REVIEW: Teahouse of the Almighty, Patricia Smith

Coffee House Press, 2008.Review by Tristan Beach

Patricia Smith writes with great fierceness and intimacy. Her collection of poems, Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series-winner, contains many of Smith's most striking and candid verses. She frames this brilliant little volume with an epigraph quoted from the late Gwendolyn Brooks:

If thou be more than hate or atmosphere Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves. Or we assume a sovereignty ourselves.

Taken from Brooks' sonnet, “god works in a mysterious way,” I believe the speaker calls upon God to assert spiritual power and order over a chaotic world. Smith's poems seem to invoke the poetic spirit of Brooks, who acts as guide and mentor in the younger poet's verses. Smith's keen attention to form, despite her use of free verse, as well as her constant themes of poverty, race, sexuality, violence, and the revitalizing, empowering aspects of poetry, each attest to Brooks' presence in this volume. However, these poems are Smith's creation—whatever her apparent influences are, each verse is recognizably, undeniably hers.

Smith's poem, “Giving Birth to Soldiers,” echoes the sentiment of the epigraph, as well as Brooks' famous “sonnet-ballad.” The poem begins:

She will pin ponderous medals to her housedress, dripping the repeated roses, while she claws through boxes filled with him and then him.

The speaker observes Tabitha Bonilla, a young woman who loses her husband and her father to the Iraq War within the space of a single year. Smith's initial tone, apparently disaffected (with small underpinnings of lament and anger), eventually swells, embittered, yet ironic: “And she will ask a bemused God / for guidance as she steps back into line, / her womb tingling vaguely with the next soldier.” Smith focuses upon Tabitha, noting that life's basic pleasures have lost their taste in the wake of sudden death. The speaker feels the void, the disillusionment that Tabitha feels, and forlornly looks toward a future of perpetuating death.

Smith exercises restraint in “Giving Birth”; the poem could easily be an outpouring of grief, but here the cries just penetrate the poem's toned down surface, evoking a sense of smoldering, undirected anger. However, this is not to say that Teahouse is without wit or outbursts. Smith's poem, “Drink, You Motherfuckers,” observes an open-mic event at a seedy bar, run by an “insane Mexican barkeep” named Sergio. The speaker declares the event “an odd parade of eggshells / and desperadoes,” occupied by poets who are “duly convinced / that [their] lines had leapt / / from the cocktail napkin, / sliced through the din, / and changed Chicago.” Smith's observations, made with a snicker, are incisive, to say the least. However, Smith identifies with these poets, especially in the final lines in which Sergio blasts his customers, these pretentious poets, into humility:

He waved a sudden gun, a clunky thing that sparked snickers until he blasted

a hole in the ceiling and revised our endings, smalling our big drunken lives.

Smith's tight lines constrict (and thereby accentuate) the preposterous, booze-filled evening. Teahouse of the Almighty evokes anger, hilarity, disillusionment, and humility in equal doses. Smith's language, wit, form, and concentrated presence, testify to poetry's ability to empower the speaker and her subject. With grit and intimacy, she interrogates circumstance and misfortune, and locates a thread of hope within each poem.