Here’s a poem by one of my favorite poets, Patricia Smith. Her suite of poems on hurricane Kartrina & its rape of New Orleans is, to me, a masterpiece, the kind of work that I never have been able to make in the way that it takes a single subject through so many registrations that congeal into an organic whole. That set is more indicative of Smith’s work that the poem below, but here it is…
She does have mother issues. About a year ago I sent to y’all a dense, conflicted piece that laid bare how destructive Smith’s mom’s imposition of her intense religiosity had nearly crushed the poet. You’re Gonna Write This, below, is another Coltrane-like solo on the theme. There is a raging, resentful force here, beginning with the death-by-look in the second line, thru the wish-her-dead images of the third & fourth couplet, the biting slap of her mom’s “…grammatically//hilarious tenets and a gospel so austere you wet the bed believing it?” & on & on. The consecration, the “sky-eyed white// man poised to both consecrate and slap you senseless…”, the baptism when the bored elders “shoved your// nappy head head into a plastic pool of tepid water, one quickly twitching/ a nipple while you flailed…” Ms Smith’s glittering resentment is feral enough to wish her mother dead, even as she, the holy mom from hell, asks to be forgiven in the name of the God she’s punished her daughter with her whole life long.
I love the device Patricia Smith creates to tie up the bottom of You’re Gonna Write This: the trisyllabic “goes and goes” to suggest that the abuse has no bottom in time or substance.
…tragedy is the most impersonal of events & is a foundation of literature. Emotions, truly told, are all enlightening & moving. This poem, despite or because of the brutality of its truth, screams for sympathy & teaches us what not to be. Besides, it is loaded with brilliant, blood-red imagery. It took a hell of a poet to write this poem even though all of us are glad that we didn’t have to live it.
From the The Paris Review – Daily Poem:
“You’re Gonna Write This”
by Patricia Smith
Issue no. 228 (Spring 2019)
but which verbs do you employ when it’s clear that you are trying
to side-eye murder your mother, when you are the chilling moral
of every blazing honor thy Sunday sermon, when you are nothing
less than blasphemy blown wide? How you do lift the bleating
cell to your ear when what you hope to hear is an awkward cough
introducing some industrious RN’s practiced coo, an I’m so sorry
to inform you followed by a flat trisyllable twang, the Alabama
name of the woman who spent years drilling you with grammatically
hilarious tenets and a Gospel so austere you wet the bed believing it?
All you remember of those unrelenting lessons is a sky-eyed white
man poised to both consecrate and slap you sinless, and a heaven
spewing feral light just beyond your fingers. It was your mother
who begged a confounded congregation to infuse you with the holy,
so a bevy of bored elders mumbled a few maybes and shoved your
nappy head into a plastic pool of tepid water, one quickly twitching
a nipple while you flailed. But that drowning meant your mother
loved you. That little drench whitened and reversed you, scoured you
ripe for the Lord’s gold touch. You were forgiven for so brashly sporting
your father’s face and its landscape of Negro nose, for the way you
ruined your Delta mother’s practiced city body, crudely driving your
slick and bloody head through her and out, straight into her damned
business. You almost killed her, the story goes and goes. When your
father died, she turned her wide back to your grief, unmothered you
for ten years. She almost killed you, your story goes and goes. Then
suddenly, teenier and wheezing, she was resurrected, fervently reclanging
the bells of heaven, begging you to subsidize her dream gilded send-off,
somehow trusting you to procure blooms and a choir all while you’re
scanning her life for a plug to pull. And oh yes, the Lord—through
your mother—says to please forgive your mother for the years she spent
praying herself childless. But even with salvation all lined up, you can’t
resist being her hellish spawn, as she survives, hardy and selfish as a roach.
You perk up whenever her wee body goes ghostly, whisper to her about
brisk dispersals, the sanctity of the pyre. But you cannot say dead and mean
her—not yet—though she’s nameless in this story as it goes and goes.
Published in the Paris Review Issue no. 228 (Spring 2019)