Thief of Tongues
My mother is learning English.
Pulling rubbery cinnamon-ringed hose to a roll beneath
her knees, sporting one swirling Baptist ski slope of a hat,
she rides the rattling elevated to a Windy City spire
and pulls back her gulp as the elevator hurtles heaven.
Then she's stiffly seated at a scarred oak table
across from a white, government-sanctioned savior
who has dedicated eight hours a week to straightening
afflicted black tongues. She guides my mother
patiently through lazy ings and ers, slowly scraping
her throat clean of the moist and raging infection
of Aliceville, Alabama. There are barely muttered
apologies for colored sounds. There is much beginning again.

I want to talk right before I die.
Want to stop saying "ain't" and "I done been"
like I ain't got no sense. I'm a grown woman.
I done lived too long to be stupid,
acting like I just got of the boat.

My mother
has never been
on a boat.

But fifty years ago, merely a million of her,
clutching strapped cases, Jet's Emmett Till issue,
and thick-peppered chicken wings in waxed bags,
stepped off hot rumbling buses at Northern depots
in Detroit, in Philly, in the bricked cornfield of Chicago.

Brushing stubborn scarlet dust from their shoes,
they said We North now, slinging it in backdoor syllable,
as if those three words were vessels big enough
to hold country folks' overwrought ideas of light.

Back then, my mother thought it a modern miracle,
this new living in a box stacked upon other boxes,
where every flat surface reeked of Lysol and effort,
and chubby roaches, cross-eyed with Raid,
dragged themselves across freshly washed dishes
and dropped dizzy from the ceiling into our Murphy beds,
our washtubs, our open steaming pots of collards.

Of course, there was a factory just two bus rides close,
a job that didn't involve white babies or bluing laundry
where she worked in tense line with other dreamers:
Repeatedly. Repeatedly. Repeatedly. Repeatedly,
all those oily hotcombed heads drooping, no talking
as scarred brown hands romanced machines, just
the sound of doin' it right, and Juicy Fruit crackling.
A mere mindset away, there had to be a corner tavern
where dead bluesmen begged second chances from the juke,
and where my mama, perched man-wary on a comfortable stool
by the door, could look like a Christian who was just leaving.

And on Sunday, at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church,
she would pull on the pure white gloves of service
and wail to the rafters when the Holy Ghost's hot hand
grew itchy and insistent at the small of her back.
She was His child, finally loosed of that damnable Delta,
building herself anew in this land of sidewalks,
blue jukes, and sizzling fried perch in virgin-white boxes.

See her: all nap burned from her crown, one gold tooth
winking, soft hair riding her lip, blouses starched hard,
orlon sweaters with smatterings of stitched roses,
A-line skirts the color of unleashed winter.

My mother's voice is like homemade cornbread,
slathered with butter, full of places for heat to hide.
When she is pissed, it punches straight out
and clears the room. When she is scared,
it turns practical, matter-of-fact, like when she called
to say
They found your daddy this morning,
somebody shot him, be dead.
He ain't come to work this morning, I knowed
something was wrong.

When mama talks, the Southern swing of it
is wild with unexpected blooms,
like the fields she never told me about in Alabama.
Her rap is peppered with ain't gots and I done beens
and he be's just like mine is when I'm color among color.
During worship, when talk becomes song, her voice collapses
and loses all acquaintance with key, so of course,
it's my mother's fractured alto wailing above everyone ---
uncaged, unapologetic and creaking toward heaven.

Now she wants to sound proper when she gets there.
A woman got some sense and future need to upright herself,
talk English instead of talking wrong.

It's strange to hear the precise rote of Annie Pearl's new mouth.
She slips sometimes, but is proud when she remembers
to bite down on dirt-crafted contractions and double negatives.

Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to the warm expanse
of the red-dust woman, who arrived with a little sin
and all the good wrong words. I dream her breathless,
maybe leaning forward a little in her seat on the Greyhound.
I ain't never seen, she begins, grinning through the grime
at Chicago, city of huge shoulders, thief of tongues.

--- From Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah
Patricia Smith
©2012 Coffee House Press
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from which this poem is taken

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