by TAYLOR ROBERTS
Danez Smith, Homie (Graywolf Press, 2020), pp. 104.
I remember getting a copy of Danez Smith’s 2017 Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems (Graywolf Press) from the Raleigh, North Carolina bookstore Quail Ridge Books and opening my copy late at night, bending the spine rather sharply, and having a folded pink-sticky note ready as a makeshift bookmark for when I would be too tired to continue. I would not need that pink slip; I would not even think about letting the book’s spine go back to a moment before its crease. A searing portrait of what it means to have a country, your country against you if you are black, brown, queer, or trans, Smith wields together the collective ways bodies in America endure and do not always survive. Poems about what it means to be on both sides of HIV- and HIV+, Smith harrowingly details what it means to grieve and love when one’s individual and communal body is always temporarily here. Yet, through all the scorching pain, I remember through the brimming of tears, having to hold back laughs and just let them out because, yes, one can cry and laugh in the same moment. Smith recognizes that writing must not encompass one singular feeling or experience but embody the countless and unnamed ways one reads through and with language.
Smith’s Homie is a collection that enthralls and comes both loudly and quietly to its reader. Smith stylishly weaves together poems grappling with black love, black pain, and black friendship. Smith is a songstress for a moment when one of the toughest calls for action for any poet is to be tender. Homie lays claim to language; repossessing the master’s weapons, making light in the cracks caused by what language can do to a body. Smith’s poems are communal, a reflection of what it means to be homies in the revolution; homies opposing systemic violence; homies coming to claim their bodies; and homies in and through love.
Smith writes about their people, for their people. In newly imagined realities, there are new presidents: “today i elect Johnathan, eleven and already making roads out of water… / i trust the world in his tender blooming hands, i trust him to tell us which rivers are safe to drink & which hold fish like a promise” (“my president”). This current moment within Homie is not so much reinvented as it is reimagined. Attention to the intimacies of the everyday, Smith draws on the appeal of what goes unchecked: “faces screwed up with that first & cleanest love / we forget to name as such…” (“how many of us have them?”). Earlier in the same poem, Smith’s speaker calls attention to the spectacularly triumphant moment of having a front row seat to black joy: “…but i have just seen two boys—yes, black—on bikes—also black– / basketball shorts & they outside shoes, wild / laughing ‘bout something i couldn’t hear.”
Mixed with the comic and joyous, Homie inhabits the intricacies of loss and expectation. The dually complex and arguably the poem I still visit most often, “self-portrait as a ‘90s R&B video” must be read with “Ex-Factor” by Lauryn Hill and “You’re Makin Me High” by Toni Braxton playing in the background. At once sentimental: “my man is more concept than anything. / at dinner i watch red-pepper soup spill onto his powder-blue button-down / & ask, why don’t you love me anymore?”, while Smith transitions abruptly like a three minute and thirty-second music video, with imagery straight from Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable:” “my girls come over / & we light his suits to spark our spliffs.” These lines can be read as liberatory but packed right their in the middle is the brimming of loneliness, what to do with all the empty space one has with no one to fill it with: “my best bitch tells me i need to get over him, say he don’t / even exist, but what she know? i have all this house to walk through, all these gowns to cry / on, all these windows to watch the rain.” I cannot escape—nor do I want to—the intimacy attached to four feet once walking down the hallway and now being reduced to two. I think about what it means to hear the rain, see a pink sky beginning to make its way through white-grey puffy clouds and turn over your shoulder and remember that a significant other isn’t there to relish in that experience with you.
One way to describe Smith’s collection is present. “say it with your whole black mouth” brings to life Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the countless other innocently murdered black folxs: “say it with your whole black mouth: i am innocent. & if you are not innocent, say this: i am worthy of forgiveness, of breath after breath.” Smith’s voice is drenched with protest, no longer willing to conceive of a reality where black bodies are expected to comply and resist: “o my people / how long will we / reach for God / instead of something / sharper?” Collective resistance does not have one form, and even Smith isn’t exactly sure of what those other forms look like: “here, standing in my own body, i say: next time / they murder us for the crime of their imaginations / i don’t know what i’ll do.” The choice to go home, sleep in one’s bed, or see one’s loved one’s is not determined by whether or not a person complies or resists, instead, whether or not that officer or person is willing to show restraint and humanity; a restraint and humanity in seeing a person as worth forgiveness and more than the imagination.
Maybe that much power, that much influence to decide who lives and dies should never be relegated and enforced by any set of individuals. Smith knows this type of future is possible because their people have been showing restraint and humanity for generations: “so many white people are alive / because we know how to control ourselves.” There is one question that lingers when one closes Smith’s poetry collection: are you willing to turn to your homies, neighbors, community members, loved ones and ask them what are they doing to protect, love, and uplift those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and worth “..forgiveness, of breath after breath[?]”