June 12, 2019

Danez Smith: Crowning

The poetry book club meets at Zenith Books June 12 at 5:30 pm.  Come and join us! 

Book Review

The opening poem in Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead sings with music. Figurative language vaults the images into myth.  His subject goes right to the heart. There's grief and rage and America right now: violence, race, HIV, gay men. Danez confronts and is confronted by fear, and he uses it for new vision. This is done with a mastery of language and metaphor.

summer, somewhere

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown
as rye play the dozens & ball, jump

in the air & stay there. boys become new
moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise

-blue water to fly, as least tide, at least
spit back a father or two….”

Poetry is physical and connected to the breath.  In language, adept use of sound creates powerful and moving effects.  In contemporary poetry, the music and rhythm has more movement and freedom.  In Danez's work, an examination of this short excerpt reveals a very interesting rhythm that surprises and pleases the reader.

Traditional ways of analyzing poetic lines involve 'scansion,' or scanning the lines to look at the accented syllables.  In poetry, each unit of metric rhythm is called a "foot." This poem has a wonderful combination of rhythms.  Iambic is a heart beat rhythm ( x / ) with the accented syllable second. Trochaic is the opposite with the accented syllable first.  Dactyl and spondee are the names of three syllable feet (dactyl: (/ x x) and spondee (x x /). However, meter is not the only determination of sound. The actual rhythm might de-emphasize metrics or emphasize some syllables more. 

The language choices are superb: "a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)" and "sprinkler dancer, i can't tell if I'm crying / or i'm the sky..."  Curious, those interesting shifts from the lower case to the upper case pronoun i/I.  "...fingers always/ dusted cheeto gold..."  The poems vibrate with energy.  Images of birth are combined with death. Images of sex are combined with death.  Images of death are combined with re-birth.  Danez skillfully uses vernacular and language of myth: "if we dream the old world/ we wake up hands up...."

              ...say the word
I can make any black boy a savior//
make him a flock of ravens
his body burst into ebon seraphs.

Danez takes these images and moves them ever higher from metaphor to myth:  "the forest is a flock of boys/ who never got to grow up // blooming into forever / afros like maple crowns."   And once again, a capitalized letter creates a shift in meaning because the word goes from a noun to a name: "  "...watch/ Forest run in the rain, branches // melting into paper-soft curls, duck under the mountain for shelter.  watch// the Mountain & Forest playing..."

If you are reading this book, are you uncomfortable? If you are white, you should be. If you are straight, you should be. This mirror shows us America. Danez's poems reveal a person who is willing to be vulnerable.  Gay sex is visceral in this collection. The poet has been diagnosed with HIV. He's talking about blood.  Blood connects to racial violence in America. He's created a documentation of several incidents of racial violence, lynching and death at the hands of the police.   "crown" is a crown sonnet, a series of sonnets that are linked by a repeated image in last line and first lines. The title also evokes the first moment of birth, crowning. 

The striking thing for me about his collection is the claiming/ naming/ breaking through. The last poems are a prayer and a dream about every black person is standing by the ocean.  The last lines:  "& then one woman, skin dark as all of us / walks to the water's lip, shouts Emmett, spits// & surely, a boy begins/ crawling his way to shore"

The water's lip certainly connects the ocean to the body. Spit, another body fluid, and bit of magic that brings us around from fear of HIV to intimacy. This boy might be Emmett Till, bringing us around from violence to regeneration.  Or this boy might be another, a swimmer and a survivor.  He is being born, crowning, about to emerge.


Read "a poem where I be and you just might" and an excerpt of Danez's thoughts about this poem:

Granta Magazine:  "crown" https://granta.com/crown-smith/

Publisher, Graywolf Press: https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/dont-call-us-dead

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