Patricia Smith,
Teahouse of the Almighty
(Coffeehouse Press, 2006)

In the first poem of this volume, Patricia Smith shows us what poetry can do. To her -- and, I might add, to me -- it's a magical form, capable of transforming the way you see life and therefore the way you live. It is magical and utilitarian at the same time. In the poem "Building Nicole's Mama," she describes teaching poetry writing to a sixth-grade class, saying,

angry, jubilant, weeping poets -- we are all
saviors, reluctant hosannas in the limelight

Poetry lives in everyone and, as the poem says, it can be used to come to terms with the horrors of life:

They 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.

One member of the class, though, a little girl named Nicole, asks Smith if she can teach her to write a poem about her mother, teach her to remember her mother. The teacher of the class is stunned; this is the first time Nicole has ever mentioned her mother

murdered by slim silver needles and a stranger
rifling through her blood, the virus pushing
her skeleton through for Nicole to see.

Nicole, says the poet, has learned to see poetry as her scream, as words to build her mother again.

This, then, is the power of poetry and it is one of the themes of Smith's book, which is far reaching and multi-themed while always emphasizing that though this is a hard life, poetry can, at the very least, blunt the edges of the blades we have to face. A four-time national poetry slam champion, Smith's poetry does not simply lie on the page. It asks to be read aloud, shouted. It is loud, aggressive, with lots of adjectives and the good strong plain American language.

While she speaks of society as a whiole, Smith can also narrow her focus to the personal. "Listening at the Door," for example, examines the universal need to be loved by looking at the poet as a small child, listening from behind the closed door of her room as her mother entertains a "potential husband." The poem understands what is driving her mother; she "pretended she could shine above hurting" while "crawling on her knees toward love."

Teahouse of the Almighty is a powerful book that ought to be widely read, aloud and often.

by Michael Scott Cain
20 January 2007

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