I picked up Don’t Call Us Dead because of my ongoing goal to read a lot of queer voices across genres. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not just reading decisions; life decisions.
First, a story.
I’ll be the first to admit I can be a poetry skeptic. Sometimes I find poetry to be the self-important domain of the Too Cool. The poetry readings I went to in college — on the frigid snowy nights on that little island in Maine from which the tourists flee every fall, leaving behind them boarded windows, desolate streets, and the beautiful peace of a people-less winter — I attended mostly because there was nothing else to do. Sometimes I enjoyed the misplaced idealism of those spoken-word students, but mostly I found the cadence of the performances repetitive and grating; the content navel-gazing. Of course it takes guts to stand up and bare your heart to an audience, and I don’t want to judge those kids who were figuring themselves out, but those little exposures to poetry didn’t do much to endear me to the genre.
In 2018, though, I set some different, more ambitious goals. As the year wore on, and my body continued to betray my trust, I needed a different kind of food for my brain than its steady diet of endorphins and cold air filtered through lungs and pumping blood. Instead of chasing faster races, I chased broader reading. Inevitably, I would have to return to poetry if I wanted to be really inclusive.
Then I started volunteering for Seattle Arts and Lectures, writing bios for some of their speakers. In exchange for this work, I was gifted a pair of tickets to see Danez read as part of their poetry series. I had seen a lot of booktubers praising Don’t Call Us Dead, universally in fact, even ones who don’t tend to read a lot of poetry. So I got myself a copy, of which I managed to read ¾ by the night of the reading.
That day was a particularly difficult one. Work had been hard, my body was in pain, and my brain was in a dark place. Normally when that happens, I crawl into the safe little home I’ve made for myself in my apartment and I do not leave until the next day. But something brought me out that rainy December night. Somehow, I ended up at the venue despite myself.
I consider it fate, because the joy, pain, and electricity in that room was overwhelming in the best way. It quite literally saved my entire day and lifted my bruised heart to a more alive place. Lackluster college open mic it was not.
So, dear readers, here is my review of Don’t Call Us Dead, which also comes with the whole-hearted recommendation of seeing Danez Smith perform live if you get the chance (and/or watch clips on YouTube).
In their second poetry collection, queer non-binary writer Danez Smith takes a razor-sharp word-blade to identity and carves something gorgeous. Queer identity, Black-american identity, gender identity, and the beautiful uncategorizable identity of the heart are explored here. The writing is playful, gutting, funny and devastating all at once. In “summer, somewhere,” Smith writes:
the forest is a flock of boys
who never got to grow up
blooming into forever
afros like maple crowns
… how old am i? i’m today.
i’m as old as whatever light touches me.
… when i was born, i was born a bulle’s-eye
… dead is the safest i’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.
In one of my favorite poems, “a note on Vaseline,” masturbation and family/cultural history dovetail with grace and wit:
the endless tub of grease. it’s been the same
empty but not empty your whole life.
In another favorite of mine, “at the down-low house party,” Black boys speak, with words and body language, in code that veils their desires:
… we call him faggot meaning bravery
… faggot meaning i been waited ages to dance with you.
This, to me, is *so* beautiful. I cry every time I read it.
Finally, in “a note on the body,” Smith gives us a potent stanza that captures race, love, nature, fear, growth, and physicality in a few short lines:
your body still your body
your arms still wing
your mouth still a gun
you tragic, misfiring bird
I think I’ve said quite enough in this extra-long post, but if there’s one takeaway, let it be this: Sometimes even if you think you will dislike something, it could change your life for the better. Also, read this book.