Poetry in Review: Don’t Call Us Dead
Don’t Call Us Dead–the second full-length collection by the twenty-nine-year-old American poet Danez Smith–could stop you short, several times over, with its title alone. Don’t call us dead: that imperative is at once a reclamation (don’t you call us dead; that’s for us to say), a rebuke (don’t just call us dead, do something), and a revision (don’t call us dead: we are, or were, much more). In “summer, somewhere,” a monumental opening sequence that imagines an afterlife for murdered African American boys, Smith’s title becomes a resurrection spell:
somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump
in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two… .
here, there’s no language
for officer or law, no color to call white.
if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.
we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.
Surely when black boys are killed prematurely, murdered without warning or consequence, they head “somewhere,” but where? Smith starts simply, hopefully, with a summer “sun”–but already imagination and reality start bartering. Does afterlife retain childhood’s vibrant “play,” or stall in midair stasis? Do these boys reach lunar transcendence, or are they forced to “beg” for every single preserved life? If this afterlife can be delimited only vaguely (“somewhere,” “someplace better”), its basic demands are all too easy to articulate: these boys pray for themselves, self-defensive and self-dignifying; after an outing for childish “sweets,” they can “come back” safely, without needing to pray they’ll “come back” alive.
Smith (whose preferred personal pronouns are they, them, and their) pledges their exceptional voice to communities that have been denied all exceptions: to black boys oppressed by police and demonized in public, to queer and genderqueer youth, to today’s HIV-positive men barely assuaged to hear, of their diagnosis, that “it’s not a death sentence anymore.” The pronoun dominating “summer, somewhere” is the posthumous, collective “we” of those revived black boys: together they “play,” rename and reimagine themselves, and “unfuneral” newcomers–that is, dig up the newly dead and welcome them home: “we say, congrats, you’re a boy again! / we give him a durag, a bowl, a second chance.” Their dreamt-up Neverland inverts (and is sadly unthinkable without) the violent reality they’ve left behind: “paradise is a world where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.” Eventually, the dire paradox of this predicament dawns on these boys–“the old world // keeps choking them. our new one / can’t stop spitting them out”–but as early as the sequence’s urgent overture, we hear that direness in the grain of Smith’s versatile, volatile voice. Apparently informal, lowercase and slangily intimate, Smith’s lines can tauten into alliterative clatters, percussive pummels of stresses; legato one moment, they might crash headlong into monolithic images or break so sharply they give whiplash: “don’t fret, we don’t die. they can’t kill / the boy on your shirt again.”
“summer, somewhere” unspools across twenty pages, its terse couplets grouped, generally, into sixteen-line sections, like sonnets barred from neat endings; every page but the last ends on a double slash, //, implying continuity across rupture. In between collectively spoken sections situated in the boys’ purgatorial “not earth / not heaven,” Smith inserts two-page interludes, printed in italics, that revisit earth and admit the individual voices of mourners and mothers, brothers and lovers and friends left friendless: “they’ve made you a boy / i don’t know // replaced my friend / with a hashtag.” In the final two italicized sections, Smith truncates the sixteen-line form and opposes (on the left page) a still-living officer with (on the right) the disembodied voice of the boy he murdered. Addressing the “ghost i made,” the officer finds the boy somehow realer, more approachable, now that he’s dead:
dear ghost i made
i was raised with a healthy fear of the dark.
i turned the light bright, but you just kept
being born, kept coming for me, kept being
so dark, i got sca … i was doing my job.
This officer cycles through familiar self-justifications: he was “doing his job”; he felt threatened; since childhood he had been raised with an everyday, normatively “healthy” fear of dark spaces and dark bodies. (Smith halts “scared” at “sca”: it’s on you to paint in that splattered “red.”) Responding to that nameless cop, this ghostly boy turns, pitiably, on himself:
dear badge number
what did i do wrong?
be born? be black? meet you?
Posing existential questions, Smith answers with further questions, explicit and unspoken (what’s a worse cause of death: the immutable circumstances of your birth and skin color, or a chance meeting with an officer of the law?).
“summer, somewhere” was the inaugural recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Four Quartets Prize for “a unified and complete sequence of poems”; a worthy heir to the prize’s namesake, Smith’s sequence fashions entirely different rhythms and redemptions. It may seem like an unsurmountable way to open a book, but Smith wagers everything on multiplicity, plurality, persistence across metamorphosis: there should be, Smith hopes, thirteen ways of looking at a black boy, conceptions of black life which are irreducible to black death. As Don’t Call Us Dead progresses, Smith frames certain poems as provisional, dashed-off “notes” (“a note on Vaseline,” “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths”) and other poems as refusals of expected or serviceable memorializing: “i did not come here to sing you blues.” The defiant “not an elegy” knows every convention it shirks, knows that a classical decorum fitted to contemporary black suffering would sound sardonic: “think: once, a white girl / was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan War. // later, up the block, Troy got shot / & that was Tuesday.” One of Smith’s chief powers is denunciatory negation–of stereotypes, of intolerable conditions, of rigid ideas about black lives or black poets–but Smith would never neglect their own communities: “i am sick of writing this poem,” “not an elegy” concedes, “but bring the boy.”
Another power, Smith’s easiest to overlook, is humor, the buoyant lift resisting history’s tragic undertow. “dinosaurs in the hood” was first filmed in performance in 2014, and first printed in Poetry magazine later that year, but it gets better every year. Exuberantly brainstorming a dream movie that’s “Jurassic Park meets Friday meets The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith flaunts their sarcastic fluency with cinematic formulas, whether for sci-fi franchises or dramas that fetishize black suffering:
there should be a scene where a little black boy is playing
with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window
& sees the T. rex, because there has to be a T. rex.
don’t let Tarantino direct this. in his version, the boy plays
with a gun, the metaphor: black boys toy with their own lives
the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.
nah, the kid has a plastic brontosaurus or triceratops
& this is his proof of magic or God or Santa.
Smith is, by their own estimation, a “failed comedian”: here, comedy itself fails when vindictive wish-fulfillment–“i want a scene // where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl”–bleeds into demands for justice: “this movie can’t be about black pain or cause black pain. / this movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt.” Summer blockbusters, narratives sewn from “black pain,” outsiders’ perceptions of “the hood”: all these, Smith recognizes, are two-dimensional representations, genres to be mashed up, or tossed out.
Small wonder, perhaps, that the most memorable, most memorizable poems are Smith’s most adventuresome and least settled, the extended sequences that accumulate and backtrack, play out one formal maneuver only to venture several more. Smith never sounds insincere, but the poems become most predictable when they snugly fit a single genre or conceit, or close on a note, however sympathetic, of pure despair or pure celebration (“you are beautiful & lovable & black & enough & so–you pretty you–am i”). Certain punchlines, and some ingenious reinventions of the page, stagger on the first reading but not the fourth or fifth. I won’t soon forget the initial shock of “litany with blood all over”–on its last page and a half the repeated phrases “my blood” and “his blood” swarm, intermingle, propagate exponentially, blot out the page–but I’ve been more consistently moved by what Smith accomplishes four pages earlier, with less ingenuity (and less ink), a nearly blank page with four spaced-apart etchings: “in our blood // men hold each other // like they’ll never let go // & then they let go.” Let go: of commitments and ideals, of loves and lives.
“i got blood on the brain,” Smith confirms: indeed, blood runs under the surface of all these poems, or else ruptures forth. Blood stands, variously, for violence’s aftermath or imminence, for what courses through family lines (and African American poetic lineages, from Langston Hughes to today), and for Smith’s own HIV status–often, it’s all of the above. Smith is indebted to (if never directly imitating) the past generation’s poems about HIV, to poets like D. A. Powell and Jericho Brown: for all three poets, sex and death are inextricable, whether as cause and effect or unnervingly indistinguishable mirror-images: “how close was death to orgasm, kid? / how did it feel to feel everything, then become a thing that can’t feel, kid?” And like Powell and Brown, Smith is a poet magnetized to American popular music, a realm where queer desire can be pristinely repackaged, where death can be deterred or danced off. So it’s only partly a joke for Smith to quote, as the book’s epigraph, a song by Thanatos feat. Eros: the braggy, death-welcoming refrain of Drake”s “Legend” (2015)–“Oh my God, oh my God / If I die, I’m a legend”–which samples Ginuwine’s slow jam of erotic expectancy, “So Anxious” (1999). Later, in the hallucinatory “recklessly,” Smith collages carefree refrains from Beyoncé and Whitney Houston (“i been drankin, I been drankin / i just wanna dance with somebody”) alongside evocations of Michael Johnson, sentenced for not disclosing his HIV status to partners: “i got the cellblock blues … i got the cell count blues.”
In the poems about HIV, Smith tunes their voice to its least collective and most personal, haunted by the infection and its traumatic aftermath: “i am a house swollen with the dead, but still a home. / the bed where it happened is where i sleep.” But these poems too are political, as they navigate through gay bars and protest marches, “blood work results” and dating apps (one title reads, in medias rant, “& even the black guy’s profile reads sorry, no black guys”). In Smith’s most provocative conceits, the poet speculates that being black in America may be not so different from living with HIV: both entail feeling unwanted, undesirable, targeted for your body and blood, reminded constantly of death’s encroachments. In “every day is a funeral & a miracle,” a sequence whose kaleidoscopic array of forms befits its dizzyingly mixed feelings, Smith confesses to familial shame on one page (“my grandma doesn’t know / so don’t tell her / if you see her with this poem // burn it, burn her”), and rhymes failures of justice with organ failure on the next page: “today, Tamir Rice / tomorrow, my liver / today, Rekia Boyd / tomorrow, my kidneys.” Any death, seemingly, contributes to a national project of racial extermination: “some of us are killed / in pieces, some of us all at once.”
I wonder how much Smith dwells on how they’ve been received, whether by the black boys and queer communities they speak to and for or by the nation they call out in “dear white america”–a 2014 recording of that poem, produced by the Minneapolis-based performance-poetry organization Button Poetry, is Smith’s most watched performance, with over three hundred thousand views. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Smith has been framed, alternatively, as instructively representative or startlingly exceptional, as a symptom of the United States’ “insatiable gun battle with itself” or a “YouTube star.” Incessantly, tiresomely, readers in both countries have pitted performance poetry (where Smith got their start) against page-bound poetry (where they’re currently thriving). There are, to be sure, plenty of actual differences between performance and the page–plenty to say about technique and embodiment, about demographics and cultural recognition (you are not reading the Yale Review of YouTube Videos)–but all too often those differences are elided in favor of coded evaluations about class, race, gender, and sexuality, or of supposedly self-evident judgments about what could (or could never) deserve to be termed “poetic,” “artistic,” “intellectual.”
Smith–so wary of how we’re boxed in by stanzas and cells, by author bios and Grindr photos–must have heard all this again and again. “i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets,” “dear white america” begins. Midway through Smith’s poem (mid-performance, halfway down the page–you choose) you start believing them:
i’ve left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something, until then i bid you well, i bid you war, i bid you our lives to gamble with no more. i’ve left Earth & i am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. i’m giving the stars their right names.
Does that voice need anyone’s permission to speak?
Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith (Graywolf Press, 96 pp., $16 paper)