From the poems of Maggie Smith

This is the first installment of a series, by Pedro Poitevin, dedicated to the translation of poems.

Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones”, just published in the summer volume of Waxwing magazine, went viral just days after the June 12 shooting in Orlando. After the defeat of the Democratic party in the November elections, the poem has taken a second round on social networks. I don’t remember exactly which way I found him, but since I had been reading Seneca and had “The Brevity of Life” in mind, the poem caught my attention. Once translated, I contacted Maggie, who not only gave me permission to publish this version but also gave me a short interview. I also translated another Maggie poem entitled, in English, “At Your Age, I Wore a Darkness”, which appeared in August of this year in Nashville Review.

Pedro Poitevin

Good skeleton

Life is short, even if I don’t tell my children.

Life is short, and I’ve been shortening mine

in a thousand delicious and foolish ways,

a thousand deliciously foolish ways

that I will not trust my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that estimate

It is conservative, even if I do not trust it to my children.

For every bird that flies, there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every beloved child, a broken, bagged child,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every gentle

Stranger, there’s one that would break you

even if I don’t tell my children. I’m trying

to sell them the world. Any good real estate agent,

as he walks by your side through a sty, pia

About a good skeleton: This place could be nice

no? You could make this place nice.

Maggie Smith
Spanish version of Pedro Poitevin
(Original version in Waxwing).

At your age I wore a darkness

several sizes very large. I was hanging

like a mommy dress. And now,

as we speak i’m sewing

a darkness that you will have to untangle,

and untangling another that you will have

to sew again. What can i give you

that you can stay You asked me once

Does heaven have an end? No, it has no end,

it just ceases to be a thing

and it begins to be another.

Sometimes we hold hands

and we throw our heads back

for blue to fill our entire field

of vision and thus feel

that we are part. We have no end

we just stop being what we are

and we started to be what?

Where? What can i give you

to take there? Are these shadows

of leaves, that floor of the comfort?

Is this soft second-rate darkness

hand? What can i give you

may it be useful to you in your second life,

that you will have to live without me?

Maggie Smith

Spanish version of Pedro Poitevin

(Original version in Nashville Review).

Pedro Poitevin (PP): When I read Good skeleton For the first time, Maggie, I said to myself, “This is, in part, a poem about the art of persuasion.” I, too, have heard real estate agents repeat set phrases for the purpose of reassuring and persuading a potential buyer. But in this poem the repetitions reveal a deep ambivalence, don’t they?

Maggie Smith (MS): For me, using repetitions in a poem is a way of holding an idea and turning it over in your hands to see its different aspects. Each repetition reveals a new facet to me, a new surface. In this poem, it could be said that the main issue of the character is just his ambivalence in the face of the world. The world is, in many of its aspects, cruel, dangerous and unjust. But here we are. This is our home. How can we make it a more benign, less dangerous, more just world? We must do it? What is the alternative?

PP: I think one of the reasons the poem has been so well received is that you feel very comfortable inside: it is a home. Is there anything you can tell us about the composition of this poem?

MS: I wrote the poem a year ago, and I did it in one sitting, which doesn’t happen often with me. My poems go through different phases of construction, construction and reconstruction that last months, and even years. But this poem, as I can see when I reread the original, has undergone two minor alterations from its first draft to the final version. I don’t remember much of the process of writing the poem, except that I was sitting in Starbucks with a notepad, and that I began to write “Life is short, even if I don’t tell my children.” It amazes me how complete the first draft was.

PP: When i translated Good skeleton I was reading “On the Brevity of Life” by Seneca. I don’t know what the Stoics would or would not have advised children to say, but one of the reasons I loved the poem is that it seemed like a delicate and balanced way of revealing to your children – who will one day grow up and read the poem – that the shortness of life is important, that despite the moral ambivalence of the world in which we live, it is precisely the shortness of life that pushes us to have faith in the final sentence of the poem. By the way, I recognize that this reading of mine is influenced by the other poem of yours that I translated: At your age I wore a darkness.

MS: I appreciate that nice reading. At your age I wore a darkness is a poem that I wrote to my daughter –or at least with my daughter in mind– thinking not of the effect the world is going to have on her (as in the case of Good skeleton) but the one that I am going to have. It’s something I think about very often: how and how much of our brain chemistry, personality, inhibitions, traumas, etc., do we inherit – either naturally or culturally – from our children?

PP: Thank you very much, Maggie. To conclude, can you recommend some contemporary poets?

MS: I read a lot of contemporary poetry, so my list is very long, but a short list would go something like this: Brenda Shaughnessy, Jorie Graham, Natalie Diaz, Tracy K. Smith, Charles Simic, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Carrie Fountain, Ada Limon, Dean Young, Ross Gay, Natalie Shapero.

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This is the first installment of a series, by Pedro Poitevin, dedicated to the translation of poems. Some of the deliveries will appear, as in the case of this one, accompanied by a conversation with the author.

If the reader wishes to propose a version, Pedro will be reading proposals sent to elartedetransigir@gmail.com. We will only publish versions that have the translation and publishing permissions in order.

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From the poems of Maggie Smith