Two Poems from Patricia Smith
Poet, performer, teacher, and Cave Canem fellow Patricia Smith has read her poetry all around the world—including South Africa, Holland, the Aran Islands, and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam—and shared the stage with literary greats like Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Joyce Carol Oates, Allen Ginsberg, Walter Mosley, and many others.
The author of six books of poetry, the most recent of which is Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Coffee House Press), Smith’s work has appeared in numerous publications: Poetry, Tin House, The Paris Review, and Granta are only a few. Blood Dazzler, her book on Hurricane Katrina, was also a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and became the basis for a (sold out) week-long dance/theatre performance at New York’s Harlem Stage.
This year, Smith will take part in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s annual Jazz/Poetry concert. There she will perform alongside writers Luis Bravo (Uruguay), T.J. Dema (Botswana), Khet Mar (Burma), and Israel Centeno (Venezuela), backed by musical guests the Oliver Lake Steel Quartet with Meshell Ndegeocello.
Below Sampsonia Way presents “What Garfield Park Kept Saying” and “An Open Letter to Joseph Peter Naras, Take 2” two poems from Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, a collection that has been called “a stunning and transcendent work of art, despite, and perhaps because of, its pain.”
What Garfield Park Kept Saying
No one skated. Of course we couldn’t.
We had very specific ideas about blades,
and our feet were never involved: My mother
absently sucked the loose gold that framed
her left front tooth while slicing into the thickness
of some pig for the necessity of supper. Daddy
carried a quick-flick razor in the side pocket
of pencil-legged pants, just waitin’ for some
fool to get wide on whiskey, slyly palm the ace,
and get cut. In my room off of other rooms,
I danced slowly around the edges of paper dolls,
scared to slip and slice recklessly into blonde flips
or perfect pink legs. The idea of chilly dance,
of a snowy felt skirt with flouncy curled hem,
of lacing up in stiff white leather and scissoring
gracefully on dirty ice past storefront preaching
and gin mills, of lifting up one leg and spinning
like a hot whisper and not even falling, the idea
was hurtful because one more time I had to reach
so far outside my own head to even think that way.
But from the layered gray greenness of the park,
a recorded monotone kicked in, 10 p.m. every night,
droning until dawn: Danger. Do not go on the ice.
Danger. Do not go on the ice. Oh, that’s left over,
daddy said, from the days when young Jews twirled
gleefully into and out of the arms of one another,
passing time while their fathers coaxed thick music
from bulky phonographs and their mothers fiddled
with perfection of place settings. At night, the ice,
suddenly more water than anything, impenetrable
beneath the moonwash, would lure them back.
The recording was a monotone lullaby mean to lull
them to sleep. Because sometimes a starlit skater
would crack the lying surface, flail beautifully,
scream into the pocket of dark, and drown.
During the day, I’d scurry past the line of swings
singing out their rust. Boys leaned toward my
running to whisper a symphony of the word pussy,
and frightening manless mothers arced like rooftops
over their ashy screeching children. I searched hard
for the lost rink, a golden gleam beneath the napped
weeds and slush. One time I thought I sensed a faint
outline, a soft bean-shaped impression, muted and
glamorous, but there was nothing to be resurrected,
no water to freeze and glisten and beckon. The metered
frost of the nightly warning rode uselessly on the air,
continuing to fracture the ghosted dreams of Negroes.
But deep in the thump of December, some of Garfield’s
ice circles turned to mirrors. I was obsessed, standing
then stomping on them, pounding with my full weight,
jumping then smashing down, tempting the fate I’d
been warned about, one more place only beauty could reach.
An Open Letter to Joseph Peter Naras, Take 2
Or, Today’s After-School Special Veers into Explosive Territory
Let me tell you why it never occurred to me to be afraid.
You took off your glasses, and you were perfect, eyes bluer
than any prince written, reachably gorgeous, no hiccup
of light when you stretched for me. No discussion of why
we shouldn’t tangle and pump against your locker between
periods, why I shouldn’t wrap yards of yarn around your
class ring, wear it dripped between new breasts. We snuck
around and about and pretended normal, lying to parents
about meetings and committees, entering the junior prom
through separate doors, boy, damn decorum, I loved you
I know I did because I know some things by now. I know
that your body was a wizened and ill-advised battlefield
against mine, that your mouth was razored, that “I love you”
was a huge and unwieldy declaration, the kind of blue you
immediately unforgive. My parents weren’t yours. They
considered you the naptime-sized American dream, a rung
on the stepladder, the climb every white-capped mountain.
Just be careful, they said, while your father spat blades, said
(these are the words I’ve imagined, slapped with the wide-eye)
I’ll throw you out of my house if I hear about you seeing
that black girl again. Joe, I loved you then, and I love you
still. We are drama born of the truth tell, our tongues so stupid
and urged they continually reached the back of our throats.
Who hates me for actually knowing this? There are hundreds
of songs written about all the things you can’t do at sixteen.
There are a million songs written about what I didn’t do with you.