Review of Danez Smith’s [insert boy]
publication date 2014 by YesYes Books
After finishing Danez Smith’s [insert boy], I thought about who I should send or recommend the book to, since I often pay it forward with books I read. The first friend that popped into my head was Dana. And right then, some light bulbs started flickering on. Every time my eyes ran over Smith’s name, I thought something was familiar, like I’d seen the name before. I wanted to set Dana up with some details about the book, and went through my phone to compare the work to a video of a poet that she had shown me last winter. The poet in the video was indeed Danez Smith performing at the Rustbelt Poetry Slam. The poem recited is “Dear White America” (Button Poetry, 2014), which I rewatched and immediately I felt the already powerful pages I had just read boom into an even larger power through Smith’s voice.
Smith’s [insert boy] explores the personal and societal observations as told by their perspective as a Black, queer, gay and poz poet. The book consists of six chapters which contain anywhere from 3 to 8 poems each. The first chapter starts with the poem Black Boy. This poem has ten lines, double spaced, aside from one couplet (7-8). The lines before the couplet, play into a slow reverie of similes that describe elements of nature and the body, “like a pillar of bones sealed by honey” (4). The poem builds momentum through the images of environment which insinuate a correlation to human pain, from “village ablaze”(2), “mouthless prayer” (5), and at the end of line 6 “slowed by blood.” Blood is the trigger word that turns to the beginning of the couplet:
“like blood all over everything: the reeboks, / the tube socks, the air & the mother’s hands” (7-8)
These lines snap out of the slower six lines preceding it. There is a tighter succession of images “the reeboks, the tube socks, the air & the mother’s hands.” This tightening of lines and specific images intensifies the rhythm. The poem bolts into the literal sense of pain and loss on the surface “blood all over everything: the reeboks, /….the mother’s hands.”
The final line is the only line not structured in simile and asks “ain’t that the world?” (10). The progression of figurative language, to literal, to concluding with a surreal rhetorical question is very smooth to read on page and aloud. The language carries a metaphysical woe and draws subtle images of physical pain, then breaks out of a trance-like flow and vocalizes a vivid series of what we know is a child covered in blood and a mother is present. This serves as a specific snapshot of what the rest of the poem is making a point about. The structural experience reminds me of a plane up in the air, where a passenger could subtly yet elegantly describe the land and objects on the ground, but then you wake up and you see the intricate lines of everything on the ground. And then, pause, and ask how the hell you got there. The aesthetic experience is graceful, heartbreaking, and subtly catches different levels of intensity in the experience of suffering.
Another poem that demonstrates Smith’s astute use of space is in The Black Boy and the Bullet. Like the title says, there is a likening between the black boy and the bullet, “one is fast & the other is faster” (2). The lines build up to a common quality where neither one has more or less of, “both spend their life trying to find someone / to them bloodwarm & near” (6-7). The following stanza begins“both spark the same debate”(8). This poem demonstrates a pattern in most of the poems, the quality of having a soft tone that then picks up speed or slows down in correspondence to the intensity of what the voice is experiencing or saying. All of these progressions are captured nicely through the line breaks and spacing between words and stanzas. For example in another poem, Genesissy,
ugly rumor begat the truth
truth begat the need to pray or run
the need to run begat the knees
(and that is a kind of praying too) (17-20)
This format is so effective for the progression of language, very similar to the turn to a couplet in Black Boy Be. Smith also uses a variety of other format structures, including prose block as seen in the poem An Old Man Coughs and Hacks Up a Dead Body, I Think It’s His Former Self.” This poem is also interesting because the title is a quote from Thomas Hill, and the poem is then a conversation with Hill’s statement. The narrator’s monologue directly speaks to Hill, “I don’t know, Thomas. I too have seen this scene” (1). And then elaborates on their interpretation of who the “old man” is, who they then assert is their grandfather, “My grandfather coughs all night / as the wrecked limbs of ghost bloom from his throat” (1-2). A pattern I noticed in this poem that is characteristic of Smith’s style, especially in this book, is the use of physicality. Specifically the use of hands appear in An Old Man Coughs… in a few powerful scenes:
charred mothers holding the air where / a child’s hand used to be… Thomas, I have seen a / man love what is dead because of his hands… trying to save his soul / from what was required of his hands (4-5, 7-8, 12-13).
These poems address the perspective of being black, but also very present in select poems is the perspective of a gay black man. The first epigraph “…It was so outrageous you couldn’t go any further/ & so you had to find a way to use it” quotes James Baldwin on being poor, black, and gay. This reference is an apt, concise introduction to Smith’s work while also keeping in conversation influential figures who have helped shape this perspective- also included is Audre Lorde in the poem Dancing (in Bed) with White Men (with Dreads). The poem reads, “Lorde, forgive me / for not grabbing the shears the night / I let him stay in my bed after he said race wasn’t real” (8-10). The narrator reiterates the address to “Lorde” in a way that reveres Audre Lorde in a godlike way, while also searching for a way to alleviate the shame (pain) of being intimate with a white man who denies the existence of race, while the white man so loudly demonstrates cultural appropriation.
Another pattern of physicality “body”, “meat” and “bones” is strewn throughout the book, especially in Song of the Wreckage. Also earthly images of fire, emptiness, trees, blood, dirt, rot, all connect to a historical assessment of the injustice of the United States’ idea of progress. The poem reads “They’ll wait for some beast to claim his age / & notice the end comes in votes, legislation, & eventually bones” (47-48). The “beast” being white people, where the narrator confronts the history of white America’s use of political and religious platforms to institutionalize racism. The poem’s epigraph is a quote from James Baldwin, “…You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s & my sister’s time, my niece’s & my nephew’s time…how much time do you want for your progress?” This quote plays into Song of the Wreckage and in Dear White America, framing the interweaving political, social and philosophical elements which emphasize the breathtaking pain and fury of this voice.
A metaphysical theme persists, namely the existential relationship to the earth, “I mourn all the time / right out the sky. I got no need for the sun / & the moon might as well be a warning shot” (11-13). When in Dear White America he reiterates “I have left Earth,” in relation to defying the white ideology “I do not trust the god you have given us…he is inconsistent in his miracles.” Also, the matter of time and progress come up in Wreckage “If I am to believe in what you call history / then I can’t believe in what you call progress” (109-110). This poem is one of the final poems embedded in the last chapter and is in long form, covering 15 pages of the book, lines filling up varying lengths of each page. The length and structure contribute to its prophetic, sermon-esque nature. It seems to serve as the climax of the collective work, the preceding poems also have a pulsing intensity that cover a page or two, but are all leading up to the when Song of Wreckage hits the page, and the power is overwhelmingly resilient. Then the final two poems bring the intensity back down. In the last few lines of On Grace,
…This awful dance of poverty,
but the dancers? Tatted & callous ballerinas, henna dipped stars.
Do you know what it means to be that beautiful and still hunted
& still alive? (26-29)
Aside from how beyond beautifully powerful this passage is, the conclusion reflects the structure of the collection’s entirety, where Smith is so keenly skilled at fluidly speeding up and slowing down and in such a way that always perfectly matches the tone and intensity of what is being seen and reflected upon.
Smith, Danez. [insert boy]. YesYes Book, 2014.