FEBRUARY 13, 2020
DANEZ SMITH’S LATEST poetry collection, Homie, is actually not titled Homie at all. As the National Book Award finalist confirms point-blank in a note on the title: “this book was titled homie because I don’t want non-black people to say my nig out loud. This book is really titled my nig.” Indeed, a second title page announces: “my nig / poems / Danez Smith.” Which raises the question: how are we meant to read this charged word that Smith stylistically summons in a work deeply concerned with solidarity and survival, friendship, family, and the frailty of the body and its blood? For starters, the title unapologetically alerts us to the collection’s wider magnanimous project: who these poems are for. If Smith’s previous book Don’t Call Us Dead, winner of the Forward Prize, is a rumination on the ruination of black bodies, then Homie heralds the redemptive power of black friendship. Whereas lamenting poems in Don’t Call Us Dead, such as “summer, somewhere” and the viral “dear white america,” detail a black afterlife beyond this troubled planet, Homie is anchored in the homie heaven here on earth, in neighborhoods, churches, and kitchens.
Smith — they/them/theirs — celebrates unsung heroes who create safe spaces for the marginalized. For them, these everyday fortresses are found on the frontier of family, fraternity, and friendship. In a three-page anthemic opening poem, “my president,” Smith heralds the community-building of common people:
& every head nod is my president
& every child singing summer with a red sweet tongue is my president
& the birds
& the cooks
& the single moms especially
Here Smith repositions the political power of a president within simple social acts of solidarity, such as nodding kindly in the black quotidian fashion. In a crescendo highly reminiscent of Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” the wordsmith continues:
& the boy crying on the train & the sudden abuela who rubs his back
& the uncle who offers him water & the drag queen who begins to hum
o my presidents!
show me to our nation
my only border is my body
i sing your names
sing your names
my mighty anthem
Smith pluralizes the title “my president” at the poem’s climax, expanding and elevating a diverse cohort of souls to the highest office in the land. Here, the defenders of the free world are not in the Oval Office, but drivers of buses and children smiling brightly with their innocence. And Smith’s presidents aren’t just a multitude; they are also multilingual. Smith praises their grandma, whose “cabinet is her cabinet / cause she knows how to trust what the pan knows / how the skillet wins the war,” tapping into her own cultural wells of knowledge. Yet Smith also describes the “sudden abuela” coming to the aid of a child. English rolls seamlessly into Spanish, because they are part of the same transcendent tale.
To truly understand this poem’s genius, it must be read within the sociopolitical context of digital declarations of #notmypresident, wherein liberals have rejected Donald Trump’s shady ascent to Pennsylvania Avenue. Which inevitably leads us to wonder: If Smith explicitly lists who their presidents are, who is their president not? Trump, we might assume. Yet Smith also does not list former president Barack Obama in the poem. It would be embarrassingly reductive to read these absences as mirror representations of Smith’s true political beliefs. In fact, not a single inaugurated president appears in the poem at all. This dearth points to the poem’s most democratic of declarations: Smith’s presidents are not elected by the people. Smith’s presidents are the people. These persons are praiseworthy not for the offices they hold, but for the intimacy they institute as they uphold others.
Perhaps this is one of Smith’s grandest talents: diving into the pool of a poem at one angle (for example, “my president,” in the singular sense) only to emerge in a new framework (the multitudes of presidents) that makes us see poetry and its meanings anew. For example, consider “fall poem.” Its title subconsciously implies a traditional nature poem, idyllic and dreamy, where we are lulled by imagery of the changing seasons. Yet the piece is anything but:
the leaves have done their annual shimmy.
now the streetlight with no soft green curtain
cuts a silver blade across my bed
& my body. i didn’t want to start with leaves
even though I love how the trees turn the color of aunts
& should-train-line to ground each October. no one
wants to hear a poem about fall; much prefer the fallen
body, something easy to mourn, body cut out of the light
body lit up with bullets. see how easy it is to bring up bullets?
is it possible to ban guns? even from this poem?
i lie in the light, body split by light, room too bright for sleep
thinking of the leaf-colored bodies, their weekly fall
In a tonal shift tectonic enough to render us with literary whiplash, falling leaves are juxtaposed starkly against fallen bodies. One can almost hear the soft, resonant echo of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Furthermore, in the sharp pronouncement that “no one / wants to hear a poem about fall; much prefer the fallen / body,” Smith draws attention to the fetishization of suffering and violence. And in their use of fall as an allegory for gun violence, we must grapple with how accepted, how easily environmental and inevitable that collective unwarranted death, particularly of colored bodies, has become in the United States, almost as natural seeming as the shimmy of bright leaves from an oak. Hence, Homie is not just an anthem. It is also an elegy. A requiem. An eloquent and yet guttural moan, where, as Smith writes in “for Andrew,” there’s “nothing left to leave me / but sound.”
The poet alerts us to the collection’s elegiac enterprise when earlier in “how many of us have them?” they write: “the wind is tangled / with the dust of the dead homies, carrying us over / to them.” And then, in lines that slice through the skin: “i miss them. all the dead. how young. how silly / to miss what you will become.” This breath of anguish leaks out in every single line of “fall poem,” a funeral procession that proclaims that as much as Homie is full of humor and hugs, it’s also heckled by haunts, alive and dead. In fact, the elegy of the collection begins even earlier, when Smith dedicates Homie to “the realest one / Phonetic One / Andrew Thomas.” Later, in “for Andrew,” originally published in The Rumpus, Smith delivers a eulogy-like poem for their departed friend. With anguish that equals that of Achilles, the Greek hero who fouled his face with mud and soot after the death of his most beloved Patroclus, Smith writes: “when you went i choked on dirt.” We are made witness to the most pointed of pains, wherein death robs a loved one too soon, and, along with the speaker, our very ability to speak.
Smith is no stranger to death. Continuing in the concerns voiced in Don’t Call Us Dead, Smith’s latest book not only ruminates on brotherhood, but also on the body, its blood, its bruises, its breaking, and the brutality it bears, particularly when it is black and brown. Yet Smith’s body isn’t just under threat from bullets; their own HIV status brings deliberations on death and disease to the forefront of their profound poetics. In “sometimes i wish i felt the side effects” they write:
there is no bad news yet. again.
i wish i knew the nausea, its thick yell
in the morning, pregnant proof
that in you, life swells. i know
i’m not a mother, but i know what it is
to nurse a thing you want to kill
& can’t. you learn to love it. yes.
i love my sweet virus. it is my proof
of life, my toxic angel, wasted utopia
what makes my blood my blood.
Smith’s language here is particularly striking, if not surprising, especially when they describe HIV as “a thing you want to kill.” Is not HIV the thing that wants to kill them? Their very inversion of the fatality of the virus also upends the disease’s power over Smith’s own self-love. Instead of robbing the poet of their own physiological agency, the “toxic angel” HIV, like the angel Gabriel gracefully arriving before Mary, tells Smith that something else lives inside them. But that does not make their blood any less their own; in the end, their body is still their body, still something holy, which Smith learns to celebrate. Perhaps loving the body, loving the self, is akin to friendship — learning to love another, even while we pray that bad news will not come. Again.
In its cutting compassion, Homie is as much a celebration of loved ones’ lives as it is a lament for their loss, equally a war cry for kinship and the burial dirge after the battle. The collection rings as a heartfelt call to love our beloveds as if they’ll be gone tomorrow, because they just might be. Yet Smith teaches us that one thing is still certain for today: in our homies, despite our most harrowing of hurts, we can always find the hope of healing.
The line breaks here do not necessarily reflect the line breaks in the book.
Amanda Gorman is the Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of the United States and a senior at Harvard. She has written for the New York Times The Edit newsletter, and has two books forthcoming with Penguin Random House.