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.”