In his second poetry collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith renders into words the pain of living in a black body in America. “i have no more / room for grief. / it’s everywhere now,” Smith writes in “not an elegy,” his response to the recurring violence against and killing of innocent black boys and men (a prominent theme in the collection). Smith’s work conveys the anxiety of knowing that today could be the day another black person is killed—either “in pieces,” through demoralization and the slow death of the soul, or “all at once,” like Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and John Crawford, all of whom are immortalized in Smith’s work (“every day is a funeral & a miracle”).
The collection is comprised of free verse poems and sonnets that address not only racism, police brutality, the fear of death, and the mystery of what comes after death, but also love and sex. Many black men leave this earth via suicide (“a boy I was a boy with took his own life / i forgot black boys leave that way too,” from “not an elegy”) and sexually communicable illnesses (“you knew it would come to this, but then it actually came,” from “1 in 2”). Moreover, several poems navigate the difficulties of trusting sexual partners, particularly the possibility of sleeping with someone who might have AIDs. Smith’s poems traverse the anxieties that endanger the lives of numerous black men, and especially queer black men. From “every day is a funeral and a miracle,” a poem near the end of the collection: “hallelujah! Today / I did not think / about my blood.” The crossing out of these last lines of the poem signifies perhaps the speaker’s eventual death from AIDs, or violence, or the inability of the speaker to ever live free from those fears.
These fears manifest over and over in Smith’s poems, mimicking the way in which a sexual or ethnic minority, or someone living with a life-threatening illness, might experience victimization or think about death over and over throughout the course of a day. Perhaps the most haunting line of Don’t Call Us Dead appears in the poem “1 in 2”: “plague and genocide meet on a line in my body.” Here, the collection’s obsessions merge—the meeting of plague and genocide on a single poetic line, and their meeting within the speaker’s body.
Smith’s collection also confronts the challenges of living as a queer black man in a culture that favors those who are heterosexual, who marry and have children by normative methods. From the poem “every day is a funeral & a miracle”: “my grandma doesn’t know / so don’t tell her / if you see her with this poem / burn it, burn her.” Ostracization from a too-often unwelcoming world, managing one’s vulnerability, finding the courage to be one’s true self—all are strong themes in Smith’s collection. In “1 in 2,” a longer poem, Smith considers the risk involved in having sexual partners who could possibly be HIV-positive:
he, who smelled coffee sweet & cigarillo blue
entered me, who knew better but __________.
he, who in his wake left shredded tarot,
threw back his head & spewed light from every opening
& in me, light fell on a door, & in the door
a me I didn’t know and knew, the now me
whose blood blacks & curls back like paper
near an open flame.
Here, Smith articulates what is difficult, if not impossible, to capture in words. The ineffable pleasure of sex and intimacy (images of light spewing and falling). The inevitability of death (blackening blood “curl[ing] back like paper”). The potential consequences of the risky act (“shredded tarot”). And even still, the unsayable (“__________”) makes a literal appearance.
In spite of the grief and pain readers reckon with in Don’t Call Us Dead, all hope is not lost. The last poem of the collection, “dream where every black person is standing by the ocean,” provides the denouement, showing what that hope can look like: “one woman, skin dark as all of us / walks to the water’s lip, shouts Emmett, spits / & surely, a boy begins / crawling his way to shore.” This poem serves not only as a symbol of baptism and renewal, but also as a reminder of the underacknowledged roles black women take on as healers and revivers. Indeed, Smith’s collection ends by giving readers a glimmer of optimism, of hope, despite the deaths of black men and boys gone too soon from this world.
LAURA HANNA earned an MA in English at Auburn University and is pursuing a EdD in education at Valdosta State University. Her first poetry manuscript, Seen from the Moon, Our Bones are Glass, was shortlisted for the Snake Nation Press 2016 Violet Reed Haas Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in Dappled Things, Pilgrimage Press, Bitchin’ Kitsch, and elsewhere. She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of These Fragile Lilacs Poetry Journal.
Don’t Call Us Dead. By Danez Smith. Graywolf Press, 2017.