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Patricia Smith’s “Words That Force Us to Look”

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Patricia Smith

Next Wednesday, May 1, 2013, Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, will close the Spring literary season with the “Necessary Utterance: Poetry as Cultural Force” reading and lecture. To celebrate her year as Poet Laureate, she has selected five poets whose writing she feels illustrates the best of what poetry can do as force for discourse and understanding.

Patricia Smith is one of those five poets; she is the author of six collections of poetry and a children’s book.  Smith is also a nationally recognized performer of poetry.  A four-time champion of the National Poetry Slam, Smith has appeared in “Slamnation” as well as the popular HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.”  She is a faculty member for Cave Canem, a writer’s center for African American poets; a professor English at City University of New York/College of Staten Island; and a faculty member of the Sierra Nevada MFA program.

Smith’s poetry and performance is an example of the power of poetry as a tool that breeds empathy and compassion. Below, her poem “EYEWITNESS NEWS” shatters the barriers between public and individual suffering, and forces her readers to question their notions of the immediacy and the performance of pain as well as look toward a slower, more fragile understanding of what it is to truly grieve and to lose.

Patricia Smith chose to feature “EYEWITNESS NEWS” as one of her poems that she felt spoke directly to Trethewey’s idea of “poetry as cultural force.”

Smith explained, “It’s the day after a bomb exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding hundreds. Today has been blade-edged and chaotic, with a number of American cities on edge and suspects crouched in every corner. I can’t help thinking how coddled we are as a country, how this particular brand of terror—sudden and white-hot violent—is a way of life in so many other places. This one was written in South Africa as I witnessed the violence that attempted to disrupt that country’s first all-inclusive election. In this instance, I take ‘cultural force’ to mean words that force us to look unflinchingly at a culture other than our own. Sometimes its takes something as simple as a poem to slap our heads ’round and open our eyes.”


The gritty film that CNN will treasure
will show her this way:

A mother, her glazed and bulging eyes
locked in the shimmer that creeps toward weeping,
pudgy body easing into metronome,
the boom and click of her tight new dress shoes
giving the bored choir a texture to climb.

Thank God, she’s not a howler.

This will please the masses
who click their remotes,
pass the Diet Pepsi
and receive her into their homes over dinners
of sticky rice and saucy chunks of meat.
Neatly boxed and calmly hued, she is dignity byte,
incapable of ruining the family hour
by baring her teeth and demanding what she has lost.

But here, propped sweaty in this tiny church,
we wheeze in the musk of closeness and death,
swat away the gorged and sluggish flies
who gossip buzz, whisper on our skin with spindly legs,
dance wildly on the dead boy’s nose.

He was 13, grace turning his back
to the bomb just before the blast.
Beneath the thin sheet that covers the place
where his legs should be,
there is the rustle
of nothing.
Damn those tattered gym shoes and pants legs,
stuffed with paper and sticks.

But his torso is memory, the fuel of mothers.
Ignore the singed eyebrow,
the missing cheek,
the doomed fly buzzing in the tight crown of hair,
the half-arm,
his mother’s blistered focus.

And the camera, in its sugared edit,
ignores the procession, her sudden unhinging.
As the casket is closed by six identical boys
in wing-hemmed shirts, the mother’s body stiffens,
bucks, crashes into the pew,
fists splinter the dry wood, hands roar and flail,
paperback Bibles fly, her mouth opens
wide and soundless upon raw teeth.
Head twists until neck wails and she is carried,
a squirming X,
a woman at each hand,
a man at each foot,
one dry breast popped loose,
already a shoe gone.

Already a shoe gone. Already a foot gone. A leg.
Already a leg gone. Two legs. A life.
Already her son gone, the moon following.
Try stuffing her hollow heart with paper,

paper and sticks.

Comments (2)

  1. This sounding morbid but it is not. I truly enjoyed reading this poem as smart as it was as from the heart as it was. It told the story from many lens allowing me 2 choose which one I wanted to watch from. I never heard of Patricia Smith until now 4/23/133:53am PST but will follow her work from now on. I too was writing but stopped to read her poem “EYEWITNESS NEWS” for it was always known but again eloquently said.- 2wo 7even

  2. I can’t say I enjoyed this poem, anymore than I “enjoy” a Matthew Brady picture of limbs outside a Civil War surgery tent. But what it does offer is witness, a searing view of a man-made catastrophe, the capture of a profound mother’s grief, and my own as a result.
    We need poetic reminders of what we do to each other, to ourselves, not so we will never do this again, but as a reminder, an acid etching of the soul, of who were are and what we are capable of.

    Thank you, Patricia Smith

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