“Building Nicole’s Mama” by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith


for the 6th grade class of Lillie C. Evans School, Liberty City, Miami

I am astonished at their mouthful names—
Lakinishia, Chevellanie, Delayo, Fumilayo—
their ragged rebellions and lip-glossed pouts,
and all those pants drooped as drapery.
I rejoice when they kiss my face, whisper wet
and urgent in my ear, make me their obsession
because I have brought them poetry.

They shout me raw, bruise my wrists with pulling,
and brashly claim me as mama as they
cradle my head in their little laps,
waiting for new words to grow in my mouth.

Angry, jubilant, weeping poets—we are all
saviors, reluctant hosannas in the limelight,
but you knew that, didn’t you? So let us
bless this sixth grade class—40 nappy heads,
40 cracking voices, and all of them
raise their hands when I ask. They have all seen
the Reaper, grim in his heavy robe,
pushing the button for the dead project elevator,
begging for a break at the corner pawn shop,
cackling wildly in the back pew of the Baptist church.

I ask the death question and forty fists
punch the air, me! me! And O’Neal,
matchstick crack child, watched his mother’s
body become a claw, and 9-year-old Tiko Jefferson,
barely big enough to lift the gun, fired a bullet
into his own throat after Mama bended his back
with a lead pipe. Tamika cried into a sofa pillow
when Daddy blasted Mama into the north wall
of their cluttered one-room apartment,
Donya’s cousin gone in a drive-by. Dark window,
click, click, gone, says Donya, her tiny finger
a barrel, the thumb a hammer. I am shocked
by their losses—and yet when I read a poem
about my own hard-eyed teenager, Jeffrey asks
He is dead yet?

It cannot be comprehended,
my 18-year-old still pushing and pulling
his own breath. And those 40 faces pity me,
knowing that I will soon be as they are,
numb to our bloodied histories,
favoring the Reaper with a thumbs-up and a wink,
hearing the question and shouting me, me,
Miss Smith, I know somebody dead!

Can poetry hurt us? they ask me before
snuggling inside my words to sleep.
I love you, Nicole says, Nicole wearing my face,
pimples peppering her nose, and she is as black
as angels are. Nicole’s braids clipped, their ends
kissed with match flame to seal them,
and can you teach me to write a poem about my mother?
I mean, you write about your daddy and he dead,
can you teach me to remember my mama?

A teacher tells me this is the first time Nicole
has admitted that her mother is gone,
murdered by slim silver needles and a stranger
rifling through her blood, the virus pushing
her skeleton through for Nicole to see.
And now this child with rusty knees
and mismatched shoes sees poetry as her scream
and asks me for the words to build her mother again.
Replacing the voice.
Stitching on the lost flesh.

So poets,
as we pick up our pens,
as we flirt and sin and rejoice behind microphones—
remember Nicole.
She knows that we are here now,
and she is an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

And she is waiting.
And she
And she waits.

from Rattle #27, Summer 2007
Tribute to Slam Poetry


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)

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