Review by Moira Richards
TEAHOUSE OF THE ALMIGHTY
by Patricia Smith
Coffee House Press
27 North Fourth Street, Suite 400
Minneapolis, MN 55401 USA
2006, 91 pp., $16.00
This book hums dozens of different voices, like a crowd in a late night pub. Just as people in the streets of a city, these people and their stories span the spectra of hope and despair; their stories are of love and pain, of music and of the blues – oh, these blues. Many of the poems, such as “Mississippi’s Legs,” bear dedications and in this way, create vibrant biographies of people such as the Queen of the Blues who escaped her small home town as fast as she could fly. And who kept on fleeing until:
The backhand slap that stopped me was called Chicago.
I ran into the first open door
and screamed Mississippi into a microphone,
knocking out most of my teeth in the process.
The men, long cool wisps of glimmer,
fed me whiskey, dressed me red, called me baby,
laid me down in their king beds,
mapped my widening body, flowered me.
…“flowered me”… mmm…mMm…
Patricia Smith is probably known best for her spoken word poetry and as champion slam poet. Her poem “Down 4 the Up Stroke” pays tribute to a fellow champ and best friend in a time of need. Words like these beg to be said loud–they leap, almost, from the page in search of the nearest microphone:
You drove in from the city and backhanded me
with your clunky rhymes, your limp couplets,
your falterings, your leaps for the sky,
your lean and joyless works in progress.
You jumped up and down on my heart,
yelling beat beat,
when I was June’s only sin, you screeched
There are sad, sad stories of sons in jail, young girls raped, babies beaten to death, women murdered by their partners and in this poem–“Building Nicole’s Mama (for the 6th grade class of Lillie C. Evans School, Liberty City, Miami)”–forty worldly-wise sixth graders who
…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.
yet, during their lesson with a poet-in-schools…
Can poetry hurt us? They ask me before
snuggling inside my words to sleep.
Many poems are of writers and writing and there is a long tribute–“Related to the Buttercup, Blooms in Spring”–to a young school teacher, Ms. Stein, who introduced her class to the word, anenome. And, says the narrator of the poem,
That one word was sweet silver on my new tongue,
it kept coming back to my mouth,
it was the very first sound I wanted to own,
A sweet beginning I can hide in my mouth.
I live on its taste when my pen won’t move.
A recurring presence in Teahouse of the Almighty (there is a poem by this name in the collection too but, no space, you’ll have to read the rich delights that title promises from your own copy of the book) is Patricia Smith’s father who died too soon, from a bullet to his head– but not before he had taught his daughter how to dance, and that she could be the writer she wanted to be, and how to bake hot water corn bread just right…
When you smell the burning begin, flip it.
When you smell the burning begin again,
dump it onto a plate. You’ve got to wait
for the burning and get it just right.
But remember that sometimes the burning
takes such a long time,
and in that time,
poems are born.
(“When the Burning Begins”)
It’s the music, as much as the stories in this collection, that grabs me and nowhere does it play so beautifully as in the four erotic pages of love song dedicated to Smith’s husband and which I would so love to hear read aloud by someone other than me, alone here with my laptop:
don’t play me
the way the saxman plays his woman,
blowing into her mouth till she cries,
allowing her no breath of her own.
Don’t play me that way, baby, the way
the saxman plays his lady,
that strangling, soft murder—notes like bullets,
riffs like knives and the downbeat slapping
into her. and she sighs.
into her. and she cries.
and she whines like the night turning.