Reviews for Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah

Booklist Reviews 2012 April #2
*Starred Review* Smith is a powerhouse poet. Her poems are as tightly constructed as masonry, yet they are quick-footed, spinning, singing, funny, and heartbreaking. Following her National Book Award finalist, Blood Dazzler (2008), Smith looks back to her parents' lives and her own in a unified and music-saturated collection that is at once an episodic memoir-in-verse and a microcosm of two great forces in African American life: the Great Migration from the South to Chicago and the siren call of Motown. Smith begins with a portrait of her mother as a young "running blaze" of a girl in Alabama, then follows her mother and her cruelly orphaned father to Chicago. There her daddy wants to name her Jimi Savannah, "seeking to bless me / with the blues-bathed moniker of a ball-breaker." Instead, we meet a watchful, questioning, yearning girl, wisely wary of the treacherous street life and toxic poverty of Chicago's West Side but wide open to the croon of Smokey Robinson and the wail of Aretha, the dictates of fashion, and the vortex of love, culminating, at age 16, in a disastrous relationship with a white boy. Smith's immediate, deeply compassionate, magnificently detailed narrative poems of one young woman's complicated coming-of-age embody the sorrows, outrage, and transcendence of race-bedeviled, music-redeemed twentieth-century America. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 May #3

In her title poem, Smith describes her mother and father debating what to call her. Smith's mother bestowed on the poet a name fitting for a woman that would "never idly throat the Lord's name or wear one/ of those thin, sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees./ She'd be a nurse or a third-grade teacher or a postal drone,/ jobs requiring alarm-clock discipline and sensible shoes." But her father, though acquiescing, secretly called her Jimi Savannah, embodying "the blues-bathed moniker of a ball breaker, the name/ of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-stars." This duality bursts forth in her poems about growing up on Chicago's West Side, the place that lured her parents from Alabama promising a better life. The collection builds momentum with vivid, high-textured city scenes. "The city squared its teeth," she writes and "smiled oil"; the chicken shack's "slick cuisine served up in virgin white cardboard boxes with Tabasco/ nibbling the seams." Motown saturates the language and weaves itself into Smith's narratives. Focusing on the stinging memories of growing up black and a woman during the 1960s, one could overlook Smith's mastery of rhyme rhythm and form, but it runs like an electric current throughout the collection. (May)

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