BOOK REVIEW: Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

If anger is an energy, then so is love.

This collection, a much-lauded finalist for the American National Book Award, comes fizzing with both. The author, Danez Smith, is a vibrant young black poet whose writing flows most often between tender, elegiac confessionals and the incantatory charge of the performance pieces for which he is perhaps best known. His preoccupations are the uses and abuses of the black body, sexual identity, persecution and infection. Though this is a haunted work, it resonates with ecstatic energy.

The opening sequence, ‘Summer, Somewhere’ perfectly expresses the range of the collection. By turns a fantasy, memorial and cathartic burst of nostalgia, it cartwheels across a wild landscape of memory, a place where ‘if snow fell, it’d fall black’. The margins of this landscape are haunted by the shades of boys ‘who never got to grow up’, and the recurrence of bullets and badges serves as a reminder of the real world’s violent incursions. Written mostly in freewheeling couplets, it is a perfectly balanced opener and gives the first intimation of the gut-stirring words to come.

Smith’s writing runs on repetitions and loops and yet he shifts tones with care and ease. ‘Dear White America’ is a breathless plea which then becomes a rant, a dream and ends in images of a utopia without punishment. ‘It began right here’ starts out as a lustful love song, one with echoes of Ginsberg at his most hungry, and ends with images of houses ‘swollen with the dead’. Elsewhere, Smith is more playful. ‘Blood Hangover’ reconfigures an old Diana Ross track with malign intent, while ‘Dinosaurs in the Hood’ outlines a black cinema stripped of stereotypes, in which ‘a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl’ and ‘no-one kills the black boy’.

Those who come this book hoping to be moved will not be disappointed. It is agile and fluid and thoroughly engaged, in its own very personal way, with what it means to be living in the immediate present.

Don’t Call Us Dead is published by Chatto & Windus and is available to purchase here.

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Danez Smith

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Danez Smith’s debut poetry collection, [insert] boy, won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Smith has received fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and has published poems in Granta, Poetry and The Best American Poetry. Smith lives in Minneapolis.

Reviewed by Nick Garrard

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