cover image Incendiary Art

Incendiary Art

Patricia Smith. Triquarterly, $18.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-8101-3433-1

Using the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till as her anchor, Smith (Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah) explores how the lives of black Americans get cut short by racism, particularly by white fear of black masculinity. She opens this rich and cutting collection with “That Chile Emmett in That Casket,” an unflinching analysis of the significance of Till’s death within the context of black survival in white America. Smith writes of black families keeping a snapshot of Till in their homes as a reminder of black people’s place in America’s racial hierarchy: “your daddy shook his head, mumbling This why you got to act// right ’round white folk.” In the book’s third of four sections, Smith blends lyric with news report to write of police brutality and the murders of black men, women, and children by unaccountable police officers. A refrain rings out, “The gun said: I just had an accident.” Smith exhibits razor-sharp linguistic sensibilities that give her scenes a cinematic flair and her lines a momentum that buoys their emotional weight. This is best captured in “Elegy,” a stunning, long-lined poem about her thick-as-thieves relationship with her father, who found it difficult to be his wife’s “sky and root.” Smith’s urgent collection lives up to its title, burning bright and urgent as a bonfire. (Feb.)