Wednesday, August 21, 2013



In my neighborhood

I got jumped

because my daddy lived at home.


when he didn't live at home anymore,

I got jumped

because he had the nerve

to visit.


                   Motto, Riverview Park, 1904-1967, Chicago 


Every city had one, a palace with a fried tint to its air,
a hurting-hued screech of no underneath, everything
plummeting or ascending, a monument to hazy flailing
and sudden fun vomit. Swing the Riviera onto Belmont,
and you see the Pair-O-Chutes rising to heaven on dual
strings, headed for the pinpoint and release, then the sick
whip and fall, the little public murder, a blaring grace
so storybook gorgeous, suddenly flood in the throat.

Revelers board creaking Fireball cars and slice the August,
mistaking acid bubbling in their bellies for symptoms
of glee, then stop to stuff quavering guts with plastic
and syrup. Their quick sustenance has wafted all day
all day on a river of grease. They hunger for white cakes
curled stiff with sugar, sausages that pop huge heat,
pink candy of cotton chomping rot down their throats.
The jagged stains of compromised fruit circle screaming
mouths and paint shadow across the teeth, making them
horrible. Bulbs flash. Wet Polaroids are lifted and waved
like church fans to etch and clarify in the summer steam.

The aged horses are dizzied, diseased. Chained to a tilting
stake, they blur through the drag, deferring to their brutal,
squirming burdens. Potbellied flies, nasty to the point
of charm, nibble passages toward the horses' blue hearts.
Above it all, the freak show M.C. — his shout an odd mixture
of pity and sex — dares us to witness sweaty sloth, tiny floating
corpses, so much skin unlike ours, more legs than allowed,
and a Negro who can separate himself from his eyes.

While on the midway, your father will never win the thinly
stuffed neon grinners — the bears, dolphins, curlique serpents,
Kewpie dolls, and counterfeit Mickey Mice that leer from shelves.
He hurls balls at weighted milk cans, blasts at a measured parade
of bobbing ducks, guns water into a pinpoint, guesses a woman's
weight. Finally, he just buys something soft and ugly, a token
you will clutch and sing to until, too blackly loved, it melts.

At dusk, he steers you away from the midway's squalling edge,
where everything seems to be happening, where the hooting
and laughter have a raw, unmeasured throat. You pout, he pulls,
and, not for the first time, you wonder what he hides.


I am their pickaninny, dressed in a repeating river,
All of me is droop and sustain.
My drenched dungarees are gravity on me.
I have learned to smile at the several versions
of my name, my face is complete in its teeth
and studied dumb ogle. Oh, woe is me I say
while the white boys wind up, and damn if they
don't always smack that huge disc, dead center.
I rise laughing from my clockwork baptisms,
the canned river funked with my own spit and piss,
just to see another man clutching the red ball,
his eyes harder than the first of these. Sometimes
 an awed Negro dots the crowd, his numbed smile
a link chained to mine. I spot one using his body
to block his little girl's view of me, so I make
my voice louder: I oh sweet jesus kind suh no,
I lawd ham mercy suh I believes I might drown
I please let me dry off in this sun a little I mercy
me you sho does look strong suh until she twists
hard away from her daddy and full unto me.
I have just enough time for her to sound it out:
D-D-D-unk-unk Dunk a N-N-N-ig-ig-Nig-ger
and then I salute, and hold her father's eyes as I fall. 


       For Mary Wells

Stiff wigs, in cool but impossible shades
of strawberry and sienna, all whipped
into silky flips her own flat naps could
never manage — the night hair different
from the day hair, the going out hair,
the staying-in hair, Friday's hair higher
and way redder than Monday's — all these
wigs, 100% syn-the-tic, thank you, lined
up on snowy Styrofoam heads and paid
for with her own money, what could be
slicker than that? No lovesick player
flopped his wallet open for those crowns.

So she wasn't Diana. Who wanted to be
all skeleton and whisper, hips like oil?
Didn't need no hussies slinking in the
backdrop giving more throat, boosting
her rhythm. So what if her first album
cover drew her pimpled, bloat-cheeked,
Sunday hair skewed? She roared gospel
in those naked songs, took Berry's little
ballads and made men squirm on their
barstools. They spun in her dark.

Wasn't she the alley grunt, the lyric played low?
Didn't people she never met run up to try
and own her tired shoulders, shouting Mary!
like they were calling on the mama of Jesus?

And everywhere she dared to step,
Detroit devilment bubbling beneath sequins
that can't help but pop under the pressure
black butts provide, every time she dropped
'round to paint the town brown, neon lights
slammed on, cameras clicked like air kisses,
and pretty soon somebody said Girl you know
you just gotta sing us something and even though
she didn't have to do a damned thing but be
black, have soul, and die, she'd puck those lips
just so, like she didn't know how damn electric
it all was, and every word landed torn and soft,
like a slap from somebody who loves you.


             For Gwendolyn Brooks 

Winter, with its numbing gusts and giddy twists of ice, 
is gone now. It's time for warmth again.
So where is Gwendolyn Brooks?
Its huge shoulders slumped, Chicago craves her hobble,
turns pissed and gray, undusts her name.

To know her,
you need to ride her city's wide watery hips,
you need to inhale an obscene sausage
smothered in gold slipping onions
while standing on a chaotic streetcross
where any jazz could be yours.
Walk the hurting fields of the West Side,
our slice of city burned to bones in '68: 

Goldblatt's, the colored Bloomingdale's, gone.

Lerners, where we learned pinafore, gone.

No more havens for layaway, no more places
to plop down a dollar a week for P.F. Flyers
or wool jumpers with seams glued shut.
The meat market with its bloody sawdust, torched,
its Jewish proprietors now crisping languid
under Florida sun. And flap-jowled Mayor Daley,
our big benevolent murderous daddy,
gifted us with high-rise castles crafted of dirty dollars,
battered cans of bumpy milk, free cheese.

To know Gwen, you need to know the Alex,
the only movie theater West, where frisky rats
big as toddlers poked slow noses into your popcorn,
then locked red round eyes on Cleopatra Jones
and sat, confident and transfixed.

After the movies and any street corner's friend lunch,
we'd head to "the store in back of that fat man's house"
to surrender hoarded quarters for the latest 45,
stripped licorice in black or red,
pork rinds, Boston Baked Beans,
or fat sour pickles floating in a jar in the corner.
The fat man's wife, Miss Caroline,
plunged her hammy forearm into the brine,
pulled out the exact pickle you pointed to
and shoved it deep into a single-ply paper bag.
Only the truly Negro would then poke
a peppermint stick down the center of that pickle
and slurp the dizzy of salt and sugar.
We gnawed rock-stiff candy dots off paper columns,
suffered Lemonheads and Red Hots,
pushed neon sweatsocks down on Vaselined calves,
and my Lord, we learned to switch. For a dime,
the fat man would warm up the record player,
click reject and give us a hit of Ms. Fontella Bass's
heartbroke heart clamoring the rescue
or Ruby Andrews steady wailing in a woman way.

There were so many millions of each one of us,
ashy goddesses walking the wild West,
strutting past sloped storefronts where brown meat
and hog heads crowded the windows,
past shuttered groceries, and gas stations
with pump boys eyeing our new undulating asses,
past fashion palaces where almost no money
satisfied our yearning for hollow glamour
with cheap threads already unraveling.

Observe the kick-ass angle of our crowns.
Chicago girls just keep coming back.
They don't hear you,
they don't see you,
they ain't never really needed you.
They got the Holy Ghost and Garfield Park,
on one city block, they got a hundred ways to buy chicken,
they jump rope nasty and barefoot in the dirt,
they got the ooh achie koo,
the pink plastic clothesline underhand,
they got the slip bone. They got the Gwen in them.

Any jazz could be ours, and her jazz was.
Unflinching in riotous headwrap
and thick, two-shades-too stockings,
she penned the soundtrack of we because she knew,
because she was skinny early church and not bending,
because no man could ever hold her the way hurt did,
because she could peer at you over those Coke-bottle specs,
fast gal, and turn the sorry sight of you into her next poem.

Each year she stays gone, we colored girls aimlessly bop
and search dangerous places for music.
Chicago bows its huge head, grudgingly accepts spring.

God, if there is a You, there must surely still be a her.
Stop the relentless seasons. Show us Your face,
explain Your skewered timing.
Your wacky choice of angels. 


Patricia Smith
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah
(Coffee House Press, 2012)