by Lillian Yvonne Bertram, PhD
The landscape of contemporary American poetry is experiencing a boom in work written by people of color, fueled no doubt by landmark initiatives such as Furious Flower, Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA, Letras Latinas, and others. Whether it’s Claudia Rankine’s 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning Citizen, new work by Danez Smith, Morgan Parker, Douglas Kearney, Duriel Harris, or Ruth Ellen Kocher, poetry by Black poets has been appearing at incredible rates, a clear response to the need for more voices and visions of Black life to counter the national resurgence of anti-black racism. We can now add to these Patricia Smith’s tenth (yes, tenth) book, Incendiary Art.
The subjects of the book are multiple and entwined: Emmett Till, the “incendiary art” of race riots in Chicago, the Birmingham Church Bombing, the 1921 Tulsa race riots, and contemporary police brutality all take shape in Smith’s masterful lyrics and formal precision. Alongside these public-facing accounts of Black lives taken without any prosecution of the murderers, Smith reflects on her own father’s murder in the triple-sestina Elegy. As much as there is palpable anger in laying plain the true viciousness with which Black lives have been taken in alliterative lines like these from “Incendiary Art: Birmingham, 1963”—
Baby girls boom. Baby girls blow
and burn, skin balloons, booms.
baby girls burn, boom.
—these are also poems of witness, mourning, and beauty. One of Smith’s signature abilities as a poet is how she uses what might seem like an unlikely formal poetics alongside her chosen subject matter. Divided into four sections (“Incendiary,” “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters,” “Accidental,” and “Shooting into the Mirror”), the attentive reader will be rewarded with formal arrangements both dizzying and nuanced. Some are more recognizable rhyme schemes, such as the aba/bcb/cdc/ded of the first poem titled “Incendiary Art.” The “Incendiary Art” poems (of which there are eight), all treat either the inciting incidents (often fiery) of race riots or the fiery riots themselves.
Even when no clear received form is at work, one cannot help but feel like there is some underlying governing pattern to the lines, be it alliteration, assonance, or pure musicality as in the poem “Incendiary Art: MOVE, Philadelphia, 1985” a two-stanza poem of 12-line stanzas. Take the twelfth line of the first stanza and the first line of the second:
while manned squad cars spun in their own sweat.
Spying on smothered drums and death throes, 6pm
Despite their physical separation on the page, the ess sounds and internal rhymes (spun/drum, sweat/death) smoothly link the two stanzas, bridging the gap with a musicality reminiscent of the sonnet crown method. (In her previous book, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Smith ends with the sonnet crown “Motown Crown.”)
“Incendiary Art: MOVE, Philadelphia, 1985” is immediately followed by an “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” sonnet which is then followed by the near-complete sestina “The Then Where.” As defined by the Academy of American Poets, a sestina “follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi.” Centered on the Sandy Hook school shooting, the poem poses and reflects on the question, “If it is not supposed to happen there, then where is the where where it is supposed to happen?” Smith’s use of the sestina form holds true up until the envoi, which is present only in its absence. The poem’s final words are “And happens,” keeping the poem open to more shootings, more happenings. There is no send-off to that which has yet to end. The repeated end words (happens / way / elsewhere / through / preys (prays) praise / way(away)weigh / wind (winding)) reinforce the idea that when it comes to mass shootings, it has all been heard before, especially “it’s not supposed to happen here.” Mass shootings and the predictable responses to them are part of the same infinitely recursive cycle.
One of Smith’s signature abilities as a poet is how she uses what might seem like an unlikely formal poetics alongside her chosen subject matter.
The sestina form reappears in the book in the poem “Elegy,” only in this poem Smith has tripled the possibilities. The elegy is an elegy to her murdered father, another Black life lost and one that plunges the reader into Smith’s personal history, picking up a thread laid down in Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. Instead of six six-lined stanzas and a three-line envoi, her elegy features eighteen eighteen-lined stanzas and a nine-line envoi. A reader can perhaps anticipate and expect a sestina, especially if they are familiar with Smith’s poetry. Much less expected, or even conceived of, is a tripled sestina that traces the origins and dissolution of the parents’ relationship. The daughter asks, “How did you two stutter into love? I just can’t see any way / one of you saw a chance in the other, nothing that justifies …”. She chronicles how with her birth, her mother became the outsider in her and her father’s relationship:
My lock on you broke/
every rule—fast co-conspirators, we were already hatching a way
out of where my birthday found us. My mother was one down,
none to go while you and I began a sloppy, blatant love, marked
by my wet gaze and your sweet inability to put me down, marked
by your whisper …
Smith’s use of the tripled sestina allows the poem to perform the length of this narrative (the length is necessary to achieve completeness) and the yearning that drives it. Emphasis and bonds are inherent in the sestina form, and the poem contains a deep desire to reconnect with and tell the story of her father. By the end of Elegy the bond between daughter and father materializes when her father’s “funky apparition” appears to her “at daybreak when you make your mark / on my waking dream.” If you have read Smith’s Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (if not, I highly recommend it), you will better understand the significance of the poem’s last lines as her father gifts her the name he wanted to give her when she was in the womb:
You’re a chalk outline, your eyes
reaching. I quick-slap your hand, unblock the view of what you hold.
your dead eyes hooded, you lay down the gift. It’s Jimi, my real name.
Lastly, of particular interest to me are a suite of five poems titled “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” and how the intertextuality of allusion and received form are framing this difficult content.
For those who may not know, Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) was a series of game-books (inspired by Role Playing Games, or RPGs) wherein the reader “chose” the narrative directions based on possibilities presented on individual pages of the book. The reader “chooses” the direction by turning to the specified page and continuing from there. Each choice theoretically eliminates all others, although the book’s creators acknowledge that “a particular set of choices will throw the reader into a loop where they repeatedly reach the same page” (CYOA). All outcomes are predetermined and these sonnets use that to their advantage by already being on the page that the poem directs the reader to turn to. In tandem, despite the poems’ visions of alternate realities for Emmett Till, the narrative possibilities are always foreclosed upon. The interactivity suggested by the poems relies on an agreement between poem and reader—both know the outcome and that any choice is illusory. As the book’s creators note, there are “Endings that result in the death of ‘you,’ your companions, or both. Many times these sorts of negative endings include transformation of the ‘you’ into a non-human form and becoming permanently stuck in the transformed state” (CYOA). Not only are Emmett’s narrative possibilities limited, the visual imagery of his open casket transforms and affixes Emmett in a state of permanent death, as obvious as that sounds. The open casket is permanently seared into the national consciousness. In the second sonnet, the reader is instructed to “Turn to page 27 if Emmett’s casket is closed instead.” Yet it is open and the casket is always open, even in the poem where it is ostensibly closed. Take these opening lines:
We’re curious, but his imploded eye
the bullet’s only door, would be the thing
we wouldn’t want to see.
This bit of metanarrative relies on the reader’s condition of already-having-seen. There is no closing the casket, not even for argument’s sake.
What if Rodney King, Trayvon, and Michael Brown had made it back home—maybe late, with a story to tell, but at least alive? What if Black people could live without being perched on the precipice of death? What if What if?
A reader might wonder at such reliance on the allusion to this series of books. After all, Choose Your Own Adventure books were supposed to be fun, interactive role-playing game-books to stimulate the avid and reluctant reader alike. Is it not somewhat crass to cast Emmett’s life and the circumstances of his death as a game where anyone other than Emmett has power over his narrative, can “Turn to page 14 if Emmet travels to Nebraska instead of Mississippi,” when we all know that he does not, cannot? The dissonance continues: each of the five poems is a sonnet situated loosely between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes (abab/cdcd/efef/gg) and opting for a volta-like rhyming couplet at the end instead of octave or sestet. Like the allusion to the role-playing game, the sonnet form also suggests a type of predestination for the narrative contained therein. If the casket is closed, the mourners (more mourning, less spectating) are (predictably) left
the knotted tie, the scissored naps, those cheeks
in rakish bloom, perhaps a scrape or two
beneath his laundered shirt.
The rhymes are full, “cheeks” with “shrieks” and the funereal rose “thorns” demands the appropriate action and sound:
her tiny hand
starts crushing roses—one by one by one
she wrecks the casket’s spray. It’s how she mourns—
a mother still, despite the roar of thorns.
The sonnet, typically associated with love, serves that purpose here. It also provides a sense of composure to an otherwise horrifying scene: “More than 50,000 people filed past during his funeral. Many screamed and fainted.” The metanarrative reinforces the having-seen, the witnessing. That is what Mamie Till wanted, and the poem assumes readers have already inhabited the role of witness—and if not, they will now.
Yet this suite is not without irony and somber questions. Just what was the adventure, if any? What were Emmett’s available narrative choices and at what point did someone else take those choices from him and replace them with their own? What if Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown had made it back home—maybe late, with a story to tell, but at least alive? What if Black people could live without being perched on the precipice of death? What if What if? The poems in this masterful book show us the stakes and demand that we see them. The fires of protest and resistance were lit long ago, and in Smith’s necessary and uncompromising poetry, poetry where #blacklivesmatter, these fires are spreading and gaining strength. The final lines of Incendiary Art promise that more is coming: “And there are unstruck matches / everywhere.”
 (Mathematically, the possibilities for treating eighteen different end words eighteen different ways is 6.415. Luckily, the sestina form comes with a predetermined combination. In the six-line stanza version, it goes like this: ABCDEF/FAEBDC/CFDABE/ECBFAD/DEACFB/BDFECA/envoi ECA or ACE. Smith’s amplified version begins like this: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQR/RAQBPCODNEMFLGKHJI and continues in kind.)
Dr. Lillian Bertram is the author of three books of poetry: Personal Science (Tupelo Press), a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press), and But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise, chosen by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award and published by Red Hen Press. She is also the author of Grand Dessein, an artist book commissioned by Container Press. She has a PhD and MFA in creative writing and teaches in the MFA program at UMass Boston. (Photo Credit: Dennison Bertram)