In her debut poetry collection, Jasmine Elizabeth Smith takes inspiration from Oklahoma Black history. In the wake of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, Jim Waters makes the difficult decision to leave behind his lover, Beatrice Vernadene Chapel, who as a Black woman must navigate the dangerous climate that produced the Jim Crow South and Red Summer. As Beatrice and Jim write letters to one another and hold imagined conversations with blues musicians Ida B. Cox, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Ethel Waters, and the ghosts of Greenwood, the couple interrogates themes of blues epistemology, Black feminism, fraught attachments, and the way in which Black Americans have often changed their geographical regions with the hope of improving their conditions. The poetry collection South Flight is a eulogy, a blues, an unabashed love letter, and ragtime to the history of resistance, migration, and community in Black Oklahoma.
'Let the sounds I make / lamp pitch and lighten / ears.’ So begins the tale of history and wondrous music that is South Flight,
a book-long sequence of poems that is as spellbinding in its narrative as it is beautiful in its lyric tilt and sweep. Jasmine Elizabeth Smith knows what a sense of place is, what history is, how much pain it inflicts–and how a well-told story can lift us up, despite everything. But perhaps even more important, here is a new poet who knows how to sing like no one else. And, by God, she sings like no one else! South Flight
is a powerful, necessary book.
—Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic
Scintillating letters wholly imprint zeitgeist in a spectacularly documented trail between star-crossed lovers, yearning in this stunning debut. The living depth of Oklahoma’s historic Black towns, neighborhoods—Boley, Langston, Greensborough, Greenwood, Udora—long-hand reach to the one who got away, ensconced in a strange new realm in Chicago, Illinois, yet unsafe from love, loss, misery. South Flight
brilliantly unfolds entanglements across space and time, battle-worn. Fiercely posited, searching up ahead/forever eyeballing back, a searing twin-edged feat composed in crossroads musicality is a must have and hold read. In this jurisdiction, there’s no going back. Blistering.
—Allison Hedge Coke, author of the American Book Award-winning Dog Road Woman
Channeling the ghosts of freedmen, blueswomen, and 'the roots of a thousand and one Atlantic crossings,' Jasmine Elizabeth Smith has courageously penned a conversation between the forces of migration and the spirit of staying put. Like Mama’s hot comb, South Flight
is all at once delicate, deliberate, and searing. How else could I forewarn the vicariously nostalgic ache of 'the rotgut of harvest' and 'bathtub-water gin,' the discomforting itch of Dresden quilts, muslin gloves, and cool, starched collars? In its tireless interrogation of violence, desire, hope, survival, and even love, South Flight
begs necessary questions, such as 'how might I chorus hornets into sonnet . . . ?' and 'is our beauty so vain it a form of resistance?' If you want answers, you had the best bend your ear and be still, lest you get burned by Smith's potent delivery.
—Ashanti Anderson, author of Black Under
Smith gives us a sense of 1920s’ Oklahoma with a rangy vernacular embodied in the voices of Jim and Beatrice, whose letters evince both authentic expression and poetic innovation.
—Diego Baez, Poetry Foundation
From attention to foodways and land to blues and the undead, these poems trade on staple Southern Literature tropes and I am here for it. Set around the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, South Flight
’s staked claim for Oklahoma as a Southern space not only serves as a glaring reminder of its Jim Crow apartheid but also allows Smith to complicate how we think of this period and this space. Reading like a blending of Toni Morrison’s lush prose with Langston Hughes’s jazz poems, this collection bears witness to the day-to-day heartaches and fortitude of those living under such oppression.
—Rhiannon Thorne, Up the Staircase Quarterly
South Flight, winner of the 2021 Georgia Poetry Prize, is an angry, heartsick lesson in the American history of brutal racial hatred, a history of routine lynchings and spasmodic massacres. . . These slashing, jagged poems are vibrant with the pain that has been the legacy of modern American Black people, resonating with the anger at injustice that is at the heart of Black Lives Matter.
—Patrick T. Reardon, Another Chicago magazine