Where poems come from.
Look at these faces.
These six people allegedly held a West Virginia black woman captive for an entire week, choking, raping and stabbing her while forcefeeding her feces and peppering her with the N-word. They doused her in scalding water, ripped out her hair and made her drink from a toilet.
Meanwhile, we're in the business of poetry.
We line up our stanzas, tweak rhythm and flow, struggle through first sestinas. We step onto stages and spit our histories into sizzling mics. Then some of us cross that thin invisible line, and the recreational creative exercise becomes necessary breath. Words don't merely sit on a page anymore--they move our lives forward, soothe our cravings, process madness.
These are the poems we write in a sweat, not giving a damn if anyone ever sees them. These are the poems we need to keep from spiraling over the edge. These are the poems that ward off monsters.
I've been staring into these eyes all morning. They sent me running for poetry, for a salve against their cutting. As she so often does, it was Gwen Brooks who calmed my breathing:
All about are the cool places,
all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft---
all about are the stormers and scramblers but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?
Live and go out.
medicate the whirlwind.
But that's not the end of this. I've touched pen to paper several times, sat poised with my fingers arced above the keyboard, because I refuse to succumb to the glaring. There is a poem on its edge, searching for sound. The only way to process this story is to write my way into and beyond those eyes. I need a first line. I need a soft place to land.
The story of 20-year-old Megan Williams, the young woman who was battered to within an inch of her name, appears today on Page 19 of the New York Daily News under the screeching headline "Racist Hellhouse." The six smirking and defiant suspects in the abuse are lined up in their perp boxes. If you get pulled into their eyes, as I did, you might miss the other, larger picture on the page.
It's Megan Williams in her hospital bed, her face stunned and swollen. Leaning over the bed is her mother Carmen, laying a tender hand on her daughter's belly. In that touch is the first line of the poem, there where I didn't expect to find it. In that touch is the very poem I need to write, already written.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...