I hold my breath to tempt the light. This portrait should engage
the interest of some decorous and cultivated gent
accustomed to the ways of wooing. All my life I’ve sent
so many men so many signals, just to be upstaged…
Patricia Smith reasserts herself as one of the most preeminent and precise poets of our generation with her most recent collection, Unshuttered. Smith masterfully fuses her award-winning journalistic background, her legacy as a talented formalist and her keen eye for character to offer readers a deeply nuanced book that resonates as much for its craft as for its place in history. Unshuttered pairs Smith’s personal collection of tintype and daguerreotype portraits with poems that give voice to the subjects of the images, forming a counterpublic space where the subjects’ stories take center stage. The result is a collection that resonates as much for its historical vitality as for its lyricism and attention to form.
Smith opens the collection with a brief author’s note in which she explains that only one subject throughout the collection is positively identified, and that “when the location of the photo studio is known, the corresponding poem often reflects a historical event.” This helps to contextualize Smith’s efforts as an intentional and informed effort to recover and/or create histories, adding authenticity and tension to the stories that readers encounter. The subjects shift from static portraits to living individuals that exude the gamut of human emotions and come alive on the page. In the first poem, the speaker describes his “reckless want…this yearning, thirsting” for his lover, Anna, while the speaker in the second poem asserts herself, “stomping Boston’s stony paths, flaunting silks that [she deserves].”
Readers and scholars familiar with 19th century poetry will appreciate Smith’s frequent use of formalism that mirrors common meter, as the speakers emulate the cadence of 19th century verse. Many speak out against the restrictions imposed against them and acknowledge that the posed moments often challenge what White contemporaries expect of them:
They couldn’t let me occur not like this not
this me not my Sunday self not not like upright not like stroll like
Smith effectively engages with the most pervasive issues of the time period, including efforts by some subjects to “pass” as White. The speaker in “10,” for example, defiantly rebukes the audience:
I seethe. You stare. I wish you’d disappear!…Standing before you as one of you, I state, clearly, so there will be no misunderstanding—I am not your Negro. Nor anyone else’s. Atlanta so unnerves me with its step-around, its fat pointing finger, always looking for liars. I’m only what I was born to be—an upright man…
This interplay between the subjects of individual poems further emphasizes the underlying tension around the various levels of access and freedom available to Black Americans in different spaces in the latter half of the 19th century. Throughout the collection, speakers openly address the correlation between photography and spectacle, signaling an awareness that the poses and clothing are an often deliberate effort to contain a specific performance of Blackness and civility.
Unshuttered offers an important and haunting counter to traditional histories, reorienting readers as empathetic and enraged witnesses to the myriad injustices and violences predicated against Black communities. “31” recounts a lynching in Wytheville from the perspective of a Black woman, who laments, “If you want to know how much escaping never ends,/I just might be able to help you understand it.” The effect of the poem is remarkable, as readers must confront the long legacy of generational trauma and anti-Black violence in our nation’s history. The speaker, for her part, is speaking both from her moment in history and for the present moment, closing the poem with a sharp nod to respectability politics and concealed rage as an act of survival: “I keep fury away from my face,/away from my shuddering fists,…”
Smith exemplifies her mastery most decidedly in the final poem, “Unshattered.” The lines make use of meter and irregular rhyme as the speaker seemingly responds to the subjects throughout the collection,
You damn us with these stoic glimpses. You,
officially composed, gracefully caged,
you’re girdled, stifled in your overdo
of buttoning and lace, so stiffly staged,
reluctantly illuminated. Rage…
What makes this poem most incredible, though, is that Smith draws on the first image(s) or line(s) of each numbered poem to craft “Unshattered.” This effectively unifies the experiences of the various subjects and creates a strong sense of community among the unknown figures. It further recalls the author’s core mission to develop a history outside the lens of White supremacy.
Unshuttered is sure to be one of the most important collections of the decade, and one perfectly befitting Smith’s legacy as one of the most talented, unique poets in American literature.