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"You Could Make This Place Beautiful|Reviewed by Carson Mowry

In 2016, Maggie Smith (the American poet, not the English Dame) started trending on the internet following the publication of her poem “Good Bones.” This instant classic of a poem chronicled the speaker’s struggle of loving the world despite its cruelty and heartbreak, and by teaching her children to do the same.

The final five lines of the poem send the reader’s heart soaring towards this complicated hope that is loving the messy and devastating world we live in, clinging to the idea that ultimately there must be more good than bad. Those lines read,

“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.”

That stunning final line now serves as the title for Smith’s newest release, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful,” a memoir published seven years after the original publication of her most famous poem. This memoir is told through vignettes and other musings, short insights into the author’s mind as she works constantly to process the path that led to her divorce and the kind of path she wants to build moving forward.

Smith is known for gorgeous prose, and this newest book certainly delivers. Almost every sentence is so exquisite that you may find yourself re-reading some of them out of a hesitance to let that thought go and move onto the next one.

Throughout this memoir, Smith constructs a non-linear narrative tracing her life as a graduate student—meeting who she was certain was the love of her life, getting married and having children, miscarrying, learning of an affair, getting divorced, and wholly committing to herself and her children as she boldly moves forward and tries to create the best life possible for their family unit.

Unsurprisingly (she is a poet, after all), Smith tries on many different metaphors throughout this memoir as she works to process her betrayal and grief. If you aren’t a fan of metaphor en masse, you may find those moments uninteresting or overdone, but it shouldn’t keep you from picking this book up. In fact, at the core of every metaphor Smith implements lies the same foundational image: a woman giving herself permission to process her grief and anger in her own time and in her own way.

This book is tender and beautifully-written, and will be a treat for Smith’s new and long-time readers alike. In the same vein as this book’s namesake poem, Smith encourages us at every turn that we have to sell this world to ourselves. When grief and anger and uncertainty loom, Smith asks that we call on hope and lean into everything we know to be good.

What I appreciate most about Smith’s writing is that she never asks us to reach for the rose-colored glasses. Instead, she presents us with everything messy and brutal and cruel, and as we all wait for her to rightfully withdraw and become cynical, she shocks us by choosing informed joy and reminds us that a life well lived is one where we intentionally try to leave the world better than we found it.

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