By Patricia Smith
What Was the First Sound
it made, heaven’s seam splitting?
Was the sound purple?
The sound was purple,
throbbing like a new-torn wound
under August drape.
Under August drape,
Miss Katrina’s swollen gaze
already filled with water
but secure in bone.
Secure in its bone,
a squat building shit bricks.
The sound was purple.
The sound was purple.
And only mutts, priestesses,
and tree trunks heard it.
Tree trunks heard it
ripping spit through matted leaves.
Wind found its color.
Wind found its color
and cast an eerie alto
to the first plops of rain
To the first plops of rain,
add the sound of purple,
shitted bricks losing bone,
the seam splitting and finally spilling
already filled with water.
As soon as I scripted a line that blessed him
with a functioning heart, he ambled naked
out of my novel and squeezed his squirming head
through the space in a double-spaced line. He gaped
at me, eyes wounded by my indecision.
Shoving at a weakened verb, he ripped the prose
wide open, bled his twisted smell on the keys,
laughed maniacally at the optimistic
progression of page numbers. His searching mouth,
which had been written as both empty howl and
open door slammed shut, was crammed with misplaced teeth.
He was nude and ashy, swathed in stiff denim,
his voice gravel, then rootless and defiant,
his eyes pulsed gray, bottomless black, then flat green
with flecks of spittle, his height wavered, his flat
tattooed gut pouted, then didn’t. He was scarred
by every change I had made, every strike-through,
cut/paste, backspace, delete, all of the unleased
betrayal that roars through prose. I had built him
from a knowing of adjectives, then piled on
detail and declaration, and now he is
overdone, dragging all that weight and wheezing
when he breathes. The boy patiently loads pockets
with stones, bottle caps and jagged shards of glass,
waiting for the moment when the skin of my
neck is exposed. Only 11, he scans
me with man eyes and says it, claiming my nights,
advancing the plot in a way that we both
know can’t be undone. He says: Give me a name.
Patricia Smith’s collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, will be published this September by Coffee House Press. She has previously published four collections of poetry, Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns, Big Talk, and Life According to Motown. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the first Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry, and is a member of the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent.