The Temps, all swerve and pivot, conjured schemes
that had us skipping school, made us forget
how mamas schooled us hard against the threat
of five-part harmony and sharkskin seams.
We spent our schooldays balanced on the beams
of moon we wished upon, the needled jetblack
45s that spun and hadn’t yet
become the dizzy spinning of our dreams.
Sugar Pie, Honey Bun, oh you
loved our nappy hair and rusty knees.
Marvin Gaye slowed down while we gave chase
and then he was our smokin’ fine taboo.
We hungered for the anguished screech of Please
inside our chests—relentless, booming bass.
* * *
Inside our chests, relentless booming bass
softened to the turn of Smokey’s key.
His languid, liquid, luscious, aching plea
for bodies we didn’t have yet made a case
for lying to ourselves. He could erase
our bowlegs, raging pimples, we could see
his croon inside our clothes, his pedigree
of milky flawless skin. Oh, we’d replace
our daddies with his fine and lanky frame,
I did you wrong, my heart went out to play
he serenaded, filling up the space
that separated Smoke from certain flame.
We couldn’t see the drug of him—OK,
silk where his throat should be. He growled such grace.
* * *
Silk where his throat should be, and growling grace,
Little Stevie made us wonder why
we even needed sight. His rhythm eye
could see us click our hips and swerve in place
whenever he cut loose. Ooh, we’d unlace
our Converse All-Stars. Yeah, we wondered why
we couldn’t get down without our shoes, we’d try
and dance and keep up with his funky pace
of hiss and howl and hum, and then he’d slow
to twist our hearts until he heard them crack,
ignoring what was leaking from the seams.
The rockin’ blind boy couldn’t help but show
us light. We bellowed every soulful track
from open window, ’neath the door—pipe dreams.
* * *
From open windows, ’neath the doors, pipe dreams
taught us bone, bouffant and nicotine
and served up Lady D, the boisterous queen
of overdone, her body built from beams
of awkward light. Her bug-eyed brash extremes
dizzied normal girls. The evergreen
machine, so clean and mean, dabbed kerosene
behind our ears and said Now burn. Our screams
meant only that our hips would now be thin,
that we’d hear symphonies, wouldn’t hurry love,
as Diana said, Make sure it gleams
no matter what it is. Her different spin,
a voice like sugar air, no inkling of
a soul beneath the vinyl. The Supremes.
* * *
That soul beneath the vinyl, the Supremes
knew nothing of it. They were breathy sighs
and fluid hips, soul music’s booby prize.
But Mary Wells, so drained of self-esteem,
was a pudgy, barstool-ridin’ buck-toothed dream
who none of us would dare to idolize
out loud. She had our mamas’ grunt and thighs
and we preferred to just avoid THAT theme—
as well as war and God and gov’ment cheese
and bullets in the street and ghetto blight.
While Mary’s “My Guy” blared, we didn’t think race,
’cause there was all that romance, and the keys
that Motown held. Unlocked, we’d soon ignite.
We stockpiled extra sequins, just in case.
* * *
We stockpiled extra sequins, just in case
the Marvelettes decided that our grit
was way beyond Diana’s, that we fit
inside their swirl, a much more naughty place.
Those girls came from the brick, we had to brace
ourselves against their heat, much too legit
to dress up as some other thing. We split
our blue jeans trying to match their pace.
And soon our breasts commenced to pop, we spoke
in deeper tones, and Berry Gordy looked
and licked his lips. Our only saving grace?
The luscious, liquid languid tone of Smoke,
the soundtrack while our A-cup bras unhooked.
Our sudden Negro hips required more space.
* * *
Our sudden Negro hips required more space,
but we pretended not to feel that spill
that changed the way we walked. And yes, we still
couldn’t help but feel so strangely out of place
while Motown filled our eager hearts with lace
and Valentines. Romance was all uphill,
no push, no prod, no shiny magic pill
could lift us to that light. No breathing space
in all that time. We grew like vines to sun,
and then we burned. As mamas shook their heads
and mourned our Delta names, we didn’t deem
to care. Religion—there was only one.
We took transistor preachers to our beds
and Smokey sang a lyric dripping cream.
* * *
While Smokey sang a lyric dripping cream,
Levi tried to woo us with his growl:
Can’t help myself. Admitted with a scowl,
his bit of weakness was a soulful scheme—
and we kept screaming, front row, under gleam
of lights, beside the speakers’ blasting vowels,
we rocked and screamed. Levi, on the prowl,
glowed black, a savior in the stagelight’s beam.
But then the stagelight dimmed, and there we were
in bodies primed—for what we didn’t know.
We sang off-key while skipping home alone.
Deceptions that you sing to tend to blur
and disappear in dance, why is that so?
Ask any colored girl and she will moan.
* * *
Ask any colored girl and she will moan
an answer with a downbeat and a sleek
five-part croon. She’s dazzled, and she’ll shriek
what she’s been taught: She won’t long be alone,
or crazed with wanting more. One day she’ll own
that quiet heart that Motown taught to speak,
she’ll know that being the same makes her unique.
She’ll rest her butt on music’s paper throne
until the bassline booms, until some old
Temptation leers and says I’ll take you home
and heal you in the way the music vowed.
She’s trapped within his clutch, his perfumed hold,
dancing to his conjured, crafted poem,
remembering how. Love had lied so loud.
* * *
Remembering how love had lied so loud,
we tangled in the rhythms that we chose.
Seduced by thump and sequins, heaven knows
we tried to live our looming lives unbowed,
but bending led to break. We were so proud
to mirror every lyric. Radios
spit beg and mend, and precious stereos
told us what we were and weren’t allowed.
Our daddies sweat in factories while we
found other daddies under limelight’s glow.
And then we begged those daddies to create
us. Like Stevie, help us blindly see
the rhythms, but instead, the crippling blow.
We whimpered while the downbeat dangled bait.
* * *
We whimpered while the downbeat dangled bait,
we leapt and swallowed all the music said
while Smokey laughed and Marvin idly read
our minds and slapped us hard and slapped us straight,
and even then, we listened for the great
announcement of the drum, for tune to spread,
a Marvelette to pick up on the thread.
But as we know by now, it’s much too late
to reconsider love, or claw our way
through all the glow they tossed to slow our roll.
What we know now we should have always known.
When Smokey winked at us and then said They
don’t love you like I do, he snagged our soul.
We wound up doing the slow drag, all alone.
* * *
They made us do the slow drag, all alone.
They made us kiss our mirrors, deal with heat,
our bodies sudden bumps. They danced deceit
and we did too, addicted to the drone
of revelation, all the notes they’d thrown
our way: Oh, love will change your life. The sweet
sweet fairy tale we spin will certainly beat
the real thing any day. Oh, yes we own
you now. We sang you pliable and clueless,
waiting, waiting, oh the dream you’ll hug
one day, the boy who craves you right out loud
in front of everyone. But we told you,
we know we did, we preached it with a shrug—
less than perfect love was not allowed.
* * *
Less than perfect love was not allowed.
Temptations begged as if their every sway
depended on you coming home to stay.
Diana whispered air, aloof and proud
to be the perfect girl beneath a shroud
of glitter and a fright she held at bay.
And Michael Jackson, flailing in the fray
of daddy love, succumbed to every crowd.
What would we have done if not for them,
wooing us with roses carved of sound
and hiding muck we’re born to navigate?
Little did we know that they’d condemn
us to live so tethered to the ground.
While every song they sang told us to wait.
* * *
Every song they sang told us to wait
and wait we did, our gangly heartbeats stunned
and holding place. Already so outgunned
we little girls obeyed. And now it’s late,
and CDs spinning only help deflate
us. The songs all say, Just look what you’ve done,
you’ve wished through your whole life. And one by one
your stupid sisters boogie to their fate.
So now, at fifty plus, I turn around
and see the glitter drifting in my wake
and mingling with the dirt. My dingy dreams
are shoved high on the shelf. They’re wrapped and bound
so I can’t see and contemplate the ache.
The Temps, all swirl and pivot, conjured schemes.
* * *
The Temps, all swirl and pivot, conjured schemes
inside our chests, relentless booming bass
then silk where throats should be. Much growling grace
from open window, ’neath the door, pipe dreams—
that soul beneath the vinyl. The Supremes
used to stockpile extra sequins just in case
Diana’s Negro hips required more space,
while Smokey penned a lyric dripping cream.
Ask any colored girl, and she will moan,
remembering how love had lied so loud.
I whimpered while the downbeat dangled bait
and taught myself to slow drag, all alone.
Less than perfect love was not allowed
and every song they sang told me to wait.
—from Rattle #32, Winter 2009
Tribute to the Sonnet
Patricia Smith: “As a kid growing up on the west side of Chicago, my ideas about life and love were pretty much defined by whatever Motown song was out at the moment. I began working on a manuscript about the formidable sway Motown music held over me, which was particularly timely because the label had just celebrated its 50th anniversary.” (website)