“Speculum Oris” by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith


The Speculum Oris was a scissor-shaped instrument inserted into the mouth of a slave to force the jaws open. The crew of slave ships would force captive Africans to eat so that they couldn’t escape servitude by starving themselves to death.

the requisite tunnel
teeth in the way, tapped out
of the wailing
the weeping horn,
iron hammered thin
stretches face bone to bend,
tongue flails,
signs scream
in this cave of stunned
rusted screw pierced cheek
twist, tighten,
gums stretched bloodless.
speculum. fat flies,
not believing
their bounty, explore,
dizzied by whispers
of oat rice threads of fat.
woe is.
snap shut
all thoughts of swallow,
snaking head of possible
in the throat.
you will eat. you will
live. eat. knees scissor
and knock no
to warm water, shredded
meat. last tooth
leans, relents,
skin welds
around this
iron, becomes this
around this iron
becomes this

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007


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?” (website)

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