Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith reads two poems from her new collection, Incendiary Art, published in February by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press.

Incendiary Art: The Body

I’ve nightmared your writhe, glum
fists punching their way out of your
own body, the blind stumble through
the buckled vein of your throat as
your nerve endings sputtered and blew.
I’ve dipped my finger into a vaporous
pool of your skin. The heat blessed
your whole new self with horizon,
boy. With such potent
intent, you blared illicit and just enough
saint. Now, with so many northern
days between us, you are much easier
to God. But they are looking for you.
They are wildly sloshing fuel across
the landscape and they are screeching
your name. Today, one said I sure would
like to burn a black man alive. So, yep,
you left us here with undulating acres
of fools and that particular stank leg
of gospel. You left us all this snuff,
hawk and proud little bowleg, you left
their brains stunned by dairy and fat
meat. You left us not much path, even
after your body was that brief beauteous
torch. They seem to remember you
fondly. And there are unstruck matches

from Sagas of the Accidental Saint

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, 2012, Jonesboro, AR—Police say that Chavis Carter, 21, shot himself while handcuffed in the back 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
my 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,
a gun that couldn’t have been
there, wasn’t there, but was.
The left-handed
him used
a cuffed hand, which could
have been either left or right
(since both were free), to root
around for a trigger and fire
a bullet right into his left-handed
head, impossible but
not really, since the preferred
killing hand may have preferred
its shackles. The policemen,
who had searched my baby
twice and cuffed both his free
and unfree hands behind his
back before his hands found
his own hands and pulled,
heard no human sound at all
during all that frantic magic,
no Fuck! as my boy struggled
to get his left shackled hand
to do what his right shackled
hand wouldn’t do, no frenzied
pound of one bracing foot
against the door, no grunt
or whoop of glee to mark all
all those times he slipped out
of custody and in again. But
they did hear the bang
of the gun that wasn’t there
(but was) just when it sent
that bullet into the right side
of his left-handed
head. Sounds
like sacrifice, they thought.
Slumped, eyes cocked and
undone, my child was amazed
at the sweet hoodoo he had
managed. Both left and right
hands were shackled and free
behind him, there was an eerie
perfect circle of smoke in his
hair. Suicide, they both said at
the very same time, and since
it was odd how they had reached
the same conclusion, they smiled
and shook their heads. Noting
the shackles, they praised their
God in the light of miracle while
the boy who couldn’t have done
what he did, but did, bled down
to zero. Guess he couldn’t take it,
one of the alive said to the other.
He didn’t mean wearing the shackles.
He meant not wearing them. 


Copyright © 2017 by Patricia Smith. Published 2017 by TriQuarterly Books / Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.