Don’t Call Us Dead: Danez Smith's Poetry Collection Grieves and Revives
Reviewed by Kyle Cohlmia
Don’t Call Us Dead, the title of Danez Smith’s second collection of poetry, immediately brings the reader to attention. A direct imperative from “us” to “them” this title forefronts the death of black boys interspersed with poems on race, colonialism, HIV/AIDS, queerness, lust, and love.
Smith’s collection of elegiac poems reads like a funeral procession, methodically paced in a slow march forward. The poems construct new realities around grief and confront the reader through stylistic choices resulting in cohesive emotional and intellectual appeals.
It is clear from the first poem in the collection, “summer, somewhere,” that the “us” Smith refers to is black boys who have lost their lives to racist violence. Smith specifically references the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell:
history is what it is. it knows what it did.
bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy
that boy was Trayvon, now called RainKing.
that man Sean named himself, i do, i do.
Throughout this poem, Smith creates an imagined afterlife where murdered black boys become kings:
paradise is a world where everything
is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.
The use of couplets and repetition in this 20-verse poem creates a consistent rhythm. The two-line stanzas are repeated eight times in each verse, apart from verses 16, 17 and 20, which are written in styles of free verse. Smith repeats the word “boy” 24 times and “here” 12 times throughout the poem, which emphasizes the connection of character (boy) to setting (here), the “summer, somewhere” Smith describes:
do you know what it’s like to live
on land who loves you back?
no need for geography
now, we safe everywhere.
This geography, uncolonized and safe, is the here that results from the imperative not to call “us” (black boys) dead. The familiarity that comes with repetition steadily guides the reader onward throughout this poem-procession.
Poems similar in content and style to “summer, somewhere” are woven throughout Don’t Call Us Dead as Smith dedicates several pieces to specific black boys and men. Smith first wrote “not an elegy,” for Mike Brown, an 18-year-old black man shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, but later revised the poem for this collection to acknowledge Emmett Till’s death. In “not an elegy,” Smith declares:
i am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are morning.
Smith breaks the fourth wall between the poet and the poem, acknowledging their role as the writer and demonstrating their frustration with writing poem after poem about the death of black boys and the tragic interchangeability of their stories, as the poem itself could speak to multiple deaths.
Smith breaks the authorial barrier again a few stanzas later, addressing the white reader directly:
reader, what does it
feel like to be safe? white?
how does it feel
to dance when you’re not
dancing away the ghost?
This shift in perspective, a more confrontational approach than “summer, somewhere,” allows Smith to directly acknowledge the white reader’s privileged positionality juxtaposed with the perilous and uncertain lives/futures of black people in America, which is also addressed in poems such as “dear white america” and “you’re dead, america.”
In the final poem of this collection, “dream where every black person is standing by the ocean,” Smith circles back to the beginning of the book, creating a new reality for the dead, although this time resurrecting Emmett Till from the ocean:
& then 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.
The stylistic choices including couplets, repetition, and the breaking of the fourth wall vividly animate these poems, a response to Smith’s initial command- “don’t call us dead.”
Smith’s poetry collection proposes alternate realities while grappling with the brutal truths of America in the afterlife of slavery. Smith’s call for healing and change manifests a non-linear temporality where the funeral procession for marginalized bodies includes the ongoing presence and vitality of the dead.
Danez Smith, Don't Call Us Dead, Graywolf Press, 2017.