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Wife for Scale

by Maggie Smith

This is a tender age—and in geologic time,
hardly an age at all. But a golden band

of rock, pressed paper-thin, will stand
for these years, a kind of scientific

shorthand. Once I had a professor
whose wife was in every photo he took

of rock formations. He’d click through
slide after slide, saying: My wife for scale.

Isn’t there always a woman in the picture
and isn’t she always small in comparison?

Forgive me: that was my grief talking.
Tell me: how do I teach myself to be alone?

The strata for this age will not be the first
to reveal what salt does to stone, as if

a sea had been here and not sadness only.
Tell me: with God a question, where

is solace but in the earth? The soil
I’m standing on in this moment—

even as it shifts beneath my feet, as it gives
and cannot hold me—will be rock.

“Wife for Scale” was inspired by a college geology class and the idea of rock layers representing time in Earth’s history, but the real thrust of the poem—the thing that drove me to the page—was how deeply unsettled I felt. For me, a poem usually starts with a line, an image, or a metaphor, and then—if I’m lucky—I see ways to build upon that piecemeal beginning. The title came to me from that geology class, and I remembered sitting in the back of the dark lab, watching as the professor clicked through slides, so many of which included his wife. It resonated with me at the time, as metaphor: “Isn’t there always a woman in the picture and isn’t she always small in comparison?” I was mid-divorce when I wrote the poem, and I had so many questions: What does this time in my life mean? What will it “add up to”? What might I learn about it later? What is happening that I cannot see but need to trust? The ending was not as hopeful in earlier drafts, but eventually, in revisions, I liked landing on the idea of the unstable ground beneath us becoming stable—and not only stable, but something we can learn from.

Maggie Smith is the author of five books, including Keep Moving, Good Bones, and a new collection of poems, Goldenrod, forthcoming from One Signal/Simon & Schuster in July 2021. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times, POETRY, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and The Paris Review.