Click through to read "When I Am Quiet" and six of Smith's other poems, and stay tuned for videos of her performances. It is one thing to read her poetry; it is quite another thing to see it.
When I Am Quiet
When I laugh, I mean it. Loud and from my belly. Throw my head back, shake my hair and even show the generous gap between my two front teeth.
It is when I am quiet that it is time to pay attention. When I am quiet something big is about to happen.
When I am quiet I am concentrating. When I am quiet I am going to climax.
When I am quiet I love you too powerful to speak. When I am quiet I am going to take off your pants and change your life.
When I am quiet I am remembering what I have hidden at the tops of the closets and deciding how best to pack them.
When I am quiet I am trying not to cry. When I am quiet I am going to leave.
When I am quiet I am holding my tongue curling my fist 'round it tracing my fingers along the tip wanting to throw it wanting to hide it wanting to swallow it.
I have words. Many, many words. I have tongue and teeth and lips.
I keep a hurricane in my throat.
When I am quiet,
when the eerie silence fills the room when the air is a wool coat, wet and heavy
when your body is an electrical fire when your body is geometry dismembered
when everything about me is piercing and present when everything I feel is too big to fit into my mouth,
when I am quiet something big is about to happen. When My Belly Growls
"And the dogs shall eat Jezebel, and there shall be none to bury her . . . And when Jezebel heard of it she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window." King James Bible Kings II, 9:10, 30
I have never answered to the name Jezebel.
Wept at the pictures in our children's bible when she was cast down. She lay crumpled, the unfinished poem we were afraid to write tossed to the dogs the too-big piece of meat.
It taught me to be quiet, it taught me to behave it told me "never take what's not yours, girl - and by the way, nothing is yours, girl."
I always thought she must have been beautiful. I always thought she must have been smart. I wonder if she was wild, if she was part wolf like me, I wonder if she bit the dogs back, if she yelped when she hit the ground.
I didn't want to be like her. Practiced and mastered the biting of my tongue, did not know then how steel sharpens steel, my shark mouth razor, piercing and pointed now.
I wonder if they will throw me to the dogs.
I wonder if I am wild enough to be their alpha. I wonder if they will be starved enough to eat me anyway. I wonder if I will howl, if the moon will answer hurling a tremendous tide.
I wonder if I will explode into a pack of hungry dogs when my flesh hits the pavement, wonder if we will eat right through the gates.
I have never answered to the name Jezebel. Have been groomed for boxes, placed upon pedestals, called righteous, called virtue, called conscious, called pure, my clumsy feet dangle heavy over edges.
I have had thrones torn from beneath me disintegrate as any bit of glamour taken as every other thing not mine called dirty, called scapegoat, called guilty, called whore
I have never answered.
I have never trusted a table already set have always sympathized with wild-eyed hungry dogs because they know how to hunt
and I, wild-eyed, gnash my terrible teeth when I see pointing fingers clawing hands prepared to lift me to the teeter-totter throne where worship is a stone's throw from murder
I hear the howling outside the walls. I Do Not Know How to Love You in English
I cannot tell by its rhythm where this heart was born, it is only music pulsing through palms. We know this when we hold hands, let whispers tickle ears whatever language they assume.
I do not know how to cry in English no sé cómo llorar en Español, tears are born world citizens they do not need to speak to find each other, to rush into rivers that cannot be dammed.
I will not ask the wind where it is from. It would only answer with its coming and going, does not recognize these fences or lines, does not even see them.
I will not ask the Monarchs for a passport, will not pinch them from the air and pin them for their passage, will not shoot them as they fly away.
I will not shush the roaring seas beating upon the border from another nation's shore will not pretend its origin is worth less or more, we are each of us worth our weight in water or en papeles.
I will not ask each grain of sand from whence it came, will not interrogate the sediments and segregate them by shade, I will not cast a net around the beaches.
I do not know how to love you in English No sé cómo te amo en Español; only know that all that life begins with love that cannot be walled or conquered. I will not ask love where it comes from,
only know that it resides in me, in the descansos dotting the desert. I do not know what language bullets speak have only ever heard them whisper past my head in words I do not wish to remember or repeat,
would rather press palm to palm and whisper poems "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . ." Would rather smile, warm as stew-filled belly and break bread.
I will not ask the flames I cook with for identification when they burn more orange than red, white, or blue
as I do not know how to eat in English No sé cómo comer en Español;
I do not know how to breathe in English No sé cómo respirar en Español;
I do not know how to bleed in English No sé cómo sangrar en Español;
but I think it is the same Creo que es lo mismo
Con mis palabras y con mi lengua rota yo trato hablar. You Ruin Everything
I love you. This is neither fair nor reasonable. I hope I hurt you. I hope I ruined your life.
I hope you vowed to treat the next one better than you treated me. I hate how well you treat her. I still love you. It is a fierce injustice.
I hope the hole I left in your life will always whistle. I hope I am the one that got away. I burned every picture of you. I deleted your name from my phone.
You ruin everything. There are too many jokes that only you get. They are not funny anymore. I still e-mail them to you sometimes.
You are a diamond ring on someone else's finger. You are the meal at the five-star restaurant that made me vomit. You are my dream home and the termites in its bones. You are a shipwrecked yacht.
You are a dream, a nightmare coming true. You are a snowman on the first warm day. You are a sunset on a moonless night. You are the last cigarette.
You are a sweaty 2:00 a.m. pulling me away from what would have been a good fight. You are two lovers that do not make love. You are new sandals in a snowstorm. You are a kiss on the cheek and the smell of another woman.
You are Central Park and the autumn leaves and the giant moon and the rats in the bushes.
You are a bad poem. You are the midnight kiss and the morning remorse. You are the birthday phone call. You are a wedding gown after the divorce.
You are a photograph of a dead friend that I still want to remember as living. You are a great poem. You are the best poem. You are the poem that breaks my heart.
You broke my heart. Several cardiologists confirmed this. The echocardiogram showed there was a piece of it missing. The blood kept flowing backward and maybe that's why it's so hard to let go.
It is a fierce injustice.
I left your book in your mailbox. I am not sure the world is big enough. Even the moon looks like you sometimes. This is neither fair nor reasonable.
You cannot have me now. I do not want you. I do not want to want you. You are a parking lot conversation after everything has closed and we cannot stay and we cannot go.
I do not want to write for you. You do not love me. I used to tell people it was complicated. I sometimes still dream in your voice.
I hope you burned everything that reminds you of me. I hope I ruined your favorite song. I hope your smile will always bear my signature. I hope you will always miss me.
The hole in my life whistles. Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back
"Don't forget who you are," She said.
"Don't forget when you're out there with your friends that before you were born there was a place for you here, in my house where we sing like Angels dance like drops of water in a hot iron skillet and glow like distant stars." We stay up late with the hot comb and grease We wake up early for braids and beads We walk to church five times a week "There is still a place for you here, in my house," She says, "where we shower love and sprinkle correction smile into each other like mirrors and remind ourselves of Home." Nana will let you eat steak at midnight Nana will cry sometimes for no reason Nana will open her doors for you "There will always be a place for you here, in my house," She says, "when it turns cold outside and you've gone too far when the street lights come on and you see the game is over." Leading me out of the lion's mouth though my soul looks back and wonders how I think I understand what she's been talking about "Don't forget who you are," She said.
"Always remember where you come from." The Rendering
I remember the summer we smoked dried bamboo; found it growing or dying in the alley,
we spent afternoons hiding in the garage with the caved-in roof
burning Barbie dolls and GI Joes, old radios we found in garbage cans.
That summer, before we turned all gray and steely we were sparks and giggles and gone,
matches pinched between fingers. Pare
When I miss you I want to etch your name into my thigh so I can trace the scar
with the tip of my finger (you are not the first man i have missed).
I do not whittle your face, only trace the phantom scar, palpable as your breath
warming my skin for your lips, I am warming my skin when I miss you (still something about my thighs should feel familiar).
The curve of the letters bears the hooks of your fingers, I walk the way you sign your name. I watch, I practice.
(I am a schoolgirl with a crush and a straight razor and a box cutter and a pen knife and a crush
a crushing maiming disfiguring missing you).
I scratch your name a secret and smile my most wicked smile,
canary in my mouth and lump in my throat, I press teeth and lips into the consonants of your name
tongue the vowels slow until my mouth reveals your trace
(a callus a knuckle a stiff beard a broad hand a thick stroke a stiff drink a thick drink).
I think I see you in the thin skin of my inner thigh your name, blinking canary neon needling, insistent as raised skin (mouthful of missing you).
Press my hungry hands into my lap and wait and whisper and wait and whisper and want.