Don’t Call Us Dead
by Danez Smith
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
Somewhere among a juxtaposition of race, gender, sexuality, and physicality lies the transformative poetry of Danez Smith’s latest collection. Smith explores the topics that are most painful for our culture today—the subjects we like talking about the least, and illustrates them with a beauty that is both painful and transformative. Don’t Call Us Dead is both an evocative elegy to the fallen young black men of today and a painful editorial exposing what has taken them from us. Whether it be the senseless violence of the police or the scourge of HIV/AIDS, Smith isn’t afraid to give it a name. He writes in “Summer Sanctuary,” the opening poem, that “paradise is a world where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.”
I hesitated when I first read about this acclaimed volume of verse. I love the written word, but my thing is prose, and, in particular, the novel. I didn’t know if I had the knowledge it would take to review poetry, especially of this caliber. By the time I read the first page, however, I was a fan. Smith’s skill with words and in conveying emotion pulled me in. In this volume, a tribute to the beauty of men, their physicality and their vulnerability struck me. As a white man, the senselessness of police violence offends me deeply, and Smith’s commentary on HIV, disclosure, and the shameful way men treat each other on social apps pushes buttons for many of us. In writing about HIV/AIDS Smith proclaims that he himself isn’t likely to be killed by a bullet. Smith opines that “i’m the kind that grows thinner & thinner & thinner / until light outweighs us.” HIV, especially as it pertains to the black community, whose rates of transmission are much higher than the general population, is explored in haunting, but realistic analogy, “instead of getting tested / you take the blood to your palm / hold your ear to the wound” (“Fear of Needles”). This volume of work by one of the best young poets writing today deserves every accolade it receives.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he reviews books for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.