In this month’s installment, reviews editor Adam Tavel examines an explosive book about race and violence.
Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith
TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press
$18.95, 144 pages
published February 2017
It seems fitting, if lamentable, that the poetry community must celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks’s centenary during the ever-mounting tensions of Trumpism, police brutality, and social injustice. Written in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, “Riot” is one of Brooks’s most dense and electrifying poems, and as such, David Baker notes in a recent essay, it isn’t likely to find a cozy place beside “those anthologizable, more easily teachable poems.” Tensely cinematic and brimming with historical allusions, “Riot” captures black angst, white fear, and the larger socio-political forces that, then as now, exacerbate racial tensions. Decades later, it remains a poem of necessity rather than desire, shouting its fierce eulogy back at the zeitgeist. Patricia Smith’s seventh book of poems, Incendiary Art, follows in this bold tradition and finds an already lauded poet writing urgent, ferocious lyrics, where the staggering reality of police violence against unarmed African-Americans eerily suggests that the gains of the Civil Rights struggle have been collectively overestimated. A tour de force at double the length of an expected poetry volume, Incendiary Art is bound to be one of this year’s most vital and devastating books, where Smith’s historical sweep, moral invective, and lyrical mastery speak truth to power and render these trying times unflinchingly.
Though Smith divides Incendiary Art into four thematic sections, two series of historical poems dominate, interrogating the horrors of institutionalized violence and Emmett Till’s murder, respectively. The eight poems bearing the title “Incendiary Art” tell a grisly, decades-long tale, beginning with the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and ending with Ferguson after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. Smith reiterates a chilling insight first posited by Ida B. Wells during the Jim Crow era: accusations of lawlessness and mobocracy among African-American communities are projections of the very injustices inflicted upon them, and thus invoked to defend against a fictive problem. By demanding we look at each body broken for its color, Smith tallies the gruesome wreckage of profiling and the lives ruined in its wake, as she does in these enjambed, staccato lines for Brown:
most when they are in
motion, the hurtle and reverb
matter the rushed melody of fist
the shudderings of a scorched
the engine that moves us
each damnable dawn
they should have
left him there
eventually the embers would
in his hair
Other standouts in the series elegize Rodney King (“born, as you/were, up to your neck in fuel”) and the 1968 Chicago riots (“who knew our/pudgy American dream was so combustible”?). Smith’s tributes to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose abduction and murder shook the nation in 1955, are the focus of the book’s powerful opener “That Chile Emmett in That Casket,” five interconnected sonnets, and a double golden shovel. Speculative and haunting, the sonnets take the form of “choose your own adventure” narratives, where Smith ponders the various outcomes, had Till never entered that fateful store where he was later accused of whistling at a white woman, or never visited Mississippi in the first place. The most commanding among these imagines Till’s mother Mamie holding a closed casket service instead of defiantly showing the carnage suffered upon her child to the world:
We’re curious, but his imploded eye,
the bullet’s only door, would be the thing
we wouldn’t want to see. We justify
his childish glint, and sigh, imagining
the knotted tie, the scissored naps, those cheeks
in rakish bloom, perhaps a scrape or two
beneath his laundered shirt. The mourners’ shrieks
are tangled with an organ’s point of view,
and someone moans Mahalia. Mamie’s fanned
and comforted, her gorgeous fallen son
a horrid hidden rot. Her tiny hand
starts crushing roses—one by one by one
she wrecks the casket’s spray. It’s how she mourns—
a mother still, despite the roar of thorns.
Against this grim historical backdrop, Smith’s examinations of police brutality make recent injustices feel like the continuation of an established pattern rather than an inexplicable trend. In “ReBirthday,” an adolescent boy speaks from beyond the grave, having gone from “swaggering smirk/to exploded child” while an undertaker tries to repair his battered face for a mother “gnarled with loss.” “Runaway” constructs a titillating if ambiguous narrative, where the experiences of fleeing from slavecatchers and pursuing police officers blur into one man’s “fear that he’s on a journey that has/already ended.” At thirty-five pages, “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” is a relentless poem of witness, where Smith catalogs a dozen unarmed African-American victims of police shootings. The cumulative effect is nothing short of heartbreaking. The poem ends as it begins, with the voice of a grieving mother whose bottomless sorrow indicts a culture that commodifies tragedy:
I don’t expect you’ll recognize my voice
no matter that I populate your world
with demons and obstructions, dangerous
assumptions. I’m the mother of the hung,
the misted head, the pistol-whipped, the hands
that found the hands, the tasered crazy girl
and all the magic real that you can stand.
I thought perhaps I’d let you’d see that I
am flesh and bone and pulse, that in the night
I entertain you, digitized, my break
and fall rewound and replayed and tabbed. But
now, I fight my own collapse, that ugly twist
that grief brings to my face to make you laugh.
I’m here to say their bodies weren’t at war
with you. I’m here to say their bodies weren’t
at war with you. I’m here to say their wars
were in their bodies. And the battlefield
was always yours, was always yours, was all.
Throughout, Smith punctures persistent stereotypes of African-Americans while simultaneously revealing that the most sinister among these have the potential to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Several poems deconstruct the image of a crestfallen black mother, whose naked ache and pleas for justice are exploited as macabre voyeurism on the nightly news and viral videos online. In both her Emmett Till poems and “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” the poet painfully reminds us that black teenagers are the only young people in America who are automatically assumed to be dangerous, and are never afforded the grace or concern shown to other adolescents making the uneasy transition from childhood to adulthood. “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters” endures as the book’s most distressing long poem, exploring two separate but equally horrific cases of young fathers in New Jersey drowning their daughters in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Even for readers accustomed to violence, it makes for ghastly reading when 3-month-old Zara’s father “lobs her like trash over/the rusting rail” and “the startled river opens, then closes over her, the way/a new mother would.” As with Charles Reznikoff’s best work, Smith captures the legal and emotional intricacy of these tragic crimes, but refuses to absolve them, so we are left to consider whether these fathers were born murderers or if the monstrous cultural reflection they saw each day played some part in their savage crimes.
Incendiary Art proves that Smith’s reputation for formal range and sonic mastery are well-earned. Though she often composes a muscled, alliterative free verse, Smith is just at home writing pentameter, and the array of forms comprising Incendiary Art include the sonnet, the sestina, the ghazal, list poems, prose poems, and reworked found material. The dynamism of her language derives from various strengths: a keen sense of the line break, an expansive diction that often repurposes nouns as verbs, and a metaphoric power that amplifies manifest violence. In “See What Happens When You Don’t Be Careful,” Smith recounts a childhood experience when her mother forced her, as an ominous lesson, to behold a classmate’s corpse at his funeral: “You hustled me right up on all that bright horrible,/that thing now black-bluish chill, put to his last bed on/puffed silk already stinking like shred, both lips blown big/and mistaken rose.” Or take, for example, this opening sentence from the book’s final poem, “Incendiary Art: The Body”:
I’ve nightmared your writhe, glum
fists punching their way out of your
own body, the blind stumble through
the buckled vein of your throat as
your nerve endings sputtered and blew.
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art inhabits the messiness and necessity of racial discourse in contemporary America. What makes Smith’s singular achievement so compelling, however, is that she is able to weave together three distinct narrative threads—the vast injustice of our previous century, the unending calamity of police shootings, and her own stark experience with racially-motivated violence—in a unified portrait of a crisis-riddled nation. Rhapsodic as her language is, Smith paints our country’s portrait in blood. Incendiary Art will surely be one of this year’s award contenders. These stirring poems will make any reader shudder, weep, and strive for an America that finally regards all of its citizens, to borrow Malcolm X’s phrase, as righteous human beings.