Months ago, I was planning to write this post. But everything changed when the Covid nation attacked!
One of the wonderful things about poetry is that it invites you (and in some cases requires you) to view the world through someone else’s eyes, to embody a lifetime of accreted experiences. And it’s even more sublime when that perspective is one you might never enter on your own.
That’s partly why I loved reading Homie, by Danez Smith. The brief bio on the back jacket says that Smith is “a Black, Queer, Poz writer.” I have never experienced life though any one of these lenses, let alone all three. In fact, I am old enough to remember when being HIV positive was a death sentence. Nowadays, it’s just one of many defining characteristics. That still leaves me flabbergasted.
I went to see Smith at the California African American museum in LA, back when public gatherings were not anathema. I had read the name, but was unfamiliar with the poetry. In fact, one of my goals for the evening was to learn how to pronounce Danez (two syllables, accent on the second). Smith read along with Fatimah Asghar, as I recall. They had a close rapport.
And more importantly, they knew how to work a (poetry) crowd. Sure, there was the banter, the humor. But more specifically, there was a sense of inclusion, of intimacy, as though everyone in the audience was a close, personal friend of the poets.
As for the work itself, it was performative, and not surprisingly rooted in identity politics. But it often leapt far beyond that. So I was eager to see how the work would translate to the printed page (which is in itself extraordinary—usually, it’s the other way around).
I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot more to this poetry than meets the ear—and that’s saying a lot. Though very much a performance poet, Smith writes with structure, if not outright form. And interestingly, some poems are “concrete” in that they need to be seen on the page to be fully appreciated. That includes poems that I first heard at the live event: “jumped.” “saw a video….” “rose.” “dogs!” “for Andrew.”
As for general tone, the first word that comes to mind is “ebullient.” Maybe that comes from being HIV poz, feeling that you’re living on borrowed time—much the way the ancient Greeks espoused Epicureanism as a counterpoint to fatalism. Or in other words, we all sit beneath the sword of Damocles, but some can see the cord actively fraying. Or perhaps it’s a lust for life that makes one more susceptible to HIV? The second word that comes to mind is “attitude.” These poems are often suffused with the defiant (dismissive?) posture of one who has almost convinced himself he has nothing to prove to the world, and no patience for those who are not quite on-board.
As for style, the book is nouveau Confessional—just about every poem is written in the first person, and there’s no mistaking that the poet is the speaker, but without the grandiose self-recriminations. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit too personal, as in “trees,” with its long litany of names, all of whom presumably have some connection to the writer but no meaning for the reader.
One wonders whether Smith appreciates his debt to Ginsburg, another unabashedly gay man (at a time when such openness was still shocking) writing effusive, unfettered verse. Smith draws upon Whitman’s self-celebration, of course (even the day-glow color of the book screams “Look at me! I’m electric!”), but seems more aligned with Ginsberg’s edgy and polemical stance.
Oddly, Smith owes another debt—to Tennyson, for much of this book was written “in memorium,” prompted by the suicide of a close friend (perhaps the homie/nig of the title?) I’m guessing this is the heart of “for Andrew,” a poem in several parts that seem to have arisen independently. The genius (yes, I said it) of this poem lies in the fact that many lines are crossed out, using that Microsoft Word format that, until now, never seemed to serve any useful purpose. They are not quite palimpsest, because the words are plainly visible, not quite early draft, because they survive into the final version, not quite erasure, because they are still clearly legible. You can’t help read them, but then question how you are supposed to consider them with regard to the lines that have not been canceled out. In the context of elegy, they suggest a persistence of a life that may be gone, but can never be unwritten.
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
I hope I have praised this book enough to allow a final niggle. According to the foreword, the title is actually “My Nig,” but Smith explains, “I don’t want non-black people to say ‘my nig’ out loud.” That seems to me a bit of a cop-out, and a missed opportunity, because what could be more subversive and instructive than to force liberal-minded white people (these are poetry fans, after all) to say “my nig?” Unless, as with “for Andrew,” a goal is to emphasize by apparent retraction?
Regardless of the moniker you choose, you’ll find this book rewards your close attention.