“Smith appears to be that rarest of creatures, a charismatic slam and performance poet whose artistry truly survives on the printed page. Present at the creation of the slam in early-’80s Chicago and included in seminal films and anthologies, Smith (Big Towns, Big Talk, 1992) receded from the scene in recent years after her career as a newspaper journalist ended in scandal. This National Poetry Series–winning volume marks a triumphal return, showing an energetic writer with four urgent subjects. She depicts endangered children. She celebrates sex and sexuality, from the public display of celebrities to the power of the female orgasm: ‘Don’t hate me because I’m multiple.’ She considers the heritage of black American art, in musical performance and in writing. Finally, she describes the experience of performance itself, with all its pride and embarrassment: ‘Angry, jubilant, weeping poets… we are all/ saviors, reluctant hosannas in the limelight.’ Several poems also animate the troubled lives of famous blues singers; elsewhere, a mother considers how her incarcerated son became a ‘jailhouse scribe.’ A superb variety of lines and forms—short and long, hesitant and rapid-fire—gives the book additional depth. Smith even offers fine advice: ‘Breathe/ like your living depends on it.’” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Smith writes the way Tina Turner sings.” —E. Ethelbert Miller
“Teahouse of the Almighty is searing, honest, well-crafted, and full of the real world transformed by Patricia Smith’s fine ear for nuance and the shaking of the soul’s duties. I was weeping for the beauty of poetry when I reached the end of the final poem.”
—Edward Sanders, National Poetry Series judge
“What power. Smith’s poetry is all poetry. And visceral. Her poems get under the skin of their subjects. Their passion and empathy, their real worldliness, are blockbuster.” —Marvin Bell
“Not many poets will make you laugh out loud, grow uneasily warm with the recognition of self, sit riveted by the sheer shock of contending with human suffering, and feel as if you are alone with her as she tells her stories. But not many poets are Patricia Smith and not many books are as delightful and moving as her splendid Teahouse of the Almighty. Her secret is an absolute comfort in her own voice—her poems arrive with assurance and force.” —Kwame Dawes
“These poems are so fierce and tender, so unflinching, so loud and exquisite, so carefully crafted, so important, so right-on. They can make you gasp, rage, weep, belly-laugh, throw your arms open to them and the worlds they contain, push away or punch at the wrongs they chronicle. They bear such terrible beauty. Brava to Miss Patricia Smith, who pulls poems from the center of the earth.” —Elizabeth Alexander
“[A] rich, dense feast of poetry.”—Hazel and Wren
BUILDING NICOLE’S MAMA
for the 6th grade class of Lillie C. Evans School, Liberty City, Miami
I am astonished at their mouthful names—
Lakinishia, Fumilayo, Chevellanie, Delayo—
their ragged rebellions and lip-glossed pouts,
and all those pants drooped as drapery.
I rejoice when they kiss my face, whisper wet
and urgent in my ear, make me their obsession
because I have brought them poetry.
They shout me raw, bruise my wrists with pulling,
and brashly claim me as mama as they
cradle my head in their little laps,
waiting for new words to grow in my mouth.
Angry, jubilant, weeping poets—we are all
saviors, reluctant hosannas in the limelight,
but you knew that, didn’t you? Then let us
bless this sixth grade class—40 nappy heads,
40 cracking voices, and all of them
raise their hands when I ask. They have all seen
the Reaper, grim in his heavy robe,
pushing the button for the dead project elevator,
begging for a break at the corner pawn shop,
cackling wildly in the back pew of the Baptist church.
I ask the death question and forty fists
punch the air, me!, me! And O’Neal,
matchstick crack child, watched his mother’s
body become a claw, and 9-year-old Tiko Jefferson,
barely big enough to lift the gun, fired a bullet
into his own throat after Mama bended his back
with a lead pipe. Tamika cried into a sofa pillow
when Daddy blasted Mama into the north wall
of their cluttered one-room apartment,
Donya’s cousin gone in a drive-by. Dark window,
click, click, gone, says Donya, her tiny finger
a barrel, the thumb a hammer. I am shocked
by their losses—and yet when I read a poem
about my own hard-eyed teenager, Jeffery asks
He is dead yet?
It cannot be comprehended,
my 18-year-old still pushing and pulling
his own breath. And those 40 faces pity me,
knowing that I will soon be as they are,
numb to our bloodied histories,
favoring the Reaper with a thumbs-up and a wink,
hearing the question and shouting me, me,
Miss Smith, I know somebody dead!
Can poetry hurt us? 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.
as we pick up our pens,
as we flirt and sin and rejoice behind microphones—
She knows that we are here now,
and she is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
And she is waiting.
And she waits.