“i’ve never been so alive”: on Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Jonathan Farmer

Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2017. 96 pages. $16.00.

Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead begins with a fantasy and ends in a dream. In the book’s final lines,

one woman, skin dark as all of us
           walks to the water’s lip, shouts Emmett, spits

&, surely, a boy begins
           crawling his way to shore

As in that reference to Emmett Till, the reveries keep recalling, inside all they work to reanimate and restore, the brutality that makes even the most otherwise-ordinary images of black life, of black people living unharmed in the reality America projects, seem fantastic. The first section of the opening sequence ends, landing at last with a tremor on something that is remarkable precisely because it shouldn’t be: “we say our own names when we pray / we go out for sweets and come back”

The “we” that prays over itself and has achieved the miracle of not being killed for doing nothing wrong, did not. It’s the collective voice of the inhabitants of a heaven where black boys come back to life after they’ve been murdered. (“one boy,” they note, “showed up pulled behind // a truck, a parade for himself / & his wet red train.” For many, once they’ve been dug up “it’s they eyes who lead / scanning for bonefleshed men in blue.”)

But this is not—or, at least, it’s never only—a grim book. Though Smith (who uses third-person plural pronouns) never seems to actually feel that fantasy and flights of song are enough to redeem the destruction of African Americans through murder (including, they note, at the hands of the police and at their own despairing hands) and via AIDS (Smith is HIV positive), they never give up on the possibility either.

The result is bittersweet, but the sweetness is real, even when it’s grounded in imagination—partly because that imagination is so grounded in the reality it wants to refuse, but just as much because Smith, in fantasy and in grief, commits to giving pleasure. These poems are a form of entertainment—something far more profound than we tend to admit. Entertainment is more than mere escapism; it’s a form of generosity—a way to knit up the raveled time and materials of lives made ragged. And Smith, at their best, entertains unusually well. Here, for example, are the opening lines of “summer, somewhere,” the poem that ends “we go out for sweets & come back”:

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.
bad dog.

The poems ride on wit—in both the older and the more contemporary senses of the word. They are displays of ingenuity, committed to motion, the intellect alive to possibilities in a world that, for Smith, keeps cutting off most options, including the option of staying alive. In another poem, they write that it’s hard to dance

when every day someone
who looks like everyone

i love is in a gun fight
armed with skin

But the poems dance anyway. They are ways to be alive. And they thrive—they succeed as entertainment—in part because they have such a powerful villain: death, yes, but moreso the white America that creates so many ways for black boys and black men to die. The prose poem “dear white america” begins in a fantasy, too: “I’ve left Earth in search of darker planets,” but its real interest is in explaining what’s awful here. The poem poses as an address to white people, but it has more to do with giving power and pleasure to those who are fed up with suffering at the indifferent hands of the white America it addresses:

i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race?

The book as a whole is oppositional. It generates much of energy by revision and refusal, including frequent claims about naming, like the one in the book’s title, which also shows up in the opening poem: “please, don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better.” Later, one of the boys explains, “dead is the safest I’ve ever been. / I’ve never been so alive.” In “at the down-low house party,” Smith writes, “we say wats gud meaning i could love you until my jaw is but memory,” and then again a little later:

sometime between here

& being straight again, some sweet
boned, glittering boi shows up, starts voguing & shit

his sharp hips pierce our desire, make our mouths water
& water & we call him faggot meaning bravery

faggot meaning often dream

of you, flesh damp & confused for mine

faggot meaning Hail the queen! Hail the queen!
faggot meaning i been waited ages to dance with you.

The ironies stand convincingly, propped up by their doubleness, truth leaning against fear, fear leaning against possibility, language leaning hard on everything, both wound and salve. Among the most often used words in the book is “blood,” and there, too, doubleness flares up; the blood burns with desire and disease. A poem called “bare” begins:

for you i’d send my body to battle
my body, let my blood sing of tearing

itself apart, hollow cords
of white knights’ intravenous joust.

And in “1 in 2” (a reference to the number of “black men who have sex with men” who “will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime”), Smith writes of “the now me / whose blood blacks & curls back like paper / near an open flame.” More broadly, they return often to a roster of repeated, almost archetypal terms, not only blood, name and call, but also black (which also shows up in the lines above from “1 in 2”), honey, dance, light, stars, song, water, skin and sweet. They are a kind of bass line for Smith’s relentless reimagining, as in “tonight, in Oakland,” where their incantations once again describe the world that they reject:

give me rain or give me honey, dear lord.
the sky has given us no water this year.

i ride my bike to a boy, when i get there
what we make will not be beautiful

or love at all, but it will be deserved.
i’ve started seeking men to wet the harvest.

come, tonight i declare we must move
instead of pray. tonight, east of here

two men, one dressed in what could be blood
& one dressed in what could be blood

before the wound, meet & mean mug
& god, tonight, let them dance! tonight,

guns don’t exist. tonight, the police
have turned to their god for forgiveness.

tonight, we bury nothing, we serve a god
with no need for shovels, god with a bad hip

& a brother in jail.

Again and again, Smith reaches for redemption. For me, it’s that reaching that comes closest, that feels like the truest and most generous image of the lives they want to lift up. Lines like “you, you are beautiful & lovable & black & enough & so—you pretty you—am i” strike me by comparison as unpersuasive, but they also stand as reminders that Smith is up to something more urgent than entertaining me, that I am part of the “white america” Smith bids farewell to on their way to a better world, writing, “i’ve left earth to find a place where my kind can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something, until then I bid you well, I bid you war, I bid you our lives to gamble with no more.”

Earlier in that poem, Smith writes, “Each night, I count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, I count the holes they leave.” That professed commitment to tally even the voids is not only an attempt to reckon injustice. It’s an image of refusal, of love, a shareable, tangible commitment not to accept the unacceptable that describes, once again, the absence it means to refuse. In the process, it also makes those who survive more real, their outrage more piercing, and so more sustaining, too, more capable of speaking into the deafening silence that white America, in accepting black death, transmits. So often in Don’t Call Us Dead, Smith manages to both register and lift terrible weight; so often the inexcusable and outrageous is harnessed and torques and quickens the life it elsewhere (in the very world these poems describe) tries, and often manages, to destroy.

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