Don’t Call us Dead – Danez Smith

Learning to Read #18


In my naivety, I’ve sometimes thought of queer poetry as a single, amorphous genre. As I was reading this collection I realised that was as misplaced as pushing together Bukowski love poems, Armitage love poems and Lee-Houghton love poems and calling them straight poetry. I also realised that I probably had an inbuilt lazy assumption that gay poetry mostly meant sex and love poetry and not doing shopping poetry or being awake early poetry or beautiful countryside poetry. Misconceptions and perhaps even prejudices can lurk, you know.

The poems in this collection put me on edge, pulled at some of the threads of my complacency and gave me an insight into a life very different to my own. But that difference isn’t about being black, or gay, or HIV positive – these are themes that recur and echo through every poem in the book – but rather the difference is simply that of one human to another. This is exactly what poetry can do so well, a window into another walk of life, and I don’t think you always need to label it with gender or sexuality or social background or colour.

The language here is bold, sometimes abstracted, sometimes direct, but always brave and wanting to be heard. Some of it is uncomfortable – Litany with blood all over has a page of overlapped phrases, “my blood / his blood” stamped onto the paper like the aftermath of an accident in your knife drawer. Some of it is about race and colour; & even the black guy’s profile reads – sorry no black guys tells us “imagine a tulip, upon seeing a garden full of tulips, sheds its petals in disgust, prays some bee will bring its pollen to a rose bush.” Summer, somewhere is a longer piece – “if snow fell, it’d fall black, please don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better // we say our own names when we pray./ we go out for sweets and come back.” There is short and sensitive. Little prayer has a gentle touch – “let him enter the lions cage / and find a field of lilacs“. All the way through, though, as you’d expect from the title, death is never far away. Unexpected, early, sudden death by virtue of being a young black American man or the gradual fading death of illness and short lived relationships. The sharpness of the subject is made more acute by the sharpness of the words and the structures used. Many of the poems are simply put together, two sentence, pause, two sentence and repeat. The gaps are not silent though, and that takes some skill.

As I was reading this collection, I thought it would be interesting to put Andrew McMillan’s “Physical” alongside and compare the two. In some ways poles apart – Physical has a more comfortable feel to it, I think, less of the desperation that comes out sometimes from Don’t Call. But in other ways there is a similar sharp sense of humour; A note on Vasoline by Smith reminds you that the pot of gloop sat in the bathroom has known a varied history in it’s use by various members of the family and The Men are Weeping in the Gym gives McMillan the chance to observe the undercurrents in the fit club. Both are acutely observed, and come across as conversational, effortless.

I enjoyed both of them though, McMillan for being British and having more commonality with my own life, and Smith for the challenge. Both very much recommended.


You can read more about Danez Smith on his own website here and there is some more of his work here. There are some other reviews here and here.

Andrew McMillan has a website too, here, and a second collection is due this summer. One to mark the calendar for.




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