Fjords Review - Book Reviews - [INSERT] BOY - Danez Smith

Fjords Reviews

[INSERT] BOY by Danez Smith



Fjords Review, [INSERT] BOY - Danez Smith

August 27, 2015

by Danez Smith

128 Pages
ISBN 978-1-936919-28-4


[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.


And Then by Donald Breckenridge

Dear Everyone by Matt Shears

Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones

Intimacy by Stanley Crawford

Lunch Poems by Deborah Kuan

The Best American Poetry 2016

One with the Tiger by Steven Church

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

The King of White Collar Boxing by David Lawrence

They Were Coming for Him by Berta Vias-Mahou

Verse for the Averse: a Review of Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry

That Other Me by Maha Gargash

Simone by Eduardo Lalo

Swimming by Karl Luntt

Ghost/ Landscape by Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher

Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus

Bad Light by Carlos Castán

Diaboliques by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly

Staying Alive by Laura Sims

Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo

Fireflies by John Leland

Maze of Blood by Marly Youmans

Tender the Maker by Christina Hutchkins

Little Anodynes by Jon Pineda

Conjuror by Holly Sullivan McClure

Someone's Trying To Find You by Marc Augé

The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe Di Piazza

Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On by Ashley-Elizabeth Best

The Knowledge by Robert Peake

The Darling by Lorraine M. López

How To Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes

Watershed Days: Adventures (A Little Thorny and Familiar) in the Home Range by Thorpe Moeckel

Demigods on Speedway by Aurelie Sheehan

Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

Singing Bones by Kate Schmitt

Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg

Knuckleball by Tom Pitts

Wandering Time by Luis Alberto Urrea

Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail by Ralph Hamilton

Domenica Martinello: The Abject in the Interzones

Control Bird Alt Delete by Alexandria Peary

Twelve Clocks by Julie Sophia Paegle

Love You To a Pulp by C.S. DeWildt

Even Though I Don’t Miss You by Chelsea Martin

Women by Chloe Caldwell

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

ESSAY 2:12 A.M. by Kat Meads

Revising The Storm by Geffrey Davis

Quality Snacks by Andy Mozina

Midnight in Siberia by David Greene

Strings Attached by Diane Decillis

American Neolithic by Terence Hawkins

Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging by Joshua Dolezal

The New Testament by Jericho Brown

You Don't Know Me by James Nolan

Phoning Home: Essays by Jacob M. Appel

Words We Might One Day Say by Holly Karapetkova

Murder by Danielle Collobert

Sorrow by Catherine Gammon

The Americans by David Roderick

Put Your Hands In by Chris Hosea

I Think I Am in Friends-Love With You by Yumi Sakugawa

Third Wife by Jiri Klobouk

box of blue horses by Lisa Graley

Review of Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through the Streets

The Sleep of Reason by Morri Creech

The Hush before the Animals Attack by Carol Matos

Regina Derieva, In Memoriam by Frederick Smock

Review of The House Began to Pitch by Kelly Whiddon

Hill William by Scott McClanahan

Seamus Heaney Aloft

The Bounteous World by Frederick Smock

Review of The Tide King by Jen Michalski

Going Down by Chris Campanioni

Review of Empire in the Shade of a Grass Blade by Rob Cook

Review of The Day Judge Spencer Learned the Power of Metaphor

Review of The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish

Review of Life Cycle Poems by Dena Rash Guzman

Review of Saint X by Kirk Nesset

Review of Jessica Treadway's Please Come Back to Me

Eve Asks by Christine Redman-Waldeyer