Monday, January 22, 2018

Book Review: "Don't Call Us Dead: Poems" by Danez Smith

After reading Rupi Kaur's gorgeous Milk and Honey (see my review), my first encounter with poetry in quite some time, I decided to delve a little deeper into the genre.

I picked up Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry in 2017. At turns searing, sensual, provocative, tragic, and evocative, Smith's collection is a potent commentary on race, sexuality, violence, prejudice, promiscuity, homophobia, AIDS, and death. Some of the poems absolutely took my breath away, and some painted immensely vivid pictures in my mind.
i know when the wind feels
as if it's made of hands

& i feel like i'm made of water
it's you trying to save me

from drowning in myself, but i can't
wed wind. i'm not water.
The above stanzas are from "summer, somewhere," an epic poem of sorts, which envisions an afterlife for young black men killed by police. It is emotional, anger-inducing, and tremendously thought-provoking, and Smith's language conveys both the peace and security this new world provides, while at the same time recognizing the tragedies that brought those to this place.
here, there's no language
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.
Other poems deal with men struggling to fight their sexuality, yet succumbing to promiscuity, to risky sex and furtive hookups that they know could doom them. The poem "bare," deals with taking that risk.
if love is a room
of broken glass, leave me to dance
until my feet are memory.
Smith's words are sometimes brutal, sometimes explicitly sexual, sometimes painful. This may not be a collection for everyone, but it should be, because it helped me think about the families left behind when their children are lost to violence, the men raised to be masculine but who struggle with embracing the reality of who they are, how those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS struggle with their mortality.

Not every poem worked for me, but those that did left me mesmerized. Smith is an absolutely incredible writer, and I'll definitely pick up another of his collections. This is poetry that may make you uncomfortable, but it dazzles at the same time.

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