Exploring the art of prose


Pearl, Upward by Patricia Smith

From Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah by Patricia Smith ©2012. Reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press. All rights reserved.

This essay as it is reprinted here first appeared in Crab Orchard Review Vol. 15. No. 2 Summer/Fall 2010.

Chicago. Say it. Push out the three sighs, don’t let such a huge wish languish. Her world, so big she didn’t know its edges, suddenly not enough.” We don’t know whose world this is yet, but only a poet like Patricia Smith could caress the word Chicago so it yields all it must have meant to the young girl on the Greyhound from Alabama. “Just the word city shimmies her.” We’re seven glorious paragraphs into Smith’s essay “Pearl, Upward” before we learn the identity of her subject: “My mother, Annie Pearl Smith, never talks with me of Annie Pearl Connor, the girl she was before she boarded that Greyhound” headed north, moving upward. We learn that the writer has heard stories from her mother’s sisters of what her mother Pearl was like, but her reconstruction of the music of Pearl’s voice and all her wants and wonderings, how she must have felt and what she must have looked like and what Alabama and Chicago must have tasted like becomes a sustained act of the imagination. She “dreams” her mother’s past and the concrete details of her world. “Whenever I dream her young, I see red dust on her ankles and feet.” (See the author’s note on the importance of place and using the senses to establish setting.)

AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle devoted space in their April 2020 issue to four writers’ interpretations of “speculative nonfiction,” nonfiction based on what ifs and imaginings and fantasies. In the 2018 manifesto for their journal Speculative Nonfiction, Robin Hemley and Leila Philip ask, “Is the truth of an essay sometimes the speculative endeavor itself, a literary engagement not with things or facts but with ‘a tidal wave of strange imaginings?’” Creative nonfiction has always been an imaginative re-creation of reality, but there have always been debates about how imaginative it can be. Smith speculates in the absence of stories to uncover the emotional truth and sensory reality of her mother’s experience. “I dream her brave, unleashed, naughty the way free folks are,” Smith writes, freely imagining her mother as a “blazing girl” and then a restless young woman and then a young woman in love “who must fill her body with me.” “This child,” when she arrives, “is a chaos she must name.” Her mother has given birth to a future poet she must name, who in turn will organize chaos in order to name her mother in an essay: “Pearl, Upward.”  —CRAFT


Chicago. Say it. Push out the three sighs, don’t let such a huge wish languish. Her world, so big she didn’t know its edges, suddenly not enough. She’s heard the dreams out loud, the tales of where money flows, and after you arrive it takes what, a minute? to forget that Alabama ever held sugar for you.

She wants to find a factory where she can work boredom into her fingers. She’s never heard a siren razor the dark. She wants Lucky Strikes, a dose of high life every Friday, hard lessons from a jukebox. Wants to wave goodbye to her mama and a God not particular to ugly. Just the word city shimmies her. All she needs is a bus ticket, a brown riveted case to hold her dresses, and a waxed bag crammed with smashed slices of white bread and doughy fried chicken splashed with Tabasco. This place, Chicago, is too far to run. But she knows with the whole of her heart that it is what she’s been running toward.

Apple cheeks, glorious gap-tooth fills the window of the Greyhound. For the occasion, she has hotcombed her hair into shivering strings and donned a homemade skirt that wrestles with her curves. This deception is what the city asks. I dream her sleeping at angles, her head full and hurting with future, until the bus arrives in the city. Then she stumbles forth with all she owns, wanting to be stunned by some sudden thunder. Tries not to see the brown folks—the whipcloth shoe shiners, the bag carriers—staring at her, searching for some sign, craving a smell of where she came from.

How does a city look when you’ve never seen it before? Grimace and whisper hover everywhere. It is months before she realizes that no one knows her name. No one says Annie Pearl and means it.

She crafts a life that is dimmer than she’d hoped, in a tenement flat with walls pressing in hard and fat roaches, sluggish with Raid, dropping into her food, writhing on the mattress of her Murphy bed. In daytime, she works in a straight line with other women, her hands moving without her. Repeat. Repeat. When her evenings are breezy and free and there is change in her purse, she looks for music that whines, men in sharkskin suits, a little something to scorch her throat. Drawn to the jukebox, she punches one letter, one number, hears her story sung over and over in indigo gravel. And she cries when she hears what has happened to homemade guitars. They’ve forgotten how much they need the southern moon.

At night when she tries to sleep, Alabama fills her head with a cruel grace, its colors brighter, and its memory impossibly wide. She remembers the drumbeat she once was.

My mother, Annie Pearl Smith, never talks with me of Annie Pearl Connor, the girl she was before she boarded that Greyhound, before she rolled into the city. The South, she insists, was the land of clipped dreaming, ain’t got nones and never gon’ haves. Alabama only existed to be left behind. It’s as if a whole new person was born on that bus, her first full breath straining through exhaust, her first word Chicago.

But from her sisters I heard stories of what a raging tomboy she was, how it seemed like she was always running.

Whenever I dream her young, I see red dust on her ankles and feet. Those feet were flat and ashy, steady stomping, the corn on her baby toe raw and peeled back. No shoes could hold them. Those feet were always naked, touched by everything, stones asked her to limp and she didn’t. Low branches whipped, sliced her skin, and they urged her to cry and she wouldn’t. Blood dripped and etched rivers in rust.

She was a blazing girl, screech raucous and careening, rhymes and games and dares in her throat. Her laugh was a shattering on the air. Playing like she had to play to live, she shoved at what slowed her, steamrolled whatever wouldn’t move. Alabama’s no fool. It didn’t get in her way.

What was down south then, then where she romped and ran? Slant sag porches, pea shuck, twangy box guitars begging under blue moons. Combs spitting sparks, pull horses making back roads tremble, swear-scowling elders with rheumy glares fixed on checkerboards. Cursed futures crammed into cotton pouches with bits of bitterroot and a smoldering song. Tragic men buckling under the weight of the Lord’s work, the grim rigidity of His word. The horrid parts of meat stewed sweet and possible. And still, whispers about the disappeared, whole souls lost in the passage.

There was nothing before or beyond just being a southern girl, when there was wind to rip with your body and space to claim. Her braids always undid themselves. She panted staccato, gulped steam, and stopped sometimes to rest her feet in meandering water. But why stop when she was the best reason she knew to whip up the air?

And yes, she also owned that slower face. She could be the porchswinging girl, good to her mama and fixed on Jesus, precious in white collar ironed stiff and bleached to the point of blue. She could make herself stand patient in that Saturday morning kitchen assembly line, long enough to scrape the scream from chitlins and pass the collards three times under the faucet to rinse away the grit. She could set the places at the table and straight sit through endless meals she doesn’t have time to taste.

She wore that face as Saturday night’s whole weight was polished and spitshined for Sunday morning. Twisting in the pew and grimacing when her mother’s hand pushed down hard on her thigh in warning. Girl, how many times I got to tell you God don’t like ugly? To her, righteousness was a mystery that rode the edge of an organ wail. She’d seen the holy ghost seep into the old women, watched as their backs cracked, eyes bulged, careful dresses rose up. She wondered how God’s hot hand felt in their heads, how they danced in ways so clearly beyond them. Decided there would be time enough for this strange salvation. First she had to be young.

All the time her toes tapped, feet flattened out inside her shoes. The sun called her name and made her heart howl. She was a drumbeat, sometimes slow and thoughtful on deep thick skins, most times asking something, steady asking, needing to know, needing to know now, taking flight from that rhythm inside her. Twisting on rusty hinge, the porch door whined for one second ’bout where she was. But that girl was gone.

I dream her brave, unleashed, naughty the way free folks are. Playing and frolicking her fill, flailing tough with cousins and sisters, but running wide, running on purpose, running toward something. She couldn’t name this chaos, but she believed it knew her, owned her in a way religion should.

At night, the brooding sky pushed down on her tired head, made her stay in place. She sweated outside the sheets. Kicked. Headed somewhere past this.

Anybody know how a Delta girl dreams? How the specter of a city rises up in her head and demands its space and time? How borders and boxes are suddenly magic, tenements harbor pulse, and the all there is must be a man with a felt fedora dipped lazily over one eye? She was turning into a woman, tree trunk legs, exclamation just over her heart. Alabama had to strain to hold on.

Oh, her hips were always there, but suddenly they were a startling fluid and boys lined the dust road and she slowed her run to rock them. Soon she was walking in circles. Then she was barely moving at all. Stones asked her to limp and she did. She was scrubbing her feet in river water and searching for shoes.



The one word sounded like a secret shared. And, poised in that moment before she discovered the truth, Annie Pearl Connor was catch-in-the-breath beautiful. She was sweet in that space between knowing and not knowing.

Months later, her face pressed against a tenement window, she is a note so incredibly blue only the city could sing it.

She has to believe that love will complete her.

And so she finds him, a man who seems to be what Chicago lied and said it was. He smolders, gold tooth flashing. He promises no permanence. She walks into the circle of his arms and stands very still there. There must be more than this, she believes, and knows she must fill her body with me, that she must claim her place in the north with a child touting her blood. Hot at the thought of creation, she is driven by that American dream of birthing a colorless colored child with no memories whatsoever of the Delta.

It is a difficult delivery, with no knife slipped below the bed to cut the pain. In a room of beeping machines and sterilized silver, she can’t get loose. Her legs are bound. Her hands are being held down. She screams, not from pain but from knowing. My mother has just given worry to the world.

There will be no running from this.

This child is a chaos she must name.


PATRICIA SMITH is the author of eight books of poetry, including Incendiary Art, winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the 2017 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the 2018 NAACP Image Award, and finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist; and Gotta Go, Gotta Flow, a collaboration with award-winning Chicago photographer Michael Abramson. Her other books include the poetry volumes Teahouse of the Almighty, Close to Death, Big Towns Big Talk, Life According to Motown; the children’s book Janna and the Kings and the history Africans in America, a companion book to the award-winning PBS series. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Baffler, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Tin House, and in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, and Best American Mystery Stories. She co-edited The Golden Shovel Anthology—New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and edited the crime fiction anthology Staten Island Noir.

She is a Guggenheim fellow, a Civitellian, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, a finalist for the Neustadt Prize, a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, a former fellow at both Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition’s history. Patricia is a Distinguished Professor for the City University of New York and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada University and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Residency Program.


Author’s Note

In lieu of an author’s note, we’ve compiled a few quotations from recent interviews with Patricia Smith. —CRAFT

“When my mother came up from the south, she was very ashamed of being from the south. She wanted her life to begin once she hit Chicago. When I would question her about where she was from she would say, ‘What do you want to know about that for? You’re from Chicago, why do you want to talk about the south?’ She equated being southern with being poor and being backward. So after my father died, I grew up not really knowing or feeling any root beside the one that had kind of been forced upon me in Chicago. So I tend to collect places. I tend to try places on as home, like, what if this had been the place where I grew up? Or if this had been? I try to wrap the places around myself as much as I can, and that doesn’t necessarily mean state or a city or a country. It could be a certain kind of room.

“It’s also because I got started in poetry by getting up on stage. It was really important for me to set the scene for the listener because I only had one chance, they only hear the poem once. They can’t go back and reread it, they can’t stop you and ask you to back up. So I really had to paint a stark picture of where I was, what was surrounding me, what was surrounding the people in my pieces. I’ve worked really hard on trying to paint that picture and using as many of the senses as I can.”

—Patricia Smith speaking to Kaveh Akbar about the crucial importance of setting and sensory detail in her poetry; for Divedapper, September 8, 2015

“When my mother came up from Alabama to Chicago during the Great Migration, she fully intended to scrub all traces of the South from her life. She was ashamed of her background, ashamed of what up-north whites would surely consider a ragged upbringing, characterized by deplorable diction, ill-stitched homemade clothes, and a gaping ignorance of what it truly meant to be civilized. She was determined to give birth to a ‘city child’ whose links to that pitiful Delta backdrop would be severed as soon as possible—because she was convinced that was the only way I would ever be successful.

“In the process of severing those ties, she effectively cut me off from my history. She didn’t tell me stories about her tiny hometown of Aliceville, didn’t connect me with relatives who were still there, didn’t give me any sense at all of a Southern lineage. So I spent my childhood years essentially rootless, waiting for the big city to give me a shape. But so many things seemed designed to take away my voice, not to help me find one. I was enrolled in a school system designed to celebrate failure, living in a neighborhood that the rest of the city looked down upon, and subjected to a racism that was even more insidious than the one my mother had left behind in the South.

“When I found Gwen, I found my soundtrack. She was colored and bookish, knew tenements and the clanging music of the ghetto. She was a quiet and unapologetic witness to a world that constantly threatened to overwhelm me. She taught me to see around, beneath, and behind what was being served to me as truth. I realized that my own people held my lessons and knew my direction. We had a shared language, and not a single syllable of it was shameful. I listened to her until I learned to hear myself.

“When I seriously began writing poetry, I knew what I was striving for—that gorgeous meld of story and structure, while remembering that the most difficult stories to tell were my own.”

—Patricia Smith speaking to Donna Seaman about her mother’s erasure of the past, and the importance of Gwendolyn Brooks for her development as a writer; for The American Library Association Booklist Reader, April 25, 2017

“My father, who also traveled north during the Great Migration, brought with him something I like to call ‘the tradition of the back porch.’ Every evening after dinner, we’d settle together, and he’d tell stories—stories from the candy company where he worked, stories from the barbershop or the butcher shop or the gas station or just from the street corner. The characters were people I knew, and it was like sitting down to a rollicking serial narrative. He was the first person to pry my story open, teaching me that there were other ways of looking at the world beyond what I was learning, or not learning, in school. Because of my father, nothing I saw ever sat still.

“Also, my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Carol Baranowski, pummeled me with questions whenever I was about to write—What does that remind you of? What sound does that color make? How does that color taste? If that home had a voice, what would it sound like? By the time I was in middle school—although I didn’t know what to call it—I was looking at the world like a poet. From that point, thanks to a storytelling dad and an amazing teacher, nothing looked like what it was.”

—Patricia Smith speaking to Rin Johnson about the influence of her father and her fifth grade teacher on her storytelling; for The Miami Rail, April 2, 2017