The “We” Behind the “I” in “Good Bones”
by Kathleen Flenniken | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Friday, January 22, Maggie Smith will read and discuss her work at 7:30 pm PST. Tickets to future events in the Poetry Series can be purchased at the SAL website.
A few more scales fall from my eyes with every news cycle. Social movements like Black Lives Matter, and especially, powerful poets writing about identity, have revealed the lie in the “universal” American experience and the “everyman” speaker. There is no universal “I” in America in 2021. Behind every first person speaker there is a shadow “we,” a group defined by affinity, which includes some readers and excludes others.
I believe one great gift of poetry is the invitation to listen. To read poems is to vicariously, but intimately, enter a life of other passions, histories, and proclivities. The word “empathy” traces its etymology to German philosophy; it was coined to describe the human response to art. Though some poets of color question, or even disdain, the value of empathy (Natalie Diaz calls it “one of the most useless things possible—there’s no action that accompanies it”), I know that reading poets of other experience and identity, like Diaz, has shifted the sand where I turn to look back at myself. I can see now the shadow “we” behind me and implied in everything I read.
Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” lit up the internet not once but multiple times in response to tragedies in the news. It was originally published in an online magazine in 2016 where a reader discovered it in the wake of the Orlando massacre, found solace in it, tweeted it, and the poem went viral. You probably know “Good Bones.” It doesn’t address a particular tragedy, nor does it attempt to explain tragedy or point to redemption; instead, it demonstrates one mother’s coping strategy in the face of evil—a self-aware commitment to avoidance. The poem uses two arguments. First:
The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
There is a glass-half-empty spirit to these lines. “Though I keep this from my children” is repeated four times in the poem, which registers as a mother making decisions daily, even moment by moment, to protect her children from the world’s devastations. The second argument follows,
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.
How does a mother justify a terrible world full of senseless tragedies to her children? The real estate metaphor, with its strange brew of cynicism and resolve, ends the poem, as though to beat back the question.
The poem was embraced, reprinted, shared, hearted. But a friend described a backlash of sorts in a workshop. It concerned the poem’s first argument: only a mother whose situation is secure and whose children fit the dominant mold—white, cis-gendered, able-bodied—can afford to keep her children in blissful ignorance. Mothers of Black boys, for example, must teach them about danger from their earliest age. Claudia Rankine relates the words and experience of such a friend: “‘I am so afraid, every day.’ Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be — has to be — so much more careful.”
When I read “Good Bones,” I didn’t immediately recognize the privilege—it had to be pointed out to me. And then I couldn’t unsee it. The shift in my viewpoint did not change the poem or make those readers wrong who saw themselves in it. The effect was to pull the curtain back on the “we” behind the “I.” I could see all the mothers who felt represented by the poem, and I could see the mothers who were missing and hear the poem as they might, with an added dissonant note of unintentionality—as though the poem meant to speak for all mothers without recognizing the privilege inherent in its own logic.
But is it true that “Good Bones” was intended to speak for all mothers? It’s not the poem’s fault that it was floating around Twitter and Facebook with a suddenly enormous audience. Speaking for and speaking to are different aims—I think it’s useful to distinguish the two. Just because there was a rush of readers who shared the poem, identified with it and felt spoken for, it does not follow that all readers would or could. The voice of this mother is particular. She is obeying her need to speak to (I speculate) anyone who will listen. She has the impulse and the wherewithal to protect her children from terrible news—for now. She thinks that “for every bird there’s a stone thrown at a bird.” She is the kind of person who uses real estate as a metaphor for our “shithole” world. Shithole or not, she loves it and wants her children to love it too. Now there: isn’t that the true heart of the poem? That we can love the world and think it’s terrible. That we can think it’s no place for children and have them anyway. I don’t see myself in this mother, but I do feel opened up by any poem that contains and commits itself to two opposite and universal truths.
Maggie Smith’s collection Good Bones, named for the famous poem and published by Tupelo Press in 2017, is an opportunity to explore the “I” and its shadow “we.” What emerges in the collection is a large imagination inside a circumscribed, and yes, particular life. The speaker is living in the same small town in Ohio where she was born. She is the mother of young children. There is no mention of work. She seems to be parenting alone, or nearly so, which is its own kind of house arrest. The collection is tightly constructed using just a handful of recurring free-verse forms, and images that appear and reappear—hearts, honey, air, sycamore trees, the hawk that shadows a series of fable poems that weave in and out of the first-person poems. There are poems addressed to the child—to attempt to explain—and to the self, poems that set scene, and that retrace the familiar town. Lines repeat with small variations that begin to feel like artfully-tied knots. Even words reappear—ocher, for example, to describe the sky, or falling leaves, or air—in ways that contribute to the close atmosphere, though there seems to be no end to the variations made from this small box of materials. The variety feels rich and lends light to the collection, as though the world is fenced in but has the whole sky for wandering. That light arises from excellent craft—and motherlove.
These poems speak to a very particular moment in a mother’s life when she is completely submerged in her young children. One of the admirable qualities of Good Bones is the way it pulls that obsessive thinking out of the mother’s head and reconstructs it whole on the page. Here is the generalized anxiety, disturbed sleep, before-dawn walks (that I never took but imagined a thousand times), the attempts to answer a child’s simple but impossibly large questions, the rekindled love affair with the world and its opposite—fear. “Panel Van” is a sister poem to “Good Bones” in which the mother does tell her daughter about danger,
. . . the one about the white panel van,
the one about the dark sedan, the one I told
my daughter this morning,
the one about the man who’s lost and needs
directions, the one about the man who lost
his puppy, the one that goes come here . . .
There is a white, Midwestern, middle-class stamp on the speaker’s embodiment of fear. That is both the point and not the point. Poems, the way Maggie Smith and so many contemporary poets write them, anchor themselves to a world of objects, routines, neighborhoods, news. The white panel van and the man inside are shorthand to this mother whose fear is abstract and needs to be put somewhere. It would be a mistake to confuse it for every mother’s shorthand. This is the available cliché that receives this mother’s fear—which is real, which can be chemical as well as situational. You, reader, could plug in your own danger, cliché—or not. The poem’s larger insight goes back to that duality found in the poem “Good Bones”:
I told my daughter the one about still loving
the world we live in, the world the man
lives in, lost. Yes, the same world.
Even the lessons in the world of this collection are repeated, just as they are in any house with small children.
This “I” is in the thick of mothering, focused on that world of two. And while there is no end to the ways one can be a mother, there are familiar truths. In the collection’s opening poem, “Weep Up” (which served as the collection’s title until “Good Bones” went viral), it is dawn:
It’s only technically morning. Not even the birds believe it.
From her crib, my daughter tries to wake them, saying weep for wake.
Weep up, birds. What else could silence mean to her but sleep?
We might be the first awake on our street, the neighbors’ breathing still
regular and slow, all the porches lit and moths losing their minds
in that light. Rising, spellbound in the blurry dawn, I become my mother.
Twentieth-century sunrise was just like this—sad, soft-focus
ocher like an overexposed Polaroid. The sun is just now brimming
over the golden edge of the lawn, and dew begins to sizzle there.
In the dark I hear weep up, weep up, birds, until they do.
This “I” regards her child, and morning, and sees behind her her own mother, her own childhood sunrises “just like this,” and I imagine the generation before that one. This is yet another layer of repetition that Smith manages. The rituals of mothering are old as humanity. Morning comes too soon. The child’s imperfect grasp of language is particular and poignant, but also represents the spells children cast on their mothers across time and distance; it recalls misunderstandings of cause and effect, half-learned principles of how to be a human. These precious, revealing, enchanting mistakes somehow help us make sense of ourselves. In “Weep Up,” the “I” does aspire to speak for all mothers, the mother “we,” and I think succeeds.
I remember English teachers slicing away with their red pens at my I’s. They meant to teach me an unbiased, trustworthy, I-less voice to deliver an unbiased, trustworthy argument—like a journalist, or an expert from on high. The voice was smarter than I was. I felt its power to imply unimpeachable truth, whether or not it was earned.
The “I” cannot be excised. The poetry I’ve loved has embraced the “I,” and that’s one reason I’ve been moved to read and write poetry. But let it be acknowledged: there’s more to the “I” than the speaker. Just as encyclopedias ultimately betray human authors, and high school essays are haunted by teacher’s handouts, every poem, first person or not, bears the mark of its particular “we.” The ordinary everyman “I” that was anointed to speak for us all and featured in so many American poems over the last century has been exposed. Robert Frost and William Stafford exemplified the pinnacle of that everyman voice, but theirs was a narrow band of experience—a white, American-born, male we, the original (and exclusionary) “We the People” we. Though that voice was described for so long as universal, it denied the experiences of female, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and immigrant readers—certainly not always, but too often.
Though I’ve broken with the idea of a universal American voice, I have never stopped seeking out universality in poems. As Ayad Akhtar says of his own writing, “I’m working from the particular to the universal and I feel that . . . if I’m not doing that, then the work really only has sociological interest.” The “I” may be particular, and the poem may be grounded in particulars familiar to me or not, but the poems that matter must transcend them. “Good Bones” has consoled and given voice to a large audience of readers, and that’s a beautiful, important gift. It demonstrates a capacity to hold opposite truths at once. Maggie Smith is a fine poet. If “Good Bones” doesn’t break free of its particulars for those who don’t share them, she’s written other poems like “Weep Up” that do.
Maggie Smith is the author of four award-winning books: Lamp of the Body, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and Good Bones, named by the Washington Post as one of the Five Best Poetry Books of 2017. Her most recent book, Keep Moving, is a nonfiction work of quotes and essays.
Kathleen Flenniken is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Post Romantic, selected by Linda Bierds for the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series and published by University of Washington Press in Fall 2020. Plume (University of Washington Press, 2012) won the Washington State Book Award and was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She served as Washington State Poet Laureate from 2012 – 2014.
Cover photo by Evie S.