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'You Could Make This Place Beautiful' is a poet’s look at the sadness and self-discovery of divorce

Devon Albeit Photography

At the start of her new memoir, poet Maggie Smith explains that it’s not a tell-all, “because ‘all’ is something we can’t access.”

“There’s no such thing as a tell-all, only a tell-some — a tell-most, maybe,” Smith writes. “This is a tell-mine, and the mine keeps changing, because I keep changing. The mine is slippery like that.”

“You Could Make This Place Beautiful” explores the disintegration of Smith’s marriage. It begins with the discovery of her husband’s infidelity and continues, in lyrical vignettes, through her heartbreaking journey toward divorce and its aftermath.

Smith is a poet — a good one — and this memoir is a lush but unflinching look at the anger, grief and sadness she experiences as her marriage falls apart. A coming-of-age in middle age. Smith’s fierce love for her two young children is unwavering, but she struggles to accept and love herself.

The title comes from the last line of Smith’s poem, “Good Bones,” which went viral in 2020 and elevated her to “America’s poet of hope in hard times.” She didn’t know then that her personal hard times were just starting. Some of the best parts of this memoir are following Smith’s thought process as she reckons with contemporary motherhood, noting the guilt she felt whenever she’d leave home to promote her work. Her husband, meanwhile, traveled often on business, and “he didn’t need permission to do his work,” Smith writes. “He didn’t have to ask me to ‘cover for him’ … since that is precisely what I’d done all along.”

What’s lovely is how Smith eventually realizes, as many divorced people do, that divorce can be a beautiful new beginning. “It’s okay to put away the sad trombone,” she writes. “It’s okay to show up as your whole self, to come as you are.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.