“i got a bark too teeth too”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

34 of 100: Homie by Danez Smith (2020, Graywolf Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • If you’re alive in America right now, you’re seeing urgency in the streets of our cities. Urgency over police violence. Over racism. Over health. And disparity. That urgency is present in nearly all the poems in Homie and described explicitly in the opening lines of “my poems”: “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!
  • Urgency is also expressed in the shape Smith gives many of their poems. These, for example. Note how the forms grab you. Wake you up, insist, Look. Here. Now.
  • Smith’s avoidance of capital letters (except proper nouns) throughout Homie and their manipulation of punctuation also speak to urgency, the now-ness of survival. Here are some lines without punctuation from “dogs!” for example: “the dog upstairs needs to stop / running his mouth talking plenty / shit i can hear him up there fool / don’t think i understand he don’t / know i got a bark too teeth too / thumbs & a terrible child’s mind.” In contrast, these lines from “on faggotness” rely on the disruptions of punctuation: “sitting on the ledge of. the tub holding down the lever so the water’ll drain. watching a bit of black. grace toward the soft whirl & think. if the black bit was human sized it would be. flying. driving. drowning. being in the river when the river suddenly surges.”
  • Two sentences from Publishers Weekly capture the collection for me: “Smith presents an electrifying, unabashedly queer ode to friendship and community in their exuberant and mournful second collection. … These poems are a celebration of black culture and experience, and a condemnation of white supremacy and its effect.” I deeply admire how exuberance in the poems can’t be untangled from mourning and how Smith crafts so many of the poems in Homie to condemn white supremacy simply by putting it on display: they allow it to incriminate itself. By its very existence. By its insistence. Its cruelty and what it permeates.
  • As such, two poems in particular ought to be required reading in every classroom in America. Consider this from “say it with your whole black mouth”: “say it with your whole black mouth: i am innocent. / & if you are not innocent, say this: i am worthy // of forgiveness, of breath after breath. / i tell you this: i let blue eyes dress me in guilt // walked around stores convinced the very skin / of my palm was stolen.” And this from “white n-word”: “we’ve been at it for years / you run around scared of the idea of me, i run away // from your actual you with your actual instruments / of my end: badge, bullet, post, gas, rope, opinion. // you have murdered me for centuries & still i fix / my mouth to say love is possible.”
  • As urgent as those lessons are for America to learn, readers must resist the idea of taking Homie in its entirety for this purpose. Smith has been clear about this. As they say in this Rumpus Poetry Book Club chat, “I used to worry, and later bore, myself with questions about the white gaze on my work, and I would rather invite the eyes of those who I want to speak to instead of sweat those whose looking has always been assumed, privileged. That title fake out [see tweet below] is the first of many calls or marks of community and intimacy in the book.” And this directive for white readers: “Just be comfy in your unknowing; you don’t need to know and no one has to explain. But like, feel free to feeeeeel.”

Lines I want to remember:

  • “my neighbor who holds the door open when my arms are full of laundry is my president // & every head nod is my president // & every child singing summer with a red sweet tongue is my president // & the birds // & the cooks // & the single moms especially // & the weed dealers // & the teachers // & the meter maid who lets you slide // & the cab drivers who stop // & the nurse’s swollen feet / & the braider’s exhausted hands…”
  • “the wind is tangled / with the dust of the dead homies, carrying us over / to them, giggling in the mirror. hear them. hear / your long-gone girl tease your hair on the bus. hear them / rollin’ when you sweep the broom across the beaten floor. / i miss them. all the dead. how young. how silly / to miss what you will become.”
  • “the leaves done done their annual shimmy. / now the streetlight with no soft green curtain / cuts a silver blade across my bed / & my body.”
  • “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense”
  • “a June’s worth of moons & the kiss stain of the berries & lord the prunes & the miracles of other people’s lives & none of my business & our hands sticky & a good empty & please please pass the bowl around again & the question of dried or ripe & the sex of grapes & too many dates & us us us us us & varied are the feast but so same the sound of love gorged”
  • “they know time. is not a river, not quite. like a lover. but a thing that leaves you. until it’s gone.”
  • “you stare at fangs // long enough, even fangs pink / with your own blood look soft.”
  • “how long will we // reach for God // instead of something // sharper?”
  • “& how many times have you loved me without my asking? // how often have i loved a thing because you loved it? // including me”

What others have said:

  • from the LA Review of Books: “Smith — they/them/theirs — celebrates unsung heroes who create safe spaces for the marginalized. For them, these everyday fortresses are found on the frontier of family, fraternity, and friendship. … In its cutting compassion, Homie is as much a celebration of loved ones’ lives as it is a lament for their loss, equally a war cry for kinship and the burial dirge after the battle. The collections rings as a heartfelt call to love our beloveds as if they’ll be gone tomorrow, because they just might be. Yet Smith teaches us that one thing is still certain for today: in our homies, despite our most harrowing of hurts, we can always find the hope of healing.”
  • from The New York Times: “This is a book full of the turbulence of thought and desire, piloted by a writer who never loses their way. That compass — provided by friends, influences, collaborators — stays steady. ‘I need no savior,’ Smith writes, ‘but their love.'”
  • from Columbia Journal: “Danez Smith’s newest collection, Homie, takes their readers on a dazzlingly divine, chaotic, radically loving, and politically astute hang-out. Smith is a black and queer poet-performer who also wrote the acclaimed collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017). They craft their follow-up book to come out swinging as a commemoration of friends, the black community, and the queer self. Smith observes the world around them with a sense of beautiful kindness.”
  • from Lambda Literary: “Danez Smith’s poetry feels like breathing. Their newest collection, Homie, feels like coming up for air when you didn’t know you were under water. Their words are specific, funny, glowing with a truth that seems like it has never been said in quite the right way before they said it. … It’s a collection of love poems that isn’t for lovers so much as for friends, for found and created family, which has always been vital for queer folks. It’s a book of odes to Black, queer, and trans people, and even though it can and should be read by everyone regardless of identity, it is explicitly for these communities and the people who live at their intersections. That’s what makes the book like oxygen–a cool breath for the lungs of those choked or erased by white supremacist cis-hetero patriarchy.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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