by Tara Betts, PhD
Before I put any words to paper to talk about Danez Smith’s writing, I think about a photo snapped of this poet laughing in the snow, a slightly cupped hand reaching to cover the wattage of a smile, and it is sweet. Almost like watching your younger brother trying to look hard, then bursting into laughter. Smith is young, alive, and looks so happy that it makes me smile, and I say this is beautiful because I have never believed “beautiful” is an adjective reserved for women, but this photo does not portray a “pretty boy.” Smith writes love poems to deconstruct Black death, whether it arrives from a police officer’s bullet or courses through bloodstreams with the disease that has no cure. So, when I think of that image of a young Black person, an openly gay young Black person, smiling in the snow, it feels more than beautiful—it feels goddamn victorious.
As I was rereading all of the poems in Smith’s [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014) and Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015), I thought about director Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. What startled me most in this movie was the gaps—how Baldwin’s queerness (and Lorraine Hansberry’s quiet lesbian identity) was skated over like a veneer of visible ice that no one was really paying attention to, even though the ice is clearly there as part of the skating experience. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, because there were not only pages missing from this unfinished Baldwin script, which rings prophetic and contemporary at times, but this other absence makes the gaps in the story even wider.
Why would a photo of the poet and the requisite cameo of James Baldwin be so important to discussing the work of Danez Smith? With declarative, bold, language and adept turns of imagery, Smith’s poems begin filling in the gaps of omission established in works like Peck’s film. I would venture further to say that Smith is addressing the void left by poets like Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Assotto Saint. In poetry from the past couple of decades, there was no possibility for a longer narrative, and after the deaths of so many artists, how does one find language of survival? However, the new wave of gay poets has time and opportunity to shape a longer narrative. Smith is among contemporaries like Jericho Brown, Phillip B. Williams, Saeed Jones, and Rickey Laurentiis; they are young, healthy, prolific, consistently writing, and teaching other poets. In this perpetuation of the word, readers have a chance to capture an extended moment beyond one book, or the phrase “posthumous publication.” Beyond the exploration of sexuality, these poets are dealing with dilemmas central to how Blackness is defined in America—police brutality, masculinity (toxic and otherwise), popular culture—and reaffirming those who are often dehumanized.
The new wave of gay poets has time and opportunity to shape a longer narrative.
So, if you cannot deal with how Smith teeters on the precipice between death and celebration for another breath, then I don’t know why you even came to a poetry book at all. This teetering is the preamble to Smith’s second full-length collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017). The title itself states another imperative that some might mistake as a syntactic move typically employed in slam poems, but Smith varies the technique enough to create an imagined reality that steps away from the expectations of editors who would like the click bait of “another police brutality poem.”
The opening poem “summer, somewhere” and the poems that follow simultaneously employ grace and bluntness to disinvite people who are intrigued by trauma. “summer, somewhere” tells how “boys brown/as rye” will be addressed: “please, don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better. / we say our own names we pray. / we go out for sweets & come back.” In a lived reality, we know Trayvon Martin never came back after sweet tea and Skittles, but in this alternate world, the boys are revived and choose new names. The collection returns to avoiding death consistently; Smith alludes to Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” with phrases like “dear empty Chucks,” which evoke a pair of sneakers thrown over a power line, or family members looking at shoes onscreen long after the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. When Spike Lee revealed this latter scene in the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, viewers mourn what is lost, but Don’t Call Us Dead surpasses loss and moves toward resurrection and an alternative universe. Readers are instead given lines like “do you know what it’s like to live … paradise is a world where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.”
Smith builds on re-envisioning life through a series of epistolary poems like “Sweet Cain” and “my stolen lover” and deliberates on the latent fatality of contracting HIV that has become a treatable illness without a cure. HIV “is not a death sentence,” Smith reiterates, but it looms in the poet’s consciousness within the lines of the latter half of Don’t Call Us Dead. Much like the poet’s understanding of what it means to live as a Black person in America, Smith’s reconciliation of living with HIV is a resistant acceptance:
i’ve accepted what i was given
be it my name or be it my ender’s verdict.
when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.
i spent my life arguing how i mattered
until it didn’t matter.
who knew my haven
would be my coffin?
dead is the safest i’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.
That last line, “i’ve never been so alive,” claims another sort of living for which there is no name. Smith articulates what poets like Hemphill and Dixon were not able to live long enough to witness, which is more than the public acknowledgment of LGBT rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, or pharmaceutical developments like Pre-exposure prophylaxis (commonly known as PrEP), but the rise of hip hop and varied multiplicities of masculinity as well. Smith describes men who could easily be on a basketball court together, dressed like any other men, but he evokes their sensuality, tenderness, and potential moments for attraction, and in this way reimagines life before death, too.
The other sad inevitability that Smith articulates, even as the poems reanimate and rename living, is how the world continues to act as if lives like Smith’s are expendable:
o the boys. they still come
in droves. the old world
keeps choking them. our new one
can’t stop spitting them out.
What happens in a world where boys are constantly expelled? What happens when such boys can meet any number of demises? Smith clearly identifies at least one extended sense of loss in lines like this:
i’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news.
i’m the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner
until light outweighs us, & we become it
In those three lines, Smith rejects stereotyping, relays a common symptom of HIV, poetically describes death, and reimagines the mystical light that Black men embody, both acknowledging the loss and reclaiming it.
Beyond loss, there is still sensuality and sex. The poems “last summer of innocence” and “a note on Vaseline” entangle the homoerotic with the vestiges of childhood innocence as a sort of transition into poems that explore the terrain of Black gay relationships with poems like “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths,” “at the down low house party,” and “O nigga O.” These direct titles speak to how detached yet immediate desire and objectification can be, especially as they share a section with the mythmaking of sex in “seroconversion” and the haiku-like “fear of needles.” The poem “recklessly” references PrEP, and playfully alludes to Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Bill Clinton’s failed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry.” Every one of these references leads back to sensuality and sex, acts of life and death. Yet, like a specter, the sentence “it’s not a death sentence anymore” keeps sifting its way through the poems.
That poignant convergence of mortality, tender beauty, and objectification, even in death, is challenged again and again in this collection. In “elegy with pixels & cum,” which is dedicated to the late gay porn star Javier “Chocolate Kid” Bravo, each line ends with “kid” as its epistrophe—an affectionate term not just for a younger person, but someone a person knows on their block, a person that one might call a friend. As “elegy …” progresses, Smith shows how people dehumanized Javier Bravo (“men gather in front of screens to jerk & mourn”) even though he was “someone’s, kid.” When this section of the book concludes with the three-page poem “litany with blood all over,” Smith employs anaphora for each idea with the phrase “test results say” until the poem begins talking about blood and becomes a pool of typography where the phrases “my blood” and “his blood” literally merge.
Smith does not flinch at blood or the loss of it, instead embraces the complication of his condition, even as this book progresses toward its end with lines like this from “it began right here”:
ghosts have always been real
& i apprentice them now. they say it’s not a death-sentence
like it used to be. but it’s still life. i will die in this bloodcell.
i’m learning to become all the space i need. i laughed today.”
Although there is a clear progression from the tenderness in [insert] boy and the imaginative alternatives in Black Movie, the spare lines and visual play in Don’t Call Us Dead are definite markers of a maturing voice that connects its experiences and those of its precursors aesthetically and in terms of identity as a gay man and Black poet. How else could Smith close a book like Don’t Call Us Dead with “crown” as a crown of sonnets that reclaims the lives that Black boys might aspire to if they live? Even the cover of this book extends this idea of reaching toward space, more room to live. A Black man is reaching for another levitating Black man raised, possibly to heaven, by a simple balloon. They are both naked, beautiful, and vulnerable, which is far too often what men are never allowed to be, and though in this crippling they experience another kind of slow death, Smith clearly tells us what no one is allowed to call the “us” he cherishes in these poems. Moreover, the fact that Smith is present, vital and vigorously suggesting that Black lives must be both chronicled and reimagined fully, is itself, a victory.
Dr. Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit (Trio House Press, 2016) and Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009). She is also one of the co-editors of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century (2Leaf Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Essence, Nylon, and numerous anthologies. Betts holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and a MFA in Creative Writing from New England College. She teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago and serves as part of the MFA faculty at Chicago State University.