Monday Jun 24

PatriciaSmith Patricia Smith is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; and Gotta Go, Gotta Flow, a collaboration with award-winning Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her other books include the poetry volumes Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns Big Talk, Life According to Motown; the children's book Janna and the Kings and the history Africans in America, a companion book to the award-winning PBS series. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Baffler, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Tin House and in Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was featured in the anthology Best American Mystery Stories. Smith has collaborated with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Angel’s Pulse Dance Troupe, the Sage String Quartet and singer Meshell Ndegeocello; her one-woman show “Life After Motown,” was produced by Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott and performed in residency at the Trinidad Theater Workshop. She is a Guggenheim fellow, finalist for the Neustadt Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, a former fellow at Civitella Ranieri, Yaddo and MacDowell, and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, as well as an instructor for Cave Canem, the annual VONA residency and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Program.

The Price of the End of It

But now it’s her stooped body in queue for the slab,
her blessed temperature you’re fiddlin’ with, and God’s
holy directive shifts accordingly. Your mother holds
the tasteful funeral home brochures an inch from her
eyes until their horrible words unblur, shakes her head
at the insane cost of the gilded, pall-borne tribute she truly
craves, asks again for whatever’s cheap. May her Lord
forgive you as you just keep shuffling that cremation info
to the top of the pile. You remember how stupidly she
bobs her napped head to the wagging finger of God,
God again, always God, how resolutely she clutches
all the bluish notes in gospel—for her, “the fire next
time” is not a frugal means of disposing of soulless
shells, it is payback for a life clawed together outside
of her savior’s cold little classroom. Oh, never you mind
the lesson she drilled into you after a handgun blasted
your father out of the world, what she said to end your
bouts of snot and fever, your worrisome new habits of
snatching tufts of hair from your own head and screaming
the onsets of dawn—Your daddy’s not in that ol’ body
anymore and you unrolled your eyes just in time to look
that pliant, just in time to make her think you believed her.

Now that she has refused to the neat conclusion of ash,
you are thinking of all the damned reams of paperwork
glorious ceremony requires, the feel of scrawling your
name over and over to officially end her. There will be too
many syrupy, flowers draped over everywhere, the casket
lid flipped open, your oblivious mother’s vaguely
whorish makeup job. You dread the hearse’s eerie creep
through annoyed Ubers, the depressing pit, mourners
sneaking cell snaps, taking note of your absence of ache.
While this strange woman comparison-shops, zeroing in
on the pauper’s special—Girl, what is a cloth casket?
you remember years of screaming her name into a dead
phone after she scrubbed her whole history of your needy
little face. Now that she is frail and beholding, you should
demand that she answer for that kind of love. Or you
can love that way too. Go on. Throw a match into her hair.

Madonna del Parto
Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi

The Angels

We are astonished and teetering in grace. Beneath these
bland folds and blessings that stifle, we are men, scrubbed
clean of cravings and worldly desires, but yet we are wildly
aware of her, her body dumb with impending birth, all that
wrong water shifting, all that virgin housing a doomed
river. We are born to be slave and adornment, fated as
footnote to revelation, tuned to her whimpers and swells.
But neither of us has a name, a stern way to walk through
this impossible magic. Are we to believe that all we’ve
ever wanted wallows in this stoic farm girl, sickly, gossamer,
speaking in tongues from the middle of her body? At night,
her howl, in that harrowing key, reaches to some XXX
we’ve never seen. She rocks onto her back and, through
a jagged rip in the roof of the birthing room, curses with
her eyes fixed on a pockmark in the stars. Her tirade won’t
even echo. The three of us—two vexed angels and a child
housing a tempest—sweat loud inside these overdone
mink walls, waiting for the unfold, the deluge of blood.

We are not allowed to help her. We can only stand beside
her as flat-faced soldiers, deaf to her thirst and odd indigo
explosions. We are not allowed to help her—only to listen
to her mourn the doomed savior looped within her, unborn
but already turning to engine, already far beyond the strained
reach of any mother. We are not allowed to help her. We
only witness as she wakes, bleakly nauseous, and picks at her
meals of oblation and air. We are not prepared to help her,
because we are just flawless cartoons, stamped one from
the other, no hinges at the corners of our mouths, and our
hearts are imperfectly painted. We scuttle to the cold edges
of the circle, as far away as we can scuttle, cowering against
her sacred rumble while we engage in the thankless art
of worship. We are not allowed to covet her, to sway to
her thrashing belly’s ballad, to marvel at the thunder
of milk descending, or to focus suddenly on those perfumed
fingers deciding and un-deciding at the hooks of her dress.

Once these curtains close, we will be paralyzed backdrop,
our hands suited only for the closing and opening of curtains.
She will writhe and bite and claw for penance in the dirt
and bellow as her burst body turns into his first gospel.

When it is over, we pray she will bless us with names.
And those names may tell us what these wings are for.


The Madonna

Cradled in his undulating cage, the Lord is already learning
to die. I feel him breathe just once each night, a music so
ragged I pitch awake just to grieve. I worry my belly
with a shaking hand and he is so perfect, so frighteningly
still, preparing and spurning and dismissing his mother.
My sleep is fitful, although it well out of the weather
and hidden from the condemnation of actual women.
I blare with God-given fever, wrench at my halo, flail
my whole drama. My dream is always the same—womb
splintered and spitting, turning away this stranger.

I have never borne a child or heard another purpose for
this body. Can anyone say what will he do with me
when he is done with the world? I have never been this
huge and historic, judged only for my strength at holding.
These final days, I am merely vessel. I nibble water, hum
against demons and push fingers deep into my swollen feet,
keeping him alive. I have been told that I am utterly
precious in my swelter, that my unsteady bulges, splotched
cheeks and thick ankles are instances of glory. The angels
haunt and adore me, intent on babbling their ribbon of praise.
They haunt and adore me. Their mouths do not move.

The angels know more of me than I am. They know I am
terrified by the thought that he will grow restless and explode
from me, forgetting how human I am. They stand unmoving
during my questions for the sky and my bone-deep weep
when the sky does not answer. They watch me go through
the motions of being the whore I never was, rehearsing the
come-hither, the hooded gaze and sly smile, the measured
surrender and walk that involves the hips. I finger the hooks
of my dress as if there was an unveiling to consider, as if
there was just a shuddering body beneath these blue pleats—
not the kingdom come, not the salvation of the world.

My angels glimpse this little sin, my flirt with absolutely
no one, the worldly walk I conjure before fluid drips down
and does its vile work. Their silence, their useless wings,
insist on my holy. But for just a moment before my strange
son braves the air, they see me as mortal and woman, their
eyes, unblinking, are painted to receive and receive. For
just one wide moment, I am ripe with something other
than what this terrified body is destined to give and give.