Poet Maggie Smith balances beauty, brokenness in 'Goldenrod'

Smith will appear at a book release event at Gramercy Books in Bexley on Tuesday, Aug. 3

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Maggie Smith with the second best dog in Bexley.

Growing up in Columbus, Maggie Smith spent countless carefree, childhood days exploring the creek that ran through the backyard of her family's home.

“And, when I was a kid, it was a river, because when you’re 6, even a creek is a big body of water,” Smith said during a recent interview at her Bexley home. “We built a stone bridge to get across, because we knew the kids who lived on the other side of the creek. And I’d spend so much time running down the hill, going into the woods at the bottom, playing in the creek and just getting filthy. We’d collect plants to make potions and scoop up whatever we could find: salamanders, minnows, those little water bugs that skate across the top of the water and make little dimples on the surface."

This early connection to nature surfaces throughout Smith’s most recent poetry collection, Goldenrod, out now, for which the writer will read during a release event at Gramercy Books, 2424 E. Main St. in Bexley, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 3. (A limited number of tickets are available online here.) 

That’s not to say, however, that this love of nature has developed in tandem with a greater knowledge of these earthly surroundings. “I’m no botanist,” Smith writes in the book’s title poem. “If you’re the color of sulfur and growing at the roadside, you’re goldenrod.” 

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These natural elements serve varying roles in the poems, sometimes recalling those innocent days of Smith's youth, and other times offering a sense of scale that can make even grownup problems feel minuscule in comparison. “It’s nice to get out of my headspace and be in a place that makes you feel really small, like standing at the ocean or going into the woods, where you feel tiny in a good way,” Smith said. “That sense of perspective, I think, is really important.”

Smith said this was particularly true of the years between 2015 and 2020, when the poems comprising this collection were written, a stretch shaped by the rise and rule of Donald Trump, a growing, warped sense of nationalism, environmental decline and, eventually, a pandemic that shut down portions of society for much of the last year. These troublesome developments bleed into a number of the new poems, including “Animals” (“The president called undocumented immigrants animals”) and “Tender Age” (“America, where does your conscience live? I mean, from where has it been removed?”), among others.

“My concept of what it means to be a human being shifted,” Smith said of the change that has taken place within herself over these last five or six years. “There’s a poem in the book (‘Animals’) where the last line is, ‘I’ve stopped knowing what it means to be human,’ and I don’t know what it is to be human. If we think of ourselves as different or better or more evolved and able to make compassionate choices, then why aren’t we doing it?

“I think for too many years we were patting ourselves on the back, and I think about this as someone who is progressive and liberal, where it’s really easy to pat yourself on the back and say, ‘See? We’re doing the right things.’ And, over the past few years, I’ve had to confront a lot of things, not that just aren’t being done well in general, but that I’m not doing well. What could I be doing differently, not only as a person in the world, but also as a parent, and someone who’s a cruise director for my kids? … I mean, I guess I’m sort of famous as the poet who wrote about shielding her kids from pain and not telling them about the things in the world (in the viral poem ‘Good Bones’). But I don’t actually live by that anymore.”

At the time Smith wrote “Good Bones,” one of her children was a toddler and the other was in preschool, so the desire to protect them from the world’s horrors was understandable. Now that they’re older, however, the poet has engaged them in more complex conversations, navigating a challenging line between wanting to protect them but also wanting to leave them prepared. “I want them to see the beauty and magic of everyday things,” Smith said. “But I also don’t want them to be oblivious to the big issues that we need to work together to fix.”

This tension in many ways defines Goldenrod, which manages to suss out moments of light and beauty even as it acknowledges that the world is broken. “We live in a broken place, and yet it’s a beautiful place. Both are true,” Smith said. “And I think that’s also true of individual people. We’re broken, and we’re also mostly good. And so some of it is just being able to hold those two things at the same time and not lean into it, like, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work perfectly it’s bad,’ or, ‘If we look at all this beauty, how can the world be a bad place?’ It’s both, right? And the reason it’s both is because of the decisions we make.”

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Compared with past works, the language in Goldenrod is lean and conversational, Smith wielding her editor’s pen with surgical skill, excising syllabic flotsam and exposing her inner voice more clearly than ever, complete with the types of tangents and humorous observations that weaved their way into our conversation. At one point, discussing the influence of her parents' record collection on her early embrace of language, Smith noted that some LPs were better for learning metaphor than others — “I’m not sure I got a whole lot from Tower of Power,” she said, and laughed — a conversation that eventually led to the revelation that the final line of Goldenrod (“We must be coming to the chorus now”) was ripped off from the similarly shimmering Pavement song “Gold Soundz.”

“When I first started out writing, I had a clearer delineation in my mind of what a poem should be and what a poem should sound like, and I remember at early readings, I would get up and read my poems, do a little banter, and then people would come up to me afterwards and be like, ‘You’re not at all like your poems,’ and I didn’t know how to take that then,” Smith said. “But what they meant was, ‘You’re funny and sarcastic and you kind of have a dirty sense of humor, and none of that is coming out in the poems, which feel artful and restrained, but not like you.’”

Gradually, over time, Smith has surfaced more of herself in her poems, writing about her children, her divorce and the simple joys of walking her dog through her neighborhood, and her language has grown more conversational to match this subject matter, stripping away some of the more “decorative elements” she said she embraced while starting off as a writer.

“I’m less precious about it than I was 20 years ago, where there might have been an image, or an adjective-noun phrase, or something in a poem that I just really liked, where it never would have occurred to me to get rid of it because it was pretty,” Smith said. “But as I get older and sort of age into my craft, I’m less concerned with these decorative elements and more concerned with asking, ‘How do I get down to the essential thing that the poem is trying to do?’ And then I let the poem be the driver.”