Finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry
Winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection
“[Smith's] poems are enriched to the point of volatility, but they pay out, often, in sudden joy.”—The New Yorker
Award-winning poet Danez Smith is a groundbreaking force, celebrated for deft lyrics, urgent subjects, and performative power. Don’t Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality—the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood—and a diagnosis of HIV positive. “Some of us are killed / in pieces,” Smith writes, “some of us all at once.” Don’t Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America—“Dear White America”—where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.
Smith follows the Lambda Literary Award winning debut boy with a further display of transcendent talent for close-to-the bone articulation, celebrating the lives of "we citizens/ of an unpopular heaven// & low-attended crucifixions." Poised at the bruising intersection of black and queer identity, poems such as "dear white america" ("I tried to love you, but you spent my brother's funeral making plans for brunch") lose no impact moving from spoken-word stage to page. Smith brilliantly metaphorizes the experience of receiving an HIV diagnosis in Lorca-esque fashion, as becoming "a book of antonyms" and leavens the gravity with moments of mordant wit. An erasure of Diana Ross lyrics leaves the message "if there's a cure for this/ i want it," capturing camp's confrontation with the intolerable. Though visually and formally varied, the collection's most striking pyrotechnics are rhetorical: "& he will say tonight, I want to take you/ how the police do, unarmed & sudden." Describing a "down-low house party," a speaker observes: "we say yo meaning let my body// be a falcon's talon & your body be the soft innards of goats." Luminous and piercing, this collection reassembles shattering realities into a shimmering and sharp mosaic.