lies cannot ever 

Damn, I love this book.

MS: What else can I say to this but damn, thank you! 

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Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview - Reading

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