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Marginalia: Maggie Smith On Her Poetry Collection 'Goldenrod'

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Devon Albeit Photography
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Maggie Smith’s poetry has been described as intimate and direct. “Poems that stare down darkness while cultivating and sustaining possibility.” She is the author of five books, and her new collection, Goldenrod, celebrates the beauty and messiness of life.

I recently spoke with Maggie Smith about this new collection. During our conversation, she recited three poems from the collection, printed here with permission from One Signal/Atria.


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Tender Age

America, I've heard the audio:
papa, papa, papa [unintelligible]
[inconsolable crying]

America, my childhood neighborhood
was called Freedom Colony.
I lived on Liberty Lane.

America, you are grand
in theory, poor in practice.
You are not what I learned
in grade school.

America, I'm proofreading
a book on your Constitution.
I'm considering the letter
of the law, the spirit of the law.

America, you've caged
even the babies. They cry
mostly in Spanish.

America, this is you.

America, what I miss most
about church are the hymns—
everyone singing the same word
at the same time. Even the bells
rang in unison.

America, I'm wondering
who your laws serve, the living
or the dead.

America, are there cribs
for the babies? Bars within bars?

America, where does your conscience
live? I mean, from where
has it been removed?

America, as a girl I rode my bike
around the cul-de-sacs: Lexington,
Bunker Hill, Valley Forge.

America, I can pick the stars
and peel the stripes right off you.

America, I'm considering
the letter, the spirit.

America, there is no substitute
for conscience. I can still feel
the bells in my hands.

America, this is us.

America, we have taken children
from their mothers. We have separated
words from their meanings.

America, will there be neighborhoods
named for this undeclared war?

America, where are the babies?

America, when we want to silence
the bells, we extinguish
their open mouths
on our chests.


Goldenrod

I'm no botanist. If you're the color of sulfur
and growing at the roadside, you're goldenrod.

You don't care what I call you, whatever
you were born as. You don't know your own name.

But driving near Peoria, the sky pink-orange,
the sun bobbing at the horizon, I see everything

is what it is, exactly, in spite of the words I use:
black cows, barns falling in on themselves, you.

Dear flowers born with a highway view,
forgive me if I've mistaken you. Goldenrod,

whatever your name is, you are with your own kind.
Look—the meadow is a mirror, full of you,

your reflection repeating. Whatever you are,
I see you, wild yellow, and I would let you name me.


Talisman

They look like gifts a crow might bring
a human girl, desperate to impress her.
In the left pocket of my thrifted emerald coat:
a scuffed acorn, a glassy black stone,
one pink Mr. Potato Head ear.
When I touch them, I can believe
almost anything. Who’s to say
they can’t keep me safe? Who’s to say
a bird can’t court someone’s daughter
But in this life it’s my son who shows
his love like a creature that clever,
leaving treasures for my fingers
to worry against. I carry them like
anything I love—until they warm in my palm.
Until I believe. Walking alone at night,
the sky feathered blue-black and slowly
folding over me, I pocket my left hand
and tell myself a story about my life,
a story I call “Talisman,” a story
that might end well if I tell it right.


Goldenrod by Maggie Smith was published by One Signal Publishers, a division of Atria.

The poems read by Maggie Smith are excerpted from Goldenrod published by One Signal/Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Maggie Smith. The text of these poems is included online at kmuw.org with permission from One Signal/Atria.

The audiobook edition of Goldenrod is read by Maggie Smith and published by Simon & Schuster Audio. Copyright © 2021 by Maggie Smith.

And here's that Tweet from NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

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Marginalia was produced at KMUW Wichita.

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Beth Golay is KMUW's Director of Marketing and Digital Content. She is the host of the KMUW podcast Marginalia and creator of the podcast You're Saying It Wrong. You can also find her on Wichita Transit in conversation with other riders for En Route, a monthly segment on KMUW's weekly news program The Range.