Powerhouse poet Patricia Smith’s gift is genius


It’s great when a genius comes along –it just kind of clears the air. So it goes with gifted poet Patricia Smith.

Smith writes with a fluid, strong and sweet impassioned voice. Her imagery is rich. Her rhythms are fascinating. And if there is a more immediate pen in contemporary literature, it hasn’t made itself particularly well known. In short, Smith is about as “bad” as she wants to be, wielding words to serious effect.

Take Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press). This soulful tour de force compels, brandishing absolute command of language and firebrand spirit. “How To Be A Lecherous Little Old Black Man And Make Lots Of Money”, for instance, gets straight in your kitchen. With such verse as “Rub your hands slow over your body/feel the valleys, the wrongs/Let misery chomp your spine toward collapsing/let it fold your whole self double/Then you can walk like John Lee Hooker do–/click shuffle, bent over, nose to the ground/wearing a cocked brim felt fedora that wouldn’t dare fall off.”

And there is “What Men Do With Their Mouths,” that reads: “cue the frenzied combo of molar and spit, his tongue/touches every chroma on its way to blue. He deftly/conjures washboards and rubber, even suburban/girls lie still for the twinging, the humid reckoning.” If you pay the least bit of attention, Patricia Smith will hold you spellbound.

For good measure, Tea of the Almighty is a winner of the prestigious National Poetry Series and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in Poetry. It succeeds her titles Close to Death, Big Towns, Big Talk (which won the Carl Sandburg Poetry Prize) and Life According to Motown. As well, she penned the children’s book Janna and the Kings (winner of the Lee & Low New Voices Award) and the history book Africans in America. Her oratory (she performed on stages from the laid-back Lollapalooza to the sainted Carnegie Hall) is just as impressive as her pen –Smith won the National Poetry Slam Championship an unrivaled four times, she was featured in the film Slamnation and also on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.”

Smith is lauded by a slew of authorities and publications, not the least being Publisher’s Weekly, The Bloomsbury Review and World Literature Today. Smith has a brand new book, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press), slated for publication in September. To truly pique your anticipation, it is subtitled, “A storm’s-eye view of the devastation that forever changed New Orleans and America.” Assuming the voices of flailing politicians, the dying, their survivors, and the voice of the hurricane itself, Smith follows the woefully inadequate relief effort and stands witness to families held captive on rooftops and in the Superdome. Her work gives voice to the 34 nursing home residents who drowned in St. Bernard Parish, and recalls the day after their deaths when George W. Bush accompanied country singer Mark Willis on guitar: “The cowboy grins through the terrible din…And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails, ‘Look like this country done left us for dead,'” she writes.

In minute-by-minute detail, Smith tracks Hurricane Katrina as it transforms into a full-blown mistress of destruction. From August 23, 2005, the day Tropical Depression 12 developed, through August 28 when it became a Category 5 storm with its “scarlet glare fixed on the trembling crescent,” to the heartbreaking aftermath, these poems are about the horror that unfolded in New Orleans as America watched on television. Should be something else.

Now for the real good news. This powerhouse poet is coming to town. She will read at the Plymouth Congregational Church’s Literary Witness Reading Series on April 7 at 7pm. The Church is located in Minneapolis at 1900 Nicollet Avenue (near the corner of Franklin Avenue) and the event is free and open to the public. Need I bother suggesting that you get there very, very early?