What Can I Give You?

April 10, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Anna Lena Phillips Bell on “Love Poem” by Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith’s “Love Poem” seized me on first read—both because it’s made of fine, strong sentences that move between lines and couplets with ease, and because it offers an answer to one of my preoccupations. It’s ever harder to write something meaningful about the particular places we know, much less the whole planet: to fit into the space of a poem the fear and hope, the terrible goings-on (climate change, mass displacement of people, loss of biodiversity) that I frequently, guiltily, fail to keep in my awareness. “What can I give you?” the first line begins, almost plaintively, a question you might ask a lover or a family member. The remaining nineteen-and-a-little lines change the terms, bust out the scale, so that the love we’re taught to show for things roughly our own size and shape can be earth-big.

Reading and rereading the poem, I was surprised when another work came to mind: a puppet show my mother made when I was very young, based on the 1958 children’s book by Palmer Brown, Something for Christmas. My family spent part of the winter holiday, those years, at the old hotel my cousins owned and ran, which hosted a Christmas Eve celebration for its guests, replete with a Swedish Christmas feast, singing of carols and dancing around a tree, a nativity pageant, stockings for everyone to open in the morning. My parents performed this puppet show many Christmas Eves in a row, hunching behind a small cardboard puppet theater, reading from a well-loved copy of the book, and enacting the story with puppets my mother had sewn of a deep-brown velvet, black threads for whiskers. The mother mouse wore a calico dress with an eyelet collar, the child mouse a sort of nightdress (it being hard for hand puppets to wear pants).

My father, his legs stretched out behind the puppet theater, making his body small so the body of the puppet mouse could be believed, turned his normally low and booming voice into a squeaky one, filled with concern and indecision. “I am wondering what to give—someone—for Christmas,” the mouse frets to his mother, a time-tested variation on “asking for a friend.” It’s a task he wants with all his body and heart to do well, for a someone so important he fears he’ll never find a gift that’s big, right, fitting enough. My mother, hiding herself compactly behind the theater and curtains, becoming the mouse mother, made her voice—normally not one to be ignored, but fairly quiet—clear and audible to the whole audience of children in their Christmas best. The child mouse proposes various ideas, only to discard them; the mother, asking gentle questions, helps him think about them each.

Something for Christmas ends around where “Love Poem” begins—love, it turns out, is what the mother mouse would most like to receive. Without the benefit of a conversation with a sympathetic other, but with the benefit of her own experience—as a mother, as an observer of the world—the speaker shows us the same struggle, imagining what she might offer to one whose knowledge and problems are so much vaster than her own. “I can’t make you a sea,” she writes. “I can’t assemble / a forest…”

Like many well-wrought things, the poem’s craft seems so skillful as to easily go unnoticed, and at the same time almost too evident to need mentioning. The poet is folded up behind the cardboard puppet theater; her voice projects a familiar authority and we are utterly taken in, no matter how itchy our Christmas clothes. Sentences play over lines via fine enjambments: “You have more children than you can feed, / more than you can keep alive. Every day // you lose thousands…” A near-regular iambic pentameter line outlines the ocean’s mountain ranges, and triple meter climbs into shorter lines and sentences—“You have all the cranes you could want, / feathered or folded from paper…”; “No wonder the numbers mean nothing…” The poem’s last line, with its reflexive myself, its four beats and final anapest, feels almost curtal, in any case matter-of-fact, modest, an understated wrapping for the gift it bears.

If there is any change poetry can make, it happens in poems like this one, which enact a speaker’s transfiguration and cause a little of the same in the reader. The fuel that seems so easily used up—of concern for something so big we can barely think of it, for something that sustains us and is threatened by us—is replenished on each read. I haven’t quoted the poem’s ending here; its fierce and quiet certainty is best felt reading the work in full. I still don’t quite understand it, and I adore it. It calls to mind more lines I’ve been hearing since childhood, these from Meher Baba, in The Everything and the Nothing: “Understanding has no meaning. Love has meaning.”

This is one mean love poem. Dear planet, in that regard at least, you are in luck.

Anna Lena Phillips Bell is the author of Ornament, winner of the 2016 Vassar Miller Prize. Her other projects include A Pocket Book of Forms, a travel-sized, fine-press guide to poetic forms. The recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship in literature, she teaches in the creative writing department at UNC Wilmington, where she is the editor of Ecotone and edits manuscripts for the magazine’s sister imprint, Lookout Books. She lives with her family near the Cape Fear River, and calls Appalachian square dances in North Carolina and beyond.

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