What was your least favorite age? For many of us, 13 stands out as a particularly hellacious year. Today’s Sunday Poem “13 Ways of Looking at 13” by writer and performer Patricia Smith takes us back to those early, tormented growing pains.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” Not only is she is the author of six critically-acclaimed volumes of poetry, but she has written plays, journalism, a children’s book, and nonfiction. (I’ve experienced her DJ skills first-hand, as well, and Patricia knows how to rock the house!)
But it’s on stage that Patricia’s gift for language and rhythm shines. Whether she’s inhabiting the consciousness of an angry, racist skinhead on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam or performing with a jazz band at the Elizabeth R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, Smith’s talent will hit you like a lightning bolt. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, with the blues band Bop Thunderous, as an occasional vocalist with the improvisational jazz groups Paradigm Shift and Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble, and she is four-time national individual champion of the notorious and wildly popular Poetry Slam, the most successful competitor in slam history.
I love this description of Patricia’s performances from her website, a testament to the kind of range she possesses as an artist:
Writing conferences and festivals. Kindergarten classrooms. Prisons. Barnes & Noble. A train platform in Berlin. Jazz clubs. Harvard Law School. A Chicago mayoral inauguration. Several thousand African-American History Month celebrations. Libraries. Juvenile detention centers. HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Osaka, in front of 10,000 Japanese businessmen. Collaborating with The Urban Bush Women. The beach in Bahia. A Milwaukee bar filled with some very testy bikers. Baptist churches. Right before Viggo Mortensen. Right after Madeline Albright. Under the direction of a Nobel Prize winner. In a commercial for Oil of Olay. Patricia’s voice has been everywhere.
Smith’s work defies categorization. As one critic wrote, her “readings are often a heady mix of haunting personas, meditations on current events and jazz-tinged improvisation. Personal reminiscences about growing up unsure and imperfect, her close relationship with her father and the mine-littered landscape of race and class have made her hugely popular with teen and young adult audiences.”
Here is Patricia performing “13 Ways of Looking at 13,” which is from her book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. As she explains in her introduction, the poem is composed of 13 stanzas, 13 lines per stanza, and 13 syllables per line.
Enjoy your Sunday!
13 Ways of Looking at 13
You touch your forefinger to the fat clots in the blood,
then lift its iron stench to look close, searching the globs
of black scarlet for the dimming swirl of dead children.
You thread one thick pad’s cottony tail, then the other,
through the little steel guides of the belt. You stand and lift
the contraption, press your thighs close to adjust the bulk,
then bend to pull up coarse white cotton panties bleached blue,
and just to be safe, you pin the bottom of the pad
to the shredding crotch of the Carter’s. And then you spritz
the guilty air with the cloying kiss of FDS.
It’s time to begin the game of justifying ache,
time to name the mystery prickling riding your skin.
You’re convinced the boys can smell you, and they can, they can.
Right now, this Tuesday in July, nothing’s headier
than the words Sheen! Manageable! Bounce! Squinting into
the smeared mirror, you search your ghetto-ripe head for them,
you probe with greased fingers, spreading paths in the chaos
wide enough for the advertised glimmer to escape,
but your snarls hold tight to their woven dry confounding.
Fevered strands snap under the drag of the wiry brush
and order unfurls, while down the hall mama rotates
the hot comb in a bleary blaze, smacks her joyful gum.
Still, TV bellows its promise. You witness the pink
snap of the perfect neck, hear the impossible vow–
Shampoo with this! Sheen! Bounce! Her cornsilk head is gospel,
it’s true. C’mon chile! Even mama’s calling you burns.
Ms. Stein scribbled a word on the blackboard, said Who can
pronounce this?, and the word was anemone and from
that moment you first felt the clutter of possible
in your mouth, from the time you stumbled through the rhythm
and she slow-smiled, you suddenly knew you had the right
to be explosive, to sling syllables through back doors,
to make up your own damned words just when you needed them.
All that day, sweet anemone tangled in your teeth,
spurted sugar tongue, led you to the dictionary
where you were assured that it existed, to the cave
of the bathroom where you warbled it in bounce echo,
and, finally convinced you owned that teeny gospel,
you wrote it again and again and again and a–.
Trying hard to turn hips to slivers, sway to stutter,
you walk past the Sinclair station where lanky boys, dust
in their hair, dressed in their uniforms of oil and thud,
rename you pussy with their eyes. They bring sounds shudder
and blue from their throats just for you, serve up the ancient
sonata of skin drum and conch shell, sing suggesting woos
of AM radio, boom, boom, How you gon’ just walk
on by like that? and suddenly you know why you are
stitched so tight, crammed like a flash bomb into pinafore,
obeying mama’s instructions to be a baby
as long as you can. Because it’s a man’s world and James
Brown is gasoline, the other side of slow zippers.
He is all of it, the pump, pump, the growled please please please.
You try to keep your hands off your face, but the white-capped
pimples might harbor evil. It looks like something cursed
is trying to escape your cheeks, your whole soul could be
involved. So you pinch, squeeze and pop, let the smelly snow
splash the mirror, slather your fresh-scarred landscape with creams
that clog and strangle. At night, you look just like someone
obsessed with the moon, its gruff superstitions, its lies.
Your skin is a patchwork of wishing. You scrub and dab
and mask and surround, you bombard, spritz and peel, rubbing
alcohol, flesh-toned Clearasil that pinkens and cakes
while new dirtworms shimmy beneath the pummeled surface
of you. Every time you touch your face, you leave a scar.
Hey, you. Every time you touch your face, you leave a scar.
You want it all: Pickles with peppermint sticks shoved down
their middles, orange-cheesed popcorn mixed with barbecue chips,
waxed lips and werewolf fangs injected with bright blue juice,
red licorice spaghetti whips, pickled pig feet and
ears, hogshead cheese, Lemonheads, grits with sugar, salt pork,
sardines on saltines doused with red spark. All that Dixie
dirt binds, punches your insides flat, re-teaches the blind
beat of your days. Like mama and her mother before
her, you pulse on what is thrown away–gray hog guts stewed
improbable and limp, scrawny chicken necks merely
whispering meat. You will live beyond the naysayers,
your rebellious heart constructed of lard and salt, your
life labored but long. You are built of what should kill you.
Always treat white folks right, her solemn mantra again
and yet again, because they give you things. Like credit,
compliments, passing grades, government jobs, direction,
extra S&H stamps, produce painted to look fresh,
a religion. When the insurance man came, she snapped
herself alive, hurriedly rearranged her warm bulk. He
was balding badly, thatches of brown on a scabbed globe.
Just sign here, he hissed, staring crave into her huge breasts,
pocketing the death cash, money she would pay and pay
and never see again. C’mere girl, say hello to
Mister Fred. She had taught you to bow. She taught him
to ignore the gesture, to lock his watering eyes
to yours and lick his dry lips with a thick, coated tongue.
In the bathroom of the what-not joint on the way to
school, you get rid of the starch and billowed lace, barrettes
taming unraveling braids, white knee socks and sensible
hues. From a plastic bag, you take out electric blue
eye shadow, platforms with silver-glittered heels, neon
fishnets and a blouse that doesn’t so much button as
suggest shut. The transformation takes five minutes, and you
emerge feeling like a budding lady but looking,
in retrospect, like a blind streetwalker bursting from
a cocoon. This is what television does, turns your
mother into clueless backdrop, fills your pressed head with
the probability of thrum. Your body becomes
just not yours anymore. It’s a dumb little marquee.
With your bedroom door closed, you are skyscraper bouffant,
peach foundation, eyelashes like upturned claws. You are
exuding ice, pinched all over by earrings, you are
too much of woman for this room. The audience has
one chest, a single shared chance to gasp. They shudder, heave,
waiting for you to open your mouth and break their hearts.
Taking the stage, you become an S, pour ache into your
hip swings, tsk tsk as the front row collapses. Damn, they
want you. You lift the microphone, something illegal
comes out of you, a sound like titties and oil. Mama
flings the door open with a church version of your name.
Then you are pimpled, sexless, ashed and doubledutch knees.
You are spindles. You are singing into a hairbrush.
This is what everyone else is doing: skating in
soul circles, skinning shins, tongue-kissing in the coat room,
skimming alleys for Chicago rats, failing English, Math,
crushing curfew, lying about yesterday and age,
slipping Woolworth’s bounty into an inside pocket,
sprouting breasts. Here is what everyone else is doing:
sampling the hotness of hootch, grinding under blue light,
getting turned around in the subway, flinging all them
curse words, inhaling a quick supper before supper
fried up in hot Crisco and granulated sugar,
sneaking out through open windows when the night goes dark,
calling mamas bitches under their breath, staying up
till dawn to see what hides. What you are doing: Reading.
You are never too old. And you are never too world,
too almost grown, you are never correct, no matter
how many times you are corrected. It is never
too late, never too early to be told to cross the
street to the place where the wild stuff is, to suffer her
instructions: No, not that little switch, get the big one,
the one that makes that good whipping sound when the breeze blows,
and you are never too fast crossing the boulevard
to bring it back while winged sedans carve jazz on your path.
You climb the stairs, she screams Get up here! The door to where
you live with her flies open. She snatches the thorned branch,
whips it a hundred times across the backs of your legs.
You want her to die. Not once, no. Many times. Gently.
That boy does not see you. He sees through you, past your tone
of undecided earth. You are the exact shade of
the failed paper bag test, the Aunt Esther, you are hair
forever turning back in the direction from which
it came. You are clacking knees and nails bitten to blood.
Stumbling forth in black, Jesus-prescribed shoes, you have no
knowledge of his knowledge of hip sling and thrust. That boy
does not see you. So squeeze your eyes shut and imagine
your mouth touching the swell of his forearm. Imagine
just your name’s first syllable in the sugared well of
his throat. Dream of all the ways he is not walking past
you again, turning his eyes to the place where you are,
where you’re standing, where you shake, where you pray, where you aren’t.
You’re almost 14. And you think you’re ready to push
beyond the brutal wisdoms of the 1 and the 3,
but some nagging crave in you doesn’t want to let go.
You suspect that you will never be this unfinished,
all Hail Mary and precipice, stuttering sashay,
fuses in your swollen chest suddenly lit, spitting,
and you’ll need to give your hips a name for what they did
while you weren’t there. You’ll miss the pervasive fever that
signals bloom, the sore lessons of jumprope in your calves.
This is last year your father is allowed to touch
you. Sighing, you push Barbie’s perfect body through the
thick dust of a top shelf. There her prideful heart thunders.
She has hardened you well. She has taught you everything.
About Patricia Smith
Patricia Smith is the author of six books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and her latest, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and the Balcones Prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Tin House and in both 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 is upcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a 2012 fellow at both the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, a two-time Pushcart Prize winner and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Patricia is a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
To learn more about Patricia Smith and her work, please visit her website.
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“13 Ways of Looking at 13” © Patricia Smith. All Rights Reserved. This poem appears in Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and was reprinted with express permission from the author.