• Review: 2017 National Book Award for Poetry, Part II

    Spencer Hupp


    Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead opens with “summer, somewhere,” a long and remarkable protest elegy, where the twin preoccupations of lyric poetry, eros and tragedy, buckle under the fact of racial violence in the United States. Smith evokes a series of stolen summers, a chronicle of black youth in which childhood ends far too soon. Its “boys brown / as rye” live, play, and, too often, die at the hands of law enforcement, disease, or from suicide. This poem is both a prayer for the lost, a kaddish, and a spell, a desperate effort to bring the boys back home. (All spells, in most every culture, originate as verse.)

    Poetry, of course, cannot resurrect, but Smith’s attempt reveals something about this poem and the collection in general: it deals from the start with the recovery and possibility of innocence. Smith writes, “we say our own names when we pray. / we go out for sweets and we come back,” reminding the reader that Trayvon Martin, whose death more than six years ago forced many Americans to accept that black lives matter—or confront the fact that they hadn’t—was carrying neither a gun nor a knife but a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Fruit Punch when he was gunned down. Smith acknowledges Martin by name in the poem’s second section; the poem acts as his epitaph. He went out for sweets and never made it back.

    “summer, somewhere” therefore operates in two worlds, that of the living and that of the dead. Some of Smith’s “boys” are ghosts. They can be felt and heard, but not kept: “. . . grab a boy! spin him around! / if he asks for a kiss, kiss him. / if he asks where he is, say gone.” The word “boy,” which appears more than any other noun in the poem, remains a condescending catch-all for black males of any age and thus functions as a means of erasure, a denial of selfhood, a kind of death. Though certainly aware of this heritage, Smith’s usage is more akin to Shakespeare’s in the Sonnets. Where Shakespeare’s beloved is a “fair youth,” Smith’s is black youth itself, so often cut short, thus all the more precious. Smith also shares Shakespeare’s fondness for puns. Lines like “i was his fag sucked into ash” display the kind of biting, erotic irony Elizabethan poets reveled in. Sex and death have been twinned since Homer, and here Smith thus synthesizes three millennia of Western poetry. No mean feat.

    “summer, somewhere” takes up the first twenty or so pages of an otherwise uneven collection. “Litany with blood all over” ends with the words “my blood” and “his blood” overlapping at random, making the page dark with ink and evoking blood spatter—a graphical, post-modern solution to an intellectual problem, which seems, to me, gimmicky and cheap. The litany’s accumulative effect is matched by the minimalism in “fear of needles,” a poem of three lines: “instead of getting tested / you take a blade to your palm / hold your ear to the wound.” AIDS, like any other disease, is silent. The image brings to mind the old Buddhist kōan, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” We therefore imagine something sounding from the wound, that the wound and its subsequent self-diagnosis makes a kind of music somehow intelligible to the afflicted. This works as a kind of middle-shelf mysticism. Whether it works as poem is another question.

    Still, Smith’s verse has moments of incantatory power and frequent brilliance. “crown,” which approximates a demi-crown of sonnets, achieves a rare formal synthesis—eight well-ordered free verse poems of fourteen lines each. The sequence, perhaps unconsciously, evokes Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 45; Smith’s “& I, who is barely / me by now” so closely mirrors Sidney’s “I am not I; pitie the tale of me.” Where Sidney’s frustrations stem from love and the failures of art, Smith’s derive from identity. As a black genderqueer poet, Smith occupies a uniquely precarious position in the American landscape. The speaker becomes “barely me” because the world they inhabit would see them erased. However, unlike Sidney, Smith doesn’t grope for “pitie.” Instead, these poems attest to their speaker’s selfhood through images of a cycling life: milk, blood, sickness, rot, children, the sprouting of roots.

    Another poem, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” describes a hypothetical movie, a fantasia of inner-city living. “don’t let Tarantino direct this,” the speaker says, as “in his version the boy plays / with a gun, the metaphor: black boys play with their own lives / the foreshadow to his end, the spitting image of his father.” Instead, “the boy has a plastic brontosaurus or triceratops / & this is his proof of magic or God or Santa.” In film and television, as in letters, people of color are too often reduced to tropes representing systematic forces and institutionalized oppression (rather than individual experience) or stereotypes. These approaches generalize the lives of millions of Americans, and are essentially dehumanizing. Smith rejects such notions, allowing their character, this unnamed “boy,” a singular existence, granting him a childhood where God and magic are possible. To Smith, then, poetry is restorative, an act of recovery. Smith’s urgency comes from the legitimate risk that people of color, black youth especially, face in simply going about their lives. The poem ends on a checklist of what this hypothetical movie won’t be:

    . . . this can’t be
    a black movie. this can’t be a black movie. this movie can’t be dismissed

    because of its cast or its audience. this movie can’t be metaphor
    for black people & extinction. This movie can’t be about race.
    this movie can’t be about black pain or cause black pain.
    this movie can’t be about a long history of having a history with hurt.
    this movie can’t be about race. nobody can say nigga in this movie

    who can’t say it to my face in public. no chicken jokes in this movie.
    no bullet holes in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills
    the black boy. & no one kills the black boy. besides, the only reason
    I want to make this is for the first scene anyway: little black boy
    on the bus with his toy dinosaur, his eyes wide & endless

                                                his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.

    The tragic potential in that repeated phrase, “& no one kills the black boy,” is countered by the assurance of the last three lines, the beautifully phrased and impossible notion that childhood wonder is endless—knowing, as the speaker must, that the boy will die somewhere offscreen. Violently, prematurely, or after a long and fulfilling life—it doesn’t matter—Smith expresses what all readers of good faith would wish for the child: that he doesn’t become like us. While there is such a thing as protesting too much, this poem—indeed, the collection as a whole—is a desperate yet measured insistence on survival and the possibility of retaining some innocence in the face of life’s terrors.

    Spencer Hupp is a poet and critic from Little Rock, Arkansas. He currently lives in Baltimore and serves as a fellow in the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he took his MFA in 2022. Hupp was an assistant editor at the Sewanee Review from 2017 to 2020.

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