• From the Other Side of a Migratory Silence: On the Work of Patricia Smith

    Joy Priest

    Spring 2024

    In 2022, my grandmother went on to glory, as the old folks say. The last of her generation up from Alabama, she was ninety years old. Anna Priest’s life came to a close as she was sitting in her favorite chair in her living room on East 126th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, but her life began on Negro Church Road in a small sharecropping town called Moulton—a word that sounds off, in my ear, both “soul” and “hot, melting rock” at once. Moulton. Just south of the Tennessee state line, about thirty minutes down a red-dirt road from Muscle Shoals, where many soul artists and bluesy rock bands came to record in the twentieth century, where Aretha Franklin recorded her first hit, “I Never Loved a Man,” at age twenty-four. Moulton, which sounds a bit like Motown. 

    In recent years, I’d begun to collect little stories from my grandmother. These stories were punctuated by little narrative chasms that required the listener to guess at the point of the story, which was either too painful or too illicit to call into the aural field. There was the story about my great-grandmother Elsie’s mule, whose ribs, my grandmother said, you could see across the field. The one about her neighbor Charlie’s mule, which knew its way home, and while she and the other women were sewing on the porch in the evenings, would trot by, with Charlie thrown over its back, passed out drunk after 13 hours in the field. “He’d give that mule three ears of corn and tell him, ‘Eat all you want!’” my grandmother added on one rendition, laughing in pain at the memory of hunger. Or the story about how, when she first got to Cleveland, she stayed with her uncle, and his no-good girlfriend would steal her panties. That’s how she ended up working as a live-in domestic for Dr. White, who was a nice man, my grandmother said, staring off, eyes fixed on the past. There’s the story of how my grandparents met: she already knew my grandfather Dennis back in Moulton (“Met him on the playground at Moulton High School”) but they went to different churches (“Priests went to AME, we went to Freedman’s Tabernacle”). When they met back up later in life in Cleveland, Dennis didn’t like her staying at Dr. White’s house, so they got married and he moved her in with him and his father. These are the stories my grandmother would tell if I asked the right question, if the right song was on, the right word uttered, the right name mentioned to trigger her memory, stories that she offered up to me, freely, albeit abbreviated. These are the stories that poet Patricia Smith did not get. For her, Alabama—the world of my grandmother’s and her mother’s childhoods—was left silent as a blank page. 

    “What hurt you into poetry?” I once heard the southern poet Natasha Trethewey ask. Something must. For some, it is an abusive or alcoholic parent, or a childhood trauma that leads to a loss of voice. For others, it’s the murder of a father, the syrupy sweet-talk of Motown men, the silence of a heritage from which they are severed. This silence propelled Smith into the life of a poet, the pursuit of a kind of truth about how we have arrived in the places we have arrived and how we have become who we have become, not just as individuals, but as part of a people. This truth cannot be found in facts or newspaper articles; it can only be discovered through a poet’s vigilant observation and devout attention to the people around her. In the face of silences that refused to return her love and longing for a personal and communal mythology, Patricia Smith has responded with persona, story, and song. Across more than three decades and eight collections of poetry, with imagination and pluck, Patricia Smith has recovered her past, and in turn America’s, from the other side of a migratory silence, laying bare a connection between our unrequited love and our unrequited history. 

    1.  The Sweet Cacophony of All Those Silences Babbling at Once

    The raison d’être “in the case of a poet,” wrote philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, is “emancipation from isolated experience.” If silence produces isolation, the poet produces speech, story, song, a reprieve from loneliness. One of the ways that Smith has emancipated herself from these isolations—temporal, geographical, and racial—is through her spiritual engagement with dramatic personae and monologue. In that original pursuit to understand where she came from and therefore what made her who she was, whether we consider her most recent project, Unshuttered, or her early poem “Skinhead,” Patricia Smith has continuously sought to give voice to the interior lives of others. “Where does it begin?” Smith asks in her 2023 Academy of American Poets Blaney Lecture, “The idea that our voice is the human voice, that all life is every life, that there are no boundaries whatsoever that comes to exploring who we are?” 

    As a young secret poet, my first encounter with Smith was on the screen. In an episode of Def Poetry Jam, Smith appears on stage, her hair in a braided bob, the ends of the braids melted closed with flame. She stands svelte as a dancer or a martial artist in long black pants and a tucked sleeveless shirt, a bold red jazz squiggle up one side like wafting smoke. Out of the sonorous voice of this incandescent Black woman comes the discordant persona of a resentful white supremacist: “They call me Skinhead, and I got my own beauty” he says, through her. The poem continues: 

           It is knife-scrawled across my back in sore, jagged letters,

    it’s in the way my eyes snap away from the obvious. 

    I sit in my dim matchbox, 

    on the edge of a bed tousled with my ragged smell,

    slide razors across my hair,

    count how many ways

    I can bring blood closer to the surface of my skin.

    “Skinhead” appears in Smith’s second collection, Big Towns, Big Talk, and spans three pages—the length of a stage monologue. In the performance, Smith’s vocal pitch and speed are in a dance with breath, and in this early poem on the page the lineation and prosody reflect that dance. The line breaks don’t seem to be deployed as a form of punctuation—almost every line ending is accompanied by a colon, period, or comma. It is the poet’s breath and the poem’s refrains—“I was born to make things right” and “I got my own beauty”—that provide its pacing and structure. For now, the power of the poem on the page is in its closeness of description, its microscopic attention to the speaker’s face.

        How, you might be asking, could Smith be freeing herself from isolation by speaking in the voice of a mortal enemy, a person who, presumably, would want her dead? Here, the poet’s raison d’être is not to pass moral judgment on her character but to find herself in him. In an attempt to understand her country, a country that produced a Great Migration—an aural hole between geographies, between herself and this kind of person—Smith, a reporter at the time she performed this poem, switches roles. A reporter cannot physically embody the psychological and emotional state of the person she is interviewing, but a poet can. A poet can slip inside someone and tell you what that person’s motivations are: 

           Two years ago, a machine that slices leather

    sucked in my hand and held it,

    whacking off three fingers at the root.

    The poem’s speaker can no longer work and sits at home watching, he claims, Black men “take over my TV set, / walking like kings up and down the sidewalk in my head.” I want to put additional emphasis on the last three words of this line. They are an important addendum that situate us not in reality but rather in the anxious echo chamber of the skinhead’s mind. In the face of debilitating injury, perceived failure, and a fear of losing power in a nation he believes to be his birthright, he wants to believe he has his “own beauty” and “was born to make things right.” And yet the skinhead, recalling an encounter with “this newspaper guy,” goes on to say, “the reporter finds me curled up in my bed, / those TV flashes licking my face clean.” We might hear an echo in this stanza of the poem’s third line, in which the speaker’s “eyes snap away from the obvious.” This is a depressed person, one full of shame, projecting his problems onto a scapegoat. This poem set my tenth-grade mind turning around the complex silences in my education, in my history, and in my country. It motivated me in the pursuit of answers that my all-Black high school’s outdated textbooks didn’t contain.

    Through persona, Smith seeks an end to estrangement, an end to her brilliant Black skin as historical scapegoat for her country, at school and in her own home. Across Smith’s first three books—Life According to Motown; Big Towns, Big Talk; and Close to Death—persona poems abound, functioning as honing exercises for Smith to find her style and place on the page, turning stagecraft to pagecraft. There are poems in the voices of mythical figures like Medusa; cartoon characters like Olive Oyl; community members, such as Terrell the barber; there’s an undertaker, a streetwalker, a kidnapper, a murderer, a corpse, a young Black man explaining street violence; celebrities like Ray Charles and Michael Jackson; and even the poet’s own late father, Otis Douglas Smith. In these early persona poems, stanzas originally shaped by the dynamics of pitch and climax evolve into strophes that act as scores for the poems on the page. Lines determined by breath evolve into lines that stand on their own and control the speed of the poem. For a similarly autodidactic young student of pagecraft, this evolution from the oral to the written form was crucially instructive. Most of these personas reflect experiences very distant from Smith’s own, and perhaps that’s why they are chosen. In them, she imagines whole backstories and complex lives, and on display is a deep psychological intuition, a self-consciousness one should only be able to access as the self in question. 

    Smith writes so close to her characters, it’s as if she steps into their bodies, thinks through their minds, sees through their eyes. In doing so, she gives us something superior to empathy, which the poet Solmaz Sharif has described as “laying yourself down in someone else’s chalk lines and snapping a photo.” Smith’s persistence with the persona poem achieves more than a fleeting silhouette she can slip in and out of at will. Her dedication to remaining behind the mask amounts to an invitation of possession, to feeling as rather than feeling with. This shaped my early understanding of what is required of a writer, one among many: to be a deep observer who does not see herself apart from the Other, the other human and non-human beings around her, no matter their behavior or corruption or demographics. With such an approach, Smith creates an intimacy where we have been taught to self-segregate. 

    Joy Priest is a poet and scholar from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of HORSEPOWER and the editor of ONCE A CITY SAID: A LOUISVILLE POETS ANTHOLOGY. She is currently an Assistant Professor of African American / African Diaspora Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, and the Curator of Community Programs & Practice at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics.

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