Danez Smith’s “Don’t Call Us Dead” is an American Monument

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
88 pages, Paperback
Graywolf Press, 2017, $16

Reviewed by Sam Leon

Coming to fruition during a time when America is hungering for a combination of love, thought, and catharsis is Danez Smith’s second full-length collection, Don’t Call Us Dead. In eighty-two pages of poetry, Smith pulls together and hoists up a monument of their own. Don’t Call Us Dead is a written record of deep hope, a tribute to the body, a carved statue of queerness, a lasting evidence of America’s dark history, and a burial vault for black boys. With the same precision of punctuation and deliberateness of line breaks seen in [insert boy], Smith refines some huge ideas that were begun in their first collection and takes on the multi-faceted beast that is mortality.

The raw power with which commands language is incredible, providing the world with poems that are visually stunning and destined to produce healing. Smith’s poems aren’t just about something; they are doing something. Reading Smith is an energetic and dynamic experience, whereas in choosing a few lines that are achieving something particularly well, it’s inevitable that the reader finds another piece close in proximity that is achieving that thing in an even more interesting manner. That attention to motion, paired with the subjects of Smith’s poems and their fearless insights, make this collection a force that invites reckoning of many kinds.

Attempting to choose one piece from Don’t Call Us Dead that encapsulates Smith’s message will lead the reader down a rabbit hole of the best sort—maybe a mine is a better metaphor for this effect. Smith’s pages are ridden with diamond-like moments, moments that don’t compete with one another’s brightness, but come together to create something particularly intense. The poems beg for the reader to match them in action, luring one to enter the work chronologically, backward, and from all other existing directions.

Smith opens their book with a meditation on what a paradisiac afterlife may be like for black boys taken too early. In the poem “summer, somewhere”, which spans from page 3-22, boys play, dream, and are literally pulled from the earth. A portion reads:

this is how we are born: come morning
after we cypher/feast/hoop, we dig

a new one from the ground, take
him out his treebox, shake worms

from his braids. sometimes they’ll sing
a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)

The purposefulness of the poems that follow the first section are foreshadowed in “summer, somewhere,” which continues:

do you know what it’s like to live
on land that loves you back?

no need for geography
now, we safe everywhere.

point to whatever you please
& call it church, home, or sweet love.

paradise is a world where everything
is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

and even more directly:

dead is the safest I’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.

Smith continues their conversation about mortality by contemplating the body and not only its blackness, but its queerness and its sickness. The poems Smith writes about being HIV positive are visceral in a way that induces something beyond gut wrenching, maybe a heaving. The poem “crown” tells us:

my blood got jumped, ask him to wait
before he gives me the test results, give
me a moment of not knowing, sweet
piece of ignorance, i want to go back
to the question, sweet if of yesterday
bridge back to maybe, lord bring me
my old blood’s name, take away
the crown of red fruit sprouting
& rotting & sprouting & rotting.

From this passage and the rest of the poems that engage with HIV status, it’s difficult not to feel what seems like the odd and terrible reality of the body turning against itself—and even more confusingly, by way of an act of intimacy. Not only does Smith juxtapose this discussion of HIV and murder-by-police within the same book, they do so within the same page at times. In “every day is a funeral & a miracle” we get:

now, what
to do with my internal
inverse, just how
will I survive the little
cops running inside
my veins, hunting
white blood cells &
bang bang
I’m dead

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

//

do i think someone created AIDS?
maybe. i don’t doubt that
anything is possible in a place
where you can burn a body
with less outrage than a flag

From here, I can’t help but to bring Smith’s poignant, direct addresses to our country into light. Smith holds nothing back in “dear white america” where he shoves the twisted history that was created against black people into the face of the perpetrator by writing:

…you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race? because you made it that way! because you put an asterisk on my gorgeous sister’s face! call her pretty (for a black girl)!

and then Smith begins their dismantling and reclamation with:

…i’m giving the stars their right names. & this life, this new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shackle or silence or cheat or choke or cover up or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or ruin…

Toward the end of collection, in a poem that showcases their unique ability to work playfulness into seriousness and to place modern hip-hop references within the lines of formal poetry, Smith finishes the job started earlier in the book. In “you’re dead america” Smith states:

during the anthem
i hum “Niggas in Paris”

i cha cha slide over the flag
c-walk on occasion

and finally:

the bees are dying

the water poisons whole cities

but my honeyed kin

those brown folks who make

up the nation of my heart

only allegiance i stand for

realer than any god

for them i bury whatever

this country thought it was

Both Americans, both poets, Smith and I occupy different subject positions and interact with the world through different statuses, the clearest difference being our blackness and whiteness. These poems are what our country should be holding up and preserving. Within the pain of these pages, readers of color with also find friendship and hope. As a white reader, it is impossible to put this collection down without gaining a deepened awareness of the black experience and the role that power and color has played in robbing so many of our fellow Americans of joy and safety. From there, Smith’s book becomes a tool of societal transition, one text that gets us closer to achieving the belonging and security of “summer, somewhere” on American soil.

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