Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
A slim, early volume by one of my favorite working poets. You can see the visceral power and honesty here, (some of the poems here are repeated in the more comprehensive Don’t Call Us Dead) but perhaps it isn’t as fully developed as I think it is in his later works.
There’s many wonders to poetry, some of which are just opening up to me in middle age, but one is, frankly, the brevity. It allows you to quickly dive deep into a writer, and with someone like Smith, who’s published relatively little, almost immediately read his collected works and see his development as a writer.
I was blown away by “Don’t Call Us Dead” and you can see the roots of that brilliance in Black Movie. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins
Another gut punch of a book of poetry by a black man. Viscerally moving sonnets about race, love and America. Most pointedly what its like to reflect backwards, and think ahead, in Trump’s America.
For many years, I didn’t read much poetry, but lately, I’m drawn to it. There’s only so many tweets you can read, so many Washington tell alls you can consume, before it all feels the same and you need someone brilliant, like Terrance Hayes, to capture the moment in a perfect turn of phrase, the reflect back the world to you in a sonnet that leaves you staring at the page long after you’re done reading.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we need poetry and poets to give voice to what its like to live today.
Layli Long Soldier
Another book of contemporary poetry, this one short listed for the National Book Award. More formally experimental than Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, this one left me feeling a bit cold. While stylistically interesting, I found it a bit cold, and I prefer my poetry rawer, I think.
Still, and all, in the last couple of years I’ve come around to the idea that its important to keep up with contemporary poetry, even if only modestly. Where things are headed, especially in the minds of our smartest young people, can come from reading their poetry and even when it doesn’t resonate, perhaps it is worth the effort.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
A strange and beautiful little book collecting the surviving fragments of poetic writings of Heraclitus, a pre-socratic philosopher and poet. None of the fragments collected here are complete, so it difficult to under how exactly they fit into the longer works to which they once belonged, but here, in a relatively new translation, and presented one to a page, they have a kind of mysterious and compelling beauty. I read the whole thing in one sitting and now it sits by my bedside, frequently re-read when I need a moment or two of beauty before bed.
Heraclitus by Moreelse
Don’t Call Us Dead
A stunning work of poetry. A book that left me breathless, and thrusting it into my wife’s hands, saying “you need to read this”. A work both political and deeply, deeply, personal full of poems that address race, love, manhood and more, tackling the deeply toxic race relations in America with nuance, compassion and serious writing chops.
Many many years ago I heard Tariq Ali say that if you want to understand a culture, read its poetry. He was talking about Iraq, but the same holds true for U.S. If you want to understand America, in all our horribleness and beauty, read Danez Smith.
Audre Lord would go on to be one of the cornerstones of the contemporary poetry, a woman referenced by anyone who cares about the art form. An activist who taught a generation that “”Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
But when she wrote Coal, she wasn’t famous yet. She was already a powerful writer, shaping language to address the political through the lens of the human, writing about social justice, yes, but also love. This is a slim volume by a relatively young woman finding her voice and better scholars than I might say the work is not yet mature, but I found it deeply compelling, human, and real. A strong introduction to a powerful voice.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce
“I do whatever I want because I could die any minute
I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me”
This book is a gut punch. Full of lines like the above, angry and wounded. But it is also full of moments of real tenderness and intimacy, and of humor, and of things I can’t really name or understand but still think are beautiful.
I don’t read that much modern poetry, but multiple people recommended this one to me and I’m so glad they did. Timely and timeless, I think people will be reading this slim volume for many years to come.