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Reviewed by:
  • Goldenrod by Maggie Smith
  • Lisa Rhoades (bio)
Maggie Smith
One Signal Publishers
128 pages; Cloth, $20.00

This August after seven hours of hard, cross-country interstate driving, our trip to drop off our first born at college ended with a final hour on winding two-lane rural routes through farmland edged in maple, oak, and hickory. Amish horse drawn buggies hugged the gravel shoulder. We passed metal-roofed white houses displaying fat tomatoes and spears of corn for sale at the end of their driveways on farm stands. And every ditch and the unmown fields beyond were full of goldenrod and other extravagant grasses, a landscape readers of Maggie Smith will recognize. "Look—the meadow is a mirror, full of you, / your reflection repeating … wild yellow, and I would let you name me," the Pushcart prize winning poet exclaims in the title poem of her fourth collection, Goldenrod. In this liminal space where bees visit flowers and weeds alike, the poet demurs "I'm no botanist" but fills poem after poem with "violets and dandelions … crabgrass to clover" using what is at hand, no matter how small, to mend what is broken in the world. The poems in [End Page 21] Goldenrod quietly reassure that "whatever your name is, you are with your own kind."

The book is well suited for these pandemic times, as many poems in Goldenrod are located in loss and terrible destruction simultaneously timeless and immediate. In "Poem beginning with a line from Basho," a barn has burned "to the bones—the rafters on the ground a whale's rib cage." For anyone familiar with Smith's oft-shared poem "Good Bones" the echo can be painful. After all, bones, good bones, are the base upon which that poem pins hope for the future—part sales pitch, part prayer—that "this place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful." The reader of Goldenrod stands at times "in [a] still-smoldering field," contemplating a loss that ricochets across cultures and centuries as shelters and marriages go "up like that—whoosh." Smith's gaze is unflinching "the world I am trying to love is all teeth and need, all gray mange" whatever the subject, but we are not meant to stay focused on pain. The final line of "Poem Beginning …"—"where the roof was, / all this night" directs the reader's gaze and heart back to the poem's opening and Basho's moon-brightened sky revealed by the absent barn.

Sometimes, though, the poems' devastations have no answer as when in "Half Staff" the poet stopped at a traffic light, sees local school kids "in coats & hats / on flag duty in the snow" and wonders "do children / lowering the flag / at an elementary school / know it's for children / shot dead at another?" Life, especially parenting, is full of moments of unseen distress "then the minivan behind me honked. Red to green" and we move on. The intimate details of dropping a child off at school "I … kissed her head, wished her happy birthday, and sent her inside" following the news of the school shooting at Sandy Hook (and every shooting since) speak to the limits of consolation during times of personal and national grief. The mind's lament to the body "I am not safe here" goes unanswered by the body because "what could it say?"

Three "Ohio Cento" poems appear in Goldenrod, one in each section. It's not surprising that Smith would be drawn to this form David Lehman calls an opportunity for writers to "prolong the pleasure" of reading other poets and "revel in quotations beginning with surprise and humor and ending sometimes in clarity and vision." This is Smith's gift even when not reinterpreting the work of others. In the second Cento, Smith uses a line from James [End Page 22] Wright's "The Blessing," but subverts the original with a sharp twist. Wright's famous "Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom" in Smith's hands becomes "I had the thought that if I opened...