Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Can't Get Enough Poetry

Just coincidentally to yesterday's poetry meme, I finished Patricia Smith's book of poetry, Teahouse of the Almighty, over the weekend. I've mentioned the book twice before and now that I have finished it I can say the whole books is really wonderful. Smith has a strong voice and knows how to use it. I enjoyed the way she plays with sounds and words and rhythms. Sometimes the poems come in a rush, the words gushing down the page. Sometimes they are staccato gunshots. And sometimes they are smooth and lyrical. She is well aware that words have power and several of the poems are about that power. One of my favorites is "Related to the Buttercup, Blooms in Spring" in which one of her teachers writes the word "anemone" on the chalk board for the class to practice their handwriting on:

That one word was sweet silver on my new tongue, it kept coming back to my mouth, it was the very first sound I wanted to own, to name myself after, I wanted no one else to ever utter this. Even now, listen to how anemone circles, turns round, and surprises itself. That day I gave that word a home just under my breath and at least a hundred times I drew on the drug of it, serving it up to the needing air. All this before I knew what it meant. (If you never remember feeling that way about a single word, sensing a burn in the sheer power of its sound, lift up your poetry--all those thick, important pages--and see that it is resting on nothing. Then shred those sheets, toss them to the sky, and lie prone beneath the empty flutter. You must own one word completely before you can claim another.)
But even while she gets high on words, she also acknowledges that words sometimes fail. In her poem, "Fireman," so named for a man who hangs out on the corner and who was burned in a fire, Smith writes:
Long time before, Fireman had raced face-first into a blaze trying to save something belonged to him, a dog or a woman or some other piece of life, and an explosion had blown his face straight back, you know, sometimes I hate words, they don't know how to say anything, imagine that I am digging my fingers deep into the clay of my face and pulling, watch how my eyes get, how they can't stop seeing the last thing they saw, his eyelashes gone, eyebrows gone, everything on his head headed backwards, like it was trying to get away from him. Maps all over his skin, maps for little lost people
Smith writes about poetry and music, famous people and nobodies, good love and bad. Some of the poems are gritty and harsh and made me feel terrible and sad. While others left me feeling elated. Teahouse of the Almighty is not Smith's first book. According to the back of the book blurb, she has three previous collections. I'll definitely be looking those up.