Can Poetry Hurt Us? – Resurrection and Patricia Smith

American poet, Patricia Smith

American poet, Patricia Smith










Little Poetry

He says I am gumpopper
wondrous shoulders,

evil on the days I bleed.

I can take hold of both my hands.
     He speaks cool water on me,
nudges my mood with a proverb.

I watch him undress, skin
    unto another skin, and I turn
away to keep from craving that.

By the time his hands
     touch my shoulders,
I am almost insane

with disappearing
and the thunder.

Patricia Smith (1955 – ) from Teahouse of the Almighty, Coffee House Press, 2006

To say Patricia Smith is a poetic force is like saying hurricane Katrina was a storm. If a hurricane were to be named for Smith it would be a class 10. Her poetry readings are events. She has won four world poetry slam competitions, her books of poems have won many honours and she is a celebrated writing teacher  and a tenured professor.

Her 2008 book Blood Dazzler, a word-storm of poems based on hurricane Katrina was short-listed for a National Book Award. And most recently her latest book, published in 2012, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, a poetic memoir,  won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 2013  and late last year she was awarded the Rebekah Johnson Bobbit National Prize for Poetry awarded by the American Library of Congress, one of the highest accolades for an American poet.

It’s shocking: Smith’s  transformation into one of of America’s most celebrated poets.  For two reasons:

First and this is the big-bang shocker: in 1998 Smith, an acclaimed journalist at age 42,  was also big new news but in the worst possible way. She was fired from the Boston Globe and stripped of a Pulitzer prize finalist’s nomination for fabricating people and quotes in four of her columns.  That would have been enough to deep six most people for a lifetime but luckily for poetry lovers, not Smith. For a recent New York Times article on Smith’s stunning transformation click here.

Second, she is being recognized by the formal poetic establishment even though her roots are firmly planted in the spoken word  (slam or performance poet) tradition as opposed to the traditional poetry of the written page. Yes, the distinction between the two is getting more blurred, partially thanks to poets like Smith, but a suspicion between the two traditions still remains. This is expressed wonderfully in Yusef Komunyakaa’s end page comments on Blood Dazzler: Only an echo of the spoken-word diva lingers in Blood Dazzler, and that measured presence is what approximates a necessary passion in this poignant collection. The worry, of course, is that performance poets drench their words in an emotional colouration that disguises a lack of poetic control and craft. Hence, Komunyakaa’s phrase “measured presence.” to compliment Smith’s collection.

For me Smith’s appeal as a poet in all senses of that word, whether a a slam poet or page poet, is how her words hurtle out of a fire-storm of images that celebrate the everyday reality of the less privileged, the under-dogs,  in American society. As a black American woman she is uniquely positioned to do this.

The best poems create an “issness” as the American poet B.H. (Pete) Fairchild, says. They put us inside the action of the story the poet describes. Smith has an unerring ability to do this. Her signature poem for me, hands down, is Building Nicole’s Mama. A whip-lash of a poem that I won’t recover from. Thank God! It takes place in an inner city school in Miami where Smith has come to teach grade sixers (forty nappy heads). In the poem Smith asks what she calls the death question and a forest of hands shoot up to tell their brutal and commonplace stories of murder and violence. And as Smith says…And those forty faces pity me,/knowing that I will soon be as they are,/ numb to our bloodied histories, favouring the Reaper with a thumbs up and a wink,/ hearing the question and shouting me, me/Miss Smith I know somebody dead. After this, the poem turns with the most simple and yet complex question: Can poetry hurt us?

Here is the last part of this incomparable poem, this poem that sets the bar so high for poets, for poetry:

Can poetry hurt us, t they ask me before
snuggling inside my words to sleep.
I love you, Nicole says, Nicole wearing my face,
pimples peppering her nose, and she is as black
as angels are. Nicole’s braids clipped, their ends
kissed with match flame to seal them,
and can you teach me to write a poem about my mother?
I mean, you write about your daddy and he dead,
can you teach me to remember my mama?

A teacher tells me this is the first time Nicole
has admitted that her mother is gone,
murdered by slim silver needles and a stranger
rifling through her blood, the virus pushing
her skeleton through for Nicole to see.
And now this child with rusty knees
and mismatched shoes sees poetry as her scream
and asks me for the words to build her mother again.
Replacing the voice.
Stitching on the lost flesh.

So poets,
as we pick up our pens,
as we flirt and sin and rejoice behind microphones—
remember Nicole.
She knows that we are here now,
and she is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
And she is waiting.
And she
And she waits.

Patricia Smith (1955 – ) from teahouse of the almighty, ibid

If ever there was a poem that expresses the life-saving therapy of poetry this it! It what Gregory Orr talks about in his book Poetry as Survival and  it is what saved Smith. Poetry brings order into the chaos and traumas of life. Makes meaning from them. In the recent New York Times article, the interviewer, Rachel Swarns says this about the aftermath of the 1998 scandal:  But as she struggled to find her way forward, poetry increasingly became her balm, her elixir and her obsession, the work that soothes, energizes and consumes her. It’s how I breathe and speak to the world,” she said.

Poetry may find its way into the traumatic stories of our life as it has for Gregory Orr,  and in that way hurt us, but as a poem orders the trauma and gives the writer control over the telling of it, a healing takes place. In my recovery workshops I describe this as poetry as iodine! It can hurt but heals! I have not read a poem of Smith’s on her trauma around the events of 1998 but as she explores the other stories of her life it seems to me this is how her healing took, and continues to take, place.

It’s how I breathe and speak to the world. Indeed. To see a video of Smith performing Building Nicole’s Mama, click here.

For more flavours of Smith’s poetry I include three more poems. Here are two parts from Smith’s poem 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT 13 ( a lovely take-off on Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird). Oh, how she makes her words thrum, jump and sing.  And what a line describing a 13 year old on the verge of womanhood: suddenly you know why you are/ stitched so tight, crammed like a flash bomb into pinafore.


Ms. Stein scribbled a word on the blackboard, said Who can
pronounce this?
and the word was anemone and from
that moment you first felt the clutter of possible
in your mouth, from the time you stumbled through the rhythm
and she slow-smiled, you suddenly knew you had the right
to be explosive, to sling syllables through the back doors,
to make up your own damned words just when you need them.
All that day, sweet anemone tangled in your teeth,
spurted sugar tongue, led you to the dictionary
where you were assured it existed, to the cave
of the bathroom where you warbled it in bounce echo,
and finally convinced you owned that teeny gospel,
you wrote it again and again and again and a—

Trying hard to turn hips to slivers, sway to stutter,
you walk past the Sinclair station where lanky boys, dust
in their hair, dressed in their uniforms of oil and thud,
rename you pussy with their eyes. They bring sounds shudder
and blue from their throats just for you, serve up ancient
sonata of skin drum and conch shell, sing suggesting woos
of AM radio, boom, boom, How you gon’ just walk
on by like that?
and suddenly you know why you are
stitched so tight, crammed like a flash bomb into pinafore,
obeying Mama’s instructions to be a baby
as long as you can. Because it’s a man’s world and James
Brown is gasoline, the other side of slow slippers.
He is all of it, the pump, pump, the growled please, please, please.

Patricia Smith from Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Coffee House Press, 2012


And a last poem from Blood Dazzler – a poetic interpretation of the disaster that was hurricane Katrina:




There’s no deception like the world after rain
Suddenly God is everywhere,
winking from dumpster rivers,
using the insistent perfume of plain water
to scrape funk from alleyway and men.
In the seconds after storm,
we sign on for brash little resurrections.
We lose those pesky ten pounds,
resolve to enthusiastically fuck dim spouses,
stop reaching across breakfast tables
to slap our children into silence.
We straighten framed blacklight squares
of The Last Supper, musing upon the wide
sad eyes of wept clarity and looming doom.
And we are comforted until the sun
blazes the the stench forward, rebirthing rot
and workdays. Then his eyes are dry,
threaded with lightning and hurt,
and we are reminded, again,
just what He’s capable of.

Patricia Smith from Blood Dazzler, Coffee House Press, 2008

There is much anger in this poem. And why not. And in such an unexpected way she addresses the huge human question about God: is God in both the good and evil  that defines our world?

And to end this post, this is no brash little resurrection: Patricia Smith, against overwhelming odds has risen from the bomb blast crater of her 1998 scandal and is telling stories with truth that hurts as it heals.




  1. Liz
    Posted February 23, 2015 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    Truth that hurts as it heals …
    Have we not seen this time and again at poetry workshops over and over.
    Even at times the innocuous, the quiet words, that require such courage to place on the page; lonely, invisible, gone …

  2. Richard
    Posted February 23, 2015 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Ah Liz: lonely, invisible, gone. But the poems remain.

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