Poetry readings do not often begin promptly, and fewer still are delayed with good reason. But in October, the front room of the Creative Writers House at New York University received a worthy explanation for the 10-minute delay. “People are lined up down the street, and Morgan and Danez went out and read to them,” someone in the crowd announced. Morgan is Morgan Parker, an exciting, brilliant poet—her dazzling “A Seat at Solange’s Table” appeared in these pages last year—but the audience filling the hallways and staircases, spilling three rooms away from the podium and apparently stretching down West 10th Street, seemed to belong to Danez Smith, whose Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, September) is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award.
Poets who are black, young, genderqueer, and HIV-positive do not often find their second collections short-listed for major awards, and the audience was excited to be sharing in this anticipatory moment. Smith’s previous collection, [insert] boy (YesYes, 2014), is an exuberant series of list poems exploring experiences of blackness and queerness, of youth and mortality. In Don’t Call Us Dead, they have found a higher register, directly engaging the American context of these experiences and finding new force in difficulty—in sophisticated poetic forms and in the inclusion of names that are difficult to read because of what was done to them. And yet Smith activates a spectrum of emotions in material that could justifiably remain tragic, bringing pathos and several senses of humor.
Smith began with “a note on Vaseline,” a poem about the ancient and familiar tub that reveals itself to adolescents. It opens:
praise the wet music of frantic palms
plastic toilet cushions & shiny fingers
your eyes shut, rebuilding how Sherrie bent
over in math or how Latrell walked around
after gym class, his underwear too small
& brand-new manhood undeniable. praise
Another poet might make an objective correlative out of the Vaseline jar, which has “been the same / empty but not empty your whole life.” But Smith explodes the assumed isolation of masturbation by viewing its supplement as a node, connecting the addressee to bygone generations and broad community:
this same family-sized tub has been young
with all your elders, soothed Grandpa’s gout
Grandma’s fryer burns & Saturday morning bruises.
praise petroleum. how oily & blessed
the space between your fingers
Smith, who prefers to be referred to with they/their pronouns, is an amazing performer—their YouTube videos have amassed hundreds of thousands of views—and the generous intensity that they bring to this poem helps to negotiate the hairpin turns in connotation and context. As well as being a poem about enjoying yourself alone, “a note on Vaseline” is about learning how to be together—hence the couplets, not end-rhymed but filled with internal resonance, like the assonant “soothed” and “bruises.” By the end, Smith’s timbre gathers and breaks in time with a practical epiphany: “this is how men will want you always.”
That autumn night, the audience applauded and Smith dropped their composure briefly, while flipping to the next poem: “I’ve only got 20 minutes, so if you’re going to clap, clap fast.”
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Prior to the reading, I’d memorized a Smith poem—or at least, some of a poem—without really meaning to; “—a love story—” is the third section of a serial piece that responds to the legal decision against Michael Johnson, who was convicted in May 2015, at 23, of “recklessly infecting” a partner with HIV and sentenced to 30-plus years in prison. Steven Thrasher, a writer-at-large for the Guardian US and contributor to BuzzFeed, has been covering Johnson’s case since 2014, paying close attention to the ways that Johnson—whose frequently reported username, on Grindr and Jackd, was “Tiger Mandingo”—became a vessel for some of white America’s deepest fears. The mostly white jury was shown images of Johnson’s penis. The prosecutor Philip Groenweghe said that the transmission of HIV is worse than when “someone is hit by a bullet and die[s].” Thrasher reminds us that Johnson’s initial sentence was longer than Missouri’s “average for second-degree murder.”
Smith’s “recklessly” begins as an undulating list, interleaving questions about a potential partner with statements of desire:
i say mercy, danger & white boys hear what they want
it was summer & everyone wanted to be in love
i been drankin, I been drankin
i just wanna dance with somebody
But Smith breaks from this pattern, using formal variations across the sections of the poem to suggest the many ways that stories like Johnson’s could be told apart from the legal formulation of guilt and victimhood. The poem moves from couplets, erasures, open-field composition, and brief lyrics to a block of text separated with slashes that suggests dozens of lines of verse shoved into a paragraph. These shifts have significant tonal consequences—there is a pulsing, investigative energy to the poem’s first section, while the last is incantatory—and make a case for Smith not just as a poet of the page, but as a poet whose work demands modes of attention more participatory than spectatorial. These are lines of verse to carry with you, and one of Smith’s unique gifts is in crafting difficult yet portable turns of phrase that unfold as you revisit them.
The poem’s third section is, in full:
– a love story—
& then he left
but he stayed
The same people who have reflexive trouble with popular, facile poets like Rupi Kaur will miss the stark elegance here. But Smith’s brevity rewards deep consideration. Without proper names as guides, our instinct is to read pronouns as referring to the same person; so, at first, “he stayed” seems to refer to a lingering emotional attachment, or even to the transmission of HIV. If “he” is Michael Johnson, then we remember that he is still incarcerated in Missouri and away from his home in Indiana—he “stayed” in the jurisdiction that refused to recognize his humanity.
But do these three mentions of “he” need to refer to the same person? There’s a simpler, happy love story available to us if we relax our understanding of how pronouns operate, and allow the “he” who left and the “he” who stayed to be two men with love between them. Hookup apps are a key element of Smith’s erotics—the poem that follows “a note on Vaseline” is titled “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths”—and in this poem, Smith seems to suggest that Johnson’s charges result from an imaginative failure about the experience of using these apps. The justice system (and some of Johnson’s partners) were unable to see the broadcasting of an available black self as an act of love—but the poem does.
This is poetry as “a middle zone between the news and prayer,” as the literary scholar Jahan Ramazani has put it: poetry that comments on the world and at the same time bends language to hope for the possibility of another. Its complexity is sustaining, giving us something to think about that changes as we think about it, and as we hope for conditions to change. Sometimes this reverberates beyond poetics: Since Don’t Call Us Dead was released, Michael Johnson successfully appealed his conviction and accepted an Alford plea that will hopefully see him released by the end of next year. I will remember “—a love story—” after he is free.
It might seem obvious that a poet should want to write powerfully and intricately, and also in a way that is easily remembered. (For all their other pleasures, rhyme and meter facilitate memorization.) But what makes Smith’s poems distinctive is that they embrace the full range of the lyric’s power for speaking with the reader without sacrificing political specificity or urgency.
In contemporary radical poetics, the tendency is to write for the page. As the material object that contains the poems, the book has become a kind of talisman for the aesthetics of dissent. Think about how frequently the cover of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, featuring David Hammons’s sculpture In the Hood (1993), is invoked as a metonym for the power of her words. Certainly Rankine has written memorable phrases—“because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying”—but when I want to talk about reading Citizen, it’s easier to convey the feeling of reading it than it is to recall lines or verses with accuracy. Indeed, these signal lines stand out from the rest of the collection because they are lineated, whereas much of Citizen is written is prose paragraphs. I’m not trying to say that Smith succeeds where Rankine doesn’t—her work is incredible and precise, and uses its paratextual and grammatical complexity to provoke sympathetic yet inattentive readers—but it’s hard for me to imagine someone walking around reciting Rankine and then suddenly tumbling into a new interpretation. When these epiphanies happen, her book is open in front of us; whereas, the ease with which lines from Don’t Call Us Dead leap into memory encourages an almost unconscious consideration. In doing so, Smith suggests a very different relationship between the lyric and society.
Jonathan Culler has been at the forefront of recent debates about lyric poetry, and has argued that the poem’s relationship with the reader’s memory is too often ignored in favor of what it might say. He ends his Theory of the Lyric (2015) with a series of explorations into the ideological power of lyric poems, and at the same time acknowledges the difficulty of creating a programmatic interpretation without a sense of how the poems have circulated. “Lyric language doubtless works subliminally, and much of its social efficacy may depend on its ability to embed itself in the mind of readers,” Culler writes. With only the written poem as a referent, it is hard to confidently assess its power as an articulation of protest. But when I saw Smith perform for a second time, headlining an open mic at the Bowery Poetry Club, it seemed clear that this circulation is already under way, and that Smith’s work is uniquely suited to it. Audience members spoke the lines of unpublished poems along with the poet, including one striking tautology credited to Smith’s late friend Andrew: “Friendship is so friendship.”
What often seems to be at stake, for Smith, is poetry’s role as an unstable container of “memory,” “memorial,” and the “memorable.” Each word indicates a transfer between the past and the present, but the way that the individual is placed in between these temporal modes shifts in each understanding and, consequently, shifts the poem’s responsibility. Is the individual holding on to something they experienced, participating in an act of collective commemoration (which might not accurately reflect their experience), or considering the elements of an experience that lends itself to becoming memory?
“every day is a funeral & a miracle” exists at this intersection. It describes talking about your HIV status with your family underneath the specter of state murder and, in one passage, alternates between the names of people who have been shot by police and the names of organs that are prone to HIV-related failure:
today, Tamir Rice
tomorrow, my liver
today, Rekia Boyd
tomorrow, the kidneys,
today, John Crawford
tomorrow, my lungs
some of us are killed
in pieces, some of us all at once
Smith often writes about the bare facts of their life, but always with an understanding that they are not uniquely in possession of these facts and are not alone. In fact, this poem seems to oppose the too-easy assumption that it is simply autobiographical. We see this in the shift from “my liver” to “the kidneys,” an opening that allows someone else’s body to enter the poem. This is significant to the embedding process that Culler mentions, as the specificity of the experiences described nevertheless invites a host of everyday traumas and struggles to be understood within the context of those recurring names and body parts.
The alternating references bring into question the ways that loss is felt and recorded as poetry. Where we might ask how an elegy changes when it can spring to mind unbidden, Smith is already ahead of us, demonstrating that these names function similarly. The line “today, Tamir Rice” recalls the moment of being overtaken by grief as much as it refers to November 22, 2014. We are used to thinking about time as linear, punctuated by monumental events. We are also used to thinking about time as cyclical, alternating between periods of growth and pain. But what Smith pursues throughout Don’t Call Us Dead is the way that anti-black and anti-LGBTQ violence restructure time to feel linear and cyclical at once. This is, perhaps, why the poet’s most conventionally lyrical passages also feel the most groundbreaking, and it’s what makes the future of Smith’s work so exciting—not just the books to come, but the way that the poems we have now will shape discussions of blackness and queerness, violence and history. These poems are too supple to become monuments and too deeply felt to become routinized, and I don’t think they are finished working on us.
At the same time, Smith is looking elsewhere. The poet has said that Don’t Call Us Dead began as two separate books—one about HIV and queerness, and another about America and “the fucked-up shit white people do to black people”—but the force of the collection comes from the collision of these investments, which often erupt into alternative histories. The sci-fi-inflected “dear white america” begins, “i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets.” But in most cases, Smith has an eye on a relationship with the environment and how other societies can be made, adopting the rhetorical tics of the fable while doing so. The poem “seroconversion,” which refers to the period between a virus’s transmission and its detectability, features princesses and gods and “dirt singing his name,” providing a patchwork mythology for the interstice that is invisible to medical understanding.
Smith’s (literally) “fabulous” voice is most effective in the book’s long opening poem. “summer, somewhere” sketches an afterlife for black boys that is really a beforelife, an existence outside of white supremacy. Smith uses page breaks to emphasize the two grammars of this poem, one offering varying descriptions of this “somewhere,” while the other speaks to the absent (“dear air where you used to be,” or “dear dear / my most distant love—”). The overall impression is that the poem is narrated by an expatriate, someone who was once “somewhere” and is now here, sending messages back while reporting to us that there is another place:
paradise is a world where everything
is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.
here, if it grows it knows its place
in history. yesterday, a poplar
told me of old forest
heavy with fruits i’d call uncle
bursting red pulp & set afire
harvest of dark wind chimes.
after i fell from its limb
it bandaged me in sap.
This is one of the most volatile sections of Don’t Call Us Dead, in which Smith raises the specter of lynching as the necessary distinction between “somewhere” and where we are, while reintroducing a metaphorical logic that I can only describe as pastoral. So what does it mean that “i” falls from a “limb” and is restored by the forest itself?
I want to say that it means that Smith is imagining this fable out of material facts and daring us to make it real. I want to say that it means that there is something around us worthy of our hope, not only in people, but in the manifold forms of life and their relations. But our own rootedness in the past—“here, if it grows it knows its place / in history”—explains why change has been so slow and difficult.
In such passages, Smith sends me back to Countee Cullen, who was frustrated by poetry’s limited ability to turn into political action. Cullen ends “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song” by asking-not-asking: “Now will the poets sing. / But they have raised no cry. / I wonder why.” In Smith, perhaps, that cry will finally rise. Who will respond?