“Tavern. Tavern. Church. Shuttered Tavern,” by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith


then Goldblatt’s, with its finger-smeared display windows full
of stifled plaid pinafore and hard-tailored serge, each unattainable
thread cooing the delayed lusciousness of layaway, another church

then, of course, Jesus pitchin’ a blustery bitch on every other block,
then the butcher shop with, inexplicably, the blanched, archaic head
of a hog propped upright to lure waffling patrons into the steamy

innards of yet another storefront, where they drag their feet through
sawdust and revel in the come-hither bouquet of blood, then a vacant
lot, then another vacant lot, right up against a shoe store specializing

in unyielding leather, All-Stars and glittered stacked heels designed
for the Christian woman daring the jukebox, then the what-not joint,
with vanilla-iced long johns, wax lips crammed with sugar water,

notebook paper, swollen sour pickles buoyant in a splintered barrel,
school supplies, Pixy Stix, licorice whips and vaguely warped 45s
by Fontella Bass or Johnny Taylor, now oooh, what’s that blue pepper

piercing the air with the nouns of backwood and cheap Delta cuts—
neck and gizzard, skin and claw—it’s the chicken shack, wobbling
on a foundation of board, grease riding relentless on three of its walls,

the slick cuisine served up in virgin white cardboard boxes with Tabasco
nibbling the seams, scorched wings under soaked slices of Wonder,
blind perch fried limp, spiced like a mistake Mississippi don’ made,

and speaking of, July moans around a perfect perfumed tangle of eight
Baptist gals on the corner of Madison and Warren, fanning themselves
with their own impending funerals, fluid-filled ankles like tree trunks

sprouting from narrow slingbacks, choking in Sears’ Best cinnamon-tinged
hose, their legs so unlike their arms and faces, on the other side
of the street is everything they are trying to be beyond, everything

they are trying to ignore, the grayed promise of government, 25 floors
of lying windows, of peeling grates called balconies, of yellow panties
and shredded diapers fluttering from open windows, of them nasty girls

with wide avenue hips stomping doubledutch in the concrete courtyard,
spewing their woman verses, too fueled and irreversible to be not
listened to and wiggled against, and the Madison St. bus revs its tired

engine, backs up a little for traction and drives smoothly into the sweaty
space between their legs, the only route out of the day we’re riding through.

from Rattle #34, Winter 2010
Rattle Poetry Prize Winner


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. In the midst of crafting the book, however, I realized that what I was really writing about was being part of that first confounded generation born in cluttered, segregated northern cities after our parents had migrated from Alabama, from Mississippi, from Arkansas, from Louisiana. We began an urban existence with no real guidance—and music, among other things, raised us. ‘Tavern. Tavern. Church. Shuttered tavern,’ chronicles a bus ride down Madison St., the main strip slicing through Chicago’s west side. The street, the center of the community’s commerce, was burned flat during the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, and was only rebuilt years later when white folks realized its proximity to downtown, and therefore its worth.” (web)

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