John Warner Smith



Baby and the Bell Ringers


Brother said the first time I swallowed
Mama’s breast milk, I threw up.
She slapped me and cursed, then
dropped me to the floor, left me
alone under an open window,
where bugs bit my arms and legs.
Sister said I looked like a balloon.

I never learned how to say words
but I know sounds. I can giggle
and cry, and I like to play
patty cake and beat a drum.
I don’t remember anything
outside the room where we live,
except for one night a long time ago,
when Mama put me in a blanket
and showed me the sky.
Some of the lights came down
and put their hands out
to touch me, but she pulled me
away. Every night since then,
when I close my eyes to sleep,
they come back, and I hear them
playing a song, like bells.

Everybody calls me Baby,
but nobody feeds me anymore,
and they don’t clean me
when I mess on myself. Bugs crawl
all over me, and my soars bleed
and hurt when I scratch.
I don’t know how old I am
or what my face looks like.
I think I am tall, almost a man,
but my legs can’t hold up my body,
so I lie here all day, waiting
for nighttime and the bells to come.






The older I grow, the more I want to see
God, lie down with Him
beside a stream in a green pasture
stretching beyond the reach of my eyes.

Is it lustful to yearn for a mouth
and hand to taste and touch my flesh,
or is it the archetypal fantasia,
an ancient hunger buried inside me
long before the birth water broke?

Merciful daemon, are you the familiar
yet strange scent that fills the air
when a sudden burst of rain
is not enough to settle the whirling dust?
When you come again, when you go
into the sky, take my shadow with you.

When my father began to lose his mind,
he would point to say which direction
I should turn the car. I knew the way,
and his pointing agitated me.
In time, his memory of me shattered.
When his mind became a desert,
I had him committed, a foreign country
to him, locked inside a tall iron fence.

One night, miles away, my car screeching
toward a head-on crash, I closed my eyes
to brace for impact. Suddenly, I felt
the motion of a hand other than mine,
the car careening, spinning into the abyss,
until the blunt, broadside hit. I landed
inside a shallow ditch, barely injured.

Sometimes, with our eyes open wide,
we find our way only by song,

We can name this creation, call it grace
or truth if words are what we need

to believe that we can live forever
or move mountains, if we haven’t taken

more than we’ve given. Sometimes,
the sound enters us, takes hold,

makes us dance, cry, or die for love
or freedom, but we know this song

is fleeting. We cannot mold it, make it
our own, because no one can possess

such a free, perfect, beautiful thing,
and nothing can replicate the feeling

that it puts inside us. This Not I,
this Other lives only in a moment,

a gift: pure and whole, passing,
staying just long enough to be felt.

When I was a young husband and father,
I lost a job that I had made great scarifies
to get. Blind and broken-winged,
a bird with a dream that choked of faith.
We moved to another city,
where I took a job in a small cubicle
with no door, working to improve
the lives of poor people. Eventually,
I became the manager of that city,
but along the way, many doors
I had prayed would open stayed shut.

Now, the sun falling, ambition waned,
and my sight growing dim,
I merely watch who I once was,
who others saw and see. In the distance,
a foghorn howls, but I believe
there is light where I am going.
Maybe death will spare
the bitter cold ocean night.
Maybe I will feel the song
and dance on the white-capped waves.



John Warner Smith’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, CallalooAntioch Review, Transition, and numerous other literary journals. Smith’s debut poetry collection, A Mandala of Hands, was published by Aldrich Press / Kelsay Books in 2015.  His second collection, Soul Be A Witness:  Songs to Boys of Color, is forthcoming from MadHat Press. Smith’s poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for the Sundress Best of the Net Anthology. A Cave Canem Fellow, Smith earned his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans.  His poetry can be found at

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