August 27, 2015
by Danez Smith
YESYES BOOKS, 2014
[Sing] The Black Body Electric
by LynleyShimat Lys
About LynleyShimat Lys
Lynley (Shimat) Lys studies poetry and translation in the Queens College MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation and recently held a writing residency at the Louis Armstrong Archive. Lynley holds a B.A. from UC Berkeley in Comparative Literature and an M.A. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Middle Eastern Studies. Lynley's current interests include intersections between Israeli and Palestinian poems of place, plays in verse, and, in the context of Louis Armstrong, the relationship between jazz and poetry, African American life in Chicago, and interracial relations between Jewish and African American populations in New Orleans.
My friend Maura can sing clear from the low tenor range to the notes above high soprano, and this is precisely the sort of astonishing range Danez Smith exhibits in his debut collection, “[Insert] Boy,” with poems which stretch from song to hymn to elegy to variations on the sestina. Reading this collection, it would be easy to assume that the English language was invented expressly as a vehicle for these poems, despite all historical evidence to the contrary.
Smith tackles issues of race, class, social justice, and political struggle with lyricism and grace, blurring the borders between aesthetics and critique, celebration and elegy. In the poem “On Grace,” the narrator describes Black men trapped in poverty and injustice, likening them to dancers, “This awful dance of poverty, / but the dancers? Tatted & callous ballerinas, henna dipped stars. // Do you know what it means to be that beautiful & still hunted / & still alive? Who knows this story but the elephants & the trees? // Who says the grace of a black man in motion is not perfect / as a tusk in the sun or a single leaf taking its sweet time to the ground?” Like the poems of Walt Whitman, who Smith claims as an influence, the poems of this collection sing, and dance, the body electric. They are poems of claiming the [Black] [Gay] body and living in this body.
The collection is divided into several sections, with common themes running throughout. Many of the poems concern themselves with how the poems’ narrators live as [Black][Gay] bodies among other bodies, including white gay men, straight Black men, lovers and friends. In the hymn to friendship “Poems in Which One Black Man Holds Another,” the narrator demarcates the space for friendship between Black men, “it’s how you know the bodies / I devour & don’t care, how you / don’t want my body & don’t care // I am learning to dance with my clothes on” – here the dance is one of love between men both without a sexual relationship and without judgment.
In contrast, the narrator of “Dancing (In Bed) With White Men (With Dreads)” chides himself (ineffectually) over his attraction to a white man who doesn’t see race and wears ersatz dreadlocks. This narrator addresses a monologue to Audre Lorde on the personal ramifications of the essay “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House,” creating metaphors of the body as house and questioning the politics of sexual attraction. He elaborates, “Audre, the master’s tools brought my house down. / I begged him with my own hands. I’ve been floorboards, / wing nuts & slow blues at his pale hard feet, his full moon // flesh my new moon flesh, his braided glued yarned / unwashed attack against our tentacle blaze / is pulled sugar to my mouth. … Lorde, forgive me / for not grabbing the shears the night // I let him stay in my bed after he said race wasn’t real. / Lorde, there are brown boys I never called back.” This poem moves through the intersections of race and class politics, sexual politics and sexual attraction, the failure of the white cisgender gay man to recognize the impact of racial markings and racism, and the narrator’s own ambivalence about the relationship, as well as resonating with the story of Samson and Delilah, where the cutting off of hair can bring about political and sexual upheaval.
The poems in this collection give the impression of being in dialogue with the page and formal poetry and with the stage and vocal poetry. The poem “Song of The Wreckage” juggles the end line word repetition typical of a sestina with extensive structural and page layout varieties, while navigating the constant dangers and threats faced by Black bodies in America. The poem “Genesissy,” with its melding of queer story of origin and the Biblical Book of Genesis, reads like a hymn, celebration, and elegy in one. It mourns the death of girls who have been forced into the role of boys by social pressure and the markings of gender, and relatives of the girls who perpetuate stereotypes, an “aunt’s disgusted head shake / begat the world that killed / the not a boy-child / & stole her favorite dress / right off her cold shimmering body / & that can’t come from God right?” This elegy takes the form of gospel, of church service by and for queer people.
The opening of the poem delineates a beginning of all things with specifically Black and Queer elements, a hymn to fierceness, “&on the eighth day, god said let there be fierce & that’s the story about the first snap, the hand’s humble attempt at thunder, a small sky troubled by attitude // & on the ninth day, God said Bitch, werk & Adam learned to duck walk, dip, pose, death drop … & on the eleventh day God said guuuurrrrrl & trees leaned in for gossip, water went wild for the tea, & the airtight with shade // & on the twelfth day, Jesus wept at the mirror, mourning the day his sons would shame his sons for walking a daughter’s stride, for the way his children would learn to hate the kids // & on the thirteenth day, God barely moved, he laid around dreaming of glitter.” This is a queer God, dreaming of glitter, creating fierce, and creating sons who walk with a daughter’s stride. This is a God of the body, and a poem that sings the body, whether as hymn or elegy. The poem is also unusual in its form as a prose poem with single- and double-slash line-break and paragraph-break marks inserted within it.
With a collection as varied as this in terms of poetic style, structure, thematic content, and registers of the English language, it would be easy to form an incoherent or overambitious whole, but the voices and poems in [Insert] Boy feel cohesive and necessary in their groupings. The collection feels refreshing and vital, whether as hymn, gospel, elegy, or response to Audre Lorde. The immediacy of the collection has a certain resonance with the works of Sylvia Plath, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, but most of all we hear the unique voice of Danez Smith, and I certainly look forward to hearing more of this voice.