Two Poems by Patricia Smith


Image by Nataliya Shestakova. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

WHAT SHE THINKS AS SHE WAITS BY THE DOOR

Alice Kramden of “The Honeymooners"

I was crafted, it would seem, to squeal demurely beneath his
shifting flab, to pucker my carnation lips on cue, to ladle gobs
of twice-boiled vegetables and stringy slabs of meat into his
grumbling yap. It would seem that way. After all, the whole
of my body is apron. I am always holding that scorched pot,
a bleached towel, a gray sopping sponge, an iron, his huge hot
folded trousers, a mop, a crusted dish, a broom. I am always
expertly positioned near the door of this tenement hovel that’s
not much more than this single room, my eyes propped wide
and feigning joy, poised to drip sugar around his blustering
evening entrance. The air is decorated with the words control,
control
while chunks of stunned water grow stale in the belly
of the icebox. I am 1950s faultless, my pert strawberry crown
primly ponied. Never wore a dress that wasn’t a tribute to him.
I’m sure you don’t believe I stood still and perfectly upright
for my wedding vows. Drowning in mama’s wilting taffeta,
I was a bell: I do, I do, I do. And I did. With God and a room
of pouters as witness, I committed to a post-war, eerily patient
love. Next to me, panting under snug collar, he was splotched
scarlet, a flowered tonic dripping from his curls. I could have
crashed his stunned smile with a finger. Someone said God,
then someone said wife, and I was so clarified I sparkled, I
was my own headspring of light, I arced toward the domestic
promise wiggling in flaccid fingers. I did not hear the word
fist. I was anxious to build romance, and I did. My lips found
the folds water couldn’t reach. I gave him the name of a wall.

The first morning we rose from our separate untumbled beds,
our night skins pimpled and flushed with the prospect of touch,
was the first time he hefted his fist and threatened to send me,
Alice, to the moon, as if the moon was a definite, something
we could not only conjure, but find faith in. For years since
then, he has hefted that fist, it has brushed past my unblinking
eye, my chin, my clamped jaw, while the moon, uninterested,
is the same blaring yellow kink in our sleep. Screeching his
blind intent, To the moon, Alice, to the moon!, his eyes google
the lifted fist quivers, the spittle of his day needles my cheeks.
One of these days, Alice, one of these days! Bang! Zoom!

Without speaking, I show him who he truly is. I call stupid out
where stupid is. I’m mute while he spouts another craving wide
enough to fall through. Our tiled floor is littered with schemes,
his punctured zeal: I’m gonna get a better job. Got a new idea,
we’ll be swimming in dough. Gonna take you out jitterbugging,
baby, buy you a dress, gonna turn our noses up to the hoi polloi.

I’m a champ at suffering his relentless inventions, concoctions
of spit and wood utterly guaranteed to drown us in new money.
What he can’t say: Baby, there’s got to be something better
than that bus, the smolder, the street disappearing beneath me.

I know he aches to give the slip to the same stream of the same
folded-face New Yorkers, all snarling and stank with factory,
nodding him their dead howdy-dos and clutching just enough
change to move themselves forward. It’s the cage of the ride,
baby, every day like every week like every month like every year,
year like every and the wheels on the bus go round and round

and when he finally makes it home, to door, to this box, to wife,
he bursts in, sputtering some fresh grail, bound to clatter and rise,
and I am gingham and smelling of spray starch, my whole day
beneath my nails, I am twang and the wide-eye, Really, Ralph?
Really?
I hold my breath, cramming his crave with stew meat
and ice water until it all comes exploding down, until he can’t
turn his bulk in any direction without reaching a corner, until he
realizes, yet again, that his best friend stinks of sewage and, for
reasons we pretend to have forgotten, I am never ever naked.

And yes, I know what my practiced smirk practically begs him
to do--Pow! Right in the kisser! But that sweaty mitt, hovering
high with such sad engine behind it, will never fall. See, every
woman is damned with a man to raise, a swaggering snarl of belly
and bicep, and every ounce of the one I’ve been given cracks dulcet
beneath my held tongue and primp. I let the world burn brash
through him, because when he resurrects, when he yanks loose my
apron ties and mutters Baby, you’re the greatest, it is still 1955, a time
of steam radiators and vows of stiff lyric, and he is everything a man
can be just then. I am wife. I am what the fist craves. And I am the fist.


WHAT DAUGHTERS COME DOWN TO

For what I’m sure is the fifth time, my mother
plugs in a flat mournful hum where the words
I love you too should be. Then she hangs up
without saying goodbye. I squeeze my eyes
shut, try to imagine 82 autumns in the bones,
in her rasping joints, in the cool, jaded thump
of what is still a migrant’s ever-arriving heart.
However, I believe she is required to love me.
I wonder what God was teaching her all those
years, those days after days coaxing raucous
hips into deadening girdles and gray A-lines
so she could lose her damned mind to organ.
Was it all theater, a screeching of north when
south was what itched her, all of it mock belly,
the nails, splinter-spewing cross, some sly
spirit habitually overloading her spine, making
her dance thirsty and unfolded? How could all
those wry hymns and hot-sauced hallelujahs
lead to this hum, clipped connect and hush?
I am hundreds of miles away, but I can see
where she is sitting, hand still on the phone.
Every surface in her tiny apartment is scoured
and bleached, draped in a disinfectant meld
of rainshower and blades. The kitchen glints.
Her rugs are faultless. The purpled tulips I
have sent for her birthday are insistent feral
beauty, a blood in the room. Like her daughter,
they have bloomed in the clutches of vapor.
I love you too, she thinks out loud, but can’t.


These poems appear in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.

Patricia Smith's eight books of poetry include Incendiary Art, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Bold Dazzler. She is a professor at the college of Staten Island.