“Lit Windows Painting Yellow Rothkos on the Water”

good bones

Late to the party (per usual), I found Maggie Smith’s poetry collection, Good Bones. Reading it, I found themes that resonated with me, especially the fascination with time and how it manifests in the form of poems touching on past, present, and future. Other topics she dwells on include childhood, motherhood, marriage, nature, and love.

For a representative piece, I give you “Twentieth Century,” which originally appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review. Like most centuries (thanks to humans), the Twentieth was pretty ugly, but memory plays interesting tricks, chief among them the propensity to sift out bad and magnify good. Maybe it’s a survival instinct.

See what happens when Smith personifies the Twentieth Century, directly addressing it. The poem has a confessional tone, almost like something out of a diary, something intended for the author’s eyes only but found by another reader, who can’t help but read it.

Twentieth Century
Maggie Smith

I must have missed the last train out of this gray city.
I’m scrolling the radio through shhhhhh. The streetlamps

fill with light, right on time, but no one is pouring it in.
Twentieth Century, you’re gone. You’re tucked into

a sleeping car, rolling to god-knows-where, and I’m
lonely for you. I know it’s naïve. But your horrors

were far away, and I thought I could stand them.
Twentieth Century, we had a good life more or less,

didn’t we? You made me. You wove the long braid
down my back. You kissed me in the snowy street

with everyone watching. You opened your mouth a little
and it scared me. Twentieth Century, it’s me, it’s me.

You said that to me once, as if I’d forgotten your face.
You strung me out until trees seemed to breathe,

expanding and contracting. You played “American Girl”
and turned it up loud. You said I was untouchable.

Do you remember the nights at Alum Creek, the lit
windows painting yellow Rothkos on the water?

Are they still there, or did you take them with you?
Say something. I’m here, waiting, scrolling the radio.

On every frequency, someone hushes me. Is it you?
Twentieth Century, are you there? I thought you were

a simpler time. I thought we’d live on a mountain
together, drinking melted snow, carving hawk totems

from downed pines. We’d never come back. Twentieth
Century, I was in so deep, I couldn’t see an end to you.

Truth is, everything is “a simpler time” when it has the advantage of living in the past. In the wrong hands, this can even be used for nefarious purposes (think: “Make America Great Again”). But in the right hands, it can strike a wistful tone illustrated by a montage of realistic images. Kisses in a snowy street. Opening the mouth a little. Lit windows painting “yellow Rothkos on the water.”

If you, too, are a product of the Twentieth Century, what belongs to the speaker becomes partly yours. Because the century of your birth is capable of two-timing more than one person.

Thus the appeal of poetry — how it is individual yet universal at the same time.

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