Salutations In Search Of

A New Poem By Patricia Smith

Dear floaters, bloated kin. Dear flooded necks
and reckless leapers manic for the flow.
Though you are elegant in flight, your wrecks
distress the ocean’s floor—the stark tableaus
of sliding skin and swarms of slither set
to drumbeat in your hollows. This is free
proclaimed by slaver’s scourge—do you regret
rebutting scar with water? Dear debris,
that ocean mothers all your rampant funk
and spurts her undulating arms for you.
She likes to think that you are simply drunk
with purpose. Dear the voyage never knew
your name. You rise in pieces, loved to death,
at last unshackled. Time will hold your breath.

Dear wild tumultuous, your mouth. Dear God.
Your mouth, in fevered skirmish with the tongue,
denying sound for rope or goldenrod.
Dear mouth, still bulging with Atlantic, wrung
into its new. Your tangled words are lash
into the back, intending to explain
the gritted teeth inspected for a flash
of rot, the hefted cock or breast, a chain
that’s wrenched away with clinging shreds of skin.
Dear going to market, beauty on the block,
seed driven deep. Dear chartered womb, within
you squirms a tendency. A paradox.
You trusted voyage, trussed to kin, and found
the tongue through tumult. Now you need a sound.

Dear mute contrivance, graceless drudge. Dear hexed,
Dear wily roots and conjures, Dear persist
with your existence—flaunting all that flexed
and bumptious brawn. Dear flagrantly dismissed,
the writhing in the cottonwood. Dear flail
and drip. Dear runaway who runs the hell
away. Dear prey for drooling cur. Dear veil
of Judas moon, its murmured decibel
of light. Dear cautious measurer of splay
and fury in a heedless star. (Dear we.)
Dear woman, who must now learn to unsay
her purpose as a mute machine. Dear be
that soft alive. Dear man, whose beating drum
was lost at sea. What nouns will you become?

Dear lurch and pirouette, Dear flamed facade,
Dear eye that won’t dissolve. Your audience,
obsessed with shrinkage, fancies to applaud
and whoop, but damn—that eye, and the suspense
and dogged smolder of its wide-aloud.
Identified (of course) and doomed to swing,
you vow to witness. Your enraptured crowd—
delighting in your noosing as a thing
to do, do not wish to be seen by you.
Dear languid rhumba, freakish scorch and sway,
Dear blackened reckoning, Dear charred askew.
Dear stuff of nightmares seeping into day.
The fire has died—there’s nothing of you there,
but they still see the fiction of your glare.

Dear Langston, Zora, Louis, Josephine,
Dear Harlem, their rampaging stanzas, still
explosive whether they are sugar-lean
pronouncements from a horn, the thrill
of stories touting faces like the ones
who hallelujah every time they read
themselves, or—not to be undone—
a pure astonishment of women. Need
this nurture and this verve on dimming days.
Dear give you back your name. Dear higher ground.
Dear noontime strutter, balancing pince-nez
and being Negro all upside that town.
Dear swinger to a thicker harmony,
Dear every man they said you couldn’t be.

Dear migrant on a Greyhound, stunned upright,
or crammed into a wheezing Plymouth, or
bewildered by the rails soon to ignite
beneath your seat. Dear locked and shuttered door
with you on both the sides. Dear bound to be
more partial to the heat—folks say the chill
in ol’ Chicago knows your bones. The key
is birthing your own sun and clutching ’til
it walks with you. Dear you, already done
surrendering magnolias, feigning shame
at chittlins, holding that amusing gun
to your own truant heart. Dear faultless aim,
Dear northern body scrubs at what it must,
that wily scarlet slap of southern dust.

Dear edgy citizen, Dear crazed careen
through multitudes of all the same as you.
Your skittish eyes outstretch. Dear seen
and then—as if on cue—unseen. You knew
enough to heed the itchy siren song
that cooed you through the rusty yawning maws
of factories. Dear often in the wrong
direction. Dear Chicago digs its claws
in you. The rank air gorgeous with disease
and pay stubs. Mayor Daley’s startling swell,
his pocked and blustered face an odd reprise
of those you thought you left behind. Dear bell
that keeps on ringing—blues that hit their mark
and make you dance all righteous in the dark.

Dear still a nigger in all kinds of light,
Dear bullseye. Trees rise up on spindly toes
whenever all your skin strolls by. Dear quite
mistake of you. The way you dare expose
your neck and walk as if you own a thing.
Dear blue on you. And don’t you wish there was
a ship, one chance to take a frenzied wing
into the ocean? Nothing but the buzz
of flashers pinning you against the past.
Dear suicide. Dear bullet in the back
Dear in the headlights. You’re not tagged to last
until the morning. You are tagged to crack
beneath their weight. And don’t you dare believe
that any one of them will let you breathe.

Dear George, Trayvon, Breonna, Bree, Tamir,
Alatiana, Dominque, Jamel,
Antonio, DeAngelo Romir,
Ashanti, Botham, Terence, John, Chanel,
Stephon, Philando, Kentry, Bee, Layleen,
Romelo, Emmett, Eleanor, Montay,
Jenisha, Kiki, Alton, Mack, Francine,
Tenisha, Eric, Dominick, Renee,
Michelle, Elijah, Nia, Amadou,
Akai, Monina, Cortez, Kentry, Sean,
Alberta, Michael, Gabriella, Lou,
Natasha, Brooklyn, Walter, Lee, Laquan,
Ahmaud, Mohamed, Elray, Aura, Shane
Rayshard, Denali, Sandra, Oscar, Blane.

Dear someone who woke up without a son,
Dear damn the dawning. Echoes of a knock
with no boy crouched behind it, nothing done
to fix it. Dear reverberating shock,
Dear someone flailing, ripping at the air,
Dear hollow where he was. Dear someone who’s
obsessed with resurrecting him, who dares
believe the muck of bullet hole and bruise
will ever breathe as anything but dead.
Dear someone loving body on its way
to being only body, just that red
and syrupy annoyance, hosed away
when street decorum says it will. Dear damn.
Dear chalk all washed to none. Dear traffic jam.

Dear woman wounded by the things you’ve heard:
Dear angry all your days, Dear vibing wire
on top your head. Dear better watch the words
you say to white folk—don’t make them tired
of you. Dear wish you’d pinch those nostrils down,
that nose is half your face. Dear talk too loud.
Dear stay out the sun—you fool around,
get blacker than you are. What, you too proud
to settle for that ordinary man?
Gon be too late real soon. Dear press
those naps. And don’t you tell me that you plan
on yellin’ bout that Black Lives Matter mess—
Dear who in the hell do you think you are?
Dear who in the hell do you think you are?

Dear someone who woke up without a sun,
and spun the blues—the singer moaned so hard
the record skipped to save itself. Dear done
so wrong. Dear fryin’ lettuce in the lard,
Dear wonder could a matchbox hold your clothes,
Your child’s been scraped up off the boulevard.
Since then, ain’t seen yourself—do you suppose
some Rebel Yell can find you, hit you hard?
Dear someone who has chosen just to rust
instead of breathe—here’s how they lied to you:
Your child will keep on dying, and you must
keep punching play to watch him blue and blue
until he trends. Then he’s a photograph
who laughs at you and rips himself in half.


I rip another page in half.



And start again.

Dear floaters, bloated kin, Dear flooded necks—
Dear wild tumultuous, your mouth. Dear God.
Dear mute contrivance, graceless drudge. Dear hexed—
Dear lurch and pirouette, Dear flamed facade—
Dear Langston, Zora, Louis, Josephine—
Dear migrant on a Greyhound, stunned upright—
Dear edgy  citizen, Dear crazed careen—
Dear still a nigger in the neon’s night—
Dear George, Trayvon, Breonna, Bree, Tamir—
Dear someone who woke up without a son—
Dear woman, wounded by the things you hear—
Dear anyone who wakes without a sun.

Patricia Smith
Patricia Smith
Patricia Smith is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art, winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry, the 2017 LA Times Book Prize, the 2018 NAACP Image Award and finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; and Gotta Go, Gotta Flow, a collaboration ion with award-winning Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her other books include the poetry volumes Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns Big Talk, Life According to Motown; the children's book Janna and the Kings and the history Africans in America, a companion book to the award-winning PBS series. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Baffler, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Tin House and in Best American Poetry and Best American Essays. Her contribution to the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir won the Robert L. Fish Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story of the year and was featured in the anthology Best American Mystery Stories.

Smith has collaborated with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Angela’s Pulse Dance Troupe, the Sage String Quartet and singer Meshell Ndegeocello; “Blood Dazzler,” a dance/theater production based on her 2008 book, sold out a two-week run at the Harlem Stage under the guidance of  award-winning director Patricia McGregor; her one-woman show “Life After Motown,” produced by Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, was performed in residency at the Trinidad Theater Workshop.

Smith is a Guggenheim fellow, finalist for the Neustadt Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, a former fellow at Civitella Ranieri, Yaddo and MacDowell, and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. She is a distinguished professor at the College of Staten Island and in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, as well as an instructor for Cave Canem and the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Program.

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