Poem Beginning with a Retweet
by Maggie Smith
If you drive past horses and don’t say horses
you’re a psychopath. If you see an airplane
but don’t point it out. A rainbow,
a cardinal, a butterfly. If you don’t
whisper-shout albino squirrel! Deer!
Red fox! If you hear a woodpecker
and don’t shush everyone around you
into silence. If you find an unbroken
sand dollar in a tide pool. If you see
a dorsal fin breaking the water.
If you see the moon and don’t say
oh my god look at the moon. If you smell
smoke and don’t search for fire.
If you feel yourself receding, receding,
and don’t tell anyone until you’re gone.
If the opening injunction of Maggie Smith’s “Poem Beginning with a Retweet” sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because the nonsensical threat (you’re a psychopath) harks back to childhood superstitions: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”; “See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck” (and bad luck if you don’t). The connection between the “if” (if you step on a crack, if you drive past a horse, etc) and the consequence is nonexistent. Someone, at one time, just made these rules up, and surely had fun watching silly folks avoid cracks and grab dirty pennies from the ground. Watching tweets go viral must be fun too.
Such superstitions give children the illusion of control. Good luck is yours and bad luck bypassed if you act quickly, usually within seconds. Remember the “Jinx!” game? When two people say the same thing, and the first one to yell “Jinx!” puts a spell of silence on the other? Assuming the horse sighting is made from a moving car or train, there’s only a mere moment to shout “Horse!” before companions label you unfit for civilized society.
Smith takes other ephemeral events, loads them with similar urgency, and fashions new superstitions. Her list of natural wonders to be noticed and called out—rainbows, woodpeckers, dolphins—are all things that come and go in the blink of an eye, or at least, things that are easily missed. Line after wonderful line we see that if we don’t call others to attend to these wonders, something not good will happen. The “not-good” is unstated. Not until the last four lines of the poem do we get an idea of what Smith is threatening. Here comes smoke, here comes fire. Presumably we are in mortal danger.
But the death Smith is talking about is the loss of self, a breakdown of our humanity, a slow receding into—what? Our phones, our screens, the world of tweets? The poem’s playfulness lures us out of the virtual world (where the poem began) into the real one. Smith’s re-tweet becomes a re-making, that is, she makes the world new for us. It’s what poets have always done. Open your eyes, poets tell us. See beauty! See strangeness! Smith goes further and says, Share it. We are all poets or we are dead.
I left the poem at Union Station in Washington, D.C. I remember going there as a little girl—back then it seemed the most beautiful and exciting place I could be. We were seeing off my oldest sister as she boarded a train to New York City. New York City! Glamor! Action! (In reality Ceci was going to the Bronx to teach at an inner city school and live in a convent—she was not a nun, it was just where she was housed.) Train stations have thrilled me ever since. The great domed ceilings, the strange hushed acoustics, the rush of the various and sundry across marble floors, the intimacy of people saying hello and goodbye, the anonymity of standing still and musing if a journey is one of possibility or regret—I love it still. Train stations are such human places. They make me feel alive and expansive, just as Smith feels in her encounters with nature. ‘s
Just have to bring in Ezra Pound here. I see now why I’ve always carried this poem in my heart—
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Maggie Smith, who is not the Dame Maggie Smith, but is more famous than you might think (keep reading), was born in 1977 in Columbus, Ohio. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan and got her MFA from Ohio State.
After a brief stint as a lecturer at Gettsyburg College, she worked for a children’s book publisher and then quit to become a fulltime freelance writer. Her 2016 poem “Good Bones” (reprinted below) went viral following the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was actually named “The official poem of 2016.”
As her fame spread and speaking engagements lined up, her husband had difficulty adjusting and the couple divorced. Smith sees the poem as leading to the end of the marriage. You can read more details (it’s pretty interesting—imagine a poem having such huge consequences!) in this review of her book of essays about her divorce, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful.”
Here’s the marriage-ending poem. Dang it’s good.
by Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. 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.