Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Published by Chatto & Windus, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Reviewing a collection of poetry is often a tricky task. The styles and themes on display are typically so wide reaching that some pieces feel less successful than others; the gems losing their power by the virtue of diminished returns. I can confidently say, however, that Don’t Call Us Dead is a phenomenally well curated selection of consistently engaging, gut-punch poems.
The opening sequence imagines an afterlife for all the Black men wrongfully killed by police, and it is as discomfortingly joyful as it is devastating. From there, the collection shifts into more personal territory, with Smith detailing their experiences as someone who is Black, queer, and HIV positive, exploring what it means to feel your body under threat from both external and internal forces beyond your control. Though there’s a clear sense of focus and thematic cohesion throughout the collection, it’s also pleasingly nuanced, with complex notions such as internalised racism within the Black community itself adding additional depth.
Entire poems had me breathless on occasion, but there was barely a single piece without at least one standout line that earned the poem its place. This is all to say that Smith’s linguistic craft is as compelling as their choice of themes. Indeed, there are stunningly evocative images peppered throughout, such as:
the forest is a flock of boys
who never got to grow up
blooming into forever
afros like maple crowns
reaching sap-slow toward sky
I can’t recommend this collection highly enough. While there’s no denying that, as a Black, non-binary writer, Smith’s work has taken on even greater urgency in recent times, the talent, wisdom and empathy on show here are timeless.
You can pick up a copy of Don’t Call Us Dead by clicking here.