In the highly anticipated memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, poet Maggie Smith works to unravel the demise of her marriage, all the while clarifying that doing so could never be an exercise of cold calculation. As Smith notes, “This book you’re holding is not powered by anger, but by curiosity and a desire to understand.” The memoir is structured in tight essays and vignettes. There are no vague asterisks, but titles, clear rooms of prose that speed up the pace of the book and make it hard to put down. In this way, the memoir taps into motifs across Smith’s body of work, in which she delineates the intensity and conflicts of life through a litany most clearly evidenced in the tweets that eventually inspired Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change. The anaphoric current across Smith’s work is movement, especially for women and mothers, who keep moving not just for their children but for themselves.
Smith narrates a journey of divorce and a reawakening self that will have many women and mothers nodding with vigor. Just as she has become a viral sensation with the global dissemination of her poem, “Good Bones,” she discovers infidelity in her marriage. The main themes in Smith’s memoir are the shaping of truth for self and others, the stark break of betrayal, the sexism of familial labor connected to individual professional success in the United States, and the journey of shame, grief, and self-efficacy that marital breakdown can bring.
First, the truth: so often we are told to keep things from our children. Simultaneously, the genre of memoir lends itself to questions of memory and how we shape our stories and truths as a pedagogy for coping with what is almost always perceived from the conventional outside as failure. Even as they move through the often painful divorce process, parents must hold themselves to normative standards, not just professionally but in their own homes, with their children. Parents going through a divorce are advised (sometimes threatened) by ex-partners, family members, therapists, mediators, lawyers, or the odd guardian ad litem to protect their children from the ugliest parts of the process, and they are counseled to keep any sins under wraps for “the best interest” of children. Smith deftly moves in and out of this implicit question of truth and the capacity of children to love their parents in spite of the truth. One of the motifs of this memoir is the idea of whether or not Smith is allowed to tell her story the way that she knows it, and whether or not her children will be allowed to hear it. Readers will feel how Smith’s “hands are burning” from everything that surrounds and attempts to qualify or cordon off a mother’s storytelling. But Smith finds a way to embrace the right to tell the truth: “I don’t believe in secrets or lies as ‘protection’ because secrets rust.” After all, children are savvier and more observant than the dry policies of litigation allow.
In her writing, Smith seeks to move outside of these limitations. She notes through the memoir that rehashing these events for her own understanding is not meant to convey that she is the one on the side of moral righteousness. This isn’t a vengeance text. It’s so relatable, in fact, that it points to something many mothers, healthily partnered or not, can fully understand. A focus on culpability in the case of Smith’s ex-husband’s infidelity is too simple, for a long-term relationship holds infinite crevices. An affair can offer a relatively clean break, a crossing that tidily rationalizes two people walking new paths if the incident splits their partnership. As Smith notes, “Betrayal is neat because no matter what else happened—if you argued about work or the kids, if you lacked intimacy, if you were disconnected and lonely—it’s as if that person doused everything with lighter fluid and threw a match.” An affair won’t explain the months or years of heaviness that two partners can’t quite pinpoint, or how such weight becomes indiscernible. It won’t explain the “shift” where “The Wife becomes more mother than wife,” or the often sexist distribution of familial labor that can unbalance a partnership. An affair won’t explain the slow build-up of sacrifice on the part of an artist mother and wife whose rise on social and public media causes discord with her husband.
Though Smith was experiencing professional success, she writes, “I made myself small, folded myself up origami tight. I canceled or declined upcoming events: See, I’ll do anything to make this marriage work.” Smith gives up parts of herself to try to keep her marriage together: “What would I have done to save my marriage? I would have abandoned myself, and I did, for a time. I would have done it for longer if he’d let me.” These attempts to keep her family together are resonant with the shame one can feel during the breakdown of a marriage. Marriage, after all, is supposed to work. And traditionally, women and mothers who divorce are made to feel that they have failed. I recall the initial moments of my own lengthy divorce: embarrassment and shame. I felt it was a sign of my failure that I could not fix something I was not fully responsible for breaking. But throughout the book Smith reminds readers that this is not about assigning blame or even understanding the causes of marital breakdown: “I worked quietly to fix [the marriage] so no one would know it was—we were—broken.” Marriages often fail when they are long past saving.
This memoir is also a reminder of how sudden a break from an intimate partner can be, how navigating the divorce process through the court system causes all of that intimacy to peel into detachment, and how this then affects the ability of former partners to demonstrate emotion or take responsibility for their role in the divorce. Smith’s publication of a Modern Love column in the New York Times illuminates this, as her ex-husband’s lawyer demands she pull the piece before publication. Her ex-husband then reviews the piece, redlining even the most mundane details, such as that he would work long hours, and asking her to eliminate a passage where she’s crying. He revises other details, such as changing “the recycling at the curb” to “the recycling my husband took to the curb.” This response demonstrates how inept and unfeeling the legal system of family court can be in the midst of a divorce process, and how much it can affect communication with ex-partners. As Smith writes, “The man I’d befriended in a writing workshop tried to delete my grief on the page . . . . I spent more in legal fees defending my right to publish that essay than I was paid for that essay. And the tears? I stetted the tears.”
What is astonishing and hopeful about this powerful memoir is that Smith is not just careful, but passionate, about ensuring that readers understand that she has every right to tell this story. Navigating betrayal, shame, and grief through the telling is how Smith, and so many of us, stet the tears and keep moving.