Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” published in July of 2016, depicts the conflict between the ugly world and the delicate innocence of a child. A mother of two herself, Smith grew up and still lives near the city of Columbus, Ohio. It was there that she explored the various corners of life, trying to discover the true character of the world. However, it wasn’t until she became a parent that she could truly see the world anew, in all its beauty—and darkness. A shooting at a nightclub in Orlando that resulted in the death of 49 people left a particularly strong impression on her, Smith recalls in a 2018 interview. However, it was because of this that she decided to write “Good Bones”—a testimony to the gruesome, often unseen reality of the world; a hopeful call to the next generation; a plea for peace, joy, and lasting harmony.
The opening line of Smith’s poem introduces the repetition of the three words, “Life is short,” signifying, perhaps, that our world is filled with too much violence and hatred to waste any of it. Furthermore, the tone of Smith’s poem is one of thoughtfulness, reflection, and sobriety. A poignant piece that plays on the reader’s emotions, “Good Bones” grapples with injustice and pain, disillusionment and sadness: the price for a true understanding of the world. Upon first glance, the theme ‘ignorance is bliss’ seems to be the dominating message, as Smith seems to preach that enlightenment is often scarring.
Smith’s poem, however, is far from a social complaint. In fact, Smith openly rejected the notion that “Good Bones” is pessimistic—no, her message is one of boundless hope, one of vaulting ambition. Smith doesn’t portray the world as a place beyond rescue, but rather, as a “dilapidated house” that “could be beautiful,” or at least “ma[de] beautiful” by her children, the children of the world (16-17). In this sense, the title is not pointing to the white, calcified bones in the human body(as I originally thought), but rather, at the structure of the community, or even the world. It is with great foresight and high hopes that Smith calls on each of the children of the world to be kind to one another; in return, the world could turn into something much more satisfying. Smith’s message seems simple, repetitive—yet oddly beautiful at the same time.
“Good Bones” was published in 2016, almost four years ago. But especially given the chaos wrought by the novel Coronavirus, its message has never rung truer before: now is not the time for hatred, or blame, or exclusion. We see stores and schools closing around us, and it’s hard not to complain or to assign blame. However, we must remember that the world may seem miserable right now, dysfunctional, like “a real shithole,” as Smith writes, but we, collectively, have the power to make it beautiful(15). We always have, and we always will.