The city’s streets are densely shelved with rows
of salt and packaged hair. Intent on air,
the funk of crave and function comes to blows
with any smell that isn’t oil—the blare
of storefront chicken settles on the skin
and mango spritzing drips from razored hair.
The corner chefs cube pork, decide again
on cayenne, fry in grease that’s glopped with dust.
The sizzle of the feast adds to the din
of children, strutting slant, their wanderlust
and cussing, plus the loud and tactless hiss
of dogged hustlers bellowing past gusts
of peppered breeze, that fatty, fragrant bliss
in skillets. All our rampant hunger tricks
us into thinking we can dare dismiss
the thing men do to boulevards, the wicks
their bodies be. A city, strapped for art,
delights in torching them—at first for kicks,
to waltz to whirling sparks, but soon those hearts
thud thinner, whittled by the chomp of heat.
Outlined in chalk, men blacken, curl apart.
Their blindly rising fume is bittersweet,
although reversals in the air could fool
us into thinking they weren’t meant as meat.
Our sons don’t burn their cities as a rule,
born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.
Copyright © 2016 by Patricia Smith. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 21, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.
“After the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of Michael Brown, I heard many versions of this sentiment: ‘It’s so stupid for them to burn down their own neighborhoods.’ I thought back on my own first neighborhood in Chicago, torched to its bones after the King assassination, and how everything—before and after that moment—smelled on the verge of ignition. I wanted to explore the ways our streets, our homes and our bodies strain toward fire.”