July 23, 2010

Patricia Smith

BIRTHDAY

On this bed of chilled steel, I am the morning’s work,
your project after coffee and, oh yes, some woman’s son.
Whistling to break the ice in the room, you hold
most of my head in your hands. Your shaping fingers
gently adjust an ear, probe a hollow eye socket,
flick chips of dried blood away from a blown-open
hairline. No one but you and I hear as you inhale
and, without exhaling, whisper the name I once had.

Grimacing, edging slowly toward overwhelm,
you clutch the photo, glancing from the grinning grad
to the exploded boy. Now the only sound in the room
is the flat hiss of the blade as you whittle a dim smile,
free fluid from my blue mouth. You reach into your bag
and pull out a nose, a sliver of chin, a ragged scalp,
and see them as just that—a shard of skin, that scalp.
You touch with the stark slowness of a lover, but you
don’t cry out from that lover’s deep bone. Just how
did you die your soul enough to be this temporary god,
stitching conjured light into the cave of my chest?

My mother sat across from you, tangled her hands
and re-scripted my days, wailing that the bullet
was meant for someone else, not me, not me, no,
not me, and would you please make him the way he was,
as close as you can to not dead, not dead, not gone,
and you said yes. You promised she’d be able to gaze
upon me and say, with that liquid hope in her voice,
He looks like he’s sleeping. She’s the reason you carve
and paste and snip with such focus, why you snap
my bones only to reset them, why you drag a comb
through the

I can’t hear her voice anymore.
I can’t hear the bullet slicing the night toward me.
I can’t hear anything now but you,
whistling your perk past numb ritual,
stopping now and again to behold your gift
to the woman who first told you my name,
just before she handed you a picture
and begged you please, as best you can, My baby.

from Rattle #32, Summer 2009
2009 Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention

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For more on Patricia Smith, read our conversation with her in issue #27, or visit her website.