homie. 2020. homie. A poetry collection published by Graywolf Press, $16. Written by Danez Smith.
Beginning with Jonathan, “eleven & already making roads out of water / young genius, blog writer, lil community activist, curls tight / as pinky swears, black as my nation…”, Danez Smith’s poem ‘my president’ kicks off their latest collection homie (2020) as a paean to their community. Other potential candidates for their campaign range from the boys selling candy outside Walgreens to single mothers to Beyoncé. A proven master of bathos, a poetic device which lifts things high to cut them with the ordinary––a balloon is inflated to be popped, effecting humor and some sadness––Smith starts their conceit with biblical resonance, the least among you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation… (Isaiah 60:22). “Show me to our nation”, they write, connoting a president who personifies the everyday people they know and admire. Following the tradition of ecstatic poetry, described by Anne Carson as a spiritual event based off the Greek definition “standing outside oneself” (Carson p. 190) as is typical of mad persons, geniuses, lovers, and poets, Smith is generous with lofty diction and exclamation points. The poem ends:
o my presidents!
i sing your names
sing your names
my mighty anthem
But as their collection contours, this exaltation points to more painful realities. In an interview with Smith, Kaveh Akbar notes how “a line can be celebrating, exalting blackness but also lamenting the inherent tragedy of it.” (Akbar 2015). In homie, Smith, a black, queer, non-binary, HIV-positive writer and performer, expands on complex truths explored in their previous and award-winning collections, [insert] boy (2014), Black Movie (2015), and don’t call us dead (2017). Quoting Ilya Kaminsky and Lil Wayne for its epigraphs, their latest collection is rich with cultural allusions. They reimagine their nonwhite friends as traditionally white characters: “& i elect eve ewing, eve who i know would ms. frizzle the country into one big classroom…”. By transfiguring familiar personalities, Smith is calling out accepted tropes. But their remaking reaches further: the series is also about shaking off the shackles of white interpretation, a theme established in Black Movie whose poems such as ‘Sleeping Beauty in the Hood’, ‘Lion King in the Hood’, and ‘Boyz N the Hood 2’ parody well-known cinematic diegeses. However, as homie shows too, inherent in this reclamation is an uncomfortable duality. Introduced in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), the term “unhappy consciousness” (Hegel p.119) describes the experience of a divided self suspended between desire and reason. Identity, derived both from soul and situation, is therefore muddled, a concept that has tracked forward to W.B. Du Bois’ theory of “double consciousness” ––a source of inward “twoness” experienced by African-Americans that was later expanded to reflect other oppressed groups (Du Bois p. 38). We imagine our souls transcending societal apperceptions to become the identity’s backbone but then kinesthesia creeps in to remind us what transcendence depends on: however gross or unjust, without the skewed society there would be nothing to transcend; the exalted state exists only because of the degradation it fights against. When Smith uplifts “the trans girl making songs in her closet, spinning the dark”, “my auntie, only a few months clean, but clean”, the cab drivers, swollen nurses, drag queens and addicts, the reader is reminded of a sadder, more familiar underbelly where they’ve been denied.
Truth is Everyone’s Stakes
Beginning as a performance poet, Smith says that this experience has shaped their writing’s sense of duende. Described by Federico García Lorca as “the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art” (Lorca p. 49), duende represents the keeper of the dark, mysterious space within each of us that poetry seeks to let loose. In Smith’s work, the duende tradition pushes this vulnerability to the edge of death. These stakes can be seen in ‘Self-Portrait as a 90s R&B Video’, a poem which was widely performed before appearing in homie. To start, Smith grounds the audience in a familiar narrative: a stereotypical female breakdown as portrayed in a R&B music video. “Lately, I’ve been opening doors in slow motion / & find myself often wearing loose white silks / in rooms packed with wind machines…” it begins, Smith tossing back their buzzcut head in affectation of the long, lush hair blowing behind.
Their lover treats them wrong but they don’t leave, idling instead in a house of luxury––in a basement pool of gold “dip my head in, let even / my hair get wet & rise out the water hood Venus / Afrodite, bitch god with iced out ropes draped / from my head & arms & covering my nipples / & ill nana just so” (Smith shimmies their hands along their torso).
When Smith performs their poetry, their meaning comes through additional channels: voice, pace, place, and body. It is not a matter of poetic diction or figuration alone, but rather results from intricate interactions between movement and the broader social contexts in which they are deployed. Certainly, as in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) or “America” (1956), the words sometimes work on the printed page, but their true power usually lies in the moment of public performance and depends upon the context of the audience. Similarly, Smith’s ‘Self-portrait’ comes to life onstage when they speed and stress lines like a flow, a nod to the rap-meets-poetry scene. This rhythmic style alludes to Smith’s blackness through musical performativity, echoing the black poets of the mid 1900s who helped revive poetry’s oral origins. Sonia Sanchez, for example, was a forefront spoken-word artist known for using wildly varied tonal semantics to authenticate her identity. Many of her poems, such as ‘We a BaddDDD People’ (1970), are scored on the page to inform their performance vocalizations. “We a Bad-Bad-BaD-BaDBaD People”, it begins, echoing a staccato stutter. She also transcribes scat, improvised jazz singing where voices imitate an instrument, through nonsense but specific syllables: “aaa-ee-ooo-wah / wah”, repeating. Throughout history, music and poetry have developed side by side, and Smith has continued in this tradition. By the end of ‘Self-Portrait’, the lover takes revenge and burns the miscreant house down, admiring their Bakunin’s urge come to life. However, this victory is unsettled when Smith’s register drops their fire-and-ice, foxy tone for fear in the last lines: “I’ll burn this motherfucker down…whatever survives the blaze will be / my kingdom. I hope I make it”. In line again with ecstatic poetics, Smith claims the wreckage as their kingdom, evoking religious and power systems from which black people have been excluded in America.
By introducing us to the individuals affected by these injustices, the stakes Smith sets become more significant to the readers: at its core, homie is about black friendships and communities. Smith begins with a group of neighborhood kids, a microcosm that can seem like the world. ‘Jumped!’ describes the magnetic oscillation of inclusion and exclusion among peers. Love, violence, and beauty are not separate entities, Smith’s narrator describes as they’re beaten up by a group of boys. “The fists that broke my ribs also wanted me to live…each hand laid upon me like a rude & starving prayer”, they write. For the first half, the poem is written in couplets zig-zagging down the page like a group of boys traipsing together down the street: just as couplets might be considered a safe, familiar form, groups are a safe way to move through a community, allowing each boy to share in a larger identity while creating their own. Many of Smith’s poems use typology to reflect the narrative, for example ‘gay cancer’ which begins as a tight block then unravels with the death of a friend. Similarly, when the group turns on the narrator in ‘jumped!’ the couplets break down into smaller fragments and the poem ends with a familiar metaphor concretised as a bloody nose:
i didn’t know
a thing about love
until those boys
my heart pouring from my nose.
A metaphor we can touch. Through the violence, the sense of interconnection within their community becomes palpable. The other boys’ pleasure reads stronger than the narrator’s pain, which is also given a positive connotation. By reconstruing the metaphor “I poured my heart out”, Smith suggests that because of the attack, they were opened to more complicated truths about pleasure and love.
But homie doesn’t substitute love for honesty: even hopeful words like solidarity are more nuanced. ‘i didn’t like you when i met you’, one poem is titled, “like dude, you were stank…”. Intergenerational, interracial, and transnational, the community Smith lets us see is also realistic. ‘What was said at the bus stop’ chronicles an exchange with a girl from Pakistan. “Lately has been a long time”, she begins and the narrator latches on to this shared sense, ready to connect then hesitates: shared is not sameness and, knowing what it’s like to be a forum for ignorant assumptions, the narrator fears ascribing his experience to others, saying, “what advice do the drowned have for the burned? / what gossip is there between the hanged & the buried?”. And though the narrator feels unable to speak about their lives as a common narrative, as they discrimination and want the girl to know they stand beside her:
& i want to reach across our great distance
that is sometimes an ocean & sometimes centimeters
& say, look, your people, my people, all that has happened
to us & still make love under rusted moons, still pull
children from the mothers & name them
still trach them to dance & your pain is not mine
& is no less & is mine & 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
Here, the word “waiting” may have two meanings: waiting for the go-ahead to come together then waiting together for racism to end. Tensions are also heightened around questions of sexuality. In ‘on faggotness’, the narrator describes coming out to their grandparents and being neither understood nor embraced. “Grand. pa said. that boy gonna be a. faggot. i didn’t. know / what it meant. but it had to be. akin to king. or mighty. different. a good kind. / but then i looked it up in his eyes. saw my body upside down”, they write. However, Smith’s sketches are rarely clear-cut. They acknowledge both the good and the bad, reading like truth as we understand it, and truth is something we look for in poetry: why should we want anything in particular in or out of a poem? (Sutherland p. 10), scholar Keith Sutherland once asked. But, as the reader experiences in Smith’s work, when the good and bad are both allowed as true, cognitive dissonance eases. The grandparents are not flat characters, myopic and homophobic as might be stereotypical their generation. Instead, Smith describes them as the community’s roots into black history. Their imagery conjured wisdom and magic: granddaddy’s gold teeth are “crowns”, “country tiara”, “all those suns so near his tongue” that made “even his vomit expensive.” In ‘happy hour’, Grandma’s moles become “a night sky” across her face but the metaphor extends deeper than beauty: each mole represents a friend who has died. The grandparents’ wisdom isn’t shallow, ascribed by age alone, but rather is a product of the same painful experiences Smith seeks to navigate throughout the collection. “Grandma say she going to the funeral to see who all there / like i say i’m ’bout to grab a drink”, Smith writes. That their wisdom is manifest physically is also significant. One can see reflections of Yusef Komunyakaa’s ‘The Body Remembers’ (2019) as Smith describes the inextricable connections between mind and body, between their own body and those around them, and the resonance of loss when those connections are broken.
In Smith’s work statistics are people. Throughout homie, plant motifs represent individuals within a larger space: fragile, beautiful, and essential. Their poem ‘the flower who bloomed thru the fence in grandmama’s yard’ analogizes someone trapped in a hard place to a small flower that grew into a fence, choking through the pickets. “Locked in & strangled pretty / nosey-ass flower peeking his head / in search of greener grass now stuck / in a guillotine refusing to guillotine”, they write. This image is smart and powerful, compelling the reader to remember that people aren’t their circumstances. Personifying the land also recalls American traditions, marking Smith and their subjects’ place in that history. “Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, / And thought of him I love…” (Whitman 1865). Walt Whitman’s elegy for President Lincoln insinuates that the interconnection between human and land is biological, spiritual, and indivisible. Inverting the aphorism ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’, Smith’s poem ‘undetectable’ ends:
i am the most important species in my body.
but one dead boy makes the whole forest
a grave. & he’s in there, in me, in the middle
of all that green. you probably thought
he was fruit.
Even one death changes humanity, and one hears echoes of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939) at the end.
Though poets often shy away from namedropping for fear it will alienate readers, homie challenges this reservation. Smith addresses their own reasoning in an interview with Rosemarie Ho: “What is a name but the most intimate piece of language that we can infuse within a poem?”, (Smith 2020) they say. “If poems are these little light things that seek to be the most exact and specific language to describe a feeling, to describe a situation, then a name is another tool to help us locate where that poem is supposed to go.” (Smith 2020). By these criteria, their poems are very intimate: throughout the collection, they name over fifty people ranging from fellow poets like Eve Ewing to cultural icons like Shonda Rhimes to friends including Melvin Dixon and Essex Hemphill who have died of H.I.V./AIDs. They call out first-names only they can know, as in ‘trees!’ where they envision a tree after each friend they would like to be planted alongside. “I would be the happiest tree”, they write. Reaching out in second person to those who know who you are, the postscript acknowledgements are like poems themselves, if ones written through a high school year book: “you invite me out for drag queens on the nights i think of finally [ ]”; “i call your mama mama”; “God bless you who screens my nudes, drafts my break-up text”; “how often have i loved a thing because you loved it? (including me)”; “you & you & you & you go in on a dildo for my birthday…”. Smith lets us see into their life but not all the way, personal and true as they choose it to be.
One name reappears throughout the collection and is reified in the poem ‘For Andrew’. There, Smith processes their friend’s death in what is both a eulogy and a prayer:
1. swagged-out Jesus
name yourself that mess when you wore the rainbow
beaded crown à la Stevie in the ‘70s & let the great religion
of your belly hang like some Southside Buddha
with a boombox dangling from your neck old Radio
Raheem looking ass dude walking around blasting Ye
random folk following you like you were the Christ
of the night or maybe just a mirage of bass
& flesh stained with June’s turmeric––
o if the gods would let me edit & loop
o if i could stop here––
Following this memory, the poem waterfalls into ruminations on the relationship between death, the soul, and the body the soul inhabits––but the memories are why we even care to get those abstracts figured out. Memories are what prove, too, that homie is not just a celebration but rather a call for humanity between communities. After a jokey qualifier that art can be interpreted in any which way, Smith tells us their hope for their collection: that when we finish reading, we’ll sit down and call a friend, honoring the ones we still have as we honor the lost. “I call for god”, they write. “I call for god but out comes your name.”