cover image Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah

Patricia Smith. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (116p) ISBN 978-1-56689-299-5

In her title poem, Smith describes her mother and father debating what to call her. Smith’s mother bestowed on the poet a name fitting for a woman that would “never idly throat the Lord’s name or wear one/ of those thin, sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees./ She’d be a nurse or a third-grade teacher or a postal drone,/ jobs requiring alarm-clock discipline and sensible shoes.” But her father, though acquiescing, secretly called her Jimi Savannah, embodying “the blues-bathed moniker of a ball breaker, the name/ of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-stars.” This duality bursts forth in her poems about growing up on Chicago’s West Side, the place that lured her parents from Alabama promising a better life. The collection builds momentum with vivid, high-textured city scenes. “The city squared its teeth,” she writes and “smiled oil”; the chicken shack’s “slick cuisine served up in virgin white cardboard boxes with Tabasco/ nibbling the seams.” Motown saturates the language and weaves itself into Smith’s narratives. Focusing on the stinging memories of growing up black and a woman during the 1960s, one could overlook Smith’s mastery of rhyme rhythm and form, but it runs like an electric current throughout the collection. (May)