The Torchbearer Speaks: Patricia Smith's Incendiary Art
review by Kathryn de Lancellotti
The photograph in Jet magazine from Sept. 15, 1955 of Emmett Till’s mother staring gravely at her son’s mutilated face in an open casket forced the world to witness the reality of racism in America. In a country where “the sound of weeping is a prelude to sleep,” Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art is a torch that illuminates injustice—a narrative of poetic elegance and form that invites the reader into the art of truth, of the implications of the black experience, and of American bodies—what it means to be a black man, or his mother, or daughter. Smith speaks to our vile history, and points to a present as gruesome as our past. She sews together stories of Emmett Till, modern police killings, men killing their daughters out of desperation, conversations between mothers waiting to visit with their sons in prison, and mothers mourning too many murdered.
Smith tells stories in parallel realities, creating situations or circumstances where things could have been different for fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, small snapshots that would have saved the boy’s life and/or altered history. She titles them “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” and prefaces them with lines like “turn to page 128 if Emmett Till never set foot in that damned store,” then starts the poem with a kid running by the store instead of being “wooed by chewing gum/ and peppermints. The steamy shop’s a bore/ ‘cause they’ve got better suckers where he’s from.” Smith imagines a world where all children have access to life’s sweetness, and from a grieving heart she dreams up better endings.
The poem “That Chile in That Casket,” referring to the Jet magazine photo, is about black families keeping the infamous photo in their homes as a reminder of what happens to their kind. Daddy would shake his head and mumble, “this is why you got to act/right ‘round white folk,” and whisper, “Lord they kill that chile more than one time.” The poem ends with the speaker looking at the photo and realizing that there aren’t any photos of her in the house which meant she “sparked no moral,” and that she was alive. Smith invites readers into her own story as well as the stories of others in the hope that we might better understand the haunting effects racism has on individuals and families—where living in fear for one’s life is a part of the American experience.
The various forms and meter Smith employs in her work creates a sense of urgency for the stories. They are often written in syllabics, and with assonance, consonance, and rhyme, all working together to move the poems quickly and with force. The multiple forms she employs such as prose, villanelle, sonnet, and sestina become the containers for the wildfire that is her poetry as it burns through the page with heat and velocity. There’s a tension between the controlled forms she writes in and the explosive content. This tension creates restraint and authority over the syntax and the sound, so readers sense that the poems are tightly controlled by Smith as they erupt with the violent and horrific truths of structural racism.
Smith’s ability to bring the reader into the sorrow of her characters is a testament to her capacity for empathy. In the poem “For the Mothers of The Lost,” the speaker aches with the mothers lamenting their children’s futures. With the daughters who are “out of dollars, out of time.” With sons who are “just seeking ways to be erased,” who say to the police, “please, I’m tired. Help me fall down.” With the men who leave their daughters with their mothers, or murder them out of rage. Smith has a way of shining light into the darkness with a necessary and timely tongue of fire, challenging readers to open their eyes and face the truth. In the final poem, “Incendiary Art: The Body,” she writes, “Today, one said I sure would/like to burn a black man alive. So, Yep…” The work isn’t over, and I get the sense that Patricia Smith will continue to carry the torch and raise fire until every heart is roused, and every injustice illuminated.
Kathryn de Lancellotti is currently completing her MFA in Poetry at Sierra Nevada College. She has a degree in Literature with a Creative Writing concentration from University of California Santa Cruz and is a former recipient of the Cowell Press Poetry Prize and the George Hitchcock Memorial Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Press Review, Catamaran Literary Reader, Porter Gulch Review, Rabbid Oak, Red Wheelbarrow and others. Kathryn resides in Cayucos, California with her son, Jade.