Homie: Poems by Danez Smith. Graywolf Press, 2020, 81pp, £7.99 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-64445-010-9
I find it impossible to be objective when I fall in love. I don’t see the flaws or negative points in the object of my affection, be it a tree, a person or, in this case, the zesty green volume of poetry which is Homie by Danez Smith.
Homie is Danez’s third full collection of poems. For the uninformed, it is as though Danez appeared fully formed on the literary scene a few years ago. This is so far from the truth, however, and a brief trawl online will show that for many years they worked diligently, chipping away at the edifice of the contemporary literary community, making their own roads and establishing their own voice. They helped to establish The Dark Noise Collective, a group of poets from traditionally marginalised communities coming together to raise their voices and support each other. From there came the release of the chapbook Hands on Your Knees (Penmanship Books, 2014), to much acclaim.
What followed were impassioned readings (many of which can be found on YouTube), in which Danez delivered their words with the fervour and conviction of a pastor in the pulpit, drawing audiences in with the ease and style with which they tackled topics as far-reaching and controversial as sexual pleasure, police killings of unarmed Black people and the state of American politics, all done with a dark humour that prevents them from sounding preachy.
With the release of Homie, we see Danez claim their place as a laureate for those of us accustomed to a certain urban drawl and an intentional street slang swagger. Elevating the linguistic model once called Ebonics, now referred to as AAVE (African American Vernacular English), to a place of artistry.
Demanding to be picked up, the collection is wrapped in a lime green cover, unmissable on a shelf alongside other books, whose colours look muted and subdued in comparison. The typeface used for the title – bubble writing, this crude form of chunky lettering, like a piece of naive art – is to me what the madeleine is to Proust. It speaks of my childhood, my practicing big, fat letters and the shadows to match in chalk on the playground floor, written on the side of walls, secret notes passed during reading time, hoping not to get caught.
If the journey through the collection is an odyssey, it is one through the country of Danez’s interior landscape. Just as America has its pledge of allegiance, so the country of Homie has “my president,” an outright rejection of the politics and personality of the current occupant of the White House and his divisive rhetoric: “show me to our nation // my only border is my body.” The poem begins, “today, I elect,” an attempt in removing the actual president, replacing him with the worthy, the ordinary, the uncelebrated “i sing your names / sing your names / your names / my mighty anthem,” the final “your” emphasised as a rejection of the names that normally receive praise.
The poem is a hologram of the themes that recur in the collection as a whole – holographic in that within the lines of “my president” is contained the essence of the whole volume. The celebration of the otherwise uncelebrated “& the trans girl...my president,” the elevation of ordinary people to almost regal heights, “& the boy crying...my president,” and the beauty of non-romantic love by giving it the deliberate attention one would otherwise give to a love affair, “& the nurse’s swollen feet.”
The defiance of “my president” leads straight into the staunch, unapologetic exclamation of the poem “niggas!” A word which contains its own colour bar – a boundary line drawn, separating those of us who are allowed to utter it and those who must keep a respectful distance. But while we all (including myself) skit nervously around the word, Danez spends the poem shouting it, tearing it apart as though they are devouring meat, leaving no space for the sensitive ear to hide: “I holler NIGGAS! / when I walk into a room & be nigga’d right back. / nigga every room I enter, i touch the knob & nigga the door.” The word, so laden with history, becomes divine and royal: “my niggas royal me / make me the whole damn castle.” The poem prepares readers for Danez’s many uses of the n-word, prepares the reader to engage with the use of the word not just to be controversial, but to show how modern Black communities around the globe use the word, communities in which African-America culture has been adopted as a unified form of resistance against oppression. In these communities, the word is comforting, speaks of an international familial vocabulary born out of an attempt to reclaim a word intended for our oppression. “the flower who bloomed thru the fence in Grandma’s yard” begins “flowers is niggas too” in a poem which mixes the urban and the pastoral, much like the flower whose life is the subject of these lines. The poem is an extended metaphor, likening the gentle fragility of modern Black living to the plight of a meadow attempting to grow up through concrete, “descendent of a self-picked field / almost miraculous & out of context / like niggas in Utah.”
Thoughts, unfinished conversations with friends and attempts to collect their memories like flowers. It is nostalgia elevated from the trite and sentimental into high art, to do what all art tries to do: slow time down enough to allow a moment to be examined from every angle and to share it, in the hope of putting it to rest. The poem “rose,” a slanted square, as though the memory itself is a scrap of paper left lying around, reads like a piece of flash fiction, a short story, searingly honest and confessional as though they are seeking exposure for a crime and forgiveness for it:
You were mean. So we were mean...you deserved to parade us through a
city of grandmas, smacking our faces, beating us with belts...o rose, saint of
getting roasted in the hallway...at times i wake up in the middle of the night & think we killed that girl.
In “ode to gold teeth,” we are introduced to the “gold gate of grandpa’s holler,” as Danez makes a sun-god out of an old man, “a kind of hero...he hid / all those suns so near his tongue.” In “depression food,” the mouth-watering array of junk food described, “nacho cheese doritos...bootleg frosted flakes by the fist...instant coffee,” act as a precursor to the revelation that sometimes sex exists just as junk food does, solely to fill the void within, merely so that we have something to do – passing time while we wait for tomorrow and the hope that we won’t feel the need to hurt ourselves anymore.
Danez’s honesty is contagious. Seeing how it allows light to shine on the dark parts we would otherwise hide, leaving no room for secrets and shadows, is a lesson in vulnerability.
The word count won’t allow me to untangle and praise every poem in the collection or explain how the margins in my copy are full of questions for Danez, words I would add and the beginnings of poems I intend to write, inspired by the lines I have just read. I say this to let you know that no review I could ever write will do justice to the collection.
But now my whistle-stop tour brings us to the poem which I believe anchors the entire collection: “for Andrew.” The poem arrives nearly two-thirds of the way into the collection. If Homie is an odyssey, a hero’s journey, then “for Andrew” is the beginning of the final revelation. It is long enough to be a micro chapbook on its own. Divided into three sections, the last of which spans four pages, the poem creates Andrew right before my eyes. Builds him up brick by brick through the fragments of memories:
(i) swagged out Jesus
named yourself that mess when you wore the rainbow
beaded crown a la Stevie in the ‘70s & let the great religion
of your belly hang like some Southside Buddha.
The first stanza ends “o if the gods would let me edit & loop” and as if the gods hear this call, the second stanza starts with seven crossed-out lines. Words to be seen but not seen, as if Danez is showing us their workings out – self-censorship while trying to say what is hard to say. The poem reads like a chant sung by a chorus of loved ones left behind to mourn. It is an attempt to immortalise, to raise up to God, to have a record of Andrew, which goes beyond the stilted, dry words of an autopsy, a newspaper article or so-called “facts.” Like Jesus standing over the body of Lazarus in the tomb, the chanting of this poem is an attempt to resurrect the dead.
From “for Andrew” onwards, the poems take on a heavier tone and no longer skirt around the subject of death. Danez acknowledges this in “my poems,” a verse as powerful as the weapon, whose personified voice Danez is in dialogue with, “my poems are fed up & getting violent / i whisper to them tender tender bridge bridge but they say Bitch ain’t no time, make me / a weapon!”
By the time we reach “notes,” with its first line “dear suicide / how is the war?”, we know that Danez isn’t holding anything back, isn’t afraid to tackle the most difficult parts of living. As an antidote to the heaviness of the subject matter of the poems towards the end of the collection, we reach the final poem “acknowledgements.” Danez explains in the closing notes that the words of this poem came from a Facebook request in which they asked their followers to detail “when they knew their best friend was indeed their best.” It is a collection of one-liners, assembled like a bouquet of wildflowers, “i call your mama, mama...you make us tacos with the shells i like but you don’t...you gave me a stone turtle.” In a collection where the central theme is the celebration of friendship with the glamour of romantic love, this poem is the crown.
“my president” and “acknowledgements” are the bookends of a journey through the kinds of love and feeling that do not get their rightful attention in art: the gritty, the real the at times controversial. Each poem resonates with an invisible orchestra that seems to be playing beneath the words; each poem rhythmically structured in percussive short sentences which create a boombox of drums and a regular hip-hop beat forcing them into a musicality that emphasises their words and themes. These poems are both worthy of performance in church or at a house party or in front of a large crowd of literary aficionados.
In their ability to zero in so specifically on their personal pain and triumphs, Danez taps into the universal longing for understanding, a global head-nod in the street, permission for the way I talk at home with my nearest, to be celebrated. Their experiences may not be mine, but as they are shared with me, given to me, I am able to add my own, making all of us reading this collection a community. The collection honours the ordinary kinds of love, the kind that doesn’t make it online. The true kind that keeps our hearts beating, that incites the sun to rise and sing a lullaby to the moon. The truly important stuff that we all need right now.
Tanya Akrofi has recently graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Lincoln. She is a writer and storyteller from Ghana and currently lives in Lincoln. Tanya’s recent TEDx talk detailed her relationship with oral storytelling and its impact on her life. She is the current recipient of the Artist Development Award from St Hugh’s Foundation for the Arts and is an Associate Artist for the Justice, Arts and Migration Network, where she uses her storytelling experiences to highlight the plight of those caught up in the international migrant crisis. Tanya believes poetry is medicine and that a beautifully shared story has the power to save lives.
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