Review by Anique Taylor
SHOULDA BEEN JIMI SAVANNAH
by Patricia Smith
Coffee House Press
79 Thirteenth Ave NE Suite 110
Minneapolis, MN 55413
2012, 116 pp., $16.00
Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah is about dreams—the sugar spun of the Supremes, the hard knock of Alabama to Chicago for a larger life, an open door. But instead of dreams-come-true there are factory lines, cold water flats, doors closed because of blackness that can’t be ironed down or scrubbed off. Although Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah is about the promise of cities, the hope of Motown harmonies that are dimmed down and fallen short, the book is about more than simply what “shoulda been.” The book is about how Smith gets us there—her smoke and haze of diction, rattle thrust of rhythm, verbs that open us into stories that paint whole lives.
Smith’s rhythms create a life-breath almost as potent as Motown’s beat itself. That’s what won her the National Poetry Slam four times—making the music of her poems almost as important as the content. But it is also this music that draws us into her meaning.
Smith can write about pimples or washing out underpants and carve a heaven of detail. She takes unremarkable daily thoughts or tasks—experiences thrown away everyday as insignificant—and spins these into art. Nothing is too mundane to be the subject of her poetry—from roaches, mice, and rock ‘n’ roll to the sweepingly touching history of her family.
Jimi Savannah is about history, race, broken families, religion, maturation, identification with rock ‘n’ roll, and the hope of love and fulfillment it promised. Smith chronicles the second migration of southern African Americans from the rural South to northern cities. By dwelling in the voice of her own story, she reflects a universal voice—not only for mid-century African Americans, but for everyone who has come through the difficult seas of adolescence in mid-century America with rock ‘n’ roll as a life boat.
The first section explores the relationship of her family with the South—how her mother came from Alabama, and how her father’s parents were allowed to die in a car wreck, because they were black, leaving her father as an orphaned reminder of these deaths to his relatives. Soon they each left, trolling north for some larger dream. They arrived with expectations that were quickly flattened by difficulties—the impossibility of getting ahead in a world where being black would continually beat them down.
The narrative poem “Otis and Annie, Annie and Otis (My parents then)” delves into their expectations, their differences, how Patricia Ann was conceived, and how they married. With the scope of a novel, it imbues the narrative with lyric beauty. She inter-weaves layered psychological interactions from deep within the thoughts and feelings of each.
In “All Purpose Product,” using the Q&A as her form, Smith creates a heartbreaking piece about being scrubbed with Lysol to lighten her dark skin. The need for change, along with the kitchen, refrigerator and mildew, ask questions:
Can I use this to scrub the uncontrollable black from the surface of my daughter, to make her less Negro and somehow less embarrassing to me? She’s like the hour after midnight, that chile is.
Throughout the book, Smith’s fresh diction is surprising enough to be almost a new language: “orphans of the North Star, dutifully sacrificed, our young/ bodies arranged on sharp slabs of boulevard.” Or:
Diana [Ross] was the bone our mothers coveted
the flow of slip silver they knew was buried deep beneath
their rollicking heft
When her mother asks her father to leave, “he is smiling sad crooked sugar.” Describing the other women her father goes with, how it tears Annie apart:
She thinks of mouths thrown open, red octave
cackles riding a surface of glass. And his hands on them,
unthreading her language.
When he does leave, Patricia is eight-years-old. Her hair is falling out. Her mother quizzes her. Is she using god’s name wrong, stealing from Woolworth’s or did someone lay his hands on her—trying to blame this falling hair on Patricia’s sin. But she writes, “Nothing purple could find/ thread in me.”
Smith uses adjectives as nouns, verbs that open up whole chapters, juxtapositions of unlikely combinations, and dissonances that free our experience. These pace her work with rhythm-backed passion—but she also pays close attention to form. “Looking at 13” is based loosely on a Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It has thirteen stanzas. Each stanza contains thirteen lines; each line has thirteen syllables. In it she details the heartbreak and heaven of puberty—menstruation, pimples, switch-beatings, fame fantasy—putting away Barbie on the shelf.
A fascinating theme Smith explores throughout the book is how outer facts can define our inner selves. Beneath the concept of color, prejudice, and poverty there is an underlying desire for the magic of change to effect identity, to wipe clean each of our individual shames. This weaves through a host of poems that court different types of change—geography, speech patterns, skin color, fashion style, age—and of course, her name. This is borne out by the title, her inner name of Jimi Savannah.
… the blues-bathed moniker …
ball breaker name of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-Stars,
… all legs
a bladed debutante hooked on Lucky Strikes and sugar.
Jimi is the holder of passion and soul that solid Patricia Ann, “a starched pinafore … stiff-laced/ and unshakably fixed on salvation,” could never be.
As if writing a high-voltage book of sound, rhythm, and diction wasn’t enough, Smith’s virtuoso turn is a royal crown of sonnets, creatively subtle and complexly rhymed. The rhyme patterns may not be obvious at first, because the music is so vibrant it never approaches the pit of end-rhyme sing-song.
Patricia Smith reawakens for us the dreamy nourishment of Smokey, Diana, Mary, Stevie, even Aretha and the groups—Marvelettes, Temptations, Supremes. These Motown royalties’ musical dreams got us through, made us believe we could ride out and survive adolescences our parents couldn’t grasp on the promises of their rock ‘n’ roll.
In many ways this is a book about “how.” How Smith (and her generation) survived with ear buds, Smokey, and teachers who were kind. It’s about what threads (and models) they held on to. Although Smith doesn’t talk about transformational saviors, the question lurks below: on such slim sustenance, how they did get through? “Evil” rock ‘n’ roll was the rope that lead them, something they could hold on to. While (dare I say it?) Mamas were thumping Bibles, it was the wicked “Ooo Baby Baby” and “Please Please Please” that saved their children’s souls. And there is nothing in these poems that cannot rival the heart, spirit, the dancing beat of Motown. The stolid name Patricia Ann may have been foisted upon her. It may have stuck. But this book is proof that Smith is still all Jimi Savannah in her electric, poetic soul.
Anique Taylor earned a Diplome in Literature from the Sorbonne before returning home to finish high school. She finished her BFA & MFA at Pratt Institute. In NY Anique gave featured readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Dixon Place, The Speakeasy, ABC No Rio, Cedar Tavern. Her poems have appeared in The World (St. Mark’s Poetry Project), Adanna, Earth’s Daughters, Cheap Review and The National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side. Her MFA in Poetry is from Drew University.