The American poet Danez Smith’s third book, “Don’t Call Us Dead” (Graywolf), opens with “summer, somewhere,” a stunning elegy that contains a tense refusal:
somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens ball, jump
in the air stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise
-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least
spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
Starting without having “started,” Smith’s lines suggest the discourses that they suspend. History “is what it is,” since it can’t be changed. Even though “it knows what it did,” it’s like a stubborn child: nobody can coax it into confessing. These phrases cut in all kinds of directions, threatening the exasperated truce that they establish. A history that “is what it is” doesn’t sound like it can be so blithely dismissed; “i won’t get started,” in the context of an elegy about murdered black boys, is what you say when you’ve had to point out the obvious too many times. These poems can’t make history vanish, but they can contend against it with the force of a restorative imagination.
Smith’s work is about that imagination—its role in repairing and sustaining communities, and in making the world more bearable. Poets, very broadly speaking, are sometimes disparaged as solo fliers, and few as idiosyncratic as Smith want to bend their gifts to the thriving of nonliterary communities. Smith, who is African-American, H.I.V.-positive, and genderqueer, goes by plural pronouns. Their poems are enriched to the point of volatility, but they pay out, often, in sudden joy. Smith’s style has a foot in slam and spoken word, scenes that reach people who might not buy a slim volume of poems. But they also know the magic trick of making writing on the page operate like the most ecstatic speech. And they are, in their cadences and management of lines, deeply literary. In the poem above, with its ampersands and strong enjambments, its knowing alliterative excesses, I hear Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest who jury-rigged his verse to express personal turmoil, and Hart Crane, whose gentleness was expressed in an American idiom full of thunderclap, and Allen Ginsberg, who loved and learned from them both. The addition of Smith’s star turns a random cluster of points into a constellation, the way new work of this calibre always does.