» Book Review
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Graywolf Press, 2017
88 pages, soft, $16.00
In their second collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith screams at America, particularly white America, to become woke, once and for all, instead of denying the genocide of black males via racism and homophobia. Smith’s words are so pointed and powerful, impassioned and infuriated that I cannot help but equate the poet with James Baldwin, whose writing was frequently, as stated in his essay, “The Creative Process,” a “lover’s war” with society.
In this three-part work (since named a National Book Award finalist) replete with snake, blood, burial, water, fish, black sky, and star symbolism, Smith illustrates what is possible—the frontier of form serving content—poems with segments both traditional and prose-like, that begin and end in concrete form, are epistolary, contain lines that offer colons and backslashes, that are hermit-crab, fill-in-the-blank, and crossed out. However challenging, though, the texts are accessible, a balancing act achieved throughout the book.
Smith’s words are often born in fury, as may be noted in poems that bookend the collection. In part one, “dear white america,” they make it clear that they would rather move to a new planet in danger of being sucked into a black hole than to continue to subsist on Earth. The poet asks, “… how much time do you want for your progress?” In part three, “you’re dead, america,” they make white america aware that only because of “brown folks,” “realer than any god / for them i bury whatever / this country thought it was.” Unlike the black boys buried in earlier poems, the persona buries “america,” respectfully, yet still using a lower-case “A.”
In “Summer, Somewhere,” the prologue, in which they write, “if snow fell, it’d fall black. Please don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better,” black men are removed from coffins as boys again, given a second chance, and “… go out for sweets & come back.” Trayvon’s new name is “RainKing.” The poet inquires, “do you know what it’s like to live on land who loves you back?” The poem, although steeped in a context of injustice, is gentle, beautiful, like listening to a dirge—a sense of relief and release created about this imaginary haven, racist and homophobic hell on earth slipping away.
One theme of the timely collection is police brutality. In the prologue, such references as “sometimes it’s they eyes who lead / scanning for bonefleshed men in blue” and that even in this alternative heaven, they still can’t shake their fears, “we wake up hands up.” When I reached “dear badge number,” still in section one, I wondered why the poet was so heavy-handed with his emphatic two-line piece, “what did i do wrong/be born? be black? meet you?” In another context, I would have criticized it for obviousness, but I realized that Smith sees the time for subtlety as long gone. Directness is needed so that white readers cannot possibly misconstrue their words.
Smith writes about homosexuality in equal measure. In “last summer of innocence,” the poet illuminates the final summer before the speaker was aware of their homosexuality. They write about homosexual dating and racism therein, and about sex itself. Tender lines come across as a love letter to black males. This work serves as orientation for what is to come: witnessing a grieving process as the poet, who has revealed publicly they are HIV+, takes readers through the agonizing stages that led to acceptance of such a diagnosis. The poem “fear of needles,” for instance, contains three centered lines written in second-person point of view, in which Smith pushes readers into a place of fear experienced by sexually active gay men:
instead of getting tested
you take a blade to your palm
hold your ear to the wound
The poet delves into the intricacies of being HIV+, discussing betrayal by partner and self, loss of future progeny, homophobic religious leaders, and even the disease as a form a genocide. They intertwine police and infected blood cells, jail sentences and HIV sentences. In the epigraph of “1 in 2,” Smith states that a 2016 CDC study revealed that one in every two black men who has sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV. They observe:
If you trace the word diagnosis back enough
you’ll find destiny
trace it forward, find diaspora
They push themselves in terms of not only content but also form throughout section two, most notably in the final poem, “litany with blood all over,” when the pain becomes so intense that the piece ends concretely as “his blood” and “my blood” increasingly mingle, becoming one, across one-and-a-half pages of type.
To call Don’t Call Us Dead “brave” would be an understatement, an insult. I wish that this collection did not exist, that there was no need. But there is, and since there is, I cannot think of a poet who could handle its subjects more deftly or with more grace and poignancy than Danez Smith.
Please also see Judith Roney’s Aquifer interview with Danez Smith.