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About this Poem 

“After the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of Michael Brown, I heard many versions of this sentiment: ‘It’s so stupid for them to burn down their own neighborhoods.’ I thought back on my own first neighborhood in Chicago, torched to its bones after the King assassination, and how everything—before and after that moment—smelled on the verge of ignition. I wanted to explore the ways our streets, our homes and our bodies strain toward fire.”
—Patricia Smith

Incendiary Art

The city’s streets are densely shelved with rows
of salt and packaged hair. Intent on air,
the funk of crave and function comes to blows

with any smell that isn’t oil—the blare
of storefront chicken settles on the skin
and mango spritzing drips from razored hair.

The corner chefs cube pork, decide again
on cayenne, fry in grease that’s glopped with dust.
The sizzle of the feast adds to the din

of children, strutting slant, their wanderlust
and cussing, plus the loud and tactless hiss 
of dogged hustlers bellowing past gusts

of peppered breeze, that fatty, fragrant bliss
in skillets. All our rampant hunger tricks
us into thinking we can dare dismiss

the thing men do to boulevards, the wicks
their bodies be. A city, strapped for art,
delights in torching them—at first for kicks,

to waltz to whirling sparks, but soon those hearts
thud thinner, whittled by the chomp of heat.
Outlined in chalk, men blacken, curl apart.

Their blindly rising fume is bittersweet,
although reversals in the air could fool
us into thinking they weren’t meant as meat.

Our sons don’t burn their cities as a rule,
born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.

Copyright © 2016 by Patricia Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 21, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Patricia Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 21, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith is a poet, teacher, and performance artist. Her poetry collections include Incendiary Art and Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

by this poet

poem

The storm left a wound seeping,
a boulevard yawning, some
memories fractured, a
kiss exploded, she left
no stone resting, a bone
army floating, rats sated,
she left the horizon sliced
and ornery, she left in a hurry,
in a huff, in all her glory,
she took with her a

poem

and spy whole lifetimes on the undersides of leaves.
Jazz intrudes, stank clogging that neat procession
of lush and flutter. His eyes, siphoned and dimming,
demand that he accept ardor as it is presented, with
its tear-splashed borders and stilted lists, romance
that is only on the agenda

poem
My mother scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins
of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield
and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap
of it. Her hands on the hips of Alabama, she went for flat
and functional, then siphoned each syllable of drama,
repeatedly crushing it with