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Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 114 pgs.
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Good Bones by Maggie Smith, called “Official Poem of 2016” by Public Radio International, is a gorgeous collection of poems about the transformations that happens in motherhood and how despite the innate need to protect our children, there is no way that mothers can protect children from everything bad in the world. The collection opens with “Weep Up,” in which a young child is crying for the world to awaken — even the birds. This is the reader’s awakening to the life of a mother — connection, a weariness, a protectiveness. In “Sky,” the narrator tries to answer a child’s curiosity about the blueness and expanse of the sky, and in so doing, the narrator envelops us and the child in a comforting embrace: “Think of sky not as blue, not as over,/but as the invisible surround, a soft suit/you wear close to the skin.”

A hawk often glides through the poems, watching the child, guiding the child, and looking out for the child and others as it walks and moves through life. One of my favorite lines is from “The Hawk,” “her notes,//rising easily to him the way an echo/homes to the voice that calls it.//” Smith is a master at describing the indescribable. “Rough Air,” for example, is like “a cat’s tongue/as if the air itself were textured,/as if we could feel its sandpaper/licking our skin.”

One of the most widely shared poem in this collection is “Good Bones”:

Good Bones

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.

Imagine how many times as parents we try to tell our children to be nice to others, to give way to others, to see the beauty in the pollution around us, to see the happiness in the darkness, and how to avoid the reality they can see with their own eyes. Are we all realtors, trying to sell them a dump to live in and provide them with false hope that they can change it? This collection is all of the emotions of parenting rolled up into one — the angst, the fear, the worry, the sadness at this is the world they are given, and our desperation to protect them from it.

From At Your Age I Wore a Darkness

several sizes too big. It hung on me
like a mother's dress. Even now,

as we speak, I am stitching
a darkness you'll need to unravel,

unraveling another you'll need
to restitch. What can I give you

that you can keep? Once you asked,
Does the sky stop? It doesn't stop,

it just stops being one thing
and starts being another.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith reminds us that while we are that protective hawk watching our children and protecting them from harm, we also can only watch them from afar as they learn to navigate the world on their own. Inevitably, they will fall … they will skin their knees, but we can provide them with the “good bones” they need to protect themselves and journey through the darkness they will eventually find in their lives.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (2015); and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005). Smith is also the author of three prizewinning chapbooks. Her poems are widely published and anthologized, appearing in Best American Poetry, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, POETRY, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. In 2016 her poem “Good Bones” went viral internationally and has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. Public Radio International called it “the official poem of 2016.” Her new book, Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, a collection of essays and quotes, is forthcoming in October 2020 from One Signal/Simon & Schuster.

Mailbox Monday #579

Mailbox Monday has become a tradition in the blogging world, and many of us thank Marcia of The Printed Page for creating it.

It now has it’s own blog where book bloggers can link up their own mailbox posts and share which books they bought or which they received for review from publishers, authors, and more.

Leslie, Martha, and I also will share our picks from everyone’s links in the new feature Books that Caught Our Eye. We hope you’ll join us.

Here’s what we received:

If It Bleeds by Stephen King from my mom for Mother’s Day.

The novella is a form King has returned to over and over again in the course of his amazing career, and many have been made into iconic films, including “The Body” (Stand By Me) and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (Shawshank Redemption). Like Four Past Midnight, Different Seasons, and most recently Full Dark, No Stars, If It Bleeds is a uniquely satisfying collection of longer short fiction by an incomparably gifted writer.

Good Bones by Maggie Smith, which I purchased.

Featuring “Good Bones,” which has made a difference to so many people around the globe — called “Official Poem of 2016” by Public Radio InternationalMaggie Smith writes out of the experience of motherhood, inspired by watching her own children read the world like a book they’ve just opened, knowing nothing of the characters or plot. These poems stare down darkness while cultivating and sustaining possibility and addressing a larger world.

 

Lantern Puzzle by Ye Chun, which I purchased.

Winner of The Berkshire Prize for First or Second Book, chosen by D. A. PowellEntranced by time and location and the body’s longings, this is a book of self-translation. Each poem has gone through a transmigration process, as the poet negotiates between her native Chinese and her adopted English, attempting to condense, distill, and expand seeing and understanding.

 

The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir, which I purchased.

Poetry. LGBTQIA Studies. Winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize. Rajiv Mohabir uses his queer and mixed- caste identities as grace notes to charm alienation into silence. Mohabir’s inheritance of myths, folk tales, and multilingual translations make a palimpsest of histories that bleed into one another. A descendant of indentureship survivors, the poet- narrator creates an allegorical chronicle of dislocations and relocations, linking India, Guyana, Trinidad, New York, Orlando, Toronto, and Honolulu, combining the amplitude of mythology with direct witness and sensual reckoning, all the while seeking joy in testimony.

Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker by Phan Nhien Hao, translated by Linh Dinh, which I purchased.

The work of exiled poet Phan Nhien Hao, although he is not permitted to publish in his native Vietnam, is exceptionally well known there. Swaying between poems of the immigrant experience and poems that recollect his homeland’s trauma after the war, his strong, sometimes surreal voice is always intoxicating.

Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen for review from the poet.

The poems in Elizabeth Hazen’s debut collection, Chaos Theories, spring from a unique collusion of science and art in one poet’s heart and mind. In these often elegiac poems, Hazen explores many forms of love — between children, parents, siblings, friends, and lovers. In powerful poetic language and structure, loss is explored, and survival becomes another form of understanding, a way of seeing ourselves and others not as guilty or innocent, good or bad, but as complex, sometimes thwarted beings who are always striving for more wisdom, more empathy, more light. Hazen’s language is elegant, her point of view unflinching, her voice mature and warm.

What did you receive?

Calazaza’s Delicious Dereliction by Suzanne Dracius, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Source: Tupelo Press
Paperback, 114 pgs.
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Calazaza’s Delicious Dereliction by Suzanne Dracius, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson, is a collection of poems written in French and Creole that have been translated into English. Dracius’s poems are very musical, and that musicality is carried over from the French and Creole by Carlson’s English translations.  Looking at the poems sitting side-by-side, readers can see similar rhythmic patterns.  French and Creole are very similar languages, which probably makes translation a bit easier.

Carlson, who I had the privilege of introducing, was at the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival to talk about her work in translation.  She creates sound maps of the poems using her limited skills in French, and from these sound maps she seeks out the best English words to use for the translation, keeping with the subject matter and feel of each poem.  Listening to her speak about the translation process she uses was fascinating, and audience members were thrilled to learn more about it.

From "Pointe des Nègres" (pg. 13-17)

"... from my rod driven
deep in the depths of the sea,
Negroes in lots, in piles were born
over and over again,
cargoes of Negroes
for the auction block,
from my seed in the fizz
of the ocean's womb
when I raped, without shame,
the immense Caribbean expanse."

Dracius’ poems speak to the experience of Calazazas, people who are of mixed race and have read or blond hair.  Dracius, a Calazaza herself, is considered too light to fit in Martinique but in Paris, where she spends some of her time, she is considered too dark.  It is this displacement, a feeling of not fitting in that permeates each of her poems. Her poems also talk of history and mythology and relate those to the experience of displacement, living without a home or somewhere to fit in.

From "To Cendra's Ashes" (pg. 85-89)

Cendra, her name was Cendra.
When he had consumed her in fires of false criminal love, did he look at her face?
The only object of his thoughts was Cendra:
Reduce Cendra to ashes like one is reduced to a slave.

There is unbound love, there is obsessive love, and there is profound loss in these pages, but Dracius handles these with care, shedding light on the darkness and the hope. Calazaza’s Delicious Dereliction by Suzanne Dracius, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson, is puzzle of emotions that will churn in the seas of the reader’s mind, only providing glimpses of hope in a stormy expanse.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Poet:

Born in Martinique, a writer and professor of Classics graduate of the Sorbonne, Suzanne Dracius published in 1989 her first novel, L’autre qui danse, finalist for the Prix du Premier Roman (Seghers ; Editions du Rocher 2007. English translation by Nancy Carlson, Seagull, London, 2015). Her stories, which feature strong, rebellious women characters, have been published in her collection of stories, Rue Monte au Ciel, Coup de coeur FNAC (Desnel, 2003 ; English translation by James Davis Climb to the Sky, UVA Press, USA, 2012). In 2008, Dracius published Exquise déréliction métisse, collection of poems who won the Prix Fetkann (English translation by Nancy Carlson, Tupelo Press, USA, 2015 and Spanish translation by Verónica Martínez Lira, Espejo de Viento, Mexico, 2013). In 2010, Dracius won a Prix de la Société des Poètes Français (Prize of the Society of the French Poets) for its whole work. In 2014, she published Déictique féminitude insulaire, poems.

In 1995, Dracius stayed in the USA as a Visiting Professor, lecturing about her own books at the University of Georgia, and in 2006, at Ohio University. In 2009, Dracius is invited to a writer’s residency at Cove Park (Scotland). Dracius is FFRI (France-Florida Research Institute) Visiting Professor in February 2012.

About the Translator:

Nancy Naomi Carlson, Ph.D. has won grants from the NEA, Maryland Arts Council, and Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County.  Poet, translator, and associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared over 350 times, including Poetry and Prairie Schooner, and forthcoming in APR,  The Georgia Review, and FIELD.  She is the author of three collections of poetry and three translations, including The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper: Translations of Abdourahman Waberi (Seagull Books, distributed by U of Chicago Press).