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Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith review – hope in resistance and rebirth

Danez Smith … Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

In addressing US national identity and collectivism, Danez Smith (who goes by the gender-neutral pronoun “they”) echoes the plural, expanded lyric voices of poets such as Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes. Like Smith’s prize-winning debut collection, [insert] boy, their follow-up Don’t Call Us Dead excoriates America for its violence towards citizens outside a white heterosexual majority. But whereas Ginsberg resolved finally, if reluctantly, in his poem “America” to put his “queer shoulder to the wheel” of the American project, Smith declares it dead. In the apocalyptic age of Trump, a man who “has no words / & hair beyond simile”, Smith prophesies an end from which a new beginning might spring.

Throughout Don’t Call Us Dead, hope appears as a form of resistance and rebirth. The book opens with the poem “summer, somewhere”, which imagines a utopia where young black victims of police killings are resurrected in a parallel season: “history is what it is. it knows what it did./ bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy // colour of a July well spent. but here, not earth / not heaven, we can’t recall our white shirts // turned ruby gowns. here, there’s no language / for officer or law, no color to call white. // if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better.”

The poem is an extended sequence, a dream-like vision of “unfuneraling” black boys caught up in the US’s insatiable gun battle with itself. Here we find anguish for lives severed in their prime, for the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, in the summer of 2013 and the resulting formation of Black Lives Matter, as well as the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown during the following summer. Smith’s precise imagery is etched by an ear accustomed to live performance, “trapgod hymn”, “bonefleshed men”, “red dirge”, “skin casket”. The results are tremendously moving, an exalting and longed-for acknowledgement of historical pain. Smith’s plea, “call us alive”, resonates elsewhere with an insistence on naming, and the knowledge that whoever is speaking retains power over language.

Black and queer bodies respond to an amplifying nativist rhetoric at several points in Smith’s book, not least in the provocative and hugely popular “dear white america”.

i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. 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!

Demonstration in support of Tamir Rice
Demonstration in support of Tamir Rice Photograph: Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports

Depending on how one racially or politically identifies in Smith’s “white america”, the anger that boils over here into unbroken exasperated lines is either legitimate or not. The supposedly well-intentioned ignorance of white Americans who “just don’t see race”, or the wilful hatred of others who do, breeds an endemically racist state. Across these fractures, kinship develops as a means of survival. Even the word “boy”, sometimes “boi”, is heavily loaded with either associations of love or denigration depending on who does the calling and their skin colour. The poem “dream where every black person is standing by the ocean” is perhaps the most hopeful in the collection. The ocean, a burial ground for victims of the transatlantic slave trade, connects the assembled black audience to their ancestors through water, which stands in here for blood and memory: “& then one woman, skin dark as all of us / walks to the water’s lip, shouts Emmett, spits / &, surely, a boy begins / crawling his way to shore.

Blood may be the physical image that connects all types of violence in Don’t Call Us Dead, but it is also the route to commemoration and love. In “litany with blood all over”, Smith writes about being diagnosed as HIV positive, a subject they return to several times in the context of violence and its links to desire. A crown of sonnets recounts the metamorphosis of blood during viral contamination, deploying symbolism on a par with Grimms’ fairytales. A line from Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” intercuts a meditation on childlessness and loss. The poem concludes with a typographical spilling and mixing of “his blood” and “my blood” on the page as a visual experiment borrowed from concrete poetry. Married by disease and carrying the infertile seed of death, the poet and their lover turn a “bloodwedding” into a “bloodfuneral”.

Elsewhere, in “every day is a funeral & a miracle”, Smith brings the book’s many recurring strands of violence (including national, physical, spiritual) into dialogue with one another. Comparing the high-profile extrajudicial killings of Tamir Rice and Rekia Boyd with a piecemeal death by organ failure, they write “some of us are killed / in pieces, some of us all at once”. Smith’s ability to look death squarely in the eye and seize from it language that is fertile with myth, beauty and intellect is astonishing. The poem, with its generosity and dark humour, forms the collection’s thematic pivot on which any hope for national or personal redemption turns to face itself, speaks urgently for change. Smith deserves a willing and sympathetic audience, one that is already swiftly building, to hear it. But one also hopes this book reaches readers who will have the courage to acknowledge their arbitrary power and privilege. Who will be moved to do more than just listen, who will put their own shoulders to the wheel.

america might kill me before i get the chance.

my blood is in cahoots with the law.

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.

• Don’t Call Us Dead is published by Chatto & Windus. To order a copy for £9.34 (RRP £10.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

This article titled "Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith review – hope in resistance and rebirth" was written by Sandeep Parmar, for The Guardian on Friday 9 February 2018 07.30am

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