I'm a poet. I need my mouth.
I've been faced with many, many searing questions during the course of my lifetime, beginning with that pesky poser that kept me up nights as a toddler: What would REALLY happen if those string beans touched those mashed potatoes?
As I matured (somewhat), the swirling questions grew more insistent and complex. Can you really burn a pimple off with a match? Will I ever really need algebra again? Can you get pregnant through a skirt?
But now, at a time when I assumed all questions would be answered to my satisfaction, here comes the most pressing of all: Can I be a poet with only half a face?
Just a tad of backdrop: A week or so ago, I dribbled a little soup and laughed at it and then drank something and felt that one side of my mouth was stronger than the other so I ran upstairs to look in the mirror and asked hubby "Does my mouth look different?," and it did, just a teeny teeny little downturn in one corner so I got in the car and off to a neighborhood med center, all the while feeling (or thinking I was feeling) the left side of my body slowly collapsing, and I got there and said "I think I'm having a stroke," and then there was the ambulance altho I remember being upset both that they couldn't find a vein and didn't play the siren and I got to the hospital and had a CT scan and many, many people told me to raise my arms and curl my toes and lift my eyebrows and smile, smile, smile, which I couldn't, my smile was just grotesque little one-side-only grimace and I remember cursing every fatty food I'd ever inhaled, blaming the world for my soaring blood pressure, hating being black and female and overweight and predisposed to this chaos, stroke stroke stroke, die die die and i wrote a goodbye poem in my head during an MRI and started saying see ya to my life and then a nice lady came into my room and said "Never mind."
No stroke. Bell's Palsy. A niggling little virus, maybe, that has no real purpose, comes on unexpectedly, and stays as long as it likes. A week? If I'm lucky? Six weeks? Maybe. A year? It's been heard of. What it means is, for the unforeseeable future, the left side of my face is just--well, frozen. I can't grin. I drool when I eat. Headaches are frequent and unannounced. I can't lift my eyebrow. And I must blink my eye manually, which is much more of a pain in the ass than it sounds.
Now that my medical issues are seemingly under control, and I've realized that I don't have to rush through my memoirs, here is the question I most need answered: Am I still a poet?
I never realized how tightly the way I sound is connected to what I want to say. The minute I've written something, I begin looking for a way to say that something out loud. And yes, I've read mythic tales of poets who hate the sound of their own voices, who are content to have their words inked, bound, and therefore relatively accessible. Me? I believe that words are meant to touch the page for a tiny little instant. They don't truly live until they've ridden the air.
But now my stanzas come halting and lazed. I have to slow my speech and enunciate. I'm terrified that I will speak and not be understood, that the full meaning beneath those words will be lost within the newly-slurred mechanics of my deadened half.
How can I say this? I am a poet. I need my whole mouth back. My pen can't do it alone.
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...