“Birthday” by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith


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


Patricia Smith: “I was living in Chicago and found out about a poetry festival in a blues club on a winter afternoon. It was just going to be continuous poetry, five hours. It was the first event in a series called Neutral Turf, which was supposed to bring street poets and academic poets together. And I thought, I’ll get some friends together and we’ll go laugh at the poets. We’ll sit in the back, we’ll heckle, it’ll be great. But when I got there, I was amazed to find this huge literary community in Chicago I knew nothing about. The poetry I heard that day was immediate and accessible. People were getting up and reading about things that everyone was talking about. Gwendolyn Brooks was there, just sitting and waiting her turn like everyone else. There were high school students. And every once in a while a name poet would get up. Gwen got up and did her poetry, then sat back down and stayed for a long time. And I just wanted to know—who are these people? Why is this so important to them? Why had they chosen to be here as opposed to the 8 million other places they could have been in Chicago?” (web)

Rattle Logo