STARRED REVIEW
September 05, 2017

Poetry like a phoenix

By Danez Smith
Review by

Vivid, unsettling and uplifting all at once, the second full-length from award-winning poet Danez Smith (Don’t Call Us Dead) is part elegy, part celebration and part poetry-as-witness. Smith is a black, queer, HIV-positive poet, and these are the poems of a person not only navigating their complex place in the world, but dictating it firmly and without recourse to everyone in earshot. 

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Vivid, unsettling and uplifting all at once, the second full-length from award-winning poet Danez Smith is part elegy, part celebration and part poetry-as-witness. Smith is a black, queer, HIV-positive poet, and these are the poems of a person not only navigating their complex place in the world, but dictating it firmly and without recourse to everyone in earshot. 

Smith is a poet famous for fiery performances—their reading of “Dear White America,” a poem included in this book, has racked up more than 300,000 views on YouTube—and their passionate confidence bursts through the seams of these poems, whose subjects range from police brutality, to the complexities of queer eroticism, to the very experience of living in a country tha threatens the lives of queer people of color daily.

Formally, the poems are deft with couplets and tightly-controlled stanzas, stringing together visceral imagery (“the bloodfat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir”) and direct, politically-charged constructions (“i’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news. / i’m the kind that grows thinner & thinner & thinner / until the light outweighs us”) while always obliged to the music of the phrase. 

Smith often employs the serialized poem to contain massive and complex subjects, and these longer works prove to be the most powerful and gut-wrenching moments of the book. This is especially true of the opening poem “summer, somewhere” which imagines an afterlife for those killed by police brutality, a place “where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is gun.” 

Not content to merely allow us to play witness to the horrors of oppression, Smith’s poems pull us into it; they brim with blood, violence, aches and broken bodies. But there is humor, too, and hope, and it’s this hope that elevates the book to its crucial contemporary importance: “but today i’m alive, which is to say / i survived yesterday, spent it ducking bullets, some / flying toward me & some / trying to rip their way out.” 

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Don’t Call Us Dead

Don’t Call Us Dead

By Danez Smith
Graywolf
ISBN 9781555977856

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