It’s National Poetry Month! This is an awesome month when we can read poetry, appreciate it, and learn from it.
Well, actually, every month is poetry month in my world.
So, I was actually reading two collection before poetry month and just finished one them in time for the celebrations. Danez Smith’s collection, “Don’t Call Us Dead” is unapologetically existing on bookshelves challenging what poetry is, what being black in America is and has become, and what being a gay, black man means — both the glory and the tragedy.
Frankly, when I was done reading this collection, I felt like I was sucker-punched into creating art. But I digress… here’s the summary thanks to the fine folks at Amazon.
Award-winning poet Danez Smith is a groundbreaking force, celebrated for deft lyrics, urgent subjects, and performative power. Don’t Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality—the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood—and a diagnosis of HIV positive. “Some of us are killed / in pieces,” Smith writes, “some of us all at once.” Don’t Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America—“Dear White America”—where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.
The metaphor of death — sometimes literal–is weaved all through this collection. There is death in places that are sweet and nostalgic. For example, in the poem summer, somewhere some of the lines beat like an exposed nerve.
“history is what it is. it know what it did./bad dog/ bad blood. bad day to be a boy/color of a July well spent. but here, not earth, /not heaven, we can’t recall our white shirts turned ruby gowns.”
The poem continues into the collection’s title.
“if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call/us dead, call us alive someplace better.”
The images here between heaven and death are visceral–the white of snow turning black, the darkness of a sort of purity or the pieces of black that fall from the perviously fallen. The ruby of gowns, stained from white. Black and red and white all interlocked into a vicious circle. From white comes red and the falling of black, previous historical sins coming to reclaim the earth, even if for a moment. But the death in this case means “alive someplace better.” So it is really death or a reclaiming?
These lines have much to unpack. Smith does this often and it’s easy to read over the mastery of what is on the page. This is most true when Smith writes about being gay and black, a taboo. Smith plays with the idea of purity not only visually but with allusion as well.
In 1 in 2, Smith starts the poem with a CDC report about HIV and the statistics for black men. The news of the disease was as devastating as the statistic.
“you went in for /a routine test and they told you what you were made of:/-honey spoiled into mead/-lemon mold/-broken proofs/-traffic tickets/-unindentified shard/-a shy, red moon/-a book of antonyms/-the book of job/-a lost child unaware of its name/you knew it would come to this, but then it actually came.”
The order of the list here is telling; it starts with something sweet and ordinarily pure like honey and it’s turned counterpart – mead. Moldy lemon is next, with the item turning from bright, optimistic yellow to a dark moldy, shriveled thing. The list continues through various “sins” like traffic tickets and the outcomes of battles like “unidentified shard”. The reader finally lands on the allusion, the Book of Job, the most poetic book in the Bible, a work of purity in some circles. The theme of Job is divine justice and asks why do the righteous of humanity suffer. And so again he plays with purity — everything was great until it wasn’t. I was fine and okay and without fault until the news came, and now I am to suffer.
Smith, in just these lines asks “why” but alas it’s been answered with statistic, “1 in 2 “black men who have sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.”
And again, is this a death or a reclaiming?
There was so much in this book that I eventually stopped highlighting passages and defaulted highlighting titles to entire poems. Seriously guys, this collection is a much welcomed kick in the head for any poet and reader. This is one collection I will be returning to if only to unlock further mysteries.
My favorite poem is “dream where every black person is standing by the ocean”. While it’s the final one in this heavy collection, Smith manages to uplift and give hope. But I won’t steal Smith’s thunder. You can read it here.