Don't Call Us Dead

reviewed by Stephanie Burt

Danez Smith has become one of a generation’s most noticed poets, and for good reason: at once a stunning performer and a tersely effective arranger of words on the page, Smith can address the Black Lives Matter movement, the erasure of black humanity by malign police, and then pivot to vivid, sexy, or scary records from a complex queer sexuality. What held for Smith’s debut [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014) still holds for this longer second effort, whose most quotable poems address murderous institutional racism: “dear white america….i can’t stand your ground.” Much of the collection responds, in addition, to Smith’s diagnosis with HIV. “[I’m] not the kind of black man who dies on the news,” Smith muses. “[I’m] the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner.” Smith’s status as a vulnerable exception, as questing hero and public victim, may be the most American thing about the poet, whose images land hard, connecting us to blackness and queerness and vulnerability across a broad map: “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe?” As varied in form—with concrete poems, hyperextended long lines, and cough-like fragments—as it is relentless in its topics, the pages recall slightly older poets of queer and of African American liberation, from Douglas Kearney to D. A. Powell. At this point, though, informed readers should be able to recognize Smith from a mile away; few will forget what Smith lets us see and hear.

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2017.