Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith (A Review by Jason Carney)

Coffee House Press

116 pgs/$16

 Patricia Smith’s newest collection, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, evokes a sense of history and self-awareness combined with precise storytelling and the most crafted verse. Each poem delves deeper into the mythology of her family, her childhood dreams, personal scars, small triumphs that create larger identity, and the emotions of growing up a southern transplant in a northern city. Mrs. Smith’s fifth book of poetry is on par with her past work, such as Blooddazzler (National Book Award Finalist). In her current incarnation, we find one of the most authentic voices of Modern American Poetry.

Poems such as “An All-Purpose Product”, “Baby of the Mistaken Hue”, “13 Ways of Looking at 13”, and “Laugh Your Troubles Away” all confront the emotional turmoil of being a black girl in the largest city in the American Midwest. These poems are valuable teaching tools for young people of all races; each poem with its own twist speaks to American White Privilege, more precisely, the scorn that imposes itself on anyone who cannot be assimilated. These lessons are presented in ways easily obtained and grasped by the reader through insightful personal pains of her first blossoming love as in “Open Letter To Joseph Peters Naras, Take 2.”

“I will throw you out of my house if I hear about you seeing/ that black girl again. Joe, I loved you then and love you/ still.”

Early in the book she offers “The Boss of Me,” a poem remembering the attention of a teacher who made a positive impact on her life; but even in this relationship she shows us the separation that a young girl growing up in the civil-rights area knew existed around her.

“ I was smart did you know/ how much I wanted to come/ home with you to roll and cry on/ what had to be bone-colored/ carpet I found out where/ you lived I dressed in the morning/ with you in mind I spelled huge/ words for you.”

As the text moves, we are given glorious moments of self-realization and triumph such as the poem “First Friction”, where the author explores the burgeoning anxiousness of sexual identity. Innocent surreal descriptions of those first hungry emotions drive the underlying weight of the poem.

“naturally/ knew the retreating mouth and its looping stanza./ She smelled like what I could not stop swallowing.”

These moments of awkward balance in this foreign territory set up the reader for the hardest balancing act of all, which is born out of the more insidious observations of her youth. Smith demonstrates this in “An All-Purpose Product”, a piece dealing with the ordeal of her mother’s desire, out of love, for her daughter’s safety.

“To make her less Negro somehow…”

The sterility of the blocked text matches well with the monotone movement of the descriptions. Simple obvious questions lead the reader deeper and deeper into the underlying themes of sterility, arriving at an unexpected departure where the bleaching of oneself comes to the forefront. The poem builds a marvelous tension, derived from the disconnected voice in the answers. With every new question, the reader submerges a little deeper under the onion skin of Patricia Smith’s experience, until we are left holding our breath with amazement, guilt, and a sense of loss as the seconds tick away.

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah’s cultural significance is matched by the poet’s mastery of her varied poetic expressions. Smith is at her best in this work. From the double-sestina, “Otis and Annie, Annie and Otis”, laid out in doubled stanzas, which alternate voices between her parents and examines their love affair from its inception, to the crown of sonnets, “Motown Crown”, in which the poet pays tribute to the music and artists of Motown and the influence they had on her life.

“Less than perfect love was not allowed/ and every song they sang told me to wait.”

This book is an incredible tool of craft for poets to study.  Smith evens adds a form of her own modification in the aforementioned “13 Ways of Looking at 13”. Based loosely off a Wallace Stevens’ poem, this poem is set up in thirteen stanzas with each stanza containing thirteen lines and each line containing thirteen syllables. Every stanza deals with a different aspect or moment in time during the thirteenth year of her life; culminating in one of the most powerful moments of realization/triumph in the book.

“She has hardened you well. She has taught you everything.”

Patricia Smith, more than any other poet alive today, embodies the living poem. Reading her work, she clearly demonstrates not only her passion and understanding for the craft of the written word, but her philosophy that the poems origin is grounded in the body, any poets’ natural home. Buy this book, study this book. Then go see her performance of this work, it is the most natural effortless expression of artistic communion you will experience.


Jason Carney is a four-time national poetry slam finalist, HBO def poet, and winner of the Bergman and Norris Church Mailer scholarships.