“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight, and the meanest of them sparkled.”
Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Last week, I visited Andalusia, the house and former dairy farm where Flannery O’Connor lived with her mother from 1951 until her death in 1964 at age 39. Flannery completed most of her writings at Andalusia, having to return home as a result of her lupus diagnosis. The disease, less treatable in the 1950s and 60s than it is now, would eventually cripple her, and complications as a result of her illness led to her death at age 39. Just north of Milledgeville, Georgia, the acreage is a pastoral oasis of sorts. Visitors to Andalusia can tour the house for a small fee, walk the grounds, and explore the outbuildings. Flannery is my favorite fiction author, and this is the third time I have visited Andalusia–but my first time visiting since Georgia College and State University took ownership of it in 2017. The college has committed to restoring and repairing the house and outbuildings as well as preserving the original furniture. In Flannery’s bedroom, the crutches she used are propped against her writing desk, and two of her dresses are on display, along with photos of her wearing them. It is always eerie and emotional for me to be there, and this time was no different–although the outbuildings, including the farmhands’ cabin, seemed particularly resonant to me this time. The day was only mildly cool, but the crispness of the air and the dampness of recent rain seemed fitting for a winter pilgrimage, as did the quiet of a walk around the grounds. The afternoon December light cast everything in a golden glow appropriate for a holy experience.
“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. ”
I am writing this on a Sunday morning as Hurricane Ida begins to bear down on Louisiana. I am three hours east of New Orleans, and the tame shreds of Ida’s outer bands are now slapping the windows. My children are still asleep in their beds, having not been woken by the tornado warning announcement screeching from my phone. And, they are, for the moment, still healthy—in the midst of a pandemic surge that is ravaging our community and schools with all the violence of a Category 5.
These things are on my mind as I again pick up Maggie Smith’s latest poetry collection Goldenrod. I bought it several weeks ago when it came out. Like many, I first encountered Smith when her poem “Good Bones,” first published in Waxwing in 2016, went viral following the Pulse nightclub shooting. The climactic trope of the poem is that, like a desperate realtor, the speaker tries to “sell” this crumbling, broken world to her children as salvageable, a fixer-upper of sorts. “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful,” she insists, and I found myself weeping at Smith’s echo of the simultaneous despair and hope that every day as a parent brings me.
As the rest of 2016 unfolded, the poem only became more prescient. Now in 2021, the poems in Goldenrod find themselves at another apocalyptic intersection, both global and personal. Smith is keenly aware that other mothers’ babies are in cages (“Tender Age,” “Animals”), other mothers’ sons shot senselessly (“Airplanes”) as she looks at her own children. The pandemic and Smith’s divorce permeate the collection with an ache of loss that leaves room for something new: there are good bones left, even at the apparent end of the world. Smith neither wallows in doom nor proposes a pat solution: in “Wild,” the speaker admits, “I’ve talked so much about loving the world/without any idea how to do it.” Yet these poems are a love letter to this broken world, and their subjects range from the stars to the contents of her son’s pockets.
This is a book full of wordplay, philology, and topography; its various mappings range from a children’s atlas, to a smartphone’s autocorrect suggestions, to a planetarium, to the jagged curve of last year’s coronavirus graph. Yet its true subject is ultimately ineffable, unmappable: Goldrenrod is at once a taxonomy of existence and a meditation on those things that defy or destroy structure. These poems are fixated on the idea of home in the broadest sense, though it is at home that we are most likely to feel the Otherness of ourselves. Likewise, it is in naming things that we most notice the inadequacy of our words, our categories. Good poetry has always probed this paradox, and these poems invite those epic questions into an intimate, honest exploration that somehow hedges both sentimentality and bitterness. While the world is “not waxing pastoral. There is too much/now at stake” (“in the Grand Scheme of Things”), these are nevertheless deeply pastoral poems, rooted in the particularity of local and domestic spaces that have so much at stake themselves. And the faith that emerges from these poems is not glib—it is prompted by doubt: in “Confession,” the speaker does confess, “My son’s terrible fevers are softening me/to God.” In “Invisible Architecture,” she asks, “what is held/by this scaffolding/I can’t yet see?”
And it’s hard to see the scaffolding these precarious days. I think about my own children, safe (for now), while other mothers’ children are in the path of a storm or lie in hospital beds. My children will inherit a broken climate and a broken nation. It is easy to despair in the face of so much danger, so much loss—and proper to mourn with those who mourn. But, as Smith says in “How Dark the Beginning,” “let us/talk more of how dark/the beginning of a day is.” Indeed, all of these poems in some way peek around the edges of the known world; as the speaker admits in “Threshold,” “You want a door you can be/on both sides of at once.” I know that I can’t be on both sides. But poetry helps me to survive and sometimes celebrate these liminal spaces, anticipating the other side through my dread, enabling me to “see” Others, as in the book’s titular poem, and recognize myself. In the book’s arguably most moving poem, “Bride,” the speaker finds her identity not in the conventions that have previously defined her, but in herself: “I am my own bride/lifting my veil to see/my face. Darling, I say,/I have waited for you all my life.” Likewise, in “At the End of my Marriage, I Think of Something My Daughter Said about Trees,” when a tree is felled, the sky “colors the space blue/because now it can.” In this veil of darkness and in these storms, we can wait for these spaces, these selves, to become the colors they were meant to be.