Danez Smith’s follow-up to the National Book Award-nominated “Don’t Call Us Dead,” their third full-length poetry collection, functions as a series of praise poems for a specific audience. That audience is comprised of friends; not just any friend, but the type of friend who stands by you when things are terrible and when you celebrate. This is significant when we consider how there are so many poems that focus on trauma while very few people ask why trauma is compelling, and how do people survive on a day-to-day basis. There are times when friends are the only way to survive the ugliness of the world.
Ever since their first collection “[insert] boy,” it is clear that Smith does not shy away from the idiom of the love letter, but they do include people who have not been praised in the past. Smith also embraces using the n-word in a way that recalls A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga” from the group’s 1993 album “Midnight Marauders,” where Q-Tip explains that it’s “a term of endearment,” but it’s not a term that’s cast about carelessly or to everyone. Once that is clarified and why the collection’s actual title “my nig” is on the inner title page, readers can glean immediately where Smith is going with these poems. If that isn’t further underscored by the first two poems “my president” and “niggas!” then you may have already missed the point. The litany of names in “my president” are many people that Smith would find solace and leadership within, even if they are unlikely to ever hold public office. “niggas!” opens with a description of the two g’s in the word, but those same gs transform as a shout-out to elders, or o.g’s, that made Smith possible.
With each poem, we glimpse a life, whether it be black, queer, or an HIV-positive life, we are looking at a life, and how other people help us stay alive. “say it with your whole black mouth,” written in careful couplets that begin with “say it with your whole black mouth: i am innocent./& if you are not innocent, say this: i am worthy/of forgiveness, of breath after breath.” This is one way Smith approaches affirmation in poems like these and even the concluding poem “acknowledgments,” which is a series of one-line stanzas deliberately separated into short-short vignettes. “all the good dick lives in Brooklyn Park” operates by thinking about grief in slow motion, how some people don’t have access to healthcare or the pills that could keep them alive. “For Andrew” shifts in each section, and occupies the page differently once Smith marks part three as “for the dead homie.”
Even if these poems function as their own separate bodies, they commingle to offer a deep understanding of how friendship creates possibilities for survival, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Danez Smith will read from “Homie” with Britteney Black Rose Kapri at American Writers Museum on February 11, 2020 at 6:30pm.
By Danez Smith
Graywolf Press, 84 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.