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Journal, Day One

By Patricia Smith

I love semantics—especially the relentless twisting and twirling of the language to make us feel better about that resolute, inevitable stroll toward the grave. In our desperation to turn back the clock, we’ve cornered the market on trite catchphrases. You’ve heard, of course, that 30 is the new 20. 40 is the new 30. It follows that 20 is the new 10, but that feels slimy and slightly illegal.

Well, I’m 51, and I can assure you that for most of us, 50 is—well, pretty much what it is. It’s the shock of finding yourself at the bargain rack at K-Mart, considering the merits of a pair of polyester, rubber-waisted slacks in some definitive old lady hue, like puce. It’s the horrifying realization that you distinctly remember Eisenhower. It’s having a granddaughter roll her adorable eyes while you stand in front of the mirror, rocking out to something Prince recorded before he became an unpronounceable symbol. Fifty is exactly one half century of accumulated chaos, now marked by drowsy brainwaves, silver pubic hair (who knew?), and a sudden proliferation of those slick magazine surveys where one of the first questions always asks you to check off your age group. The choices: 18 to 30, 30 to 49, and 50 to why are you still here?

Of course, the status quo gets all wiggly if you’re a poet. Once you’ve slipped behind the eyes of a writer, the world never sits still long enough for you to tiptoe delicately into your golden era. You’re too busy being buffeted about by possibilities, writing “the best first line ever” in your little wire-bound notebook and being slapped silly by potential stanzas. You want to write all the time. And since you’re glimpsing twilight (at least I didn’t say “the twilight of your years”) and the Reaper’s rancid breath is curling your neck hairs (am I being morbid, or just excessively mortal?), getting those words down is a matter of some urgency.

So I’m in an low-res MFA program, searching for an official way to be productive, surrounded for 10 days every semester by relentlessly perky co-eds fresh out of the University of Them. (More about that later in the week.) I find myself married to a man who is both astounded and amused by my frantic late-night scribblings; I’ve been known to write in three genres at once, and often wake from a sound sleep screeching stuff like “Pirates!” and “That’s it! Broderick Crawford!”

And now, poet that I am, I’ve begun to look back on my life with the pressing need to get it all down, to push it all into one big written snapshot, to find out what it all means, dammit!

Thank God I’ve got a pen.

I’ve often wondered where my rhythm comes from. And yes, I know that’s pretty close to sounding like a regrettable stereotypical blunder. (Black people. Watermelon. Fried chicken. The Chicken Noodle Soup Dance. Rhythm. Get it?) But that’s not what I’m talking about. So those of you with Al Sharpton on speed-dial, drop the phone.

How to explain it? When I sit down to write, a chord starts thrumming deep in my innards. I don’t know what it is actually, when it began, or where it came from. All I know is that it’s a constant presence, sometimes comforting, mostly insistent. And when the poem is “done” (as if any of them ever are), when the words I’ve written finally reach the open air, that thrumming is threaded through every syllable, snaking in and out of the stanzas. I feel it when I read—and when I read, I can usually spot at least one person in every audience who feels it too. That thrumming is what I’ve come to think of as my rhythm, the inner music that eventually forges a signature.

I’ve often wondered about the source of that rhythm. I want to cage it, take a hard look, write its biography. Now that I’m 50, the search has taken on a misty-eyed importance. So I’ve started rumbling around in my past, a place even my therapist feared to tread. I’ve been pulling open all the drawers, flinging open the doors (yes, my mother was behind one of them), nosing around.

That brings us to the sour pickle, the hog’s head.

I’ve realized that my incessant thrumming has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a black girl who grew up on the West Side of Chicago. I grew up listening to Tyrone Davis, Ruby Andrews, Johnny Taylor, and early Temps blaring from open windows. I thought Gwen Brooks was a colored girl’s goddess, regal in coke-bottle specs and cinnamon stockings rolled to just below her knees. I sported rapidly unraveling plaits and stiff synthetic blends from Lerner’s layaway. By the time I was 12, I’d already swiveled on a barstool, and I dutifully endured my father’s lessons in gutbucket blues. I danced with him in our kitchen, my little feet on top of his big ones. Mayor Daley (the flap-jowled daddy, not the son) walled me and my mama and my daddy into a community of planned obsolescence, a neighborhood birthed in a choke hold. I jumped double-dutch in the dirt, with my pants rolled up, Converse All-Stars tossed aside. Our choir at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church sang with so much soul that God Himself looked down, spilled His coffee and declared “Damn!”

And I was fed on what God threw away. I ate pickled pig’s feet from the jar, careful to pluck any errant hairs before wolfing those babies down. I dined on deep-fried chicken necks and oxtails, and had practically everything I ate seasoned with salt pork or doused with Tabasco. Every Saturday morning, in some steamy tenement in our building, the women formed a chatty chittlin assembly line. The tangled stench rose gradually, like a derelict in an alley at dawn.

And hoghead’s cheese, or souse, was one of the delicacies my mama brought up from Aliceville, Alabama. To put it bluntly, souse is a hot mess. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, it’s “a home style product which developed as a means to use all of the variety meat generated by home slaughter.” The main ingredient is 10 lbs. of head meats, tongue, heart, feet, or “other.” (No, we weren’t offing porkers in our kitchen—the neighborhood butcher shop stocked all the fixins, including “other.”) The first step in the process was to “clean head thoroughly, removing all hair and scruff; skin out snout and lower jaw and remove jaw bones.” Then there was the deboning and straining and draining and grinding. In the end, it was all jellied and shaped into a loaf. I’d lop off a slice, slap it on a saltine, and experience a stellar culinary moment. And since the loaf lasted forever (it seemed to regenerate), I chalked up quite a few of those moments.

The pickle was more of a recreational, less stinky, offering. I’d stroll into the neighborhood store, which had a huge barrel nestled in the corner. The storekeeper would plunge her hammy forearm into the brine, pull out a pickle that resembled a small dirigible, and plop it into a single-ply brown paper bag. I’d work a fat peppermint stick right down the middle of the pickle while juice streamed down my arms, then slurped and chomped the creation until the crazy swirl of mint and salt and pungent pulp made me a little swirly myself. I—I think I was a little bit high.

Where does my rhythm come from? That long-ago swirliness, and then add the sweet dizzy of spinning barstools. All that doo-wop crooning laced with sweet double negatives, the glare from my father’s gold tooth. The Temps singing “Return Your Love to Me,” and me in my bedroom, smushed up against a pillow, slow dancing, kinda. Knowing Miss Gwendolyn would whisper “Lord, chile, don’t you know you got to write this?” Feverish double-dutch leaving bright scars on my legs. My bare feet pounding singsong in the dirt. Growing up on all that hard, necessary food. Eating enough of it to build hips, then swinging them like first poems. Pigging out on salt and sugar and swine noggin. And now, from a tenuous perch 50 years high, writing, writing in celebration of all that pent-up poison in my system.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, December 18th, 2006 by Patricia Smith.