“Incendiary Art” compassionately explores the fatalities, often at the hands of law enforcement, and inherent structural racism in America, both through the lives of the deceased and those left behind. The questing approach doesn’t rant or vent but seeks to understand with the aim of encouraging a solution. However, the first rule of solving a problem is to acknowledge it and drill down to its actual cause. The title poem considers a street scene,
“the thing men do to boulevards, the wicks
their bodies be. A city, strapped for art,
delights in torching them – at first for kicks,
to waltz to whirling sparks, but soon those hearts
thud thinner, whittled by the chomp of heat.
Outlined in chalk, men blacken, curl apart.
Their blindly rising fume is bittersweet,
although reversals in the air could fool
us into thinking they weren’t meant at meat
Our sons don’t burn their cities as a rule,
born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.”
It’s impossible not to see things through the lens of prejudice when that prejudice is based on the colour of your skin: something you can’t easily disguise or hide. Even if you could hide it, the burden of disguise takes it toll. The poem captures the sense of public space being unsafe, the way prejudice chips away at an individual’s attitude and how impossible it is for victims to overcome prejudice by themselves. The terza rima form and rhymes echo the way the logic in each stanza is set up by the preceding stanza, each new idea arising from previous thoughts.
“No wound of Exit” explores an autopsy from a young man fatally shot,
“A black boy can fold his whole tired self around a bullet. The cartridge is a pinpoint of want, a textbook example of the smallest love. Some slugs are warmer then mothers. The bullet wants the whole of the boy, his snot and insomnia, his crammed pockets and waning current. The bullet strains to romance the blooded one in a way that grinds with lyric. The bullet swoons through his collapsing map, then comes to rest and the boy simply ends his breathing around it. It does not matter if the boy has a mother. It does not matter if he has a gold mouth,
“Injuries associated with the entrance wound: perforation of left anterior fifth intercoastal space, pericordial sac, right ventricle of the heart, right lower lobe of the lung with approximately 1300 milliliters of blood in the right pleural cavity and 1000 in the left pleural cavity. The collapse of both lungs.
“A black boy’s lungs collapsing.
“A mother picked up a phone.
“The same sound.”
The poetic description is contrasted with the dry, factual language of the autopsy. Death occurs regardless of the victim’s (perceived) wealth and a mother’s love cannot protect against it. A group of poems looks at the death of two daughters. In separate incidents, two girls, three month old Zara and two year old Tierra, were taken out by their fathers and drowned. “Blurred Quotient and Theory” offers explanations for why they will killed by someone who was supposed to protect and care for them,
“Sometimes a daughter is simply what the middle
of a crib does. Later, she becomes the opener
of doors. She warms that plate of neckbones,
and pirouettes for his gaze. Sometimes she is the spit
of the mother, the irritant prancing the outer edge
of rooms, the cheek roughly pinched, the handful
of dimes and Go on, give yourself some Red Hots,
the math problem one person in the class keeps getting
wrong, the Sit on in here and be still while your mama
and I – Sometimes she is sometimes. She is oddity,
or she is air. What Tierra was was shatter to anyone
doomed enough to love her. What Zara was was not a son.”
“Accidental” is a series of poems that explore situations where black man were murdered by the police. Each starts with a brief report, e.g. “March 3, 2014, Iberia Parish, LA – Police say that Victor White III, 22, shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser.”, “November 19, 2013, Durham NC – Police say that Jesus Huerta, 17, shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser”, “July 29, 2013, Jonesboro, AR – Police say that Chavis Carter, 21, shot himself while handcuffed in the black of a police cruiser.”
“He reached back and found
his own hands with his own
hands, worked his bound
fingers to set his free fingers
loose, then used that shackled
hand to free the other shackled
hand, and the freed shackled
hand, still shackled, was still
bound to the other hand once
both were freed. Once free
in the shackles, the shackled
hands turned to the matter
of the gun which couldn’t be
there because they’d searched
by baby twice and a gun is
a pretty big thing unless it isn’t,
unless it is dreamed alive by
hands that believe they are no
longer shackled. Stunned in
cuffs, but free and searching,
the left and right hands found
a gun with a stink like voodoo.”
The circular illogic of the poem echoes and reflects on the incredulity that should have greeted the police reports. However, the police reports were accepted at face value, demonstrating the power imbalance. The victims don’t matter. The reputations of law enforcement officers are seen as more important, even when the evidence doesn’t support their versions of events. Even when evidence supports the victims, the victims’ voices are not heard. That they leave behind families is not important enough for the official version of events to be challenged. Their ages are significant too: these were young men with their lives ahead of them, dismissed as worthless and the consequences of that dismissal are fatal. The consequences and their effect on the communities the law enforcement officers are supposed to police are also dismissed. Those communities learn their lives don’t matter and justice is absent.
“Incendiary Art” is a substantial collection. There is also a poignant, unsentimental elegy for the poet’s father that doesn’t overlook his flaws, but shows the strength of a father/daughter bond. Interspersed throughout are a series of poems about Emmett Till, a man lynched in 1955 at the age of 14 after being falsely accused of offending a white woman. The poems are presented as a ‘choose your own adventure’ story that considers what if the photo he carried in his wallet had been recognised as Hedy Lamarr instead of being used to allege he had a white girlfriend, what if there had been a closed casket, if his body was never found, etc.
Patricia Smith demonstrates a skill, not only with poetic forms, but knowledge of her craft, the imagination and compassion she writes with. “Incendiary Art” includes prose poems, ghazals, sonnets and sestinas, each poem’s structure relating to and exploring its subject. The poems are contemporary and their concern remains with current issues but with a demonstrable inclusion of context and history. She deserves her accolades and “Incendiary Art” is a collection to treasure and return to. Highly recommended.