“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself” reads the epigraph to poet Maggie Smith’s memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful. Fans of Keep Moving, Smith’s bestselling self-help book based on tweets she wrote during the period following her separation and eventual divorce from her partner of 19 years, will be eager to hear about her search for and ultimate reclamation of herself.
Written as a series of prose vignettes, You Could Make This Place Beautiful recounts the narrative of Smith’s divorce, beginning on the evening that Smith found a postcard in her husband’s work satchel that revealed romantic intimacy with a stranger. This prompted a whirlwind of couples therapy, arguments and reflection on how the relationship had soured prior to the betrayal. She compares their marriage to a fruit whose pit of love is pure but surrounded by rotting flesh. As the images and metaphors for loss gather momentum, the book simultaneously doubles back on itself, asking unanswerable questions: How to heal? How to carry this trauma forward? How to set it down? How to forgive? How to grieve?
As these queries show, this memoir is both the story of the dissolution of Smith’s marriage and also an inquiry into the act of telling that story—how to determine the beginning and the end, how to locate the center, how to represent the brokenness and beauty, and even how to find moments of solace. Music plays an important role throughout this book, and I loved listening to the songs Smith referenced as I was reading. (As it turns out, Smith’s story inspired the song “Picture of My Dress” by the Mountain Goats, which began as a Twitter exchange between Smith and songwriter John Darnielle.) In Keep Moving, Smith addressed the role that art and artists have played in her search for herself, and in You Could Make This Place Beautiful, she offers readers a personal playlist.
Smith’s memoir is a beautiful example of how metaphor and imagery can capture the essence of experiences that are difficult to explain, and it will lead readers to think more deeply about the relationships in their own lives.