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Smith, John Warner

Smith, John Warner


A Pushcart Prize nominee, John Warner Smith began writing poetry while building a successful career as a local and state government administrator and a banker.  His debut collection, A Mandala of Hands (Aldrich Press, 2015) has been praised by Terrance Hayes as “a mature and magical new book.”  Tracy K. Smith has written, “John Warner Smith is a poet with “belief ablaze”; and Geffrey Davis has said, “John Warner Smith crafts poems of patient and painstaking wisdom, poems that lead the reader deliberately into an array of vantages, laboring hard to leaven inquiry with insight.”Smith earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans.  A Cave Canem fellow and three-time participant of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, he teaches English at Southern University in Baton Rouge.


New Orleans, a Tuesday, 7:30 A.M.
I’m sipping coffee at a McDonald’s on Canal
when two young black men, early twenties perhaps,
walk in, buying nothing. Suddenly,
I’m aboard a mother ship,
streaking toward the farthest stars.

One, like a fly, bobs the aisles, sweaty
in his Crown Royal muscle shirt.
Gym shorts hanging off his ass,
headset in his ears, he pantomimes
a singer and dances a Mardi Gras mambo
in July, with himself, second lining
silky-smoothly across the floor, out the door,
onto the parking lot—his own block party
without the block.

The other, well-groomed, small backpack,
talks loudly, eloquently to himself
about home, what it is, isn’t and should be, then,
facing the faces, he launches a soliloquy
of senseless babble,
and you sense the other—
the voices, a stage, curtain and cast,
his fans and followers looking on,
inside his head.

I’m gazing stars. Drawn to the glow
of their wayward worlds,
I can’t help
but pause, watch and listen.
I’m entertained,
but scared, because they’re black men
and I’m one, too,
with a son and grandsons of my own,
and I can’t help
but ponder: what’s loose,
what’s broken, what’s gone wrong,
what’s the fix?

Originally appeared in Tupelo Quarterly

Zydeco on Dog Hill

Before they put Cousin Gladys
inside the ground in a cornrow
of fair-skinned Creole men, I sat
in her funeral mass imagining
two shadows dancing in the swish
of a swift moving blade
that slit her dreams in half
and sent her father strolling
across the cane field
like a land-bending river, turning
a page she could never turnback:
news that a man had been killed,
her husband had been jailed.
I heard spoons scratching
a washboard, and a zydeco
accordion pump a groove
through a sweat-dripping rumble
of fast-shuffling feet. I felt
the wooden floor turn to water
and tasted the salty wave
as Jo Jo, her lover, swung out,
flaunting his gabardine
in two tones, his wide brim
fedora suddenly seen
whirling in a herd of flamingos
and a pool of whiskey-warm blood.
Originally appeared in Ploughshares


When I was ten years old my stepfather fished
a sparkling new Schwinn bicycle out of the coulee
bordering our back yard. All the boys knew
it had been found. Still, I was the envy of the world,
Bellerophon sailing in the wing breaths of Pegasus,
on my way to conquer Chimera. I named her Silver Bell,
my first girl – all curves and chrome – her frame,
wheels, fenders, headlight and front spring.
I’d spend hours polishing her with 3-In-One oil
and steel wool, tightening every bolt and spoke
with wrenches borrowed from my father’s toolbox.

And then, one July Sunday morning, decades after
I had become a man, Daddy died. Both parents now
gone, I was alone, not knowing what I didn’t know
and couldn’t feel, masking a world broken by grief.
Some nights I only heard howling winds, improvisations
without refrains, boughs bending roughly in the riffs.
Untying tangled threads of blood in a newborn heart,
I caught hold of wings destined for nowhere.
I didn’t think about my dying with their deaths until,
finally, I boxed the last keepsake and buried
a part of me inside the rusted toolbox I left behind.
Originally appeared in Fjords Review



Spirits of the Gods (UL Press, 2017)
Soul Be A Witness: Songs to Boys of Color (Madhat Press 2016)
A Mandala of Hands (Aldrich Press 2015)

Pushcart Prize Nominee
Finalist, 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award