New Poems by Oliver de la Paz and Danez Smith

Dora Malech
September 5, 2017
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Two new poems that have moved me most deeply recently are Oliver de la Paz’s “Autism Screening Questionnaire – Speech and Language Delay” in the July/August 2017 issue of Poetry and Danez Smith’s “Crown” in the current issue of Granta (Granta 140: State of Mind). Both are available to read in their entirety online. That they roughly share their moment of publication is hardly the most interesting similarity between these two poems, and reading them together to note those similarities only serves to reinforce how utterly unique these two poems are, both having the potential to resonate long beyond the current issue of a given magazine.

Both poems take children as their subject matter in some capacity. Smith’s poem mourns those who might have been and will not be:

all the children i’ll never have, dead in me . . .

if my blood was not a moat, i’d have a son . . .

would have a daughter but i am only
the mother of my leaving. i sit on jungle gym
crying over other people’s children, black
flowers blooming where my tears fall . . .

De la Paz’s poem describes the neurodiverse child (“YOUR CHILD”) referenced in each question of the titular questionnaire:

2. DOES YOUR CHILD PRODUCE UNUSUAL NOISES OR INFANTILE SQUEALS? 

He’d coo and we’d coo back. The sound
passed back and forth between us like a ball. 
Or later, an astral voice. Some vibrato 
under the surface of us. The burst upon –
burn of strings rubbed
in a flourish. His exhausted face.

While our writing workshops so often still take the New Critical approach of distancing the poet from the speaker of the poem and the poem’s contents from autobiography, both of these poems seem to draw power from the personal. While Smith’s poem’s children are imagined, De la Paz’s poem’s child is, in a sense, autobiographically “real.” (I still want to be careful not to assume that the poet and speaker perfectly align in either poem, of course.) On his own site, De la Paz writes that the poem “was written this year but had been something I had been meaning to write since 2010 when our oldest son was first diagnosed as someone on the spectrum.” Smith’s poem seems to draw specificity and urgency from the autobiographical as well; though it doesn’t mention HIV directly, it seems to circle around that diagnosis:

my blood got jumped, asked him to wait
before he gives me the test results, give
me a moment of not knowing, sweet
piece of ignorance . . . 

 . . . but i didn’t know 
what he was bringing to me. but he
told me he was negative. but he wasn’t
aware of the red witch spinning
in his blood . . . 

In a 2016 Public Books interview, Isaac Ginsberg Miller asks Smith:

Thinking about the ways that an illness or medical condition can affect personal identity, have you felt since learning that you are HIV-positive that there are changes in how you act in the world?

Smith replies:

I think so. Mortality used to be something that I could talk about very loosely, but now it has very real implications for me. And also the way I live my life, sort of a caution and a fearlessness I’ve gained with it . . .

When asked how that has affected his writing, he continues:

Well, it’s definitely a topic in the writing. I think the range of joy and sorrow has gotten that much wider. 

Both poems approach the challenge of their subject matter through a shaping form. Smith’s is a received form with a long historythe crown of sonnets. The crown is a sequence of individual sonnets, linked both through theme or address and through their first and final lines, as the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of the next. The first line of the first sonnet is the last line of the last sonnet, bringing the cycle full circle to a close. Smith’s first and last lines often morph, their mutations revealing new possibilities: “my blood jumped to ask him to wade. // my blood got jumped, asked him to wait.” In this sense, Smith’s eight 14-line sections function both as discreet movements and as sections of the larger whole.

De la Paz’s poem also functions as one long poem comprised of discreet movements. In his case, however, the shaping form is not a received traditional form like the crown of sonnets, but the “found” form of the questionnaire. The fairly flat interrogative language of the questionnaire serves to highlight the intense intimacy and arresting sensory detail of De la Paz’s own writing:

11. DOES YOUR CHILD HAVE DIFFICULTY SUSTAINING A CONVERSATION?

We could be anywhere, then the navel of the red moon
drops its fruit. His world. This stained world drips its honey
into our mouths. Our words stolen from his malingering afternoon.

(Interestingly, the numbered fourteen questions and sections of De la Paz’s poem could be taken as some exploded view of the fourteen lines of a sonnetthat form of love.)

It goes without saying that these two poems also have in common a breathtaking lyricism and musicality. I will stop quoting. Just read the poems. Then read the poems out loud.

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