Everything about Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod (One Signal Publishers, 2021) feels warm. Seeped in floral and faunal language and set against the arcadian landscapes of Smith’s native Ohio, even frigid aspects of the human condition (death, aging, divorce, sickness, motherly fears) feel more approachable and easy to dissect. In her three-part collection of poems, Smith contemplates such universal and confounding concepts as birth, death, motherhood, loneliness, and perseverance: “I’ve started calling the hum / the soul. Today I have to hold / my breath to hear it,” (“The Hum”) “If you feel yourself receding, receding, / and don’t tell anyone until you’re gone,” (“Poem Beginning with a Retweet”) “We birth the new citizens / & answer their bodies with our bodies,” (“Interrogators of Orchids”).
Upon first reading, we can effortlessly and vividly envision Smith interacting with the personifications of her familiar midwestern environment like they are wordless, wisened friends who, quite possibly, hold all great secrets of the universe. In “Starlings,” Smith writes: “Near the river’s edge, one birch holds a knot so much / like an eye, you think it sees you.” In “Junk Trees”: “False spring, too, is junk, not science. It serves us right / for asking trees to tell us the time.” Smith seamlessly blends her own body with the environment, sometimes unsure where the former ends and the latter begins– from “Poor Sheep”: “I’m reading too much / into the landscape again … My skin, / all forest and manifestation / of the interior. You can see / the mountains through me.”
Smith’s three “Marriage/Divorce” poems, which chronicle her divorce and its effects on her children, are sprinkled throughout the collection as brief musings on absence, renewal, and letting go. In the first, she likens her waning marriage to an overgrown backyard: “Late in the season, we sit ankle-deep / in weeds and flowers. In weeds we call flowers.” It is the kind of poem that can be appreciated by divorced parents and their children alike.
Recurring animals, plants, people, and places are diffused throughout Smith’s collection like increasingly familiar, charming characters. However, nothing appears more frequently than her two children; we see them grow, navigate, and “love by questioning” all while unknowingly informing their mother’s craft. Despite their differences in age, each individual seeks to understand their flawed, cruel, and mystifying world. Nonetheless, Smith includes the pain of knowing she cannot always protect them from it. In ”Half Staff” she asks: “Why don’t we leave / the flags at half-staff / & save ourselves / the trouble?”
Undoubtedly, Smith understands the importance of questioning and not knowing. “So often / the mind whispers / to the body, I am not / safe here, & the body / never bothers / to answer. Because / what could it say?” she she ponders in “Half Staff.” In “Poem Beginning with a Line from Bashō,” she asks: “How can something stand / for years, and then–? Just like that? / Where the roof was, all this night.”
By the final pages, instead of answers and conclusions, we find little solaces in how Smith has made peace with her anxieties and herself. In “Bride,” we find Smith “Married less / to the man than to the woman / silvering in the mirror.” Goldenrod offers a view of a mother’s mind with a refreshing dose of uncertainty, though not necessarily without the warmth of optimism.
Alexa White is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the city where she grew up, and is pursuing a BA in Creative Writing with a Studio Art minor. She has enjoyed reading and writing, especially poetry, for most of her life and has had both art and poetry published in UTK’s Phoenix literary magazine.