Patricia Smith Poems

Hit Title Date Added
Hip-Hop Ghazal

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

Fanny Linguistics: Nickole

What people don't know about my name
is that my grandmother gave me that "k"
—my very own unexpected

Black, Poured Directly into the Wound

Prairie winds blaze through her tumbled belly, and Emmett's
red yesterdays refuse to rename her any kind of mother.
A pudge-cheeked otherwise, sugar whistler, her boy is
(through the fierce clenching mouth of her memory) a
grays-and-shadows child. Listen. Once she was pretty.
Windy hues goldened her skin. She was pert, brown-faced,
in every wide way the opposite of the raw, screeching thing
chaos has crafted. Now, threaded awkwardly, she tires of the
sorries, the Lawd have mercies. Grief's damnable tint
is everywhere, darkening days she is no longer aware of.
She is gospel revolving, repeatedly emptied of light, pulled
and caressed, cooed upon by strangers, offered pork and taffy.
Boys in the street stare at her, then avert their eyes, as if she
killed them all, shipped every one into the grips of Delta. She sits,
her chair carefully balanced on hell's edge, and pays for sanity in
kisses upon the conjured forehead of her son. Beginning with A,
she recites (angry, away, awful) the alphabet of a world gone red.
Coffee scorches her throat as church ladies drift about her room,
black garb sweating their hips, filling cups with tap water, drinking,
drinking in glimpses of her steep undoing. The absence of a black
roomful of boy is measured, again, again. In the clutches of coffee,
red-eyed, Mamie knows their well-meaning murmur. One says She
a mama, still. Once you have a chile, you always a mama. Kisses
in multitudes rain from their dusty Baptist mouths, drowning her.
Sit still, she thinks, til they remember how your boy was killed.
She remembers. Gush and implosion, crushed, slippery, not a boy.
Taffeta and hymnals all these women know, not a son lost and
pulled from the wretched and rumbling Tallahatchie. Mamie, she
of the hollowed womb, is nobody's mama anymore. She is
tinted echo, barren. Everything about her makes the sound sorry.
The white man's hands on her child, dangled eye, twanging chaos,
things that she leans on, the only doors that open to let her in.
Faced with days and days of no him, she lets Chicago — windy,
pretty in the ways of the North — console her with its boorish grays.
A hug, more mourners and platters of fat meat. Will she make it through?
Is this how the face slap of sorrow changes the shape of a
mother? All the boys she sees now are laughing, drenched in red.
Emmett, in dreams, sings I am gold. He tells how dry it is, the prairie.


"We do not dig graves or put caskets into graves any longer. The decision was made and funeral homes were notified that families and funeral homes would have to supply grave-digging personnel."
—Ed Mazoue, New Orleans City Real Estate Administrator and Person in Charge of the City's Cemeteries

There's nothing but mud. The ground looks dry and firm,
but underneath is a stew of storm. Stout shovels, rusted,
grow gummed and heavy with what I heft and rearrange.

Progress is slow.

The sun so often steams me shut, and I have to stop
to gulp sugared bites of tea,
flick away sweat with my swollen fingers,
swat hard at sluggish flies who hover,

like they know.

And when I start again, there's a rhythm to it,
some ticking jazz that gets my square hips involved.
I craft a chant purely for downbeat:
Plunge. Push. Lift. Toss it.
Plunge. Push. Lift. Toss it.
My untried muscles blaze,
joints click,
pulse clutches my chest.

Whole clocks later, I pause to relish the feat,
to marvel at the way I've compromised the earth,
how I've been that kind of God for a minute.
But only time has moved.
It's like trying to reach the next world with a spoon.

My boy would have laughed.
Daddy, you better sit down and watch some ball game,
and we'd settle, Sunday lazy,
his squirm balanced on my belly.

He needed what I was and what I wasn't.
Giggling in little language, he lobbed me the ball soft,
walked slower when I was at his side,
shared puffed white bread and purple jelly.
He waited patiently for me after dark
while I shuffled piles of books, looking for
a bedtime drama of spacemen or soldiers,
some crayoned splash to wrap his day around.

But every night, when I opened the door to his room,
all I saw
was a quivering mountain of Snoopys, Blues, and Scoobys.
Underneath them, his happy body could barely cage breath.
Giggles unleashed his toes. My line, then: Where are yoooou?

Plunge. Push. Lift. Toss it.

Plunge. Push. Lift. Toss—

With the dirt balanced high, screaming my shoulder,
I think hard on those nights of tussle and squeal.
I want to feel his heat and twist in my arms again.

I have to dig.

Hip-Hop Ghazal

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.

Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping 'tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.

Engines grinding, rotating, smokin', gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.

Gotta love us girls, just struttin' down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.

Crying 'bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.


I was birthed restless and elsewhere

gut dragging and bulging with ball lightning, slush,
broke through with branches, steel

I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted
a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.

Scraping toward the first of you, hungering for wood, walls,
unturned skin. With shifting and frantic mouth, I loudly loved
the slow bones

of elders, fools, and willows.

The President Flies Over

Aloft between heaven and them,

I babble the landscape—what staunch, vicious trees,
what cluttered roads, slow cars. This is my

country as it was gifted me—victimless, vast.
The soundtrack buzzing the air around my ears
continually loops ditties of eagles and oil.
I can't choose. Every moment I'm awake,
aroused instrumentals channel theme songs,
what I cannot.

I don't ever have to come down.
I can stay hooked to heaven,
dictating this blandness.
My flyboys memorize flip and soar.
They'll never swoop real enough
to resurrect that other country,

won't ever get close enough to give name
to tonight's dreams darkening the water.

I understand that somewhere it has rained.

Prologue—And Then She Owns You

This is not morning. There is a nastiness
slowing your shoes, something you shouldn't step in.
It's shattered beads, stomped flowers, vomit—
such stupid beauty,

beauty you can stick a manicured finger
into and through, beauty that doesn't rely
on any sentence the sun chants, it's whiskey
swelter blown scarlet.

Call this something else. Last night it had a name,
a name wedged between an organ's teeth, a name
pumping a virgin unawares, a curse word.
Wail it, regardless,

Weak light, bleakly triumphant, will unveil scabs,
snippets of filth music, cars on collapsed veins.
The whole of gray doubt slithers on solemn skin.
Call her New Orleans.

Each day she wavers, not knowing how long she
can stomach the introduction of needles,
the brash, boozed warbling of bums with neon crowns,
necklaces raining.

She tries on her voice, which sounds like cigarettes,
pubic sweat, brown spittle lining a sax bell
the broken heel on a drag queen's scarlet slings.
Your kind of singing.

Weirdly in love, you rhumba her edges, drink
fuming concoctions, lick your lukewarm breakfast
directly from her crust. Go on, admit it.
You are addicted

to her brick hips, the thick swerve she elicits,
the way she kisses you, her lies wide open.
She prefers alleys, crevices, basement floors.
Hell, let her woo you.

This kind of romance dims the worth of soldiers,
bends and breaks the back, sips manna from muscle,
tells you Leave your life. Pack your little suitcase,
flee what is rigid

and duly prescribed. Let her touch that raw space
between cock and calm, the place that scripts such jazz.
Let her pen letters addressed to your asking.
You s-s-stutter.

New Orleans's, p-please. Don't. Blue is the color
stunning your tongue. At least the city pretends
to remember to be listening.
She grins with glint tooth,

wiping your mind blind of the wife, the children,
the numb ritual of job and garden plot.
Gently, she leads you out into the darkness
and makes you drink rain.


Hurricanes, 2005

Arlene learned to dance backwards in heels that were too high.
Bret prayed for a shaggy mustache made of mud and hair.
Cindy just couldn't keep her windy legs together.
Dennis never learned to swim.
Emily whispered her gusts into a thousand skins.
Franklin, farsighted and anxious, bumbled villages.
Gert spat her matronly name against a city's flat face.
Harvey hurled a wailing child high.
Irene, the baby girl, threw pounding tantrums.
José liked the whip sound of slapping.
Lee just craved the whip.
Maria's thunder skirts flew high when she danced.
Nate was mannered and practical. He stormed precisely.
Ophelia nibbled weirdly on the tips of depressions.
Philippe slept too late, flailing on a wronged ocean.
Rita was a vicious flirt. She woke Philippe with rumors.
Stan was born business, a gobbler of steel.
Tammy crooned country, getting the words all wrong.
Vince died before anyone could remember his name.
Wilma opened her maw wide, flashing rot.

None of them talked about Katrina.
She was their odd sister,
the blood dazzler.

A Street in Lawndale

i. the old marrieds

But why the moon rose so cruelly, neither of them would say.
Though a listless jazz buzzed obediently beneath their day,
and he had seen the hand-in-hands dotting the dim streets.
And she had heard the morning skillet scorch its Mississippi sweets,
its globs of fat. Now, time to be closer — here, on the verge of May.
But why the moon drooped so cruelly, neither ventured to say.

ii. kitchenette building

We are soft-caged behind streaked windows, our someday plans
grayed and siphoned flat. "Faith" is simply a church sound, not strong
like "factory," "scrubbing the chitlins," or "keeping that man."

But could faith be a blatant gold blasting through dinner's fatty fumes,
its perfumed lure tangling with the smell of twice-fried potatoes
and twist-tied bags of reeking rubbish lining the dark hall?
Fluttering beneath florescent sputter, could faith warm our rooms,

even the walls scrubbed raw with Baptist chill? If we let faith in,
had the mind to carve it a space, keep it Sunday clean,
anticipate its slow glories, beg it to begin?

We can't spare the time faith needs. We don't have that minute.
Since silly wants like hot water require we be practical now,
we wait and wait on the bathroom, hope the warm stays in it.

iii. the mother

Murders will not let you forget.
You remember the children you had — suddenly quarry, target —
the daughters with gunfire smoldering circles in their napped hair,
the absent sons whose screams still ride the air.
You knew the ways of bullets, prayed your child run, outrun, beat
them in their race toward the heart of your baby, your sweet.
You imagine another child cocking the hammer with his thumb,
or blazing the blade forward, harkening the dark that will overcome
you. Never again will you look at a bright, upturned face and sigh,
returning again and again to drown your baby in the mama-eye.

I hear on Kilbourn, on Christiana, the not-there of my children.
I have pushed them flail and wriggle from my tired body, eased
my babies into a world of growl and gun. The breath-suck,
I wailed and prayed, my loves, as rougher mothers seized
you. Now I am newly barren, drained of mother luck,
and you are suddenly far beyond my futile reach.
If I let these frantic streets deny the tender in your names,
if I relinquished you to this city and its unrelenting games,
your end is all I own. If I dared let others govern your deaths,
if I wasn't there to mourn your final blurring breaths,
believe that my loss of you to this was not deliberate.
Though I have no right to whine,
whine that none of the blame was mine,
since, in every world I'm rooted in, you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
you are so much a hollow of the children I made.
But now you are scar on the pavement. I am afraid —
is that the you there is now, how the story of you will be said?
You were born — a gunshot, a swift blade — then you died.
It's too much this way — even the child who killed you cried.
Believe. I loved you all.
Be. Leave me the sounds of still-thudding hearts. I grieve you

iv. a song in the back yard

I've wallowed in the back yard all my life.
I want to slide 'round front
Where it's gold-splashed and guarded and spined fragrance grows.
A girl gets a craving for rose.

I want to go in the front yard now
and far away from these nappy weeds — this alley
too. I wanna see where the well-off children play.
I want some proper fun today.

They do some miracle things.
They have that secret kinda fun.
My daddy says They're uppity, but I think it's fine
how they're tucked in their beds by a quarter to nine.

My mama, with her country ways, try as she may,
will never turn me into a weeds and wildflowers woman,
that's a fact. I only stay up late
on account of all her party folk flooding our back gate.

But that's OK. I think front yard folk are perfect. Really, I do.
And I'm gonna be a righteous woman, too.
And wear a soft cardigan, cashmere trimmed in lace.
And stroll 'round all of Lawndale with this righteous on my face.