Graywolf Press, 84 pages, $16
Early in Homie, a new poetry collection by Danez Smith, I encountered a form I’d never seen before.
The poem, titled “how many of us have them,” follows two boys (“yes, black — on bikes — also black”) as they tease each other, affectionately hurling abuse back and forth. The first stanza is one line. The second one, two. The poem keeps building this way; each stanza growing by one line until we arrive at the last one, 12 lines long.
Smith calls this form a “dozen,” referring to “the dozens,” the insult game the boys are playing, as well as the number of stanzas in the poem.
I’d like to invent or order up new adjectives to describe the startling originality and ambition of Smith’s work. I’d like to unwrap some brand-new words, oddly pronged words, to convey their wary intelligence and open heart. Instead, I can only yoke together antonyms to convey anything of their particular vibration: their joy-dread, hunger-contentment, holy-profanity. These poems emerge from places of paradox and are animated by the spirit of the dozens, where deep love can be best conveyed through imaginative insult.
Smith is among the most acclaimed young poets of their generation. (Smith uses gender-neutral pronouns.) Their previous book, Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, is haunted by the stories of black men slain by police and by Smith’s HIV diagnosis, at age 24. An early disclaimer in Smith’s book [insert] Boy (2014) reads: “I am sorry I have no happy poems.”
The radiance of Homie arrives like a shock, like found money, like a flower fighting through concrete. It is a paean to friendship — “that first & cleanest love”; a hosanna to those “friend-drunk” boys on their bikes and the companions who sustain Smith, who have kept despair and suicide at bay. They are “tish & blaire/& josh & jamila & cam & aaron & nate.” They are fellow poets, including Angel Nafis, Morgan Parker, Hanif Abdurraqib, Eve Ewing, Saeed Jones — all those “whose names burst my heart/to joyful smithereens.”
The circle of beloveds widens, to include the living and the dead. In “gay cancer,” Smith addresses the poets — including Melvin Dixon and Essex Hemphill — who have died of HIV/AIDS (“my wrist to my ear/you’re here”). The circle expands to include strangers, whole communities. In “my president,” the poet hovers over the city, all-seeing, all-praising: “i sing your names/sing your names/your names/my mighty anthem.” Smith offers benedictions to the “nurse’s swollen feet/& the braider’s exhausted hands,” the rabbi and the bartender; the “boys outside walgreens selling candy/for a possibly fictional basketball team”; “the dude at the pizza spot who will give you a free slice/if you are down to wait for him to finish the day’s fourth prayer.”
These poems do not merely exalt friendship; they also explore its darker corners, the terrors of being unmasked and truly known. “I saw it,” Smith writes in “I didn’t like you when i met you.” “The way you would break me/into a better me. I ran from it. like any child, I saw my medicine/& it looked so sharp, so exact, a blade fit to the curve of my name.” Bonds can be burdens: “I want to say something without saying it/but there’s no time. I’m waiting for a few folks/I love dearly to die so I can be myself./please don’t make me say who.”
Each poem feels like a maze designed to take the poet and the reader to some new destination, some new understanding. Smith applies shocks to the language, twists tenses at will. Nouns spring into verbs. Mothers “miracle” the rice, happy voices “fat the air.” The word “poem” becomes an act of force: “I poem a nazi I went to college with in the jaw until his face hangs a bone tambourine,” they write.
Smith got their start in spoken word, and their work has always retained the intimacy and directness of performance. In Homie, that awareness of the audience tips into fraught, interesting terrain.
In “old confession & new,” Smith writes:
that which hasn’t killed you yet can pay the rentif you play it right. keep it really real
my blood brings me closer to deathtalking about it has bought me new bootsa summer’s worth of car notes, organic everything.
There’s an echo of Lucille Clifton (“come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed”), but the poem veers away from a declaration of survival to explore more complicated terrain. What does it mean to make a living by recounting one’s trauma? What pressures inhibit the creative freedom of black artists? What are the contours of so-called black art or queer art? Who decides?
This is a book full of the turbulence of thought and desire, piloted by a writer who never loses their way. That compass — provided by friends, influences, collaborators — stays steady. “I need no savior,” Smith writes, “but their love.”