by Patricia Smith
Coffee House Press 2012
Reviewed by Nick DePascal
“No push, no prod, no bitter magic pill / could lift us to its light.”
In her new poetry collection Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Patricia Smith employs the skills and strategies she used to address Hurricane Katrina in her 2008 National Book Award nominee Blood Dazzler. This time, she focuses on the mid-century migration of African Americans from south to north while skillfully touching on issues of family, race, sexuality, and music. Taken together with Blood Dazzler, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah exhibits a poet not only talented in her craft but passionate about subjects that push the personal beyond the self and into the realm of the social and political.
Smith, a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, demonstrates orality and music in her new collection. Many poems rely heavily on sound sense and create beautiful tapestries of meaning built from the music of lines as much as the actual content. Take, for example, the opening lines of “A Colored Girl Will Slice You If You Talk Wrong About Motown”:
The men and women who coupled, causing us, first
arrived confounded. Surrounded by teetering towers
of no, not now, and you shoulda known better, they
cowered and built little boxes of Northern home
Or these lines from “Jumping Doubledutch,” one of several poems that accurately captures the danger just below the surface of adolescence:
Calves go chaos under pounding,
clothesline raises welt and bloodies
shin and ankle, hip and forearm
while we throw down nasty verses
The musical and lyrical qualities of these lines seem to mimic the rhymes of the doubledutch verses themselves and communicate the vivacity and reactionism of youth.
Smith also works comfortably within in a variety of forms throughout the book, including a triumphant, beautiful, and heroic crown of sonnets titled “Motown Crown,” which closes the collection. The sonnets meditate on Motown’s influence on a young generation and the unrealistic expectations of love and appearance it engendered, exemplified in the seventh sonnet of the crown:
And yes, we still
felt nappy, awkward, strangely out of place
while Motown crammed our eager hearts with lace
and storylines. Romance was all uphill.
No push, no prod, no bitter magic pill
could lift us to its light. And not a trace
of prizes they said we’d already won.
The difficult form works its magic through the mostly unobtrusive and deft use of rhyme, but even more so through the universality of the subject. The names and lyrics she drops into the poems–Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson–build a luscious and vivid atmosphere. And what adolescent hasn’t felt the same sort of kinship and betrayal with one or another genre of music in their lives? Whether Smith works with form or free verse, she connects her original work to traditional human themes: coming of age, first sexual experiences, troubled family situations.
What makes these traditional human themes stand out, though, is their particularity to the mid-century migration of African-Americans from south to north. The first section of the book most clearly shows both the promise and problems the North, specifically Chicago, held for newly arrived African-Americans. In “Annie Pearl, Upward,” our speaker, from Alabama, holds forth on its promise: “Chicago. She’s heard the craving out loud, the tales of where money runs / like water and after you arrive it takes—what, a minute?—to forget that Alabama ever held sweet for you.” “Otis and Annie, Annie and Otis” is a long, beautiful poem that shifts between the voices of Smith’s parents, tracking their courtship in Chicago. The craft of this poem, its blending of narrative and lyrical impulses, is truly astounding.
In the title poem, even young Patricia Smith in Chicago can’t escape the influence of her mother’s Alabama. Though her father would secretly call her “Jimi Savannah,” her mother “scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins / of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield / and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap / of it.” In this first section, by focusing on her parents (especially her mother) and the family’s connection to the South, Smith sets up the tension between north and south, mother and daughter, youth and age, that will build and explode throughout the rest of the book. And while this first section sticks very close to the story of the diaspora, and Smith’s family’s connection to it, the rest of the collection is then allowed to bloom from that moment and reflect on it throughout.
Two minor complaints: book length and the coherence of the collection. Given the denseness of many of the poems and the great linguistic dexterity at work, at 115 pages, one begins to numb to the magic. Also, at times it feels like there are two separate books here–one on family and migration, and one on adolescence and music. But the overall effect is a staggering blend of the personal and political, and another significant contribution from this important poet.