Danez Smith’s Electric Power: Don’t Call Us Dead
To experience the poems of Danez Smith is to witness electricity. I had the privilege of seeing Smith perform in 2015 at a small but packed art gallery in Minneapolis. The performance of their poems, the lyricism and urgency, sent the room into a buzz, igniting conversations that rest in the mind for days that roll into months then years. How incredible to witness a poet whose work remains so poignant and salient with time.
Following the success of their stellar [insert boy], award-winning poet Danez Smith returns with their second collection of poems titled Don’t Call Us Dead, which was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. Danez Smith explores the intersections of their identity as a queer person of color who is also HIV-positive, and how these identities are politicized in the United States. This is an important and necessary collection.
A link follows from poem to poem: the body that houses this multiplicity of identities. The black body is as a body at risk. Whether at risk to be murdered in the street as in the poem “summer, somewhere”, a 26-page elegy for those boys who have died because of police brutality, or to perish from a chronic, exhausting fight to HIV as in the poem “1 of 2” that begins: “On February 23rd, 2016, the CDC released a study estimating 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.” Often, the threat is both.
Speaking to the intersection of these identities, the poem “every day is a funeral & a miracle” meditates on Smiths’ race and HIV positive status. In a surprising and effective metaphor, Smith compares the virus in his blood to the police:
hallelujah! today i rode
past five police cars
& i can tell you about it
to do with my internal
inverse, just how
will i survive the little
cops running inside
my veins, hunting
white blood cells &
To be a heightened risk of both police brutality and HIV, Danez Smith articulates that “some of us are killed / in pieces, some of us all at once.” At the intersection of race and sexuality, Smith translates these oppressions into power. To read Danez Smith is to witness this electric power.