Three Poems by Jess Smith

Jess Smith


Long taught silence, long
known loud. I’ve read we’re ripe

for revolution. What’s it like
(this is what it’s like) to watch
the world navel-split, umbilical

and sticky with citrus?
We shake hands, each
as viscous as the next, each chin

dribbled with what we swear
we haven’t eaten, or

were not finger-fed. Lipstick
on her nipples, sovereignty stuffing
his great gut into a sack
of navy slacks, the matching

jacket special-cut
for the morning reckoning, each inhale

mucus-blocked, the guttural

drum of swollen throats, we all have the same
stuck, the same cough, the same glob
we can’t hock out. All the best words

are thick with consonants: length, grackle, tsktsk.
When we remove the vowels (the sounds

of breathing), do you see
complicate or complicit? The louder

the caw, the redder
the claw marks
unfastening our eyelids.


My teacher says think
about the tongue in your mouth,
what it has to do to make
that sound.
He shows me

the muscular loathing needed
to say prostitute, so close
to the unsympathetic click
of intimate.
I remember, then,
what your tongue thought it had
to do, how it probed my own
like a soldier on patrol, muscling
mine against my teeth as if
it were you who belonged there.
It was not a question
of surrender.
Think now
how the tongue makes a shallow
receiving bowl whenever we say
power, how chastened it is by the end
of violence and silence, lying still
on the floor of the mouth to let
the last syllable slip out on its own,
the true sound for these words
taking shape elsewhere in the body.

for Chen

I promised myself I would stop crying
in public and also in private until I met you
and thought that for sure we would start sharing
our true feelings about mornings, and families,
and about the dusty flat landscape we cross
to find each other at the coffee shop
where I jitter through a third double brew
and you have just woken a little too late after
a long night of changing if to when in a poem
about your mother and happiness. Yes, I cry
on Tuesdays when I have to find you
in the hallways of our Hollywood backdrop
of an office building, where I have to lower
my voice to tell you that a man just asked me
if I really thought it was okay to wear a skirt
that short, and you say oh my god and let your hand
fly to your forehead in a gesture I adore, a gesture
of defeat and debate. Of course it makes me cry
audibly when you have to sit in the chair
where my students usually sit and ask me
how it can be that people keep using poems
to double the locks on their doors, how
it can be that not all bodies have the same
amount of space in America, or how it can be
that we walk into classrooms daily
where tall students and quiet students and very loud students
have guns napping in their jackets and we have
to say please turn to page twenty-three for that hour
and twenty minutes, a time in which I do not
cry because I know you are near and trying also to
unleash a blizzard of peonies on the static, oxidized
plains of our currently uncertain lives, that before you
I saw the clouds corseting their torsos
into tornado but didn’t yet know which way
to run, or how fast I could be once I did.

Jess Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Waxwing, Winter Tangerine, cream city review, Sixth Finch, and other journals. She is currently a PhD student in English at Texas Tech University, where she co-founded and curates the LHUCA Literary Series.

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