Danez Smith ’s prose poem ‘Dear White America’, published in Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), brought Allen Ginsberg’s ‘America’ into the present and gave it a more urgent register: ‘we did not build your prisons (though we did & we fill them too). we did not ask to be part of your America … i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave.’ In the poem the rejection of white America becomes a rejection of life on Earth; only a fantasy of intergalactic escape can free the narrator from the history and daily reality of being Black in America:
i’ve left Earth & i am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. 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
this if only this one, is ours.
Don’t Call Us Dead brought Smith, who was born in St Paul, Minnesota, mainstream success. But it put them (Smith uses the non-gendered pronoun) in the difficult position of having profited from a book explicitly about Black suffering. ‘These poems are not the poems any poet wished to have so widely relevant,’ Smith said in 2014, ‘because I want the systematic murder of black people to end.’ It was impossible to escape the tendency of critics – and many readers – to think of the work as ‘protest poetry’: a reductive account of Black aesthetics as a form of commentary. Smith currently lives in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was choked to death earlier this year.
The response to Don’t Call Us Dead became a conceptual challenge for Smith as they prepared their new collection, Homie. How do you write against your audience, an audience that celebrates your work but interprets it narrowly? The title on the cover, Homie, is for this audience; for Smith’s publishers; and for the publishing industry in general. The real title is concealed inside: ‘this book was titled homie because i don’t want non-black people to say my nig.’ my nig, the hidden book, is for another readership – Smith’s Black and queer friends, both living and dead. But the title my nig also suggests something else. Harryette Mullen, in her poem ‘Denigration’ from 2002, illustrates the seemingly inescapable racism of the English language through wordplay on the morphemes ‘nig’ and ‘neg’:
Though maroons, who were unruly Africans … were called renegades in Spanish, will I turn any blacker if I renege on this deal?
While the 'neg’ in renegades’ has no etymological relation to the word ’negro’ – in Mullen’s poem it’s the Spanish equivalent of ‘maroons' (the name given to runaway slaves who lived in hidden communities) – it cannot escape the racial connotation. Homie is also informed by the work of the poet Fred Moten and the theorist Stefano Harney, particularly their notion of the ‘undercommons’, a way of existing in institutional life – the academy, the publishing world, journalism – without being mediated by it. It is a ‘dislocation’, Harney says, ‘and it always makes people feel a little uncomfortable about the commons.’ Smith knows they have an audience of earnest white readers but refuses fully to accommodate it. If it’s not for you, you’re supposed to feel uncomfortable.
Much of Smith’s early success came through the slam poetry scene, and their ability to perform has proved crucial. When writers discussed pay disparities between Black and white authors under the hashtag #publishingpaidme this June, Smith said that most of their income comes from touring. But Homie makes the case for Smith as a poet of the page. In ‘how many of us have them?’ Smith uses a self-invented form, the ‘dozen’, whose 12 stanzas increase in length, a line at a time, from one to 12. It is inspired by a game known as ‘the dozens’, where two participants publicly insult each other until one of them gives up. (Smith includes some of the inventive names they have been called in the course of the game: ‘gay wiz khalifa’ and ‘wayne brady’).
&, once, the mark of Buddha the year acne
scored my forehead with its bumpy faith.
o my niggas & my niggas who are not niggas
i been almost pissed myself, almost been boxin’
been tears & snot off your dozen wonders
been the giddy swine dancing the flame.
o my many hearts, y’all booty-faced
weird-ass ole-mojo-jojo-head asses
dusty chambers where my living dwells.
roast me! name me in the old ways, your shit talk
a river I wade, howling until it takes me
i can’t stop laughing, more river wades
down my throat. could be drowning
could be becoming the water, could be
a baptism from the inside out.
But in Homie, jokes can quickly turn cruel. In ‘jumped!’ the narrator is kicked and punched by a group of friends, an ambiguous assault that holds other sorts of violence at bay:
but what could be safer
than a circle of boys
too afraid of killing you
to kill you?
the fists that broke my ribs also wanted me to live.
In ‘rose’ the roles are reversed and the narrator becomes the perpetrator. Remembering the ‘kindergarten sweetheart’ they bullied, Smith writes that ‘at times I wake up in the/middle of the night & think/we killed that girl.’ In Homie, violence is always mentioned in the same breath as love. Friendship, as described in ‘what was said at the bus stop’, is the ground of solidarity and survival, offering bonds more powerful than family. But the same communities that afford the possibility of resistance, the categories that provide a political identity, can also limit the potential for systemic critique. In the face of persistent state violence, ‘i know sometimes/i can’t see beyond my own pain, past black/& white, how bullets love any flesh.’
Smith was raised in the Baptist church, but Homie’s congregations aren’t based in institutions. Instead they are made up from a community of ‘beloveds’: ‘everywhere you are is a church & I am the pastor, the deacons, the mothers/fainting at the altar/as long as I am a fact to you, death can do with me what she wants.’ There is no need for salvation or redemption, in this world or the next. But, at times, Smith still turns to the confessional mode. In ‘old confession & new’, a poem about the moral complexities of profiting from their HIV diagnosis, they write:
that which hasn’t killed you yet can pay the rent
my blood brings me closer to death
talking about it has bought me new boots
a summer’s worth of car notes, organic everything
Writing about one’s own experience of pain, illness or racialised violence attracts readers and a degree of commercial success – the small luxuries of new clothes and organic food. Smith is cynical about their participation in this process but unsure whether it is possible to write honestly about your own experience without it becoming a form of competitive self-abasement. (In his poem ‘Cakewalk’, Jericho Brown writes: ‘My man swears his HIV better than mine, that his has in it a little gold, something he can spend if he ever gets old.’)
In ‘the flower who bloomed thru the fence in grandmama’s yard’, Smith reaches further into the complicated relationship between Black writers and the publishing industry:
like niggas in Utah
grander for his quarantine
how white niggas looked at me sometimes
petaled nigga child special only because it is
divorced from the garden
hands plucking at my weedish bouquet
we love niggas we love niggas not
What the poet Phillip B. Williams has recently called the ‘seductive tokenism’ of the US poetry scene is here likened to the game effeuiller la marguerite (‘She loves me, she loves me not’). In Smith’s account, it is arbitrary which Black writers are published and which are not, and whether or not they get paid, but a degree of complicity also extends to the writer who, in an industry defined by whiteness, is made to feel special simply for being Black.
Jericho Brown , whom Smith cites as an early influence (‘I want [Homie] to do for others what Jericho Brown’s Please did for me’), was also raised in the Baptist church and his most recent collection, The Tradition, reads at times like biblical verse. Brown still attends church (the Spiritual Living Centre in Atlanta) but his poems counter the violence and homophobia associated with growing up in a devout Baptist household. Much of the first part (there are three sections) is dedicated to retellings of Greek mythology. ‘Ganymede’ portrays Zeus as a rapist and paedophile (much like Fiona Benson’s Zeus in Vertigo & Ghost), a sexual predator whose power is thinly veiled: ‘don’t you want God/To want you?’ At the end of the poem, Brown abandons the language of myth to speak directly about slavery: ‘No one has to convince us./The people of my country believe/We can’t be hurt if we can be bought.’ For Black Americans, as for Ganymede, the way to heaven, or in this case a promised land, is via violence and coercion.
‘Bullet Points’ addresses police killings of Black men directly, ridiculing the state’s attempts to portray them as accidents or suicides:
I will not shoot myself
In the head, and I will not shoot myself
In the back, and I will not hang myself
With a trashbag …
… I promise if you hear
Of me dead anywhere near
A cop, then that cop killed me.
But Brown acknowledges that these same forces do also drive Black men to suicide. ‘After Another Country’ is addressed to Rufus, the protagonist of James Baldwin’s novel. Brown follows him to the George Washington Bridge, where he eventually jumps to his death (or freedom): ‘and you leap/Dirty against the whiteness/Of the sky to your escape/Through the whiteness//Of the water.’ Whiteness is all-encompassing: it requires a leap into space – to the stars in Smith; to one’s death here – to escape it.
Brown’s most personal poems are also the most formally impressive. In the first of several poems in The Tradition titled ‘Duplex’ (the duplex, Brown’s invention, is a 14-line poem that combines the repetitive mode of the blues, the structure of a sonnet and the couplets of a ghazal), he writes that ‘a poem is a gesture toward home.’ Home, however, is not a refuge from violence but its earliest location:
My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Hit Hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
The formal enclosure – the first line (‘A poem is a gesture toward home’) is also the last – doesn’t tell the whole story. It reduces change and escape to a continuity: this is how it was, this is how it will always be. But this sentiment is countered by the penultimate line (‘None of the beaten end up how we began’). To write about the past isn’t to return to it, or to become it, but only to gesture towards it. There is also a reference here to Brown’s distant relationship with his deeply religious parents (‘Jericho Brown’ is a nom de plume, chosen to separate himself from his father’s surname), and his attempt to construct an alternative sense of belonging out of poetry. Writing introduces a different set of limitations – ‘It makes dark demands I call my own’ – but at least these are of the poet’s own choosing.
In Brown’s writing, the violence that masquerades as love is enacted by the father but also by the lover. The second duplex in the book is a reflection on this dynamic (‘men roam shirtless as if none ever hurt me … In truth, one hurt me’) and the conflicting emotions it provokes: ‘I want to obliterate the flowered field,/To obliterate my need for the field’. Similarly, in ‘Night Shift’ he writes: ‘I’d oblige because he hurt me/With a violence I mistook for desire.’ In ‘Trojan’, a reference both to Troy and to the brand of condoms, Brown compares a sexual but loveless relationship to that of Achilles and Patroclus. Neither man is ‘willing to kill’ but the relationship is nevertheless figured as a ‘war bodies wage/To prove the border/Between them isn’t real’.
Brown frequently evokes the flower as a metaphor for Black men whose lives have been cut short by the police. The title poem of The Tradition begins with a list – ‘Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium’ – and describes Brown and his friends speeding up film footage of growing plants ‘for proof we existed’. But ‘Where the world ends, everything cut down’, the flowers become names: ‘John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown’. Although the collection’s title clearly refers to America’s tradition of racial violence, it also invokes another, less well-known poetic tradition, Black nature writing – which, as Evie Shockley writes in Renegade Poetics (2011), has often been erased or marginalised. In ‘The Trees’, a poem dedicated to the three myrtles in Brown’s front garden, we see traces of Anne Spencer and Ed Roberson, writers who made the garden and the wilderness their main subject and who defy the clichéd conception of Blackness as expressive or loud. This tradition continues and finds new forms. The poet Ross Gay responded to the death of Eric Garner by writing about Garner’s work as a horticulturalist for New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation. In his poem ‘A Small Needful Fact’, Garner’s ‘large hands’ are not ‘threatening’ or ‘scary’. They are generative, fostering new life, helping us to breathe.