Of the great pleasures of Danez Smith’s third collection, Homie (Graywolf Press, January 2020), are the many moments of wistful intimacies in quotidian experiences that are intertwined with their dynamic oratorical style. Smith is skilled in connecting complicated emotions to create a finely woven tapestry that is above all else true and emotionally honest.
Yet before we start reading these striking and mighty poems, Smith lets us know the stakes—and their boundaries—with this “note on the title”:
this book was titled homie because i don’t want non-black people to say my nig out loud.
this book is really titled my nig
From the outset we’re aware of the power of language, the codes we employ, the subtleties of who can say what. Though we all have a seat at this bounteous table of linguistic riches, Smith makes certain we realize the importance of acknowledging the past and understand that it may not be our table.
Duly warned, we enter.
The collection starts with the paean “my president” setting forth the narrator’s intentions of who and what they endorse, ranging from friends and family members to well-known figures. Moreover, the poem envisions a world of plenty and generosity beyond what we know now, even beyond what the founding fathers promised, in which the narrator’s mama’s “brown hands” are “breaking brown bread over / the mouths of the hungry until there are none unfed.” The list expands, the ampersands explode, until one imagines the named and unnamed as a national chorale with notes that all voices can reach:
& the boy crying on the train & the sudden abuela who rubs his back
& the uncle who offers him water & the drag queen who begins to hum
o my presidents!
show me to our nation
my only border is my body
I sing your names
sing your names
my mighty anthem
There’s no lack of vigor or determination in these pieces from a writer known for energetic poems and performances, but also present are many moments of quiet power and hope. In “white niggas,” the poet acknowledges centuries of conflict and devastation, yet they end on a note of openness that is unexpected, and deeply felt, long after the echoes of its final words:
my adopted twin, 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. it is. it is? if you
come to my door thirsty, i’ll turn the faucet & fill
the glass. if i come to your stoop, don’t shoot.
Relations are one of the modalities that Smith employs to provide an infinite variety of syntactical and linguistic progressions. In “what was said at the bus stop” the narrator’s unspoken visual communication with a young Pakistani girl leads to a final crescendo of connection, where each ampersand and repetition draws us into a full-hearted proximity:
…i pray to my god your god
blesses you with mercy & i have tasted your food & understand
how it is a good home & i don’t know your language
but i understand your songs & i cried when they came
for your uncles & when you buried your niece
i wanted the world to burn in the child’s brief memory
& still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still
& I have stood by you in the soft shawl of morning
waiting & breathing & waiting
In “my poems,” the writer’s works are incarnations, objects and verbs who are “fed up & getting violent.” The poet is in partnership with these entities that pursue justice and punish the unworthy because “my mentor said once a poem can be whatever you want it to be.” This is a poet who envisions changing the world, or at least their world, through straightforward language that is colloquial, memorable, and above all, active.
Smith’s lower-case politics subtly wend their way through form as well, by employing lower case “i”s and rarely capitalizing at all. This democratization of syntax, along with expansive structural freedom, engages the reader directly and personally, almost as if we are whispered to by one who seeks, above all else, connection.
Smith’s varying displays of verbal fashion—funky intra-word spacing, eclectic stanzas, columns, and more—both destabilize typical, academy-approved content and open up the work to extraordinary possibility. So too the distinctive, deceptively casual language, which is personal and private, and resonates regardless of your individual background.
One of Smith’s many talents is rendering the nuances of love—some of which involve great pain—perhaps the most complicated of emotions. In “jumped!” they explore different vantages of the young fighting for and against each other, whether it’s:
… the boy
who called your mama a bitch bleeds
we storm him because we love you
& your mama has fed us & only us
is allowed to call her out her name
because we know her name, Phyllis,
Yet despite the ongoing violence in these young and endangered lives:
but what could be safer
than a circle of boys
too afraid of killing you
to kill you?
the fists that broke my ribs also wanted me to live
each hand laid upon me like a rude & starving prayer.
In these streets, in these homes, with these homies, a hug, a strike, a verse, are all prayers and vows: to live, to love, to leave a mark. In a time when so many people are under attack, when so many of us are feeling emotionally and physically under attack, Smith extols the values of friendship. Indeed, the epistolary form they employ, and the frequent use of the second person, offers an engagement that deepens the intimacy the reader feels. Could I be one of Smith’s homies? I would like to be. The relationships in Homie are relationships that are honest, complicated, supportive, and unforgettable, honoring the ones who’ve been lost. In this fraught world—which has become even more dangerous as this essay has been written—it is our homies who will help us survive. Smith’s poems are fierce love letters to them, and in the heady pleasure of reading them, to us.